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.
The Stray Cats in their heyday: (L–R) Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom Your bass sound is natural and full. How did you capture that?
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 slap?
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 recreate.
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, right?
[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 Wheaties!
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.
Giordano “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)
Smith “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)
Firebough “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)
Stijepovic “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)
Roe “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 [Upright, 2012]
Basses Kolstein Lee Rocker Bussetto Travel Bass, Kolstein Lee Rocker 3/4 Model Tuxedo
Strings Efrano guts, Jargar Medium steel
Pickup Planet Wing, EMG magnetic pickups in fingerboard
Rig Ampeg SVT, B-15, Micro VR