Why play the


Everyone wants to be a guitar hero, right? Look at most of the bands, and who gets the attention up front? Sometimes the singer, but then often he or she just seems to be there at the band's behest, with nothing to do when the lyrics end and the music goes into top gear. The guitarist gets to hog the limelight without the potential embarrassment of singing soppy or intimate lines about love or some deep metaphysical theme. Who gets the biggest reputation as the scourge of the groupies? Page, Blackmore, Hendrix.... they were all guitarists.

Why, then, would anyone want to be a bassist?

That was a problem I considered when starting out as a musician. A friend wanted me to learn the bass, partly because he (rather arrogantly) assumed I wouldn't be up to learning the guitar, and maybe partly because he wanted to find a bassist for a group he was thinking of forming (which he never did). But after a while I calculated it would be better to learn six-string electric guitar, since you could learn to play chords on it and you could therefore hear a song while you were playing, whereas I could not imagine that with the bass. Needless to say, my understanding of both instruments was virtually nil at the time. Also I was to a large degree bewitched by the myth of the guitar hero, which as an earnest adolescent I aspired to.

So I did learn to play the guitar, and actually reached a reasonably competent level and wrote quite a few songs on it. But even during those formative years, as my musical listening widened I became aware that there were also bass guitar heroes as well as the likes of Page, Hendrix, Beck, Clapton, Blackmore and Townsend. True, they weren't so numerous, but they existed: Jack Bruce, Geddy Lee and John Paul Jones for a start, all of whom also could play at least the keyboards competently, if not other instruments. You only had to listen to Cream's live recordings to figure it wasn't just the guitar going down. "Swirling bass" was a much-used description of this sort of playing at one point. I was also fascinated by the sounds of jazz basslines, even though I never had the first clue about playing jazz guitar. Admittedly there were some bass giants and styles which left me cold, especially the Eighties slapping fad or the economical way of playing country bass (some of the later Byrds' recordings were about as far as I could get with country rock). Another thing that fascinated me about bass playing was that you could actually read the music in the traditional style of notation, whereas usually guitar music came in the form of box chords over the top of the traditional notation (not infrequently bearing little relationship to what was being played, as I found out later) or tablature that I found rather clumsy to read, especially for rhythm guitar. (Back in the seventies and eighties, nobody seemed to teach aspiring guitarists how to read traditional music, nor that the music was actually written an octave lower, so that what I often took for bass riffs were actually supposed to be played on the guitar).

Although I enjoyed playing my brother's and other friends' basses and occasionally considered getting one, I didn't actually take the plunge until 1987-8, when I bought a four-track Fostex X-15 tape recorder. I soon realised how difficult it was to keep rhythm with myself, so perversely I thought buying a bass guitar might help, ie I would lay down some rock steady basslines to play along to. It so happened that my brother was selling his first bass guitar, what looked like a Fender Precision copy with no name on the headstock, so I bought it off him for £50 and spent the same amount again on an old Kay 50 watt amp from Mick, the old bassist in a former group we'd been in together. I still have both, incidentally, although the bass is a spare one and we now use the Kay amp as an improvised keyboard-cum-drum machine PA. Both were pretty sturdy and survived quite a few bashes over the years. Needless to say I was no more successful with recording basslines than I had been with the guitar, but once I got a drum machine then I started enthusiastically layering sounds with the eagerness of the home recording novice, producing the sort of hiss on a C-90 cassette you'd expect from a thunderstorm on Jupiter.

As the eighties wore into the nineties and I struggled to put a decent band together, one factor started to haunt me: supply and demand. What this meant in practice was that I'd put an ad out for musicians and would get about four guitarists, no drummers, no bassists and maybe one or two singers, of whom normally one was half-decent. The south of the UK seemed to be full of technically brilliant guitarists without bands to play in, diligently learning their Rush and Yes licks without a hope of ever playing live. It was at this time that I started contemplating the heretical idea that to get a band to work, or even to get into a band at all, I might have to play something else other than guitar - a hard conclusion for a man with about 10 years' experience and some good equipment. It took the disintegration of my first band of the nineties, Ayesha, to belatedly make me realise that if I was going to play live or with other people, I'd probably have more chance of getting something going with the bass guitar.

