Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Getting from Here to There

Lucky for me, when I was a kid, my family enthusiastically loved and enjoyed all kinds of music. Every week, I used to watch Lawrence Welk with my grandparents and quickly developed a love for tuneage from different eras. When we’d go for a drive in my grandfather’s ’57 Ford - which didn’t have a car radio - someone would always remember to pack along a portable so we could sing along.

When my uncle first got his Mercury Montego, we got to hear a car radio for the first time, and Yellow Submarine was always sung at the top of our lungs! I think the fact that we were singing rather than asking about the drums or guitars or keyboards gave the adults the impression that we just loved to sing and had no desire to play an instrument, so we never got that nudge in that direction.

Come the late 60s - early 70s, the airwaves exploded with the great music that quickly defined my taste in music. And with it came the bass.

You see, when you watched Lawrence Welk, there was often a bass in the mix, but the thin quality of the sound coming out of the TV at the time made it almost negligible, lost in the orchestral mix.

But on the radio, it was a different story. I started to become acutely aware of that powerful, deep and rich vibration at the bottom of the songs.

There were The Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Elton John - I haven’t words enough to list every band or song that spoke to me with a great bass line! If the song had a bass solo, I’d go very quiet and really listen to it. It played to a different part of my soul than any other part of the music. And let me tell you, the other instruments played pretty deeply to my soul already, so the fact that the bass was literally creating a new ear on my body meant it was pretty special.

I remember “Dance To The Music,” by Sly and the Family Stone. Larry Graham’s playing was one of the first times I got goose bumps at the sound of the bass.

The middle started with the drum, which - to me - was simply laying down the red carpet for the bass! “All we need is a drummer, for people who only need a beat!” I would start tapping my feet in giddy anticipation.

Then came the guitar, the “trumpets” to alert the listener that the bass was in the house! “I’m gonna add a little guitar, to make it easy to move your feet!” As the guitar sounded, I’d stand up and shiver at what was coming.

And finally, the warning that the earthquake was about to hit: “I’m gonna add some bottom, so that the dancers just won’t hide.”

And there it was. The bassline growled like an angry animal stomping through the room with an almost threatening posture. I could have listened all day long to the drums-guitar-bass trio that pounded out that beat.

It was songs like this that etched in stone my love for the bass. To me, the bass was the biggest, baddest dog in the neighbourhood. You leashed that monster and marched it down the street and people backed up out of respect. I could miss a lick played by the guitarist, piano player - even the drummer’s cymbals or brushes could be lost in the mix. But I could never ignore the bass. I could never NOT hear it.

Actually, I heard it everywhere. No...I LOOKED for it everywhere. I’d seek out the songs that fed my hunger for thunder. Every song was measured by the bass yardstick. Did it rumble and growl like that big dog? Did it shake the ground?

Into adulthood, I learned to play keyboard bass on my Casio synthesizer, but never moved to the real instrument. The reason for this is not clear to me. Maybe it just wasn’t time to go from a passionate LISTENER to a passionate PLAYER. Maybe I feared I could never meet the challenge of sounding like the people I admired.

Maybe the time would simply have to reveal itself to me.

Anyway, though I continued to thrill and indulge myself with the ground-shaking sounds of my bass-passion, it was more than 30 years between those first Larry Graham moments and the time I actually picked up my first bass. A lifetime, really. And when I finally did hold that axe in my hands, I have to admit that most of the mystique was sadly stripped away. The dream versus reality. Had I ruined that beautiful fantasy of my connection with the bass?

It was smaller than it should have been, and the sound - when played through a small practice speaker - bore little resemblance to Larry Graham’s monstrous tone. It wasn’t like playing “air bass” to my favourite songs when I was a kid, when I could actually BE Larry Graham, or any of the others who shook the floor under my feet.

This was a real bass, and whatever sound came out of it was going to be made by me alone. Humph! All I could do was plunk and clunk out thin notes that only matched the beat and rhythm of my favourite songs.  But there was no thunder.

No thunder.

The thing about dreams is that they are sort of like pilot lights. Sometimes they don’t go out. They just dim and flicker in the background, waiting for someone to turn up the gas.

I found the TMBG course online - it was represented as the most complete course to get from here to there in terms of becoming a real bass player.

I ordered myself a copy.

Over a year in, I’m into Lesson 7 of 20 - trying to master the Funky in the Phonepoles section, and the spark is definitely on the rise. Okay, the bigger Fender Rumble amp had something to do with it, too. Even plunking sounds good through a big amp.

Some people get through the lessons faster - it really depends on how much time you have to devote to the studies. Life has a way of interfering with the desire to play the bass 16 hours a day. Go figure.

Anyway, you know what the TMBG course did for me? It nudged me across the line from being a bass LOVER to a bass PLAYER. It also reminded me that it was the wrong approach to expect my playing to be like Larry Graham’s right out of the box, just because I loved the thunderous sound. And finally, it reminded me that even though I was very seasoned in my LOVE of the instrument, and considered myself a connoisseur of great bass licks, when it came to playing, I was a complete novice - and it was okay to admit this.

Getting this reality check under my belt was pretty much when the lights went on for real. It was slow at first, as I dutifully worked through the opening lessons and taught my fingers to obey the rules of the fretboard, but when I became skilled enough to play along in rudimentary fashion with those beloved songs from my youth, a hopeful smile spread across my face and I turned the pages through the next lessons.

Could I actually do this? Could I really play the bass guitar - the holy shrine that had been the centre of my musical heart for over forty years?

TMBG is not a quick-fix course. It’s a full-on program and you have to dedicate yourself to it if you want to be a successful player.

As I said, I’m on Lesson 7 and though I still have a long way to go, I now have skill enough (and gear enough) to shake the ground and make thunder.

You want to know a secret? I still get goose bumps from “Dance to the Music.” But now, I get them because I can play Larry Graham’s famous bass line myself. And how cool is that?

Am I a full-fledged bass player? I’m getting there. But I’ll tell you this:

Hearing thunder is one of the best things you can ever experience. But MAKING thunder blows it right out of the water.

I guess the time had just revealed itself to me.

What will you do when it reveals itself to you?

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