“I USED TO TAKE A BASS HOME FROM school and practice with those records every day. That’s where I got my style,” said Ray Brown. The year was 1976, and I was listening to Ray on an educational record, talking about Duke Ellington’s bassist, Jimmy Blanton. The Standard Oil company put out the record, Strings, back in the day when oil companies did such things. It was the fi rst time I had heard a jazz bass player talking about how he learned to play the bass.
Brown’s words have stuck with me, and I have often heard similar statements from other top rock, jazz, and pop players. I transcribed Ex. 1 in the late ’70s, after picking up the Ray Brown/Jimmy Rowles record As Good As It Gets [Concord]. I wanted to get inside Ray’s style and steal some of his magic. What I gained from transcribing this amazing intro was not an immediate payoff; copping Ray’s line was more like making a bank deposit that would accrue interest over the years. I got a little bit of Ray’s sound, and I can always call up this intro, or parts of it, when I am blowing on similar changes. The Gmaj6 drop in bar 3 is a clever way to outline the chord; the lick on the Bbdim7 is one of my favorite ways to play a diminished sound; and the hammerons and pull-offs are classic Ray Brown. The line is just one example out of many hundreds of lines, solos, licks, melodies, and patterns that I have transcribed from Ray and many others. I’ll never sound exactly like him—only Ray sounds like Ray—but I sound like a composite of all the players I’ve transcribed over the years.
Transcribing lines and solos is like getting a free mini-lesson from a bass player whom you might never meet. For example, I’m a fan of Prince, and I love his recordings from the late ’80s and early ’90s, with Sonny T. (Sonny Thompson) on bass. Example 2 shows Sonny’s simple, funky line on “Come” [Come, Warner Bros., 1994]. Sonny could do a lot with a basic groove, and by transcribing some of his licks, I can get to the heart of the music and make it my own.
Sometimes when I’m playing live, just for my own enjoyment, I quote a phrase that I’ve transcribed from a bass hero. Example 3 shows the barely audible cadenza played by Israel Crosby at the end of Ahmad Jamal’s relentlessly swinging track “But Not for Me” [Live at the Pershing, Argo/Cadet, 1958]. Occasionally, if I have the final say on the last chord of a tune, I’ll play Israel’s lick— and then sneak a glance to see if anyone recognizes what I just played.
There are several ways of transcribing bass lines and solos. The most common method is to hear something—a lick, pattern, or short melody—and just steal that one phrase. This is a great way to pick up musical vocabulary and get a general feeling for the style of another player.
The second way—the learn-everythingby- ear method—is more involved, and requires intense listening, patience, perseverance, and a good ear. I imagine Ray Brown learned the Blanton solos from his Ellington records this way: listening over and over to each track, and then picking up the bass and playing along. He probably listened to “Sepia Panorama” and “Jack the Bear” [Duke Ellington, The Blanton-Webster Band, RCA] until he could hear every note in his head, sing along with the lines, and play the notes on his instrument. Brown applied what he could hear and sing, transferred that sound to his bass, and trained his ears and fi ngers along the way. He developed his style by learning Blanton’s.
A third method involves notating the transcription on paper, or using a computer notation program. Many players today write down solos as they learn them by ear. The physical act of notating a bass line or solo reinforces the theoretical understanding of the music. [For some “official” BASS PLAYER tips on transcribing with notation software, see Transcription Tip, March 2011].
To transcribe directly to paper or computer, first listen repeatedly to the track. Determine the key or starting tonality of the bass line. Next, find the very first note, and then the notes in the first phrase. Listen, sing, and then listen and sing. Play the first phrase. Notate the first phrase on paper, or enter the notes in the program. Listen to the next phrase, notate. Next phrase, notate. After you have all of the notes down, play through the entire line or solo with the recording, making fine adjustments to the notation and to your interpretation.
Transcription is your key to mastering the bass in any style that moves you. The sound, harmonic vocabulary, and rhythmic techniques from all of your favorite players are documented on recordings. All you have to do is transcribe them! Ray Brown summed it up when he said, “That’s the way styles are born. You cop from somebody and put your thing on it. It’s a natural evolution.”
John Goldsby’s newest release, The Innkeeper’s Gun is out now. Also check out his other recent releases as a bandleader, The Visit and Space for the Bass [all on Bass Lion]. He is the author of The Jazz Bass Book [Backbeat Books] and Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist [Aebersold Jazz]. For more info, visit his webpage at www.johngoldsby.com.