From the mid ’60s to the early ’70s,
Jack Bruce was as influential to the development of the
electric bass in rock & roll as Jimi Hendrix was to the
electric guitar. Long before Jaco Pastorius broke all of
the rules, Bruce was already forging new paths by breaking
away from the simple root–5 patterns typically associated
with the instrument at that time. As the bassist
and vocalist for Cream, Bruce’s barking tone and freewheeling
style revolutionized the way the instrument
was used. Peers like Paul McCartney and James Jamerson
were also pushing the instrument’s boundaries in
the ’60s, but no one embodied what the bass was capable
of in a rock band more than Jack Bruce. Cream classics
like “Crossroads,” “Strange Brew,” and “Politician”
feature an unabashed and bombastic, yet highly musical
and adventurous, approach to the instrument. His
influence is perhaps best exemplified in the playing styles of bassists who came up the ranks right behind him: players like Geddy
Lee, Chris Squire, and Geezer Butler, whose work on Black Sabbath’s first few
records is textbook Jack Bruce.
Jack Bruce was born to musical parents in Glasgow, Scotland on May 14,
1943. He received his formal education at Bellahouston Academy and the Royal
Scottish Academy of Music, where he was awarded a scholarship for cello and
composition. He went on to play double bass in dance bands and jazz groups,
and in 1962 he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc. In 1963 he formed the seminal
Graham Bond Organisation, with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer
Ginger Baker. Three years later he joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers,
which is where he first met Eric Clapton. Soon thereafter Cream was formed—it was Ginger Baker who initially suggested to Jack that they form a trio with
Clapton. Cream went on to sell a staggering 35 million albums in just over two
years and was awarded the first-ever platinum disc for Wheels of Fire [Atco, 1968].
Bruce recently released Silver Rails, his first solo album since 2003’s More
Jack Than God [Sanctuary]. Featuring a stellar cast of guest musicians, including
keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, and guitarist
Robin Trower, Silver Rails is an eclectic collection of songs written in partnership
with Jack’s Cream lyricist Pete Brown, amongst others. From the New Orleans-inspired
opener, “Candlelight,” to the proto-metal overtones of “Drone,” to the
Cream-infused blues progression of “Rusty Lady,” Jack has crafted a record that
is sometimes nostalgic, often dark, and always percolating. Five decades on, his
bass lines continue to keep things deep and dirty.
How would you describe the music on Silver Rails?
That’s a tricky one. I think it’s a sideways look at
the history of me. It’s basically what I’ve been trying
to do all my life, which is to write good songs and
get some good sounds on an album. I was very fortunate
to have Rob Cass, the producer I worked with
at Abbey Road. He’s a brilliant guy who did what I
wanted. There is a thematic link, musically—songs like
“Hidden Cities” and “Drone” are very linked. I think
there’s a theme running through it lyrically as well.
It’s been ten years since your last record.
What prompted you to make an album now?
|Bruce (left) with Leslie West.
I hadn’t really considered making a new studio
album until Mark Powell from Esoteric Records
approached me. I was quite pleased when he asked,
“Do you want to make a new studio album? We can
give you a budget.” So, I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And
that was about a year ago. The songs were all written
for the album, with the exception of the two
revisited songs, “Keep It Down” and “No Surrender.”
There’s a broad range of musical styles.
“Candlelight,” for example, is very different
“Candlelight” has a bit of a New Orleans thing going on. “Drone”? Well, that’s
me, the kind of stuff I always end up doing. But I think it’s a little friendlier on
this album. When I was young, some of my albums were quite grim and serious.
But writing now at my advanced age, I have a kind of ironic sense of humor—looking sideways. I think that’s why nowadays there’s much more brightness
in those dark corners.
Despite the varying musical styles, there is cohesiveness to the overall
sound. Did you use a core group of musicians?
I used the rhythm section from my blues band, Frank Tontoh on drums and
Tony Remy on guitar, and also the horn section. I didn’t hire the piano player because I wanted to do that myself. I also have a bass
player in my touring band, but I thought I might as
well play the bass myself since it’s cheaper.