Not only that, but guitar playing by the end of the eighties had paradoxically become a chore. Following the heavy metal renaissance of the end of the decade, the rise of thrash and the speed metal kings, it was becoming an effort to actually keep up with practise, especially if you were devoting a major part of your time to songwriting and learning the ins and outs of MIDI as well. I remember one afternoon trying to work through a magazine piece in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen or sweep picking and the like and thinking it would take me months, if not years, to get fluent enough to play that way. When I was in my late teens, I had the energy, the youthful enthusiasm and the complete lack of other demands on my time other than study to give myself an hour a night practising the guitar. Now, years later as a man approaching thirty, the learning curve looked more daunting. In any event I had left behind the desire to be faster, heavier or even more beautiful than anyone else. I just didn't have the motivation to aspire to that sort of level any more.

Interestingly enough, though, I did want to be a technically accomplished bass player: scales, odd time signatures, improvisation and the like. But I found it more natural to my nature to move in that direction. I already had a good knowledge of music theory, which if you want to play the bass guitar well is pretty much a requisite (and it's not as hard as it seems, especially if you can count). Now I had to get the nimble fingers.

My first efforts to become a serious bassist were a little chequered (see Cyberlizard's chequered musical history for details). Although I turned in a fairly good audition for one band with a couple of friends also auditioning for other musical parts, my one attempt to get into a semi-professional group was a disaster. After a good night out with their guitarist and keyboard player in which we seemed to agree on just about everything, I turned up for the audition blissfully aware that my bass was actually suffering from bent-neck syndrome (cureable, but not on the night). Add to that the old Kay amp distorting and threatening to burst its speaker through the grill, and it probably didn't look very impressive. My keyboard-playing friend had the embarrassing job of phoning me next day to advise me that I hadn't got the gig (a blessing in disguise in the long run, but disappointing at the time). But in the meantime I had picked up a slot playing bass in the Sunday evening service at church, no less. This came about after a guitarist friend at the time borrowed a bass and sat in with the other musicians. Somewhat piqued by this (yes, I'm a sinner like every one else) I pointed out that I had my own gear, I played bass and was available on most Sunday nights. Since then I've been playing the services fairly regularly.

It was only when I started playing with my two guitarist friends, Mike and Simon, however, that I took the final step and became a fully-fledged bassist. Although I had been playing guitar and keyboards with Mike on his own, when Simon came along we were faced with the ridiculous prospect of having three harmony/treble instruments with bass and drums taken care of by the sequencer. Since the keyboard I was using couldn't really rival the bass guitar in terms of sheer power, I elected to go for the bass myself. My brother subsequently sold me his second bass guitar, a very nice Ibanez Roadster, and my wife Mrs Cyberlizard kindly bought me a second-hand Trace Elliott combo for my birthday. I think that was the point when I finally considered myself a bassist rather than a guitarist who happened to be able to play bass.

Once I had taken that step, the advantages of being a bassist really came home to me. For a start my equipment needs when compared to the other musicians - guitarist, drummer, keyboard player - were fairly minimal: one big amp, one nice bass, and maybe an effects unit to go into the carrying bag with the two or three cables needed. All of it fitted quite neatly into the laid-flat back of our estate car, leaving room for any other stuff that was required. Then there was playing itself. While I wouldn't minimise the technical skill needed to play bass, I found that I could relax more than when I was playing guitar without having to worry about my notes so much or which effects pedal to press when. This left me room to listen to the song as a whole and also to do other duties like operate MIDI equipment. Although I do use effects, it's normally only one at a time, and not very frequently: I don't have to worry about combinations and whether I've wired up the boxes in the right order (I had five or six when I was playing guitar regularly, and they certainly benefited from being wired in a certain order). Playing bass has also added a new dimension to my songwriting. I find I can now write songs based on blues riffs, for example, something I never really tried before. The very economy of some bass playing actually opens a new vista on writing music.

As for all the stuff about guitarists scoring with all the groupies... well, I was never into that scene anyway. To be honest I don't think I ever saw any of my fellow musicians "score" with a member of the opposite sex whom they didn't know anyway. That's another myth laid to rest, then.. or maybe we've all grown up since the sixties and seventies. Keep the sex for your partner, skip the drugs and just play the rock 'n' roll.

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