IN NOVEMBER 2013, AT BASS PLAYER LIVE!,
Lee Rocker received a Bass Player Lifetime Achievement Award Presented by Ampeg for his contributions
to the world of music and bass. These days, it’s not uncommon to see a popular group
anchored by the mighty doghouse, but back in 1982—the year “Stray Cat Strut” broke on the U.S.
airwaves—the electric bass had long ruled the lower realms (a reign soon to be threatened by the
onslaught of the dreaded synth-bass). The Stray Cats contrasted the keyboard-heavy pop scene
with their 1950s-era simplicity: a string bass, a guitar, and a drum. With a deep love of the rockabilly
tradition laid down by Carl Perkins, Johnny Burnette, Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Wanda
Jackson, and many others, the trio of photogenic kids from Long Island brought twangy guitars,
delay-soaked vocals, jungle drums, and upright bass back to the mainstream with a raved-up,
punked-out twist. Once again, teens around the world
bopped their heads to the whacka-whacka rhythm
of slap upright—this time, courtesy of Lee Rocker.
The slap style was not new; it can be traced as
far back as the 1910s, and the first Victor recordings
of Steve Brown slapping with the Jean
Goldkette Orchestra happened in 1926 (the first
time it was discovered that slap bass sells records).
The attention-grabbing technique has always had
its practitioners in jazz, bluegrass, blues, and rockabilly
music—but whether it was simply through
luck, timing, hard work, or all the above, Lee Rocker
became the guy who made playing the upright bass
cool again. Standing on his bass during the hit MTV
video for “Rock This Town,” a new generation (and
a few since) witnessed the classic show-stopping
move for the first time. But underneath the theatrics
was his solid playing with an incessant, in-the-pocket
feel that had just enough frenzy to drive the
cats and kitties wild. While the Stray Cats recordings
were well produced and their MTV image well
crafted, their live shows had the raucous energy and
abandon of punk, with guitarist Brian Setzer running
amok, Slim Jim Phantom taking full advantage of
playing drums while standing, and a pompadoured
Lee Rocker slapping the hell out of his upright
through an Ampeg SVT. The genetics of all punk/
rockabilly hybrid strains can be traced back to the
Stray Cats, and the modern interest in slap upright
bass to Mr. Rocker.
More than 30 years later, Lee is still playing the
early rock & roll/country blend that turned him
on as a teen. His most recent CD, Night Train to
Memphis, features classics like “That’s All Right Mama,”
“Honey Don’t,” “Rockabilly Boogie,” the Stray Cat
favorite “Built for Speed,” and Rocker’s own “Slap
the Bass.” Featuring guitarists Buzz Campell and
Brophy Dale and Jimmy Sage on drums, Rocker’s
longtime touring band exhibits the relaxed authority
that comes from years of playing together, and
full immersion in the style. Rocker’s bass sounds
punchy and full, with a healthy dose of natural
ambience that creates the feeling of being in the
room with him. The groove is unstoppable, and the
walking lines are generously peppered with percussive
triplet runs that careen like a chopped ’32 Ford
taking a corner at 100 mph.
Rocker’s vocals are often overshadowed by his
playing, but his phrasing is dead on, and his pleasing
vocal quality sounds at home whether shouting
out “Wild Child” or crooning through “All I Have
to Do Is Dream.” And, he does it while fronting
the band and slapping the bass. His performance
at November’s Bass Player LIVE! was a rockin’
romp through many of the tracks from Night Train
to Memphis, and climaxed with Rocker being joined
onstage by Brian Bromberg, Carlitos Del Puerto,
John B. Williams, and Miles Mosley for a smoking
five-upright bass jam on “Rockabilly Boogie.” We
checked in with Lee post-BPL and spoke about the
CD, his past, present, and future, as well as his love
for music and the bass.
In a good way, Night Train feels like an old record.
These are songs I’ve been playing my whole life,
and I wanted to put them down in that real way, with
everyone playing in the same room, facing each other.
