Song Writing

The 100 Greatest Rock Bassists - An Excerpt

by Greg Prato

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August 2018 saw the release of my 24th book overall, The 100 Greatest Rock Bassists. As the title alludes to, the book counts down the greatest rock bassists of all-time (including reasons why each player is so darn special, plus additional info).

But as an added bonus, I conducted 10 interviews with some of rock's standout bassists exclusively for the book. Below is a snippet from each interview...

Billy Sheehan
David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, Sons of Apollo, Winery Dogs, Talas

How did you come up with two-handed tapping on the bass?

Billy Gibbons. 1974. Alice Cooper with ZZ Top opening up, New Year's Eve, in Buffalo, New York. We knew the promoter, and he got us right up front - I think we made it to the first row. And as I was standing in the shadow of Billy Gibbons' cowboy hat, I was looking up at him playing - because we did a zillion ZZ Top cover songs - he bent a note, reached over with his right hand, and touched the fretboard. We all looked at each other, because no one had ever seen that before. Man, we thought, "Holy cow... this is unbelievable!"

I went home, tried it on the bass, and wouldn't you know, it works! It's hard to go on YouTube now or anywhere and not see a guitarist tapping. But if you go past a certain year and look at videos by time, there comes a point where nobody did that. I mean, there were a couple of guys - everyone has seen the Italian guy [Vittorio Camardese, in 1965] doing tapping, and Paganini had parts like that on the violin hundreds of years ago. There's nothing new under the sun. But bringing it to light like that, I got pretty extensively into the tapping.

Mike Watt
The Minutemen, fIREHOSE, The Stooges

Let's discuss your bass influences.

In Pedro, we had thermals - long underwear. '70s people were very orthodox. Probably more wild stuff maybe in Hermosa Beach - bell bottoms and stuff. But Pedro guys always wore this one kind of thing - all Levi's, and if it was fancy clothes, it would be Levi cords. So, to see this weird thing coming together of Creedence and Pedro, and this weird movement, where everybody gets to be in a band and make a gig, there was some kind of continuity.

And that was a big trip to me about Richard Hell, too - in fact, I put a picture of him on my bass - I couldn't believe this, that a bass guy could actually run the band. Really. I didn't write any songs before the movement - except for one. It was called "Mr. Bass, King of Outer Space." I can't remember it all exactly, but it was about doing a bass solo that blew the rest of the guys off the stage. Obviously, I had some insecure issues about the bass, but now that I look back, I owe D. Boon's mom everything. It was the greatest thing in the world. But still, I get asked, "Why did you stop at bass? Why didn't you move on?" There's so much possibility still with four string bass guitar, I never moved. I do sometimes compose on the guitar - for Missingmen - because I want the bass to come second, that's all.

Glenn Hughes
Deep Purple, Trapeze, Black Country Communion

What led you to the bass?

A long story... but I'll make it brief. I was named after Glenn Miller - the famous trombone player, who was also a captain, whose plane went down in the second World War. And since I was named after Glenn Miller, what was the first instrument I played? Well, it would be the trombone! The trombone led me to playing piano, and when I heard the Beatles in 1963, my mom bought me a guitar, which led to a few years later joining a band with Mel Galley - so I could play with my boyhood hero. That would have been when I switched to bass guitar.

David Ellefson

Which Megadeth song are you most proud of from a bass perspective?

Obviously, I'm a bit partial to "Dawn Patrol," because I wrote that. We had just come off the Dio/Megadeth/ Savatage tour, and Jimmy Bain and I had become friends, and I loved how Jimmy played and I loved his tone, and he was just a cool guy. He had a killer Yamaha endorsement, so he had all these basses. I went over his house one day over in the Valley in LA, and he let me take home his 8-string bass that he had. And that's what I wrote "Dawn Patrol" on. That was probably one of my first realizations that... it was almost that instruments have songs in them, and you just pick them up, and one day, the song falls out. Probably similar to how that "Peace Sells" riff fell out when Dave picked up my BC Rich Eagle fretless bass in rehearsal, and there it was. And I've had that experience with a lot of instruments over the years, where songs just kind of fall out of different instruments.

