Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rob Smith

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.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Michael Manring

When, after starting his class with a ten-minute solo concert that drew rousing applause from participants, bassist Michael Manring asked whether he should answer questions or play more, you could tell from the look in his eye that he wished his students would ask him to do the latter.
No such luck. The students wanted to pick the brain of one of the most adventurous and eclectic bass players on the scene today
A student of the late Jaco Pastorius, Manring has played or recorded with musicians ranging from pianist, electronic music performer and sound effects specialist Suzanne Ciani to folk singer/songwriter John Gorka to English New Wave keyboardist Thomas Dolby to Tim Alexander, former drummer of the alternative rock group Primus. He even once joined jazz/metal guitarist Alex Skolnick to play in a funk band devoted to cop show themes. He was also a house bassist and a solo artist for the Windham Hill Records, a label specializing in New Age music.
When Manring took the students’ questions, he was humble and courteous, but to the point. When asked, for example, what a player can do to increase how far he can stretch his fretting hand along the neck, Manring immediately led the class through a series of limbering exercises for the hands, wrists and fingers.
Manring advised the class that a player should allow his instrument to do what it wants and essentially let the music go where it wants. Still he uses an arsenal of innovative technology— including magnets that extend the length of a note and switches that allow him to change tuning in the middle of a song—to help it get there, not to mention slapping, popping, tapping (fretting with both hands) and other more traditional techniques.
But if you want to know more about Michael Manring, hear it from the man himself:
BBP: One thing I was curious about was what do you think camps like this do for bass in general in this country.
Manring: I think it’s amazing because when I was growing up we didn’t have this kind of experience, kind of all alone in our rooms trying to figure it all out by ourselves. And I think this will really make a big difference where the instrument goes in the future. I’m really kind of hoping we’ll see a serious kind of uptick in the creativity of the instrument.
BBP: One thing I noticed is that when you were playing you were kind of working the two hands together. How does that work?
Manring: Well I think again…you kind of hit the nail on the head just by saying it, it’s just a matter of trying to get your two hands to work together, and figure out how they need to be independent of one another and yet dependent on one another at the same time (chuckling). There’s no one single method, it’s just a matter of working out all of the different possibilities of how the two hands join together.
BBP: Why did you choose the bass as an instrument as opposed to all of the other instruments you could have chosen?
Manring: I just love bass. I just love it. When I was a kid everyone told me “Oh you should play guitar” or something where you get more glory. I just love the instrument and just have stuck with it. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the years, and I think a lot of it is to me this is kind of my native voice. This was an instrument that was invented not far from where I live not long before I was born. It’s an instrument that—as I was talking about earlier—combines acoustic and electronic technology together in one instrument so it’s old technology with the new. It’s an instrument that’s popular all over the world. It really has this kind of universal appeal. So it kind of reflects all of these things that are happening in our culture that I think are kind of part of me because I’m a product of this time and this era. And so for me it’s my voice, it doesn’t come with a lot of baggage of the past and yet it’s related to upright bass, it’s related to guitar, both acoustic and electric, so it has all of these wonderful references in it. Just the kind of, the kind of resonance of the instrument the kind of meaning of the instrument appeals to me.
BBP: Do you see it more as a performance instrument or a background instrument? I mean traditionally it’s a background instrument but do you see more of its performance capabilities coming up?
Manring: I think it’s both. That’s what makes it so great, because it does both so well. I think both are equally important.
BBP: So explain the technique to me.
Manring: I have a set of different strokes I use with each finger, and they kind of work in different ways. One of the things I do is go both directions with all of the fingers of my right hand. So either use the flesh side of the finger or the nail side and use some kind of alternate layer…So, a little set of strokes by the flesh side of the thumb, the nail side of the thumb and the flesh side of the finger and then the nail side of the finger so use that kind of as a set of strokes. But it’s just a matter of taking little combinations like that and putting them together in different ways.
BBP: Was that a technique you developed on your own or did someone teach it to you?
Manring: It’s kind of something I worked out for myself. It kind of started with the slap technique and kind of looking at that and saying, you know, how can I kind of expand on that? It’s a really cool technique but it seems to me kind of the same thing over and over and I really thought there would be more to do with that. That’s over the years of looking at it and trying to figure out different things to do. I’ve learned more about Indian music and realized that that’s exactly what they’re doing. On any percussion instrument in India they analyze the set of strokes they’re going to use and then they work on putting those together in patterns, in kind of cell patterns and putting those cells together to build bigger patterns. So that’s kind of the way I look at it with the bass. It’s a process that I’ve been going through for a long time and it’s so complex I’ll never finish it. I don’t consider myself a master of it in any way but I have a lot of fun with it and I really enjoy learning about it and figuring out different things.
There’s some techniques that involve the left hand too. It’s a little simpler with the left hand than the right. Mostly it’s a technique of tapping the string to the fingerboard it’s called tapping. Also, different kinds of pulling off. Sometimes the pulling off involves pulling off across several strings to get a few different rhythms.
BBP: If you could…like me for example, whose slap technique really isn’t what it needs to be, what piece of advice would you give people to improve their slap technique?
Manring: Again, my approach really is this thing of figuring out what strokes you want to use and then being able to use those in any way that it’s going to happen. So I would say just isolate the stroke that you’re going to deal with, and figure out how those can go together and then work with those patterns.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gerald Veasley

