Tuesday, April 27, 2010
When Rob Smith was a student at the Bass Boot Camp in 2003, camp founder Gerald Veasley asked him to write down what he would like to be doing in five years.
The South Jersey native wrote: I want to teach at the boot camp.
Five years later, after the two played together at one of Veasley’s clinics, Smith got his wish. “He asked me if I’d like to, you know, come out and teach a class. He didn’t realize that five years prior to that I actually wrote down that it was my dream to teach at the boot camp in five years!”
Smith has now been teaching there for three years. Among his classes are a popular one he teaches at midnight about tapping, a technique in which both hands fret the bass.
Smith, who lives in suburban Philadelphia, spends the rest of the year playing in rock and jazz bands and teaching bass. He has a lot of observations about the instrument. Here are some of them:
BBP: You taught a class last night on two-hand tapping. Is that something you specialize in?
SMITH: Yeah, it’s something I am right now, I’m currently writing a book on two hand tapping. It’s something that I love to do. It’s something that looks like an extremely advanced technique but when you break it down into an easy method, I find that even beginners can do it. And one of my goals is to kind of take that technique and, you know, make it as common as regular finger style, as slapping.
BBP: What does it look like?
SMITH: Basically what two hand tapping is is fretting notes with the right hand as well. So doing hammer-ons with the left hand and hammer-ons onto the fretboard with the right hand. So you can actually play two separate parts at once. You can play a bass line with your left hand and a melody in your right hand. You can play chords with your right hand and play bassnotes with your left hand, or you can use the two hands together to play chord voicings and arpeggios, playing like, say, the root and fifth of a chord with your left hand and then a third of the chord with your right hand, things like that. You can move the two different hands around to get separate parts. It’s almost like playing the bass like a piano.
BBP: What age did you start playing bass?
SMITH:I was 13. 13 or 14.
BBP: Why bass over other instruments you could have played, and do you play other instruments?
SMITH: I do. I play guitar too, but I am definitely a bass player. I’m not a guitar player who switched to bass, I’m a bass player who plays some guitar too. You know I like playing guitar and I play relatively well. I play a little bit of piano not well enough to be a piano player. I play a little bit of drums but again I’m not good enough at that. But I was really drawn to bass after hearing The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus and Rush and Yes, probably those are some of the biggest influences at the very beginning and then I remember hearing after that Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten and Michael Manring and Marcus Miller, you know, guys really playing bass as a lead instrument. And I just absolutely loved it.
BBP: You said you play upright bass, right?
Smith: I used to. I don’t really any more. I don’t currently own an upright bass. I love upright bass, it’s just not my voice. I’m definitely an electric bass player. The problem with upright for me, well, first of all transporting it, you know, trying to get that thing in my car was bad. Amplifying it—it has tons of feedback problems—it’s fragile, you know, repairs are so expensive, weather changes, it gets a crack. It’s so expensive, a set of strings for an upright bass, you know, $200 for a set of strings. So so there’s a lot of things, going against it. And then uh, another thing that kind of really changed it for me was that I had a teacher in college, and I played his bass and I’m like “Oh My God that’s what I want, that’s what I really think an upright should play and sound like” and he’s like “Yeah, it’s $40,000.” That’s a down payment on a house! So for me it was a…it wasn’t really my voice, you know. By the time I was playing upright I was already pretty good at electric, so anytime I went to go jam or anything I would always be on electric. So one thing I love about playing upright was playing with a bow. It was very hard, it took a lot of practice to get any kind of technique with a bow. But that’s one sound you just absolutely can’t get on electric.
BBP: Are there any things you can do on an electric bass that you can’t do on an upright?
Smith: That you can do on an electric bass? Yeah (hesitantly). Electric bass I think is a lot more of a finesse instrument. Upright you really...you have to play with some strength. You have to dig in. Electric bass you can just turn up the amp and play light, like Michael Manring plays with a very light touch, uh, with his right hand. Gary Willis, phenomenal fretless player, uses extremely light touch with his right hand.He barely plays, just cranks the amp up, and that’s something you just can’t do on an upright. Electric bass, it’s a lot easier to play chords, things like that. I think it’s probably easier to solo on because you don’t have to deal with thumb position in the upper register. Upright bass, like, when you go over the body of the bass, when I see guys solo like that and they’re really good at it, it blows my mind. I mean because you’re dealing with a lot of physical disadvantages. The notes are further apart on upright, so you end up doing some wide stretches and stuff. I mean if you’re soloing on upright you’re a beast. I think a lot of those things are a little bit easier on electric. Um, some other techniques like playing slap bass and two-hand tapping, the specific sound you get on electric is a very different sound. I’ve seen guys do slap kind of stuff on upright but it’s not really the same kind of really punchy thumpy sound that you get on an electric bass. So there’s different vibes on each instrument. But as far as stylistically I’ve seen guys play amazing funk stuff on upright and really really sound great. So you can pretty much play any style on either instrument but you’re going to get a different, definitely different tone on the electric bass. And with techniques I think certain things would be so much easier on an electric.