Did you write specific songs with the guest
musicians in mind?
I definitely wanted the particular guitar players,
like Phil Manzanera on “Candlelight.” I worked with
him a couple of years ago when we went to Cuba,
and I’ve really liked his playing ever since. He just
took my little demo away for about a week and came
back and played that amazing guitar part. For “Rusty
Lady,” I really wanted Robin Trower to play on that
because it’s right up his alley.
Do you write on bass?
I tend to write in my head and then I’ll sit down
at the piano, but if it’s something like “Rusty Lady” or
“Drone,” obviously I’m going to play that on the bass. For
the more piano-oriented songs I’ll get the idea and then
I’ll home in on the form by sitting down at the piano.
What first attracted you to the bass?
I come from a ridiculously poor background
and couldn’t afford any instruments—the only one
that was free at my school was this big old tub of a double bass. So I just started playing around with that. And then my dad, who
was a great jazz fan, took me to hear a couple of things. The first thing was the
Modern Jazz Quartet with Percy Heath on bass, and I couldn’t believe the sound
he was getting out of that instrument. Then I heard Ray Brown and was basically
hooked. I wanted to become the Scott LaFaro of my time.
When did you transition to electric bass?
A great jazz guitar player from Jamaica named Ernest Ranglin asked me to
play on an EP of his [Ernest Ranglin & the G.B.’s, Black Swan, 1964], but he said
it had to be a bass guitar, so I simply borrowed one from a music shop and fell
in love with it. It was so much easier to carry about—and it was loud.
On 1966’s Fresh Cream, you played a Fender Bass VI before famously
adopting the Gibson EB-3.
The Fender Bass VI is quite simply almost impossible to play. I played that
in the Graham Bond Organisation, and when John McLaughlin left, we didn’t
have a guitar player, so in my innocent, young way I thought, “I’ll get myself a
six-string bass.” I tended to play a lot of little guitar licks on it. The first electric
bass I ever had was a Japanese Top 20, and it electrocuted me at the 100 Club
in London. I thought my number was up—the four strings were burned right
across the palm of my hand. It was terrible. After that I got the Bass VI, and then
I found the EB-3, which was a great instrument to play with Cream. It’s almost
more of a guitar than a bass. That became my thing for a while.
Why was it more like a guitar?
For one, it’s short scale. And I used to play those really light La Bella strings, so I could bend them in the same way that you can
bend the strings on the guitar. We were doing these
improvisations and I didn’t want to be playing a very
big Fender or something; I wanted something I could
create my own sound on, something different from
what most of the other guys at the time were using.
When did you transition to fretless?
I got a fretless Plexiglas bass from Dan Armstrong
in the mid ’70s, and I realized that I should be playing
fretless. The first fretless I fell in love with was
built by Stuart Spector. And then I discovered Warwick,
and I’ve been with them ever since. I love the
precision of their instruments. The ones I love most
are my fretless Brazilian rosewood Thumb Bass [most
Thumb Basses are made of bubinga] and the new Jack
Bruce Survivor. I had the idea of making the Survivor
look a little like an EB-3, but with Warwick’s
precision and technology.
What basses did you use on Silver Rails?
I’m playing a combination of the Brazilian rosewood
fretless, the new Signature Series, and my
’50s Gibson EB-1.
Of the three basses, how did you decide on which to use for a particular tune?
Each track suggests the particular bass. For
example, the distorted tone of “Drone” shouts out
for the EB-1, while the descending vocal in “Reach
for the Night” needs the mellowness of the Brazilian
Were there any advantages to the 34"-scale
Spector and Warwick basses versus the short-scale
Well, no. I come from the double bass, so when
I switched to the long-scale basses it was very natural
for me. It wasn’t a problem for me to play the
EB-3, either—I would bend the neck and bounce
it off the floor and do all of the silly things you
used to do in the ’60s, and it always came back
Did playing unlined fretless necks come naturally
because of the double bass, too?
