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Here come the dots

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Bro, Do You Even Syncopate?

Get out more, get more out of it Confessions of a working bassist #37: I’m terrible at getting out to hear gigs. Maybe 3 times a year I’ll get my…

Get out more, get more out of it

Confessions of a working bassist #37: I’m terrible at getting out to hear gigs. Maybe 3 times a year I’ll get my act together, check listings, book tickets and go and enjoy being in the audience rather than on the stage.

This post comes from one such occasion this time last year, when I saw that Mark Giuliana was coming to town – I’d heard lots of buzz about him from other musicians and was vaguely aware of his Beat Music project (featuring bass hero Tim LeFebvre) but had never actually bothered to listen to much of his output.

One of the most memorable moments of the gig involved a tune with a lengthy bass and drum intro that consisted of nothing but horribly syncopated unison stabs and didn’t appear to feature any repeating figures. After some Spotify surfing the following morning, it turned out that the song in question was ‘One Month’ from 2015’s Family First album – I realised yesterday that it had been on my transcription ‘to-do’ list for almost an entire year, and my brain was repeatedly nagging me to sit down and decipher what was going on:

 

It’s 2 notes in 4/4 time – how hard could it be?! Try sight reading this at 130bpm:

It’s a roast-up, right? Now, if you want a real challenge, attempt to memorise it.

Dealing with flyshit

I still vividly remember my first lecture at music college – I was 19 years old and had come from a small town with very little in the way of a music scene, so I thought I was pretty good. As soon as this was put in front of me I quickly realised that I knew nothing:

Having grown up on a solid diet of internet TABs and Hot Licks videos, my reading ability was somewhat lacking. I was determined not to be beaten by the little black dots, and by the end of the year I was one of the best readers in the class. How did I do it?

From zero to (reading) hero

My lectures didn’t start until 11am, so I resolved to get up at 7.30 every day and do a couple of hour’s work on my weaknesses – there were (and still are) many – with a particular focus on reading. I worked on rhythm separately from pitch and slogged my way through this riveting tome:

 

If you can read this book, you can read (almost) anything. And, if you can read it then you can also hear rhythmic figures elsewhere and write them down quickly There’s an entire blog post on it here.

 

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Groove Of The Week #50: Joshua Redman – ‘Greasy G’

GOTW HITS 50! It’s finally here. The last instalment of the Groove of The Week series – what should have taken a year has taken nearly 3, but better late…

GOTW HITS 50!

It’s finally here. The last instalment of the Groove of The Week series – what should have taken a year has taken nearly 3, but better late than never…

Back To The Start

This groove is actually what started everything; I remember getting hold of the Joshua Redman Elastic Band album Momentum (2005) when I was a student and immediately got hooked on the combination of jazz harmony and deep groove that ran through every track. Momentum features a number of guest musicians throughout the album, but because I’d, errr… ‘acquired’ it I didn’t have access to the cd liner notes to see who played on each track; I could hear that one of the bassists sounded like Flea, but there was one groove that totally floored me:

I’d never heard anyone play a groove with that feel before – this was some years after Pino’s laid back grooves on D’Angelo’s much-lauded, behind-the-beat masterpiece Voodoo (2000) and J Dilla’s brand of ‘drunk hip-hop’ was old news, but this was something else. I had to know who it was and how the hell they could sound like that.

And so began my 12-year (and counting) love affair with Me’shell Ndegeocello; she and Anthony Jackson have the rare ability to make me feel like every single note that they have ever played is absolutely perfect.

Here are the dots:

Incidentally, Me’shell uses a very similar groove on here tune ‘GOD.FEAR.MONEY’:

 

Catching the feel(s)

So, how do you get to sound like that? This was by far the most difficult Groove of The Week track for me to get the hang of; I’m not claiming to even be in the same ballpark, feel-wise, but here are my two cents:

Listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more – every aspect of the music needs to be in your bones.

Record yourself. Listen critically (analyse your waveforms, if necessary).

Are you rushing? Dragging? Dragging? Do you even know?

(Here would be a suitable place for a Whiplash reference, but I thought it one of the worst things ever – Rocky for jazz drummers.)

The point of this is that you can’t be objective about your playing while you’re playing, because too much of your brain’s ‘bandwidth’ is taken up with the act of playing. Recording yourself is a brutally effective mechanism for finding out how you actually sound, not how you think you sound. I have a hunch that this is the reason that session greats such as Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson, Bernard Purdie and Nathan East sound so incredible – they have heard their playing on tape countless times, allowing them to develop a total understanding of how to internally direct their playing to achieve the desired external sound.

