An Introduction To Musicianship (or How I Stopped Worrying, and Learned To Love The Bass)

In spite of a rather keen interest in music, I wouldn’t classify myself as a well-disciplined musician.  I’ll pick up one of my basses or guitar every so often, but more of my time is spent noodling around the fretboard trying to figure out a song or do some sound experimenting of my own.  It’s my technical knowledge that is rather lacking, which is why I do most of my music discussion here in relatively layman’s terms.  I can find notes around the neck well enough, but let’s just say I’d still make a better student than a teacher.  However, I still have distinct and fond memories of where I started to play a musical instrument for myself.

How does a guy decide to play bass in the first place?  It was actually a fairly quick decision.  The year was 2001, if I’m to age myself slightly.  My brother had taken up guitar playing, and had been at it for a few months.  When talking about it with another friend of ours, the idea of forming a band came up.  Both my brother and this guy played guitar, so a third wouldn’t be required.  I always had an interest in drumming, but we had another friend that could fill that role, and I couldn’t squeeze a proper drum set into the house if I wanted to (I can’t do so in my apartment either).  What did that leave?  None of us envisioned a keyboard player because none of the music we enjoyed at the time featured it heavily.  That left bass.

I was told by my friend that bass is like guitar, only easier. I don’t know how much that statement resonated with me (it definitely doesn’t now for several reasons), but I’d happily take the job on for the sake of our goal.  I should note that the band turned out to be a short-lasting ambition, just one of those many fleeting ideas that cross teenager’s minds.

I did not wait long to get that bass in my hands.  I had limited funds, so I was off to the local Cash Converters, which was a chain of pawn shops across Canada.  It still exists in the same shopping centre in Oshawa (next to the popular Teddy’s Restaurant & Deli), though now under the name Cash Connections.  I still poke my head in the store once every couple of months, yet I prefer to remember the store with the ugly maroon signage, but that may be the nostalgia for my high school’s colours showing.

If I’m totally honest, I was thinking in terms of the price tag, so I’m fortunate to have found a solid instrument to get started with.  My weapon of choice was a black Yamaha RBX 300 model bass.  The price tag said $200.  Anything more than that would have been too big a stretch for my no job-having ass.  In fact, even that would be a hard hit to my wallet. Thankfully, my sixteenth birthday was coming soon to provide a little extra funding.  Still, realizing this, my father went to bat for me.

‘Hard-Bargain Harold’, they’d call him (and by they, I mean me retroactively).  He talked the sales guy into throwing in a protective cloth case and dropping the sales tax.  That impressed the hell out of me that he was able to do that!  It may not seem like much, but to this day, I seldom get in the practice of haggling while at brick and mortar stores.  Flea markets are a different beast altogether, where haggling is the social norm.  Here’s an obligatory Monty Python clip to show you how NOT to do it.

I no longer have this Yamaha bass in my possession, but still think you couldn’t go wrong starting out with one.  One thing that I can appreciate about the instrument was that it had generous spacing between strings, making it an easy instrument to learn how to slap and pop notes in a percussive fashion.  None of my current basses are as comfortable for playing in that style, but I never got into the habit of fine-tuning that particular skill.  My mom must have a picture of me playing the Yamaha somewhere, but I wouldn’t know where to look for it.  To make up for it, here’s a photo I stole to fill the void.  Maybe if I plug the man’s website, he’ll be more forgiving.

My strap was nowhere near as cool

What was the first riff I learned when I brought the bass home?  ‘Freak’ by Silverchair.  Since my brother was around five months deep into guitar playing, he knew of some of the easier songs to get us to start jamming together.  The standard tuning of a bass is (from lowest to highest note) E-A-D-G, but this riff is played in drop-D tuning, bringing the lowest string (the only one needed for the riff in question) down a whole note.  The main riff consists of just two notes, D and E, then the second riff in the song adds an F note.  That was about the biggest curve ball I could have handled at the time.  I didn’t even learn the rest of the song, but you have to crawl before you can walk.

The Cash Converters was close to the public library, so I went there to find some instructional material for the bass.  The library was limited in that category, but I was fortunate to locate two VHS tapes featuring bassist John Patitucci.  He was listed as the bassist in the Chick Corea Elektric Band, one of the more notable jazz-fusion bands of the 1980s.  Chick Corea was one of those musician names I’d been exposed to as a kid, but knew nothing about him other than the fact he has a funny-sounding name.  My dad told me that the band were great musicians, so I believed him.  He was right.  If you’ve ever looked for instructional videos at a music store, you’ll likely have spotted one starring any given member of this quintet.  They know what they’re doing.

I have since acquired them both Patitucci tapes, now compiled onto a single DVD.

Like most videos of this kind, these can be found for free viewing on YouTube, though I still like collecting ones that interest me.  The first tape was interesting to digest as a novice bassist, with Patitucci covering a wide variety of grooves in the context of different music genres.  I didn’t encounter much head-scratching material until watching the second tape, specifically in the section he starts breaking down major chords, and singing scales and arpeggios over top of chord voicings.  Once he started to improvise melodies based on his instructions, I lost the plot rapidly, and went back to playing ‘Freak’ before you could say “Don’t quit your day job” (which was, fortunately, an honour-roll student).

Regardless of my inability to immediately pull much of use from Patitucci’s tapes, I was floored by his fluid playing and the numerous solo compositions shared throughout (which are pulled from his first two solo albums).  This newfound appreciation made him arguably the first bass hero of mine, with perhaps only Cliff Burton of Metallica preceding him.  It was also the first time I saw a bass player using a six-string bass, which I didn’t even know existed at the time.

I talked to Patitucci very briefly before his show with the Wayne Shorter Quartet last year, and was tempted to bring up my experience with his videos.  Seeing as the conversation was a mere couple of sentences exchanged, it may have come across as slightly awkward if I attempted to blurt this story at him as we briefly passed one another.  Besides, if he asked if I’ve mastered the concepts since then, I’d have put myself at the risk of being reduced to tears in front of a personal idol.  I’ll take the “I’m looking forward to the show” comment or whatever other generic utterances I made over that potential emotional collapse.

I’m still not a great improviser or a masterful technician on my primary instrument, but I don’t let it stop me from having fun making music.  Remembering some of the struggles I had as an introductory-level musician has got me thinking about ways I can approach my playing heading into the future.  I’ve thought of revisiting old compositions I penned years ago, creating files on my computer in which to transcribe some songs of bands like Rush, Led Zeppelin, or Aerosmith (I may get the itch to join a covers band one of these days!), or re-opening my ‘Groove Journal’ concept of trying to write a memorable bassline each time I pick up the bass (should be easy enough, though I’m highly critical of my output).  Buying a new instrument always re-invigorates an interest in playing, but I really should be careful with my money.  I’ve got a house to save up for.

Is it wrong that my home ownership dream centres around finally fitting a drum set into my living space?  Of course not.  Silly rhetorical question!!

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