Yes, to a certain extent. It’s quite difficult sometimes
if you’re singing some high note and you’ve
got to hit a convincing bass note and you haven’t got
frets. On my fretless bass I have what I call “landing
lights” [LEDs], so out of the corner of my eye I
can see the shape of the neck. Sometimes it’s difficult
because they are red LED lights, and certain
lighting situations cancel that color right out. Then
you’re on your own.
Do you have any advice for developing one’s
intonation on fretless?
Practice. There’s no shortcut, is there? You can’t
just say, “Yeah, if you do this it’s going to work.” A lot
of people don’t take to it at all. But I think it’s a beautiful
thing, especially if you’re singing, because the intonation
between the voice and the fretless can be quite
interesting. But for anybody starting out, I’ve got no
magical solution. Practice, man. Get in the woodshed.
What about the challenges of singing and
The first time I had a problem with that was when
Cream did “Politician.” The very first time we did it,
we were recording at the BBC. I just had the riff and
Pete Brown had written some lyrics. At the time, the
BBC had 3-track recording, so the song was improvised
and recorded separately—I overdubbed the
vocals, in other words. And when I came to play it
with the band, I realized I couldn’t. It was simply
a matter of working it until I got it, and that was a
breakthrough because after that I was able to do a
lot more where the vocal and the bass part were in
opposition. It’s just like being a drummer and having
independence. You don’t want to think about what
you’re playing; you just want to feel it. In order to
be free with it, it takes a bit of work.
You also use different amps nowadays. Why
did you use Marshall guitar amps in the ’60s?
In those days there weren’t a lot of choices for big
amps. We nicked the idea of using Marshalls from
the Who; they were the first guys I ever saw using
those stacks. I think Eric [Clapton] said, “That’s what
we should do.” I used different things for a while,
like Crown and Gallien-Krueger. Hartke was basically
formed to make those speakers with aluminum
cones for Jaco and myself. I’ve never gone away from
them, because they work for me.
It’s not that I play that loud—I play very intensely.
I’m not a light player. I use a sort of double-bass
approach, still to this day, and you need something
that’s going to stand up to that.
You had a fairly distorted tone back in the
’60s, less so nowadays. Is that conscious decision?
Distortion was the sound of then. It was very
hard-driven for various reasons. I think when I did
“Apostrophe” [Apostrophe, DiscReet, 1974] with
Frank Zappa, he took that to the next level. It was
the fartiest bass sound I ever had. I like it to feel driven, but I don’t like too much distortion, unless it’s something like in the
song “Drone” when I deliberately go for that.
Speaking of “Drone,” what are you using on that tune?
That’s a very small Hartke amp, just one 12" speaker, and the distortion effect
is from a guy in Japan who came up to me after a concert once and handed it to
me. I’m still using it. I don’t know what his name is or what it’s called, but it’s
great. Never look a gift horse in the mouth!
Felix Pappalardi produced Cream’s Disraeli Gears [Atco, 1967]. Having
a similar background, did you two hit it off?
We really hit it off, because we were so similar in many ways. We were both
rock bass players who came from a classical background. He played viola and
pocket trumpet and different things. We did a lot of the arrangements on the
Cream songs that actually had arrangements. When you hear things like recorders,
trumpets, viola, Mellotron—that would be Felix and me. He also worked
on my first solo album, Songs for a Tailor [Atco, 1969].
As a classically trained composer and musician turned rock & roll
improvisationalist, what’s your view of the bass guitar’s role in music?
One of the functions of the bass is to make the song sound good, and if
you’re just playing all over, it’s not going to work. Even with Cream, I wasn’t
really playing a lot of notes on the recordings. I had to be relatively functional,
but there are very creative ways you can do that. Look at James Jamerson,
for example—he was a very melodic player. That’s what I’ve always
Basses Warwick Jack Bruce JB3 Signature
Survivor Bass, fretless Warwick
Thumb NT, 1950s Gibson EB-1
Rig Hartke HA3500 Bass Amplifier,
Hartke 410XL & 115XL Series Cabinets
Strings S.I.T. medium gauge round-wound