Free at Last: Andy Fraser

IN THE EARLY ’70S, ARMED WITH SEMINAL songs like “All Right Now” and “Fire and Water,” Free electrifi ed the rock world with its less-is-more brand of fi ery blues rock.
By Ken Sharp ,

IN THE EARLY ’70S, ARMED WITH SEMINAL songs like “All Right Now” and “Fire and Water,” Free electrified the rock world with its less-is-more brand of fiery blues rock. Anchoring Free’s sound was Andy Fraser, who supplied arresting bass lines notable for their economy, simplicity, and effectiveness. Fraser recently co-authored a book charting his career, All Right Now: Life, Death and Life Again [Mctrax Books, 2012].

Your first instrument wasn’t bass.

I started piano tuition when I was five—which seems young now, but boy, was I insistent. I played piano until I was 11 or 12. All the cool kids in grammar school had guitars and drums, so I did, too. When I got a guitar and started fiddling around, I realized, “Okay, that note goes with this note …” and managed to make sense of it from the piano point of view, which really helped.

What led you from guitar to bass?

Diplomacy. Everyone wanted to be the cool kid who played guitar, or who was a singer, or who played drums. I just tuned my guitar down an octave and became the bass player to stop the arguments. What really sealed it was joining John Mayall’s band.

How did that come about?

I used to go to college with Sappho Korner, and so I met Alexis [Korner, blues guitarist]. I would hang around his house and play his guitars. Apparently, John Mayall called him and said, “Alexis, I need a bass player right away.” He said, “There’s this kid who hangs around the house and plays guitar.” So he got me to go over with a cheap bass that I had, and I got the job. He bought me a new bass the next day.

Did playing bass come naturally?

Yeah. I suppose I have to say I’m a bass player now because it’s so easy, but I never thought of myself as a bass player; I never actually played bass parts. I probably drove drummers nuts. My bass parts tended to augment the singer or the songs more than the drums. I’d do something that would follow Paul [Rodgers] or lead him, as opposed to have anything to do with the drums. The drums would just have to keep time.

When first learning to play, who were your models as bass players?

Oh, plenty. Pretty much the bass players on the Motown stuff , James Jamerson, all those Stax/Volt records. In lots of Motown songs, with players like James Jamerson, you can’t help but notice the bass. “What’s Goin’ On” by Marvin Gaye has a great bass part. What’s amazing is finding out the back story behind it. They had to drag him into the session kicking and screaming because he had another gig. After the gig, they took him into the studio around midnight, and he lay on the floor and played bass to the track. Amazing. I liked Carol Kaye, and I also learned a lot from Paul McCartney—from the beginning of the Beatles to when he got into Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. By that time the bass was the whole thing. I also liked John Entwistle; I remember being at school and hearing “My Generation,” and I went, “There’s a bass solo after the first chorus!” I thought, Wow, I didn’t know you could do that. All those players helped mold me into the player I am.

Do you find it ironic that a bass player wrote one of rock’s best guitar riff s with “All Right Now”?

Yes, and add on top of that, I never thought of myself as a bass player. With “All Right Now,” I was just trying to do my best Pete Townshend. I always loved his chord playing, and I thought, “Hey, I’ll be Pete Townshend for a minute!” It’s incredible to me, and us at the time, that “All Right Now” was a single. We thought it was a throwaway and argued against it being released. It was one of the few arguments we lost with Chris Blackwell of Island Records.

Your bass part before Paul Kossoff ’s solo is a distinctive hook in itself. How did you come up with that figure?

My job as a bass player for that part was simply to put in a bed that suggested the chord changes and supply enough support for Koss to riff over the top. That’s all it was, and it worked out very well.

How did you approach playing bass in Free?

My approach was very minimalistic; I only did what was appropriate for the song itself. My general rule of thumb as kind of the arranger in the band was to say, “You play in this space, I’ll play in this space,” and everyone has freedom within those spaces. It helped maintain a simplicity and freedom for individuals and an arrangement that worked that didn’t require a lot of filling in. Letting the music breathe was important.

In a band like Free, simplicity is key.

Being simple is never easy. The less that’s on there, the bigger each thing sounds. If it doesn’t even need a bass part, don’t put one on. It doesn’t have to be there just because you’re a bass player. For example, in “All Right Now,” the verses have always sounded better with me not playing anything. So I never had a problem with that. With a three-piece band and a singer, you don’t really have the option of more, anyway. A lot of the things I would do on the bass would make up for the fact that we didn’t have a second guitarist or a live piano player. I wasn’t thinking like a bass player at all; that was the last thing I was doing. The bass just happened to be in my hand. But if there were a piano or a tambourine or whatever, I’d just try to make it come together. I would do whatever was necessary. If there was some kind of part that was needed and Kossoff had his hands full, then I would do it on the bass. I tried to do only what was appropriate, and sometimes that meant not playing at all. It made the guitar sound bigger and the bass sound bigger when it actually came in. With something like “The Stealer,” I think about song first, and then, “What does the bass need to do to make the song work?”

Free drummer Simon Kirke plays economically, and leaves a lot of space. Did that help you craft your voice as a bass player?

Simon is like a metronome. I didn’t appreciate him so much until I played with Jason Bonham— who’s a fine drummer, but my whole job suddenly became to grab a hold of him and keep him solid in time. Simon was always so in time it allowed me freedom to flow over it. Playing bass in Free with a drummer like Simon, there was a sense of the arrangement being complementary to everybody, however simple it was. Simon was a real plus from that point of view.

What was your typical bass setup in Free?

My main bass was a Gibson EB-3. That was a mainstay until it got stolen. I liked the EB-3 because it was small and I’m small; it was very easy to play. To me, a Fender seems halfway toward a double bass. I always used a Marshall amp, and I tended to use Rotosound strings. I never played with a pick, just my fingers. Recently, I got hooked on a Tobias bass; it’s a small bass, very much like the EB-3.

Today, do you keep an ear out for groundbreaking bass players?

There are lots of good bass players out there, but my whole approach today is to listen to a song, its singer and arrangement, and figure out how the bass fits in within that, and really, how everything fits in. Today, when a bass needs to be put on a song, I pick it up and play it; otherwise I don’t bother playing or practicing. I still have fun playing bass, mainly because it comes easy for me. It’s something I can do without thinking.

Any advice for budding bass players?

Do what’s best for the song and that’s all you need to do. Don’t show off . Also, be yourself. That can be very difficult in this world, where we’re so affected by our peers. But there’s no one else like you. Everyone’s unique; if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be original.