There were a handful of overdubs maybe, but it was
very much an old-school recording—and while we
did use Pro Tools, because that’s what it is now, in
this instance we used it more like a tape machine
than a “device.” And, it didn’t take long; it was one
of the least agonizing records I’ve ever made. When
we made our first Stray Cats record, there were a lot
of years of playing as a band in bars to prepare for
that, and Night Train to Memphis is similar.
Your bass sound is natural and full. How
did you capture that?
|The Stray Cats in their heyday: (L–R) Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom
I generally run a few tracks of bass, and depending
on whether I’m playing steel strings with a magnetic
pickups or the guts with a transducer, I run
a DI from the pickup, mic the amp, and put a mic
in front of the ƒ-hole on the bass. But this record
was very organic, very live; it’s 90 percent microphone
with a hair of DI in there. Mostly, I played my
Kolstein Lee Rocker “Tuxedo” model bass; it’s a
e-size instrument with a Planet Wing pickup and
strung with Efrano guts. For this record, that was
the sound that served the song.
So, you choose the bass and type of setup
to match different music?
I always look for the right tool, the right sound
to use. On this record, we had more of an acoustic
element: We used a lot of acoustic guitar for rhythm,
and I pulled the drums back a little, so I like to use
gut strings for that. The CD I’m working on now is
more of a rock record, and I’m using mostly steel
strings [Jargar Mediums] and an amp. When you
compete with more aggressive drums, you need to
match that with something.
Talking about competing with drums, how
do you manage the rhythm section when playing
I like the drummer to give me some space. They
can play more than just the basics, but they have to
leave me some room. And while I don’t work with
piano players often, when I do, we have a discussion
about the left hand—who’s going to be down
there. But ultimately, it all comes down to the particular
song. When it’s my thing, I get to make that
call, but if I’m doing a session for someone else, I’m
happy to do whatever they’re thinking of.
Have you done much session work?
Not much lately. A large amount of the session
work I did was with Carl Perkins; I played on his last
album before he died, Go Cat Go, but we had gone
in the studio before that with Slim Jim and Dave
Edmunds as well.
There’s some video online of you and Carl
with Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr.
That was a fantastic show we did in England.
Carl was just an incredible talent, the architect, and
undoubtedly one of the most important people in all
of rock & roll history. I feel very privileged to have
known him, and I miss him; we were good friends.
Was there a rockabilly scene when you were
coming up as a player with Stray Cats?
In the suburbs of New York, there wasn’t. There
were a few hipsters in the city who knew about it,
and we’d go in to play at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City,
or some of the suburban joints, but nobody knew
“Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It was just the energy, and
the passion—the band connected. It was a phenomenon
that happened very quickly. One week we’d
play and there’d be 12 people, the next week it was
300. When we moved to England, there wasn’t a
rockabilly scene; there was a music scene that was
really diverse. There was Motörhead, Ray Davies, the
Pretenders, the Clash, Madness, the whole Two-
Tone thing, the punks and the skinheads—it was
all going on at the same time. What we were doing
was just one extreme of it. The English audience
that was interested in rockabilly, the “Teddy Boys”—
they were not fans of ours. They treated rockabilly
like it was a museum piece that you dust off and
Did you try to emulate the 1950s sound?
As much as I listened to the old records, I never
thought about trying to copy them. Those original
records were so fantastic, but the musicians
didn’t work it all out; they just played it. The next
time they played it, it came out differently. It’s like
jazz in that way. I like to get the gist of something,
the meat of it, and then do my thing to it. It can be
really interesting to dissect something perfectly, but
I also think, especially for a young player, that it’s
important to understand what’s going on and then
put your stamp on it.
What was the first tune you heard that made
you want to play slap bass?
I think it was “That’s Alright Mama” by Elvis, and
“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which was the B-side. It’s
one of those sounds that’s in the fabric of American
music. There was a jukebox at either Max’s
or CBGB, and hearing that song played there just
blew me away. There are no drums on that record;
it’s just the bass providing the propulsion with the
jingle-y acoustic guitar, and the electric guitar. That’s
where it all started, and to this day, those tunes are
always in my show.