I remember seeing Gerald Veasley at Philadelphia’s old Zanzibar Blue club several years ago. At one point between sets I could hear someone in a back room playing incredible saxophone, apparently warming up to sit in with the bassist. It was Grover Washington, Jr.
Veasley, who had an association with Washington as well as with keyboardist and Weather Report co-founder Joe Zawinul, now has a night club named after him, Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Base at the Crowne Plaza outside of Reading, Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania bass boot camp started in 2002 and organizers have since expanded the concept to other areas. Bass Boot Camp Canada is scheduled for Ontario on July 29. And Bass Boot Camp at Sea will be held during the Capital Jazz Fest Cruise from October 23-30.
The 2010 camp in Reading culminated with a Saturday night jam—a jam I sat out on because the players were going a little funkier than this veteran of umpteen blues jams was accustomed to. I used my stage fright to start an interview with Veasley where I picked his brain for tips on better bass-playing:
BBP: Let me tell you my situation. I’ve been playing blues a lot, and actually I was really intimidated last night when it came to getting up and playing the funk music. How do you transition from one form of bass-playing to another?
Veasley: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question exactly like that. I would say to make that transition one of the best things you can do is immerse yourself in that style. And that’s not easy because we all have things that we really love and we have a tendency to go back to those things. But even that, if someone has like a real, say specialized focus or narrow focus on a particular style, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you, you just explained to me that, you know, “I want to try and transition.” Well, the thing you have to do is really immerse yourself. You have to spend a lot of time with those recordings. If you’re interested in funk playing, for example, then you have to listen to people like Larry Graham, go back and listen to Parliament-Funkadelic, you know some of the real quintessential funk performances, you know, and just immerse yourself in it, just really, really listen.
BBP: In general how does someone improve their bass playing?
Veasley: Number one is the consistency, that you have to set some time aside and do it daily if you can. Doesn’t matter how long, as long as it’s consistent. If you only have a half-hour, five days a week, but it’s a focused half-hour, and it’s consistent, you’ll make a lot of progress, as opposed to every two weeks you put in three hours. That’s not going to work. The second thing you can do is get great instruction. Wherever you can, not just my camp. Victor Wooten’s Bass Nature Camp is an awesome experience with a whole other revolutionary way of teaching not just bass but creativity. And then there’s no substitute for private instruction. Find a great teacher that you have a good rapport with, that is going to challenge you and push you a little bit, nudge you, but at the same time be patient with you and inspire you.
BBP: How effective are DVD’s in learning?
Veasley: I think DVD’s are very effective because you have the ability to rewind and practice a particular concept or technique. You can learn it at your own pace. You know the missing element with DVD’s frankly is the DVD can’t hold you accountable the way a teacher can. But it’s still a great tool.
BBP: Is there anything you should keep in mind from the point-of-view of theory. I remember the class that I took with you yesterday you were talking about the four, the circle you drew?
Veasley: Oh the cycle of fourths, the cycle of fourths. The cycle of fourths is an essential tool that we can use for either practicing, or more, to understand the way that music and chord progressions move. It has just a lot of various applications. In the class yesterday I was using it as a method to really learn your neck. To reinforce knowing the notes that are on the neck of the instrument.
BBP: And what are the notes again?
Veasley: Well if you start at C, it’s C, F, B-flat, E-Flat, A-Flat, D-flat, which is also C-sharp, G-Flat, which is F-sharp, B, E, A, D and G.
BBP: And also, how important is it to know the neck in any style?
Veasley: You have to know your neck. Anthony Wellington, one of our instructors, he always says that you know you will never find a saxophone player that doesn’t know the notes on the saxophone. Or a piano player that doesn’t know the notes on a piano. But we have bass players a-plenty who don’t know the notes on their instrument. And he feels that it’s really not good at all. I think it’s very important because you won’t be able to read music without knowing the notes of an instrument. It slows down rehearsal, if you’re working with other musicians if you don’t know the notes on your instrument, and yeah, it’s very basic. But that’s not to say it’s, I mean I do understand why people don’t , because you can go so far and play music on the bass not knowing the notes. Because there’s something about the bass and the feel of the bass, the layout of the bass that makes things accessible. That you could play them, without understanding them. But the understanding is where all of the growth is.
BBP: And how important is it to be able to play the bass without looking at what you’re doing? I was watching you play yesterday and you were…
Veasley: I don’t know if it’s that important to not look, but you want to get comfortable and know your instrument so well that you don’t have to look, where it’s really second nature and it’s just a part of you. That’s the ultimate goal.
BBP: And foot-tapping. How important is that?
Veasey: Foot-tapping? Foot tapping is again is more of a—I would say less of a tool than more of a symptom. So if I see folks who can’t tap their feet in time, it only means that that’s something they should probably—slow down, work on their rhythm.
BBP: Is some kind of body movement sort of helpful in this?
Veasley: Body movement I think is great, you know. My rule of thumb about body movement is, whatever helps the music. So if body movement is going to help you become more expressive, the thing is great. But, to the other extreme, sometimes body movement can be something that doesn’t serve the music. For example, sometimes bass players will have little idiosyncrasies where they’re going to reach for a note and a shoulder goes up. And they’re not aware of it. So there’s body movement that people are aware of that are intentional and there’s body movement that’s unintentional. Some body movement is helpful and some is not helpful. So when I point out something to a player like that, like “man, your left shoulder goes up everytime you reach for that note,” they’ll say “really” and they won’t even be aware of it. But I’m saying don’t change it, be aware of it. So awareness is the key to all of this. So I encourage sometimes players to look in the mirror to start to really understand, how your body relates to the music.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Gerald Veasley's Bass Boot Camp

