Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

Reaching Inside

Bear with me; I’m going to talk about myself — again.

I’ve been somewhat ill lately and in between bouts of sleep, left with a bit of time to think — or rather, to observe my thoughts running rampant. I won’t get into what led to this, but I suddenly remembered something that Rick Turner once said about me online, about 15 or so years ago.

For those interested but not following along: I met Rick in 1973 when he was the head of Alembic, the most advanced maker of electric instruments (instrument/sound system makers to the Grateful Dead, among many others). I’ve referred to him in an article as Guru #1, the man who showed me what was possible with tone and reproduction of signals. (John Curl used to design for Alembic at the time). I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my introduction to high-end concepts. In the years since, he’s built a number of remarkable basses for me (and he really should be writing for Copper).

What did he say? I paraphrase:

“Dan knows better than anyone I’ve ever met how to pick up a different bass and find a different musician inside.”

And Rick has met a lot of bassists.

I’ve had a lot of years to think about that. I assume it’s true, simply because Rick knows me so well. But I had never thought about my own playing like that before — or any way, for that matter. So, all these years later, I want to explore what that might mean.

Over the course of a year, fifteen years ago, “the boys” and I were set up in a studio in the Cahuenga pass doing a bunch of records, mostly for Capitol. In that time, we did our part of Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac, experimental recordings for Dhani Harrison, as well as records for Sierra Swan, Annie Stela, Toby Lightman, and probably a couple others. I had brought along 25 or 26 basses, and know that I used at least 15 of them. What was I after?

Obviously, tone — but not only tone. There’s a physicality — a tactile feedback loop — that an instrument can give you. For those who don’t know, there are two basic types of string: round wound and flat wound — there are variations, but that’s the essential. A round wound is like a fat classical guitar string, and a flat wound is wound such that it’s smooth to the touch. In general, flats are less bright-sounding than rounds, especially once broken in, but they also have a much higher tension, and tension is one key to how they feel. (I should add that my preferred strings, Thomastik-Infeld Jazz series, both rounds and flats, are much closer to each other than other brands of rounds and flats.)

And then there’s the neck of an instrument — I’ve written about them before. They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes (both length and width) and usually two or three scale lengths: 30 & ½” and 34” are the most common, but 32” aren’t unusual and Rickenbackers are typically 33”. And then there’s action: how high the strings are off of the neck, which is part of how you set up the instrument.

And then: you’ve got picks and fingers. Many people prefer one rather than the other. In general, I don’t. There’s plenty of variation in thickness of picks, too.

And then… you’ve got hollow-body instruments and solid-body instruments. I imagine some players aren’t sensitive to the feedback that the resonance of the body can convey into one’s own body, but that’s not me.

All these factors add up to what I referred to earlier as a feedback loop; how the instrument feels to play. Then of course there’s the variation in pickups and electronics.

After that, how one makes the choice: I have no clue — it’s intuitive. But all these things go into it. It’s something in how one hears the music, and that feedback loop that one seeks out. I admit, I find it frustrating to go to a gig having chosen wrong, knowing that I’ve got just the thing at home. But that’s usually not a problem when recording.

So as an example: three of my instruments, all very different, and all set up totally differently. There’s a ’59 rosewood-fingerboard Fender Precision, a solid slab with reasonably high-tension flat-wounds and somewhat high action (in fact, I keep a really heavy set of strings in the case, in the event Klaus Voorman comes to town and wants to borrow it again — despite it having conventionally heavy strings, he complained that they were too light). This bass is sorta hard to play — deliberately so. I usually play this one with a fairly heavy pick.

Contrast that with a ’67 Guild Starfire II bass, a hollow-body bass with a short-scale neck and very easy-to-play Thomastik-Infeld low-tension, round-wound strings. I usually play this one with my fingers.

Third, the Phil Lesh bass, a fretless ’68 Guild M-85, deep-bodied completely hollow neck-through-the-body bass (one of kind) with Rick’s extremely low-tension giant classical guitar strings, usually played with the side of my thumb.

Now I imagine there might be players who have one approach and just try to impose their will on a bass, whatever style it is (I certainly have to give a moment of training to just about everyone who plays my Guild fretless; no one has yet to approach it with appropriate sensitivity.) But my approach is to come at the bass as a partnership — to find out what it does exceptionally well and try to bring that out. If one does that, one almost inevitably has to play completely differently, or in Rick’s phrase: find a different player inside you

Having that much choice can let me down on occasion, though. It’s rare, but it happens. On Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac, there’s a song called “Dreams Are Not My Home”. The bass I picked when we tracked the song was an early ’60s Hagstrom medium-scale (32”) bass, a Coronado IV. I could feel something wasn’t quite right during the tracking. When we heard playback, everybody was very happy, but I scrutinized it with headphones and I could hear that the bass was consistently laying a bit too far back on the beat – a result of the low-tension strings and how hard I was playing.

Thus began a months-long campaign on my part to be allowed to redo the bass. It took some convincing, because, again, everyone was happy, and it meant studio time, my time, engineer time: 2 or 3 thousand bucks on what was a pretty low-budget album.

On the day, I sent everybody to lunch, Bill, Rosanne, and Julian, the A&R man. I just wanted to cut the track with the engineer, Mimi. I used a ‘62 Fender Jazz Bass with high-tension strings, belonging to Julian . And it worked — I was right this time. When they came back from lunch, everybody was ecstatic. That slight difference in where I was able to place the bass note changed the entire perception of the song. Whew!

I guess that this “theory” of playing has been born out over the years in the recordings I’ve done and in how appropriate each sound, and approach, and instrument is to the task.

Or at least, those are my thoughts today, and I’m sticking with them for now.

PS – I sent this to Rick, who commented:

“I have one other thought, and that is choosing the bass for the particular sonic slot it fits into for a particular song and other instruments being used.  Kind of like choosing an upright or a grand piano, a big, boomy guitar or a small bandwidth, limited one.”

In other words, context too.