Which player influenced you the most?
Willie Dixon was the guy! I saw him play when I
was a teenager, and it was mind-blowing.
Have you checked out his line on Chuck
Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”?
Yes! It’s not what you’d think—it is intricate, fantastic
playing. [Note: Flip back to the Holiday ’13 issue
for a Blues You Can Use column dedicated to that tune.]
Another track people should check out is a lesser-known
Chuck Berry hit called “Beautiful Delilah,”
with a fantastic bass line. Willie was a guy with an
overview, as a producer, writer, and a phenomenal
bass player—he could see the forest and the trees
in terms of a song.
Maybe the first bassist/producer?
The role of bass player puts you in an ideal position
to produce records—you’re always dealing with
structure for one thing, rhythm, the relationship
with the drums, and how everything fits together.
Another player who had a big influence on me
was Ray Brown; I love his walking lines. I went
through his book [Ray Brown’s Bass Method, Hal Leonard] and spent time analyzing his bass lines.
Bass players need to be able to do that sometimes,
to know why that note is there, how you’re leading
to the next chord.
Are you into any electric bass players?
Sure—I started out as a kid on cello, and then
transitioned to the electric bass, and then to upright.
I was such a rock guy growing up. I love Paul McCartney’s
playing, the Stones, Nick Lowe … I still play
some electric on occasion.
What kind of electric bass do you prefer?
I like strange ones! I’ve got a ’60s Decca that I
really like—it’s got some funky old pickups. I’ve got
a nice Fender Precision, too, but one bass I’ve played
a lot over the years is a hot-rod Asian bass that looks
like a [Danelectro] Longhorn. It was given to me by
my friend Skunk Baxter, who put some good pickups
in it, a brass bridge, and brass nut. I played it
in Phantom, Rocker & Slick.
How has the technology changed for slap bass?
When I first started, there were fewer choices
for electronics. It was kind of a DIY thing from early
on. We would take a pickup, like a split-coil Precision,
mount it on a block of wood, and attach that
to the end of the fingerboard. I’d run that like an
electric bass, and then have a transducer from an
acoustic guitar and move that around the instrument
until I found a nice percussive sound. On the
Ampeg SVT there were two channels, so I’d have
one EQ’d for the slap and one for the note, and I’d
blend them. I always wanted engineers to mic my
cabinet, because I’m creating my sound, and they’re
behind the board.
You had some early guidance in this department,
[Ampeg B-15 designer] Jess Oliver lived in my
town, and he helped me make my first pickups. It’s
funny, because I’m still very tight with Ampeg—but
back then, I didn’t know; he was just a guy down the
street helping me out.
What kind of pickups do you use now?
For my more “rock” basses with steel strings, I
use EMG active pickups sunk into the fingerboard.
You can raise or lower them by pushing on them. I
blend that with a Planet Wing transducer. For the
more ’billy basses with gut, I use just the transducer.
In my live shows, I use both basses. There’s a point
in the set when we bring it back to the day in terms
of sound: acoustic guitar, drums with brushes, or
no drums, and I play the gut strings.
What kind of rig are you pushing?
All different kinds of Ampeg, depending on the
situation. For a large outdoor show, I’ll use an SVT. I
used a solid-state PRO-series head with a 6x10. And
in the studio, it’ll be a B-15, or that little Micro-VR
rig. I tend to prefer 10" speakers; they respond a little
quicker. If there’s a tweeter in the cab, I turn it off.
What kind of steel strings are you using?
Jargar medium tension. They’re not as bright and
plinky as some of the others I’ve tried; they have a
little more warmth. If you pluck the string and look
at a strobe tuner, you can see they stay true to pitch
for a long time, and they’re responsive enough that
you can use a little left-hand vibrato.
Do you like high or low string action?
On both steel- and gut-string setups, I like it
high enough to get my middle and ring fingers under
the string—but not completely. I adjust pretty well,
though. My basses have a very traditional setup,
like a jazz player would have, but I’m not one of
these players who has to have a certain neck or feel.
