How to Finger

During a recent bout of insomnia caused by near-fatal man flu I tuned into the GP night shift to provide some distraction from the snuffling, hacking, wife-disturbing misery. It was only a tea-lit personal message of support from Hogz that was keeping me going at all. The compassion shown by posters on GP for their fellow pilgrims is truly humbling. Well, night time on GP is a world away from the café society of the day shift: “here be monsters” would cover some of it. Nevertheless, I went on intrepidly past the grinning skulls and crossed warning spears in the ground, ignored the distant drums (don’t think it was Phil Collins) and found that it wasn’t too bad at all. I didn’t encounter any of the fraught exchanges that are sometimes reported on later in the day. In fact, it was quite jolly. There is a distinctly New World flavour to the proceedings, but just as the daytime stars are clear to us, the night belongs to Pooftah. Possibly still emotional from the Friday evening faggotry JtB was tirelessly preaching his gospel that the Buzzcocks are the Greatest Band…in the Wuurrrld, but he was harried all the way by an incredulous Pooftah. It was very entertaining and taken in good part. We miss a lot by not being able to witness the night’s goings-on, but nobody reads anything, so it’s probably all right. By now you, as no doubt SB was, will be wondering: what the hell’s this got to do with the price of fish? As Captain Mainwaring used to say – “I’m very glad you asked that question.”
Here goes: my wheezy attention was arrested, nay, triggered, by the still frame of the Buzzcock’s bass player frozen in a very poor left-hand fingering position on the fretboard. I duly commented on it, and received the apparently terse reply of “Bollocks” from JtB. Since I had observed that he used this succinct formula to reply to every one of Pooftah’s many critical posts I began to wonder whether it wasn’t just some Jen-like idiosyncratic way of signifying agreement. I then commented that it was clearly overdue for GP to receive a class on fingering technique. Doc McCoy assented and I waited for a polite interval in case JtB posted his personal stamp of approval. Eventually I adopted the legal maxim of qui tacet consentire videtur, or silence gives consent. And on that wave of popular acclaim, here we are.

The Iconic McCartney Bass

What we are not going to get is a rundown of “My ten top bass tips.” For a poster hiding behind the fantastically presumptuous avatar of quite possibly the greatest bass player ever – Jaco Pastorius – I trail in as a very middling player, and like Shakespeare with “small Latin and less Greek” my theory is somewhat sketchy. I really must stop dragging these geniuses into my comparisons. Yes, bass-playing is a small world compared with the giant axe-men of the electric guitar, but it’s as fiercely contested within its narrower bounds. I am deliberately going to exclude the upright bassists from the equation, and that’s because it’s a case of apples and oranges. A discussion on the two aspects would become unmanageable. The electric bass has become a front-line instrument in its own right well within the living memory of many of us on here. There was a GP article some time ago about how Leo Fender cracked the design in more or less one go in the early fifties. I wonder how many other inventors have produced the finished design that would remain virtually unimprovable? Neither will I offer a list of my top ten favourite bassists, partly because it would reveal the fact that I can’t think of ten bassists I admire. So, a random name will pop up here and there. I should also add the advisory warning that in my life I have learned that it is best for me to attach “I might be quite wrong about that” to whatever I say.

It would be pleasant to be able to describe how I was influenced by such-and-such, but it wouldn’t be honest, and anyway I was first interested in the drums. I actually took lessons from a retired Drum Major of the Irish Guards who was related to an aunt of mine. There will be those on here not surprised to learn that he wasn’t exactly a kindly old gent with a twinkle in his eye. Nevertheless, the basswork of Jet Harris of The Shadows had subliminally inserted itself into my consciousness. It is appropriate that Jet soon became an exponent of the Fender Precision bass because he himself, like the bass, was damn near the finished article.

I produce as Exhibit A the track Nivram by the Shads from 1961, which is as cool as a mountain stream:

Years went by to Leeds University where I began to realise that I was listening more to the bass players than the hero lead guitarists of the exceptional bands who played the college circuit in the late 60s. Andy Fraser of Free springs to mind. In true 50s and 60s style someone said “let’s form a band.” My parents had sent me five quid in a card for my 21st birthday (no namby-pamby going home to mum and dad for a party) so I volunteered for the only vacancy – the bass. Bought one from one of those exchange shops and turned it upside down as I am left-handed. Didn’t change the strings, like Hendrix. (No more genius comparisons, I said.) It was a beast to play, but what did I know? Well, nothing, actually. We started to play blues numbers which – let’s be honest – are nursery rhymes compared with more complex music. Effective, though: don’t get me wrong. We were gaining some traction until a gig at the local Art College which attracted furious protests from evening class students in another college close by, when, right on the final, crushing note, our best amp blew, never to be resuscitated. Apart from a curious incident in the basement of a café in Toulouse where I was through some ghastly error of translation introduced to the local crowd as “Le super-bassiste anglais” and invited to jam along with the band, my life as a bass player went into abeyance because, well, as 1 Corinthians 13.11 puts it, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Fast forward quite a long time till the arrival of the present Mrs B who encouraged me to pick up the bass again. I schlepped up to the Bass Centre in Wapping (it now seems to be in Bagshot – how the mighty are fallen). Anyone remember it? It was a vast treasure trove of instruments, most of them far beyond my pocket. The shop only had two left-handed guitars, one of which was a Japanese copy Fender Jazz Bass – that man Leo again. It cost about 600 quid which was a bit naughty at the time (a lot of money, or bread as we musos used to say), but I successfully argued with myself that I deserved a proper left-handed instrument. The staff were bass snobs and the shop experience is well illustrated by the Not the Nine o’clock News hi-fi sketch attached as Exhibit B.

