SERBIAN TRANSPLANT DJORDJE STIJEPOVIC is one of the world’s premier upright slap bass players and ambassadors. Formerly a member of the Head Cat with Lemmy Kilmister and ex-Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom, Los Angeles-based Stijepovic currently applies oodles of upright elements to his rock & roll band Atomic Sunset, and blends slap into global sounds in the world music outfit Fishtank Ensemble. Other credits include Wanda Jackson, Dale Hawkins, and “almost every living rockabilly player from the ’50s, including DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore.” Stijepovic puts upright in intriguing context when he performs bellydance/bass duets with dancers Rachel Brice and Mira Betz. Stijepovic is the founder of artofslapbass.com, a resource for upright aficionados that includes a forum and interviews with seminal slappers such as Marshall Lytle of Bill Haley & the Comets.
How did you become a slap-bass freak, and was it always about acoustic for you?
It was always about acoustic for me. When I was about ten years old I heard early Elvis Presley and Stray Cats recordings, and I instantly fell in love with that magical percussive bass sound. A few years later, my music school lent me an upright, and the first thing I did was slap.
How did you develop your own upright slap style?
At first I tried to copy my favorite rockabilly licks, and then I gravitated deeper into the past researching old jazz, blues, country, and gypsy recordings. At the same time, I was listening to punk, metal, and studying classical music. I incorporate everything. I often use licks I learned from Romanian gypsy music when I play rockabilly, or throw in some New Orleans jazz licks when I play Balkan music. I do it all with a punk edge—my personal touch.
Can you detail the old-school slap style that you draw so heavily from, and cite some examples?
Steve Brown, Willie Dixon, Milt Hinton, and Joe Zinkan definitely informed my style. I tried to incorporate all their licks, but the most important thing I learned from them is the kind of feel and groove that is often lost in modern, heavily edited mainstream music. Other than a few exceptions such as Brown’s playing on Jean Goldkette Orchestra’s “Dinah,” most players were using single, double, and triple slaps until the late 1940s. Just the string hits the fingerboard on a single slap. On a double, the string hits the fingerboard once and the palm hits it once. For a triple slap, the string hits the fingerboard once, and the palm hits it twice.
Djordje Stijepovic with Fishtank Ensemble singer Ursula Knudson at San Francisco’s Café du NordMore advanced bassists such as Milt Hinton used quadruple slaps where the string hits the fingerboard once and the palm hits it three times—Cab Calloway’s “Pluckin’ the Bass” is a good example. Willie Dixon had his own way of playing quadruple slaps. He used two double slaps, muting the second note with his fretting hand. Check out the Big Three Trio’s “Hard Notch Boogie Beat.” Joe Zinkan played very nice melodies using roll slap in bluegrass and country music. Check out Johnnie & Jack’s “I Never Can Come Back to You.”
It’s interesting that slap on the upright bass almost completely disappeared from the ’60s to the ’80s, when it made a comeback in rockabilly music. Upright slap has evolved a lot in the recent years; it’s become a complex, advanced technique. I’m still learning and constantly working on improving my style.
Can you detail where modern slap is right now and how you are moving it forward?
The core is still single, double, triple, and quadruple slaps, but there are many other licks involved as well. I like using roll- and pull-off slap patterns such as the ones you can hear on Fishtank Ensemble’s “Nedim.” I also like slapping in odd time signatures such as 7/8 or 11/8. Examples include Fishtank Ensemble’s “Djordje’s Rachenitza” and “Ceklin,” respectively. Using double-stops the way I do on Atomic Sunset’s “Atomic Boogie” is another recent development in upright slap.
People are finally starting to realize that upright slap is not just a hillbilly style—that it should be accepted as one of the official upright bass techniques next to arco and pizz. With the development of the internet, slap players are finally able to share knowledge and licks.
Can you offer some gear thoughts pertaining to the history of upright slap?
Bass companies didn’t pay much attention to upright slap players for a long time. With regular pickups it’s hard to have a balance between core and slap tones. The major change happened when Jason Burns started King Double Bass, and it progressed when he started Blast Cult. Their One4Five basses, coupled with the amazing Channel Blaster pickup system, finally enable full control of the core tone and the click of the slap.
Can you offer some insights on your bass?
Blast Cult custom made my main bass, the “Great White,” with a 3-pickup system: a Monolux piezo on the bridge for the natural acoustic tone, a slap piezo behind the fingerboard for the slap click, and an active EMG magnetic pickup on the bottom of my fingerboard for an extra boost. I send all that through a Mogamitrs [3-conductor] cable to the Channel Blaster, where I blend and EQ the signals, and then I send the blended signal to an amp or direct.
In the studio I use a Mojave Audio MA-200 in front of the ƒ-hole and an MA-100 pointed toward the fingerboard. Since I started playing Blast Cult basses I’ve incorporated a direct signal as well.
What are your thoughts on how upright slap relates to electric slap bass?
It’s a completely different beast. Electric slap bass technique developed almost completely independently from upright. The original upright slappers possibly influenced early electric players, but nowadays most electric bass players are not even aware that the slap technique started 50 years earlier on acoustic basses.
Fishtank Ensemble, Woman in Sin [Fishtank, 2010]; Atomic Sunset, Hot Rods & Pin-Ups [Ceklin Music, 2007]
Basses Blast Cult One4Five custom upright
Rig Blast Cult Channel Blaster pickup/ preamp system direct to house or to Orange Terror Bass head, Aguilar DB 410 or DB 412 cabinets (live), Mojave Audio MA- 200 and MA-100 mics (studio), Mogami TRS cables
Strings Thomastik Belcanto Gold (prototype) or Spirocore mediums