This is getting worryingly metaphysical, so let’s wrap it up here. May the groove be with you.

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Janek Gwizdala Masterclass 2007 Part 3: Gear, Tradition and Finding Your Voice

Here’s the third and final instalment of Janek Gwizdala’s bass clinic at ACM Guildford in 2007. For those who missed the first two episodes, you can find them here: –…

Here’s the third and final instalment of Janek Gwizdala’s bass clinic at ACM Guildford in 2007. For those who missed the first two episodes, you can find them here:

Part 1 focuses on transcription, including things he stole from George Benson and Allan Holdsworth
Part 2 deals with Janek’s early days playing the bass and how he developed his prodigious technique

Part 3 covers a range of topics, including:

Janek’s philosophy on equipment

Regular viewers of his ‘coffee with Janek’ blog might find it interesting to hear how his views on being a gear head have shifted over the last decade – this masterclass happened before he started hanging out with Juan Alderete and stockpiling Meatboxes and OC-2 pedals.

The value of understanding tradition

While talking about his time playing with the late Hiram Bullock, Janek reveals that he didn’t begin his journey with jazz and started on a solid diet of pop music before moving on to the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

One of the most important points that Janek makes on this topic is that it’s essential to have a comprehensive knowledge of your chosen musical genre(s) before you can forge your own musical path – if you don’t know what has come before you, then how can know when you’re being original?

(and yes, I was that guy who knew everything about Anthony Jackson. I’m pretty handy at a pub quiz…)

finding your ‘voice’ on your instrument

Closely linked to the idea of understanding your ‘place’ in musical history is the importance of not simply regurgitating things that have happened before – but how do you work out which direction you should go in? Janek discusses some of his own ‘self talk’ that he uses in musical decision making.

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Groove Of The Week #49: Damian Erskine – ‘Kaluanui’

Damian’s Drum-influenced Double-Stops Following on from last week’s double stop adventures with Hiatus Kaiyote, it’s time for another contemporary chordal groove. This edition of Groove of The Week comes courtesy…

Damian’s Drum-influenced Double-Stops

Following on from last week’s double stop adventures with Hiatus Kaiyote, it’s time for another contemporary chordal groove. This edition of Groove of The Week comes courtesy of modern bass master Damian Erskine (his uncle is the Peter Erskine) and provides one hell of a workout for both hands:

As with many of the grooves that underpin Damian’s debut album (2010’s ‘So To Speak’), the introduction to ‘Kaluanui’ showcases his incredible command of rhythmic ideas and dynamic contrast. In between each chordal flourish is a series of of ghost notes that act as an additional percussion instrument, giving the line a sense of perpetual motion and augmenting the groove without overcrowding the harmonic content.

 

Speaking of the harmonic content, the groove sits predominantly in F major, using double stop 10ths to imply Bb major, A minor, D minor and C major. On the third iteration of the line there’s a brief departure to a new tonality with the arrival of a D/F# chord.

As far as the left hand is concerned, I fret all the major 10ths with 2nd and 4th fingers, while minor 10ths are covered by 1st and 2nd fingers (or 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers in the case of the D minor chord shape that appears in bars 4 and 16).

10ths are a great way of conveying chordal sounds in a ‘shorthand’ fashion and a useful addition to any bassist’s toolkit as they tend to ‘speak’ more clearly than more densely populated chords. Notice how some of the major chords feature a hammer-on from the 9th into the 10th, which is a great way to add melodic interest to an otherwise chordal line.

As far as the right hand goes, ‘Kaluanui’ is a great groove to use as a developmental tool for your palm muting skills – I’ve used the classical guitar system for naming the plucking fingers (p=thumb, i=index finger, m=middle finger). It might take a while for the p,m,i motion required to execute the ghost notes to feel comfortable, but once you’ve mastered it then it’s great way to add a percolating percussive element to your bass parts where appropriate; it’s no surprise to learn that Damian Erskine started out his musical career as a drummer, switching to bass once he was at the Berklee College of Music – lots of his grooves feel like they were composed from a ‘rhythm first’ perspective.

For a deeper insight into Damian’s highly evolved right hand technique, take a look at his book Right Hand Drive.