Doug Wimbish
Living Colour

How did you come up with your unique style of tapping and also using a wah pedal?

In '70, a teacher let me borrow a Fender Mustang bass, and then a year later, he said, "I've got a couple of effects. Take this, and plug this in." The next thing you know, I started getting into, "Let me plug the bass into the wah-wah, and see what it sounds like." And then I would hear similar things on Sly Stone records. I then put the distortion on the wah-wah, and it sounded crazy. And the Fender Mustang had rubber strings on it.

Then, he got an Echoplex, and I was like, "Man... God just came through the door!" I was able to be around guys that would let me try gear out. So, the next thing you know, I'm plugging in a distortion into a wah-wah, and that's going through the original Vox Echoplex, when you could feed it back, and get it to regenerate. I was in heaven. I would spend all day just playing and grooving. Then he got a Mu-Tron, and that was a game-changer - which was around '74. My whole era of when I started to play, I was into sound, stringed instruments, and effects all at the same time.

Glen Matlock
Sex Pistols

Which Pistols song contains your favorite bassline?

"Anarchy In The UK." In fact, I remember doing that the last time we toured, and Duff McKagan was there, because he was playing with his other band, Velvet Revolver. And he knows Steve Jones, and I know him a bit, and he came up, and said, "I didn't realize you did all that sort of 'Tamla stuff' on the bass when you're playing on 'Anarchy'!"

Doug Pinnick
King's X

One of my favorite King's X basslines utilizes the 12-string though, which starts the song "Out of the Silent Planet," off Gretchen Goes to Nebraska.

Well, it was actually an 8-string on the record. I didn't have a 12-string at the time. This guy gave me an 8-string. He made it, and said, "Do you want this? I can't sell it - I don't know what to do with it." It was like, 1988, and I brought it into the studio, and used it on "Out of the Silent Planet" - when Ty wrote that song, the beginning part, I made that riff up. People think it's a 12-string, but it's not - it's an 8.

John Myung
Dream Theater

Do you still practice?

Yes, of course. You have to play, or I feel like I lose some things. It's just an ongoing thing, where I don't feel right if I don't play. There's something about putting the time in every day, and staying connected with music. That is really important to me, because it simplifies things for me. And I try to keep things simplified - try to stick to a groove, stick to a routine, try to find different ways of thinking, and being open to other influences. It takes up most of your time - between touring and recording, and learning the ins and outs of what you can do with personal studios now. It's all very time-consuming, but all very good. You just have to pace yourself through it.

Cris Kirkwood
Meat Puppets

I recall you once telling me that your two main bass influences were Phil Lesh and Dusty Hill.

You have Phil who is coming from a background of theory and composition. Actually schooled. So he's bringing that to the instrument. And doing "support bass playing," without writing on the one so much. He's not just hitting that one. And then on the other hand, there's Dusty, who is all about the one.

And both of them are just psychedelic as all living fuck to me. It speaks to the breadth of my interest in the instrument and playing. Just holding it down - that's one side where that is completely valid and a wonderful use of the instrument, like Dusty. Just pounding on the one. And then dropping all the little other rocks they do to delineate that - dropping right back into the straight-up choogle. And all the way to Phil - obviously still the low-end of the band, but with adornments.

Les Claypool

Are there any songs difficult to sing and play?

Oh, there's lots of them. [Laughs] There are just songs that are hard to play. People always ask me, "Why don't you play 'DMV'?" Because it's fucking hard! [Laughs] That's a hard-ass song to play. Some things you go the extra mile for when you're young, and then you realize that you've painted yourself into a bit of a corner. And definitely, "DMV" is one of those songs. I mean, I can play it - we did Pork Soda in its entirety for one of the New Year's shows a couple years back. But man, it's a bitch. It definitely takes some work.

August 21, 2018
Les Claypool
Billy Sheehan
Dave Ellefson
Doug Pinnick
Verdine White

Order a copy of The 100 Greatest Rock Bassists at Amazon.

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