The Sound In Your Head

IN APRIL 1993, I TRAVELLED TO Florida to speak at the Jazz Bass Conference at the Kendall campus of Miami-Dade Community College.

From November 1993

IN APRIL 1993, I TRAVELLED TO Florida to speak at the Jazz Bass Conference at the Kendall campus of Miami-Dade Community College. This three-day event was organized by Miami bassists Nicky Orta and Matt Bonelli, and the program included workshops, a showing of a movie about the great Cuban bassist Cachao, and master classes by Eddie Gomez, Michael Manring, and Gerald Veasley. When I was invited to contribute to the program, I thought: What can I talk about? With guys like Gomez, Manring, and Veasley on hand, it certainly wasn’t going to be technique.

As I sat at my desk pondering the question, my gaze fell on a pile of material I’d been gathering about the history of the electric bass. Our instrument is a relative newcomer, and little about its technical and artistic development had been systematically organized at that time. So I put together a lecture that was a brief history of the electric bass, with slides of notable players and a tape of musical examples, and presented it at the conference. No one laughed, and I got a lot of positive feedback and suggestions from the audience. That started me down the path that led to my book How the Fender Bass Changed the World—for which I’ll thank Nicky Orta and Matt Bonelli again.

My participation at the conference also included moderating a roundtable with the master-class presenters. The transcript of that event became a feature article, which included the question and answers I’ve reproduced here (slightly edited). The insights of these three fine players still ring true, I think.

How does a bass player find a personal sound?

Michael Manring It’s a long process, one that involves having a sound in your head and trying out different things. Often, you’ll make a mistake—you’ll set up your bass wrong or your finger will slip—and it will occur to you that maybe it could be the basis for a new approach to your sound. It’s interesting to be a musician who plays an electric instrument at this time, because the whole science of electronics is growing so fast. It’s very easy to get confused, though: How much of your sound is coming from the electronics, and how much is coming from your hands? You have to work for the sound you hear in your head, but you also have to be ready to veer off in another direction if you hear something else.

Eddie Gomez Right from the beginning, that was one of the things I was striving for: a good sound. As for having your own sound and your own style, all of this is wrapped up in your musical personality. What that means is many-faceted. Part of it is content: What is it, as a musician, that you’re actually playing? Then it’s how you wrap this package of ideas, and part of that is your sound.

It started for me when I stopped worrying about other people. I learned a lot from just listening and wanting and loving, from having all these great influences nurture me. But when I stopped thinking about them, that’s when something of my own started coming out. As Michael said, it comes from what you hear— the song in your heart.

Gerald Veasley At some point during my career, I realized there were three phases to the process. I don’t know how I came up with this, but I figured out there was an orientation phase, an assimilation phase, and an innovation phase. One phase doesn’t necessarily end at a specific point and then move on to the next; they’re all ongoing. Orientation means you have to learn to deal with your instrument physically and technically; you have to find out where the notes are and learn the geography of the bass. Assimilation is where you’re listening to great players and learning how they approach the instrument, and you’re fi nding what it is about their sound that touches you. The innovation phase is what we’re focusing on now: How do you come up with your own sound? First, you need a desire to have your own sound, and that can’t be overlooked. Some of us love other musicians so much we spend all of our time trying to imitate them and forget about going for our own sound.

You have to have a sound that’s pleasing to the people you play with and the audience that’s listening to your music, but there has to be some balance. Your sound has to move you and inspire you to keep playing.



Stephen Jay: Heading The Bass Dept.

A Bass Player sticking with the same band for 37 years is a rarity. Even rarer is a band that’s remained unchanged for that long. Since 1981, song-parody master “Weird Al” Yankovic has relied on the versatile talents of bassist Stephen Jay.