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Groove Of The Week #48: Hiatus Kaiyote – ‘By Fire’

After an extended hiatus (geddit?) the lumbering juggernaut that is Groove of The Week is back (for those who are sick of, fear not – it’ll be over soon). High…

After an extended hiatus (geddit?) the lumbering juggernaut that is Groove of The Week is back (for those who are sick of, fear not – it’ll be over soon).

High Time For Some Odd Time

So far, all of the featured grooves have been relatively conventional single note, 4/4 affairs. Time to change all that.

How about playing a 5/4 groove that uses chordal techniques interspersed with single note 16th lines at 128bpm? Enter Hiatus Kaiyote’s ‘By Fire’:

I first encountered this tune as a commissioned transcription for a client (before you ask, I no longer undertake bespoke transcription work, sorry). Writing out the whole tune was challenging, to say the least. Here’s how the main groove looks on paper:

Hiatus Kaiyote - By Fire

Hiatus Kaiyote’s bass player Paul Bender casually matches the keyboard’s lines note for note for the entire song, throwing in double stops to provide a more detailed representation of the harmony (the double stops in question start off as major 7ths, with the last two bars using major 10ths to provide variation).

In order to properly execute this line and let the root note of the double stop ring out while articulating the melody we’re going to have to adopt free strokes with the plucking hand – this is where the fingers pluck upwards and away from the bass, as opposed to our normal rest strokes where the plucking fingers play into the bass and come to rest on a lower string.

Free, or not to free? That is the question

Normally, I avoid free strokes because they result in what I’d term as homeopathic bass playing – since most of the energy is directed away from the bass it’s hard to achieve a solid tone and things end up sounding a bit weedy. However, in situations where double stops are required, it’s almost impossible to achieve the correct sound with rest strokes – your thumb is plucking the root note using a free stroke, so trying to make your fingers perform a rest stroke at the same time is somewhat brain-scrambling. Each stroke also requires a slightly different hand position, so changing between the two is physically demanding to coordinate at fast tempos.

So, how best to tackle this difficult line? The answer is the same as this often cited (and rather bizarre) question:

‘How do you eat an elephant?’

 

The answer? One mouthful at a time – isolate small sections of the line and practise slower than you think you need to until they become second nature and you’re not consciously thinking about the technique or the notes.

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Groove of the Week #42: Herbie Hancock – ‘Palm Grease’

Everyone knows Herbie’s classic synth bass line on ‘Chameleon’, and plenty of guys can tear through ‘Actual Proof’ without breaking a sweat but for me, the real gem in the…

Everyone knows Herbie’s classic synth bass line on ‘Chameleon’, and plenty of guys can tear through ‘Actual Proof’ without breaking a sweat but for me, the real gem in the Head Hunters’ catalogue of grooves has always ‘Palm Grease’ (from 1974’s Thrust).

As soon as you hear Mike Clarke’s drum groove kick in, you know something serious is going to happen.

 

Paul Jackson’s bass line on ‘Palm Grease’ is a masterclass in how to develop and expand a groove, using just enough variation to keep the listener guessing while still retaining a ‘common thread’. After the initial statement, he begins to embellish the part – notice how the line unfolds with each successive iteration:

 

Rhythmic variation is only part of the equation; one of the most distinctive qualities of Paul Jackson’s playing is his mastery of articulation. The elusive essence of groove comes from how each note is played – check out how each note in every phrase is carefully sculpted for maximum impact.

Control of the left hand is key to being able to freely switch between different articulations; slides, hammer-ons and – most importantly – the length of each note all put a different sonic stamp on each phrase.

As an aside, I found this one of the most difficult grooves in this series – although other posts in the Groove Of The Week archive have required a greater level of conventional ‘chops’, Paul Jackson’s time feel on ‘Palm Grease’ was the hardest thing to recreate.

 

The heir to the (greasy) throne

 

One contemporary bassist who has clearly taken a lot from Paul Jackson’s greasy grooves is Me’shell N’degeocello*, who has been (and continues to be) a massive influence on my playing.

I unknowingly first heard Me’Shell on a tune by Joshua Redman called ‘Greasy G’ (from the 2005 Momentum album) and was absolutely floored by her time feel:

 

With both of these grooves, it’s the almost undefinable quality of feel that sets the head nodding or the foot tapping; it’s not necessarily what you play but how you play it that counts.

 

*If you’re not familiar with Me’Shell, get hold of Plantation Lullabies and Peace Beyond Passion for some serious groove education.

 

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