I borrowed my friend Vanessa’s bass guitar and put down, on average, 3 takes per song on 14 songs which I’ve been recording. I’ve only played bass occasionally but I’d like to think I have an idea of what I want to hear. When I was studying jazz singing at William Paterson College in New Jersey, the head of the Jazz Program was Rufus Reid, a distinguished and much-admired bass player and mentor for the 13 bass players who were on the program the year I was. I remember the huge sound he made when he plucked the strings. Once every semester he had a one-on-one with every student, where he would examine what you were playing or singing and accompany you on bass with other tutors playing drums and piano. I still have a tape of me singing ‘Lady Is a Tramp’ with Rufus Reid playing bass.
The songs which are more in the folk and rock vein were less of a challenge for me to add bass to. I was essentially just shadowing the bass strings of the guitar or the left hand of the keyboard. But when it came to the funkier numbers, where the bassline is the song’s rhythmic foundation, or the jazz-based pieces, where the bass part is independent and on an equal footing with the other instruments, I was on shakier ground, having limited technique and, when it comes down to it, not being a bass player.
However, I cut my right-hand fingernails – which are usually pointed in order to play fingerstyle guitar – so as to get a softer attack to each note, and tried to put my left-hand fingertips in the middle of the frets to avoid the huge strings buzzing against the frets. I detuned for the songs in D or Eb so the lowest note of the instrument would match the key of those songs. I played a couple of bass ‘chords’ at one point and tried to vary the part when playing repeated sections. I also attempted some fills on the higher strings.
Then I realized that John McVie of Fleetwood Mac, who I’ve been listening to quite a bit, doesn’t seem to do any of that. Dusty Hill from ZZ Top doesn’t do any of that. Martin Ace from Man hardly seems to touch the strings, let alone do any fancy runs. So as I was working through the songs and felt that my agility and knowledge of the instrument weren’t up to scratch, I tried to make do with what I had and ended up thinking ‘well, that’s all it needs’.
For some other reason, I posted, on facebook, a link to an original/traditional tune from my last CD entitled ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’ and clicked ‘play’ to check out the first few bars. Just hearing the tone, technique and musicianship of bassist Alex Keen and the natural, warm sound that engineer/co-producer Derek Nash got on the song made me depressed. How can what I’m doing on my own in a room with poor acoustics compare with that? Part of the answer lies in the fact that I’m neither a bass player nor a sound engineer, but there’s also the fact that Alex was playing double bass, an instrument I can’t play but one that goes really well with my acoustic sensibilities. Maybe I’ll give Rufus Reid a call.