Family Men: Aston "Family Man: Barrett & Aston Barrett Jr.

“I PLAY MANY INSTRUMENTS, BUT BASS IS MY PASSION,” SAYS Aston Barrett Jr. Still in his 20s, he is determined to carry the roots-reggae flame originated by his father, Aston “Family Man” Barrett—the Jamaican bass innovator whose resumé runs as deep as his hearty tone, and is most known for the legendary lines he and brother/drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett forged with Bob Marley & the Wailers.
By Jimmy Leslie ,


“I PLAY MANY INSTRUMENTS, BUT BASS IS MY PASSION,” SAYS Aston Barrett Jr. Still in his 20s, he is determined to carry the roots-reggae flame originated by his father, Aston “Family Man” Barrett—the Jamaican bass innovator whose resumé runs as deep as his hearty tone, and is most known for the legendary lines he and brother/drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett forged with Bob Marley & the Wailers. Marley died in 1981, and Carlton Barrett followed in 1987. “Family Man” and Aston Jr. soldier on in the legacy incarnation of the Wailers.

“Lil’ Famz” is building his own resumé playing bass with Lauryn Hill and Julian Marley, when he’s not playing keyboards or drums in the Wailers with Barrett Sr. on bass. Father and son recently completed soundtrack work for the documentary film Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, an intriguing look at Marley’s early years through the lens of Jamaican photographer Esther Anderson.

How did you get started playing bass?

Jr. I started out playing my father’s Steinberger bass that he had lying around the house when I was small. The first line I ever learned was “Positive Vibration,” which I played entirely on the E string. I saw Bob Marley & the Wailers around the house, but I never really knew what it meant until I watched them on video.

Did your father teach you hand to hand?

Jr. I mostly taught myself. I asked him to teach me “Revolution,” “Jamming,” and “Exodus” because I was having some trouble figuring them out. You have to figure out the feel for yourself because it’s mystical, and the music is spiritual. Like Bob Marley said, “Many can play it, but only one who knows it can feel it as well.” When I play reggae, I get goosebumps on my skin.

What’s happening in your head as you transmit feelings to your hands, and what plucking techniques do you use?

Jr. I pluck with either my thumb, or my first two fingers just like my father. The thumb produces a deeper, more booming tone. Fingerstyle is better for telling a story. I mix up my plucking position depending on the song. For example, at the beginning of “Lively Up Yourself,” I like to play down by the bridge, and then for the next, more involved line I play up near the fretboard. My father taught me that playing bass is like painting a picture. The thumb is good for creating one part, and the fingers for another. Sometimes a picture doesn’t need color—it’s black and white. And sometimes all it needs is red, gold, and green!

Watching the Wailers live, I noticed Family Man using a very light touch with the thumb at times.

Sr. Yes, it’s another technique to achieve a special warmness. A light touch is for the resonance of the tone, and the harmonics of the note. I tend to play with my thumb on songs with laid-back to medium tempos. When the tempo gets higher, I use my first two fingers.

Aston Barrett Jr.How are your two playing styles different?

Sr. His style is actually very similar to mine. When I hear him— it’s like I am playing. The more he gets into it, the more it comes to him just like it did with Robbie Shakespeare. I taught him, too.

Jr. I understand the new-generation sound, but I play bass more like my father did in the ’70s. His style is more advanced now. I feel that I need to master the old-school style before I move on. I like to go back to the beginning of my father’s career so I can understand the development of his style.

What early material should bass players be sure to check out?

Jr. The line he played on “Country Boy,” back when he was with the Heptones, is wicked. And be sure to check out the Upsetters [Lee “Scratch” Perry’s house band]. Those are the original dub tunes. The original version of the Wailers’ “Kaya” is actually an Upsetters tune.

What can you tell us about how you created and played that bass line?

Sr. I used my inner musical sense to come up with a jazzy line that worked with the lyrics and the melody. It’s kind of like tenor and baritone saxophone playing a staccato part together within the syncopation of the rhythm.

What jazz bass players influenced you?