One day in 1999 I was out drinking with and a friend when, sort of on a drunken lark, we visited a music store and I plunked down 300 dollars for a bass guitar.
Though I had dabbled in playing the accordion and trumpet as a child, I had never before seriously tried to learn an instrument. But for some reason, at the age of 43, I was ready. I bought videos, took lessons and practiced every day. Within a year I was attending blues jams and within three years had joined a rock band.
After hitting the ten year mark at the end of 2009, I pretty much felt like a veteran.
But this March I found out how little I really knew.
Then, I traveled to Reading Pennsylvania to attend the Bass Boot camp, a weekend-long series of lectures, seminars and training on the bass guitar co-founded by and bearing the name of Philadelphia-area jazz bassist Gerald Veasley. Launched in 2002 and held each year against the backdrop of the Berks Jazz Festival, the camp gives participants the opportunity to learn from some of the premier bass talent in the world.
Though a big fan of forefront bassists like Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Victor Wooten and Veasley, I had largely seen bass as a background instrument. I held that view almost literally until the morning of March 20, when I arrived at the camp and attended a class taught by Michael Manring, a one-time student of Jaco Pastorius known for his New Age work with Windham Records and his collaborations with a variety of musicians, among them acoustic guitarist Michael Hedges, improvisational guitarist Henry Kaiser, folk guitarist and banjo player John Gorka and drummer Tim Alexander.

Manring specializes in using the bass as a solo instrument, augmenting his performances with special technology such as neck pegs that allow for mid-song tuning changes and magnetic devices that permit players to stretch out notes. Before taking questions, he gave a ten minute performance that forever quashed any doubts I might have had about the bass’ potential as a solo instrument.

But more surprises were yet to come.

One reason I had come to the boot camp in the first place was to improve my slap technique. Boy did I find out that was passé! A bass player named Rob Smith taught a class on tapping, a technique in which both hands are used to fret notes.

“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,” said Smith, who taught tapping as one of several midnight classes held at the boot camp. “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.”

A former boot camp student who became an instructor, Smith was one of several guest teachers who taught at this year’s camp. Others included Manring; Stu Hamm, known for his slapping, popping and tapping techniques and his collaborations with guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani; Victor Wooten bassist Anthony Wellington and jazz bassist Adam Nitti. (Note: question and answer sessions with some of these musicians will appear in upcoming posts).
They joined a core faculty of Veasley and two members of his band: drummer Richard Waller III, who taught a “groove class”; and saxophonist Chris Farr.
“We do try to find a balance between people who are skilled at delivering information and people who are fantastic players,” Veasley said. “We really try to find both.”
Veasley said he came up with the idea for a bass boot camp after a series of workshops in Austria he gave in 2000.

“I got to see people grow and develop, you know, in a span of a few days which was really interesting and affirming…To see people make a transformation over a short period of time over a few days was something that I wanted to explore,” he said.
What finally pushed him to act on his idea was hearing of a bass camp run by Victor Wooten. “I said ‘well he’s doing exactly what I want to do,’" Veasley recalled. “That really inspired me to go for it.”
Veasley’s camp featured training in basic music and bass theory, as well as techniques such as slapping, popping and tapping. Some of those classes—such as one on tapping taught by Smith—were held at midnight!
But the highlight of the event was a Saturday evening open jam in which bass players took to the stage to play before an audience that moments before had heard a performance by Veasley’s band that had featured solos from Manring and Nitti. Undaunted by playing after professionals, the bass players came to stage mostly in groups of three, taking turns playing background and foreground.
During the jam, I noticed trumpeter Randy Brecker—in town to perform at the Berks Jazz Festival— sitting in the audience, and wondered how a horn player would feel surrounded by bass players.
Brecker, who once played on an album with Jaco Pastorius, said he was “not really” intimidated by the number of bass players in the room.
“But it’s a lot of bass,” he conceded. “A lot of bass. I don’t know how I would feel if I were up there playing.”