About that bass, no treble

by Gautam Raja

Today in class, I learned how to slap. No, not a self-defence lesson, nor a Dickensian parenting course. I was at my bass guitar class. A few months ago, I stopped dreaming and started doing, and bought a cheap electric bass, found a teacher nearby, and started learning to groove.

Slapping and popping is a playing style favoured in disco, funk, and by solo bass players. The thumb is hammered on the lower two strings, and the higher two strings are plucked upwards, causing them to twang metallically against the frets. When you’re learning, it’s better described as “making a racket”, and I am thrilled that this is not just sanctioned, but a part of my student duties.

I’ve taken music classes before, and they’ve all been classically circumscribed. Here, I was intentionally “misusing” an instrument in grand tradition. Jazz for example, began with the misuse of military marching band instruments, which is why the genre so heavily features saxophones, trumpets, and trombones.

Early jazz musicians often had to make do with heavily worn or even broken instruments, and many of the chosen textural elements of jazz—the brays and the squeaks and overtones—probably trace back to when musicians had no choice but to incorporate them into their sound.

American bassist Marcus Miller, backs this up in an online article on For Bass Players Only by Jon Liebman, July 10, 2014. In it, Miller says, “If you notice, all the great cultural creations around the world, they come from poor people, people who don’t have a lot, from the ghettos.”

The article is specifically about slap bass, a technique that’s supposed to have originated (for Western music) in New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century. While the tuba is the traditional marching band bass instrument, early bass players would be expected to play the tuba outdoors, and the double bass—the largest of the violin family—indoors. Presumably because the tuba or other brass bass instruments are too loud at close quarters. But the double bass was too soft (if you like jazz, you’ll know how the band comes to a halt for the bass solo), so players developed the slap technique to cut through the room.

Last night, at a theatre in Pasadena, I heard the composition Stronghold by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe. It’s for eight double basses, but this performance, by experimental music group People Inside Electronics, had one live player and seven on tape. In the notes, Wolfe had written, “…I discovered that the bass had a limitless universe of expressive possibilities rarely explored.” She goes on to describe her piece. “Stronghold starts with webs of rolling harmonics, very high overtones that take advantage of the long length of the strings”.

In popular music, solo bassist Victor Wooten, exploits these harmonics to play entire tunes with them. Stronghold was interesting certainly, but for me, really came into its own at the end when the player pressed the bow heavily into the lowest string and created what Wolfe described as “thick, resonant sounds”, the sounds of discovering why we’re here, what we’re meant to be.

Using slap and pop on an electric bass combines percussion and musical tones in a way that feels like what a six-year-old would do if let loose on the instrument. Channeling that racket creates a propulsive, powerful sound, that’s overwhelming if overused. It also feels like a strong connection with the ingenuity, misuse and non-conformity that led to the creation of much of the music we listen to today.

First published in Gulf News, July 16, 2016