Things didn’t stop at “wood-shedding” as the Yanks call it – lonely hours practising away from human contact: I actually took lessons from a local musician who taught guitar and bass round the local schools. He was a very laid-back bloke who gave up teaching at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, he was usually pleased to see me because I was diligent and did my homework, partly because I was paying for the lessons unlike the oiks I’d hear mumbling their excuses at the exasperated and highly-qualified maestro. He had a rather peculiar wife who kept a bantam as a pet in the living room. It perched on the back of the sofa and crapped over everything. I always remember one thing he told me about the music business – a huge amount of it is down to luck. He once knew of two bands in the same street, one good, one pretty bad. The inferior band caught a break and made it big. I used to keep an exercise book of lessons and from the very first he told me that the thumb should not appear on the front of the fretboard; he illustrated it in my book with a diagram where an intrusive thumb has an arrow through it. That’s how I know the Buzzcock’s bass player had poor technique. My education was taken on by a neighbour, an eccentric old jazz guitarist who had been the auditor of Ernie Bonds in his past: he always reckoned that any bond from any time stood a chance. He was very clued up on theory and obscure jazz chords, and I learned a lot. We formed a band ambitiously entitled “CoolSwing” which might have prospered were it not for our lady singer’s near tone-deafness. She used to get us the gigs, and, well, you know the score: we played along, literally, for a quiet life. In those days the bass scene was boosted by an excellent UK magazine called, er, Bassist. It set itself glossily high standards in its regrettably limited lifetime and I began to hear of the top exponents like Jaco Pastorius. Jaco was one of those blessed and cursed individuals. He was built for the electric bass, with long slender fingers, perfect pitch and timing, and incredible stamina for fast arrangements. Unfortunately he also had a fatal self-destruct button in terms of booze and drugs, and gradually his massive ascendancy over contemporaries faded away. From university days I had also been a big fan of Jack Bruce and I followed him more or less for the rest of his career. Another self-destruct merchant, though longer term than Jaco. He was an aggressive musician and it was the devil take the hindmost on stage, as Eric Clapton soon came to realise. Bruce told a story of meeting Jaco: they didn’t like each other. Bruce was arguably the best exponent of the difficult – believe it – art of singing lead and playing bass. It’s a more challenging version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach. Like him or not, Paul McCartney was also ace at this. Others would thin out the accompaniment and move up a gear in the instrumental breaks, but not these two. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy was one who admitted he struggled. Took me years to learn. Another bass player who deserves a mention is Bill Wyman. He always reckoned his hands were a bit small for bass, but you only have to be able to cover four frets with the fingers to get by, which is why that thumb is best kept out of the way. Wyman was criminally under-recorded on Stones’ LPs but give him a hearing on live performances and he’s absolutely on the money, driving the band along. He apparently suspects that Jagger and Richard just weren’t interested in him and Charlie Watts. I don’t know whether the story that he held his bass very upright to shield the stage lights for him to eye up totty was true: it wasn’t an experience I was ever exposed to on stage. I gave the slap bass scene a miss. I don’t much care for the harsh metallic sound it makes even though the proponents may be superb musicians, like Mark King. Top session musician Herbie Flowers (he of the earning just 7 quid from the massively-sampled bass line of “Walk on the Wild Side” fame) once remarked that he more or less blagged his way through slap sessions. Herbie was always more at home on upright, anyway. Many of you will not have heard of Jaco. He could be very tiresome, but he started it all. In this clip he’s playing a Fender Jazz Bass. (Exhibit C).

For those of you who have an interest in him, I attach a memorandum from Joni Mitchell giving a good picture of his epic rise and fall. (Exhibit D) The Life and Death of Jaco Pastorius

Well, enough of what has turned into an autobiography. I ended up in my very last band in Corfu playing with a terrific guitarist and front man. He was an inspirational and motivational bloke having once been a probation officer. We were flying, and actually made a record which I composed and wrote. Astonishingly, a record producer of international reputation heard us and produced the song, which I see from my royalties last year netted me £3-41 after registration fees. It’s still available but that’s another story.

Anyway, I still think the Buzzcock’s bassist was showing poor technique. But I could be wrong about that. Nevertheless, here is a shot of a bass player in his last gig apparently demonstrating the correct technique. (Exhibit E)


© Bassman 2019

The Goodnight Audio file


Ed. I lost this down the back of the sofa. My bad. Better late than never.