Michael Mudcat Ward has been supplying the thump for New England-based blues artists Sugar Ray & the Bluetones since 1978, and has become one of the genre’s foremost practitioners of the art of blues upright bass. In ’78, I lived in Boston in a house full of musicians, including longtime Bluetones pianist Anthony Geraci, who hosted band rehearsals in the living room several times a week (while other rehearsals occurred simultaneously on all floors). I observed these emerging blues traditionalists as a freshman Berklee student obsessed with Jaco and Scott LaFaro, and found Mud’s bare-to-the-bone approach and subdued presence perplexing at first. But at their live shows I learned first-hand how economical, in-the-pocket bass playing combined with a shuffle beat (and some beer) makes for a rockin’ good time. Those many nights of watching Mudcat lay down the shuffle formed the bedrock of my entire concept of blues bass playing: hitting a deep groove, playing dynamically with simplicity, selflessly supporting the whole, and driving the bus with a loose hand on the wheel and a sharp eye on the road. Thirty-six years later, Mud is still doing his thing, with a new Bluetones CD, Living Tear to Tear, just released.
Mudcat played electric bass exclusively until the late 1980s, when his wife put an upright bass on layaway for him. Mudcat went on to forge an upright style inspired by Willie Dixon, but he also cites early Duke Ellington bassist Wellman Braud as an influence—particularly his technique of pulling the strings away from the bass with an un-anchored right hand. Mudcat uses gut D and G strings and Thomastik Spirocore A and E strings, with fairly high action, producing a solid fundamental and quick decay (but slapping is rarely audible). While most of us can never hear too much bass, Ward has long been a proponent of sitting further back in the mix. “The Chicago bands were not loud—Muddy Waters’ band was not loud!” he states. But on Living Tear to Tear the bass is fully present, with a big round bump for the attack followed by a velvety pitch. The feel generated by Mud and rhythm section-mate Neil Gouvin has the momentum and swing that comes from decades of playing together. If authenticity is your bag, these are the guys to check out.
Example 1 paraphrases a chorus from “Short Ribs,” a 12-bar blues in F where Mud uses a specific line under the melody, but plays “in the moment” during the solos. “One thing I’ve been working on over the years is playing longer lines,” he tells us, and this chorus begins with a perfect example. Taken from the apex of the harmonica solo, Mudcat uses a descending two-octave F Mixolydian mode, hitting the low F in bar 4 and walking to the root of the IV chord with a classic 1–2–3–5 pattern. On the Bb7 chord, he ambles up and down the first few notes of the scale, then lays out a major triad—all fairly standard ideas, but with a firm commitment behind it, simple is perfect. In bar 7, the form goes back to the I chord, but Mud bounces back and forth between the 5th and 6th for a little variety before returning to the root for a scale run that sets up the classic IIm7–V7 walkup in bars 9 and 10. While Ward plays the II–V line, the piano and guitar are playing a normal V–IV cadence—it’s one of those rustic quirks that the blues allows. The chorus finishes up with the descending half of the classic boogie line down to the low F, and the standard scale turnaround of 5–6–7 sets up the top of the next chorus. Note that the fingerings are laid out as they would be performed on upright bass, where walking up and down one string and frequent use of open strings are typical.
Example 2 is close to the part Mud plays on “Ninety Nine,” a down-home Sonny Boy Williamson number approached with a variation on the “Shortnin’ Bread” lick (1–6–5–6). While the quarter-note is the basic currency, check out how the occasional rhythmic embellishment gives this line momentum. In bar 9, Mud once again implies a II–V movement against the V chord, and plays three open D’s to a C in bar 10. As the 3rd of the IV chord, the note works with the harmony, but it’s a unique choice. “Hitting that note is more of a guitar thing, but it’s a space I can have without clashing with the left hand of the piano.” It’s little rough edges like this that give authenticity to a line—although Ward is first to point out, “I’m as far down the rustic scale as you can get, but some things are too rustic for this day and age!”
In addition to his decades-long tenure with the Bluetones, Mudcat Ward has recorded with Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, Walter Horton, Eric Bibb, Jimmy Rogers, and many others. Check into this modern master of blues bass for a lesson in taste, feel, and dynamics.
Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas. edfriedland.com
Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, Living Tear to Tear [Severn, 2014]
Photo by Peter Nielsen