How was your recent experience at BPL?
Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was
a huge thrill. I love what I do, and it’s such a great
feeling to get this kind of recognition from other
bass players. Having Mike Dirnt and Billy Sheheen
present the award was the topper. The really interesting
part was the diversity of players who were
there—from Don Was to Geezer Butler—all performing
on the same stage. Unbelievable! And,
having Miles Mosley, John Williams, Brain Bromberg,
and Carlitos Del Puerto up onstage jamming
with me was outrageous. It proves just how versatile
the upright bass can be.
What’s coming in the future?
I’m working on another record, entirely of new
songs I’ve written. Writing for me tends to ebb and
flow; it’s not a given, and lately it’s been flowing. It’s
great to be in that mindset and writing songs and
running into the studio.
You have a show coming up with a 70-piece
orchestra. What’s that about?
I was asked to play at the Laguna Beach Arts
Center Playhouse. We’ll do some Stray Cats, some
new stuff of mine, and some classics. We’re just
starting to talk with arrangers, rehearsals starting
soon—the concerts are in February. It’s good to take
chances; you never know what’s going to come of
it, and it opens your ears to something different.
We’re definitely filming and recording this, and it’ll
be available in some form.
Traveling as much as you do with an upright
bass must be a challenge.
I’ve tried it every which way. These days typically
I’ll ship an upright bass in a flight case in advance.
That’s why I have a lot of instruments; I’ve always
got one out somewhere. But in my contract I always
have them provide one as a backup, in case they drive
a forklift through my bass at the airport—which has
happened! I have a travel bass now from Kolstein,
like my Tuxedo bass, called a Bussetto. It’s a great
bass. It’s a carved instrument, has a full-size neck,
but it’s a little thinner—it’s like playing a hot-rod
bass. It was designed so the airlines have to take it
as oversize baggage.
Any more tours planned?
Sure, but I don’t tour in the traditional sense anymore;
we fly in to a lot of dates now. I like to do 50 or
60 shows a year. We flew out to Moscow for one show,
flew to France for a day. It’s exciting and it keeps it
fresh. I’m really happy with how I’ve got things organized
at this point in my career.
Slap The Bass!
LEE ROCKER’S SOLE
original on Night Train to Memphis is
appropriately titled “Slap the Bass.”
It’s a classic swinging rockabilly affair,
based on a 12-bar blues in C, but
with enough tricky spots that you’d
have to be at rehearsal. The slick
opening statement grabs you immediately—
a super-cool chromatically
descending tritone, played with an
alternating triplet/eighth slap pattern.
Lee slaps like a madman, and
grabs a few hot breaks, including a
quick blast of fingerstyle—but he’s
saving the big guns for the end.
Example 1 is the 12-bar shout
chorus at the very end of the song,
including the ending lick. The line
has a shuffle/swing feel, but for visual
simplicity, we’ve written it as
straight eighth-notes. The opening
two bars are textbook Lee Rocker: a
classic boogie line (1–3–5–6–b7–6–5–
3) plucked with a single right-hand
slap (see Ex. A) between each note.
He uses a triplet slap (Ex. B) at the
crest of the line (Bb) in bar 2, but
then unleashes a torrent in bar 3,
climbing up the C arpeggio with full
bore, and on two wheels. On the
way down in bar 4, he sneaks in a
“drag triplet” (Ex. C), continuing on
through the next four bars with classic
single-slap lines. In bars 9 and 10,
he walks all the way down the G
Mixolydian scale and brings back the
intro lick for a big finish. Starting in
bar 11, play a triple-slap C (10th fret
of your D string—if you had frets)
with your left-hand 1st finger and the
single-slap F# on the G string with
your 2nd finger. Slide the 2nd finger
down one half-step to a triple-slap
Fn, and play the single-slap B with
the 1st finger. This is the descending
chromatic pattern for the first four
bars of the ending. A quick drag
triplet at the end of the phrase sets
up the next sequence, which follows
the same alternating triplet/eighth
rhythm pattern as the previous four
bars, but adds a left-hand hammeron
to the triplet (Ex. D), bouncing
from the open D string to an A with
the 1st finger. Reach up to the F# in
bar 15 with your 4th finger, and continue
using it all the way through the
descending line. This all happens at
200 BPM, so you’d better eat your
If you’ve never slapped an upright bass before, this will give you a clue about what Lee Rocker is
doing. But keep in mind, the technique takes time to master, and your hands need to toughen up.
