SKID ROW FOUNDING MEMBER RACHEL Bolan is not your average root-note throttling, barely audible hair-band bassist. Along with players like Mike Starr (ex-Alice In Chains) and Eddie Jackson of Queensrÿche, Bolan used a gritty, Spector-driven tone that epitomized the sound of an era, and his sinewy bass lines on songs like “Piece of Me” and “Monkey Business” feature prominently on records that have sold in excess of 20 million units. What may most distinguish him, however, is the fact that he belongs to a niche group of songwriting bassists for whom technique is simply a by-product of an intense desire to write.
“The guys who really made me start listening to bass were writers,” says Bolan, naming Steve Harris, Gene Simmons and Paul McCartney among his favorites. Bolan admits that he doesn’t spend much time on the technical aspects of playing, like running scales, but he writes on bass, so “coming up with riffs or working on the skeleton of a bass line” is a part of his daily routine.
Along with guitarist and Skid Row cofounder Snake Sabo, Bolan has notched some pretty significant milestones as a songwriter. He co-wrote several Top Ten hits, including “18 And Life,” “I Remember You,” and “Youth Gone Wild,” which became an anthem for legions of rock fans around the globe, and Skid Row’s 1991 sophomore CD, Slave to the Grind, was the first hard rock album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard.
Though the music scene has changed tremendously since then, Bolan’s pickwielding approach to bass is as muscular as ever. For a sample, check out his opening bass riff on “Another Dick in the System” from 2006’s Revolutions Per Minute. “I try to be as aggressive as possible without overplaying,” he says. “I hate it when someone overplays. Don’t get me wrong, though; I love a bass line that moves, but only when it works for the song. James Jamerson was the king of making a song move.”
When it comes to writing and capturing song ideas, Bolan suggests writing what feels good and what comes natural. “Try not to force it. It will only frustrate you. Let your influences come out in your writing; there’s nothing wrong with that. If a song sounds a little ‘Aerosmith-esque,’ for example, don’t sweat it—it’ll take on a different feel when you get into the rehearsal room or studio. I always used to worry about our songs sounding derivative, but once the band worked it out, it would come into its own.” And record everything. “Even if you think the idea sucks, record it. You never know if you might like it a year later.”
As for specific songwriting elements, Bolan tends to gravitate toward simple chord progressions, “probably due to my Ramones, AC/DC, and Kiss influences. Plus, a simple chord progression gives the bass a little more space to get creative.” He also offers modulating as a way to really make a song explode. “We do it in ‘Mudkicker,’” he says. “If used correctly it can be very dramatic.”
Aside from writing, keeping a band together for 22 years presents its own set of challenges, but Bolan’s takes it all in stride. “If the people who bought your music still want to hear it, there’s no reason not to play it. If you love the music you’re playing, there is no reason not to keep it alive, no matter who’s in the band. First and foremost, be true to yourself; everything else will fall into place.”
HEAR HIM ON
Skid Row, Revolutions Per Minute [SPV, 2006]
Basses Spector NS-2 4-string basses
Rig Gallien- Krueger 800RB and 1001RB heads, Ampeg SVT 8x10 cabinets
Strings Dean Markley Blue Steel mediums Effects Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, Boss BF-2 Flanger, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay
Picks Fender Heavy