Sr. I didn’t pinpoint any. The epiphany was that jazz is the height of music, not classical symphony music as I had thought. I realized jazz was freeform music. I adopted that attitude, and applied it to reggae music. I’m like Frank Sinatra—I stand tall for being a very short man, and I do it my way [laughs].

Jr. He always told me that to understand freeform music I needed to understand jazz, so I studied jazz. I learned the feel of the swing on the drums and I learned to play upright bass. Then I understood how the feel of jazz and funk is incorporated in my father’s music.

How does your son’s drumming feel compare to your brother Carlton’s?

Sr. It feels good. He’s listened to those parts on his own a lot. He has a good handle on the one-drop feel that we created in the early years practicing with just drums and bass. Th e drum is the heartbeat of the music; if the drums are not right, then the music is going to have a bad heart. Th e bass is the backbone. If the bass is not right, then the music is going to have a bad back. If the feel of the drums and the bass together is not right, then the music will be crippled [laughs].

Jr. When I play drums with my father on bass, it requires more discipline because his time is so solid. I must make a conscious effort to hold back and stay steady. I also have to pay attention to how he is playing his lines, because he plays a lot of things differently live compared to the recordings. “Exodus” is an example.

Can you offer some advice on recording bass versus playing live?

Sr. In the studio, try to set it down how it is truly supposed to be. Onstage, feel the vibes and try to keep up. Sometimes you increase the tempo, sometimes it’s right there, and sometimes you need to take it down. Sometimes people are ready for you. Sometimes they’ve had a little too much booze. The trick is to feel it and know how to project the music to them.

Jr., do you bring a reggae feel to Lauryn Hill’s music, or do you have to cop a different feel?

Jr. I bring the reggae feel to her music because of what she wants from me. There are two bass players in her band now, Doug Wimbish and myself. Doug plays lead bass, and I play the deep tones in the foundation. I play some bass solos too. When that time comes, I don’t think; I just flow with the vibe. The foundation of my technique never changes—it’s the Barrett sound.

Can you shed some insight on the nature of your soundtrack work for the new documentary about the early days of Bob Marley & the Wailers?

Jr. I was the musical director. I played drums, and some bass. Daddy played bass, and keyboards on some songs. We sat in the back of the tour bus creating fresh rhythms based on the scenes, which themselves are based on Esther’s photos and film footage from the Catch a Fire days when my father and uncle had just met Bob. We looked at what was taking place, what Bob was saying, and how he was moving. Daddy and I would sing bass lines to each other. We wanted Wailers vibes, but not Wailers songs.

I represent Carly. His son can play drums, but he’s focused on singing. I was never able to meet Carly, but I feel his presence all the time. My father is here, but I still represent him, and my grandfather Joe Higgs as well. He was my mother’s father, and the godfather of reggae. He was Bob Marley’s mentor.

In your October 2007 Bass Player cover story, you said that the whole planet is tuned to Eb. How did you come to that realization?

Sr. At first I imagined and then eventually heard the sound of an earthquake. It carries a humming sound and feeling. When it hit me I realized the sound was Eb. Moving up and down playing octaves provides the feel. There is a key and a feel for everything. Reggae music and the Wailers band—we are actually like the moon. It is for all ages and all time. The older it gets, the brighter it shines.

Jr. He taught me that dancing on your tippy toes can help to create a moon feeling. It feels like playing the bass in the clouds. My father and I are trying to take reggae to a different level—to the highest heights.



Aston “Family Man” Barrett
Soundtrack, Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend [Esther Anderson, 2011]

Aston Barrett Jr.
Julian Marley, Awake [Tuff Gong, 2009]; Stephen Marley, Revelation Pt.1: The Root of Life [Universal Republic, 2011]



Bass Custom Fender Jazz Bass
Rig Eden WT800 with 4x10 and 1x15 cabinets, Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI
Strings Fender Flatwounds


Rig Ampeg SVT-CL Classic head and Ampeg SVT-810E 8x10 cabinet
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Strings Fender Flatwounds “I have always tried to capture the sound of an acoustic upright bass with an electric bass and amplifier. “It’s a prototype for a potential signature model. The offset body is deep and heavy—just like the sound.”