Be patient—if you use steel strings, you can blister up in the first five minutes. Exercise caution.
The best piece of advice I have was told to me by Austin slap-master Mark Rubin of Bad Livers.
He said, “It’s not about the slap; it’s about the pluck.” Your downbeats are being plucked, and
we all know how important the downbeat is—focus first on the pluck. Focusing on the slap can
make your arm tense up; we are not “hitting” the bass. The slap happens organically as the hand
returns to pluck another downbeat, and the rhythm you play is controlled by speed of your hand.
Play Ex. A slowly, focusing on the pluck. Use two or even three fingers to pluck, and let the flat
of your hand naturally fall onto the fingerboard for the single slap. The triplet slap shown in Ex. B
can be played a couple of ways. Pluck the first note, and either double-slap with the hand in an
up–down motion, or work a circular movement that plays the first slap with the butt of the hand
and the second slap with the palm. This is a similar movement to Ex. C, which is called a drag
triplet (although it is actually an eighth-note followed by two 16th-note slaps). The drag triplet
is typically phrased with the slaps as a rhythmic pickup to the next pluck, creating a flam-like
feel: “and-a-one, and-a-two.” Slap the string with the butt of the hand, then the palm, then pluck.
Just remember: The pluck is the downbeat, not the slap. Example D is another triplet variation,
incorporating ghosted hammer-ons.
“Lee Rocker was and is the first guy who exposed my generation
to a world of upright bass that made you want to tear your hands
apart practicing for hours on end. He made it so cool to be an
upright bass player.” —Elio Giordano (The Mavericks)
“Lee is hugely influential; I still listen to
early Stray Cats stuff. You don’t hear
a lot of upright bass, much less slap
players, in pop music. He’s made some
great records.” —Kevin Smith (Willie
Nelson, Dwight Yoakham, High Noon)
“If you see a guy slapping a doghouse bass in
a rockabilly or psychobilly band, chances are
Lee Rocker was a big reason for it. And now,
there’s a new generation of slap bassists getting
that influence second-hand from the guys they learned from. Much
respect!” —Geoff Firebough (Hillbilly Casino, BR549)
“Lee Rocker could be the most influential
upright slap bass player since the
1950s. Lee and the Stray Cats were the
much-needed link between the roots
and contemporary music. Without them,
many of us wouldn’t play the way we do.
Thank you, Lee!” —Djordje Stijepovic (artofslapbass.com)
“Lee Rocker and the Stray Cats not only
gave us a cool, updated version of a classic sound—with the help of modernized
gear and Lee’s propulsive technique, they also put the slap bass
up front in the mix. On a lot of old records, the bass was lost. In fact, a
lot of folks thought that the click coming from the bass was actually a
drum sound. I’ve fought this battle through the years with many drummers,
who insisted on doubling me with rimshot clicks. Lee made it clear
what was going on. And hey, it’s a simple fact: The Stray Cats are the
only modern rockabilly band that’s been really successful, and he is a big
part of the reason for that. When I first heard him live, using an SVT, it
changed my life on how to get a good live sound. Not only is he a great
player, but he was really nice to me the couple of times I’ve met him. And a snappy dresser!”
—David Roe (Johnny Cash, Nashville session ace)
Lee Rocker, Night
Train to Memphis
Basses Kolstein Lee Rocker Bussetto
Travel Bass, Kolstein Lee Rocker 3/4
Strings Efrano guts, Jargar Medium
Pickup Planet Wing, EMG magnetic
pickups in fingerboard
Rig Ampeg SVT, B-15, Micro VR