Tag Archives: bass

The Rat, The Ox, The Fish and Me

Saturday afternoon I concluded, rightfully and formally, if not a bit hurriedly, a forty year journey. I played bass, on a stage, in a club, with a small band. Never mind that my guitar player and drummer are teachers where I take lessons and that the stage setting was that of a the year-end recital. I took “play in a band” off the bucket list.

Deep, networked appreciation of the journey of 10,000 musical missteps begins, as it should, with a piano lesson. It’s 1970, the Mets had won the World Series early in the school year, and I’m taking piano lessons from our next door neighbor. I barely made it a year, because I didn’t practice, and that’s probably why I still harbor a mild fear of the bass clef. Years later, her son would be something of an inspiration, gently letting me know it was acceptable to bury myself in the rhythmic and modal vagaries of British prog rock. Thanks, Mrs. Millering and Brett, for helping me identify with Chris Squire, my first bass hero, and essentially the root cause of what was to follow.

Fast forward seven more years, to private clarinet lessons at Caiazzo Music in Freehold. Caiazzo’s most famous customer was one Bruce Springsteen, and despite never seeing him come up those few steps from South Street, I vividly remember a hand-printed sign on the cash register that read “When the bank sells guitars Caiazzo will cash checks.” A leading indicator about musicians, across multiple economic cycles. On either end of my 30 minutes with classical etudes, I explored the guitars and basses hung on the walls, a mosaic of colors and inlays and pickguards that awed me. Standalone, they made a tinny, tiny sound, but plugged into an amplifier the sound leaped out of them. For years I tried to decipher how an instrument with no power source other than a fast picking hand could generate a signal (more on this later).

Middle school concert band. One of the most dedicated music teachers ever — Ben Webb, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Zoot the Muppet — and my first taste of public performance. What I remember more from the halls of Clifton T Barkalow, though, was a conversation at a lunch table one day about The Who. One of the cool kids — currently a performing guitar player, and a genuinely good guy — was in a heated debate about whether the Who were relevant. Someone asked me if I knew the Who. I did, and provided a reference (likely the fact that “Boris the Spider” was the B-side of “Pinball Wizard” on 45), and my 40-year admiration for The Who’s John Entwistle was cemented in the scree of Ron Howard movies.

High school was clarinet, saxophone, concert band, jazz band, pit orchestra for school musicals, and a few years of marching band. During one particularly long rehearsal the pit orchestra broke into an extended jam, completely spontaneously, right out of the lunchroom scene in “Fame.” For six minutes, until the drama teacher coerced everyone back into whatever real life scene wasn’t working, it was the most fun I had had playing an instrument. By the early summer, I played my last high school concert, took a perfunctory saxophone solo with the jazz band, and effectively didn’t play “real music” again. Didn’t make the Princeton Jazz Band, didn’t want to march in the band again, had neither skill nor interest in concert band. But thank you Nick Santoro, and Jettie June, and several dozen band mates, for putting the performance bug in me.

I met another crazy Springsteen fan from NJ, who was an amazing piano player, and he invited me to bring my saxophone over to the common room one night to jam. At one point he said “Listen to Bruce’s songs, Clarence is always playing something, but you don’t hear it up front, you have to listen.” Best advice ever about playing in a band. Thanks, Steve B (and Hillary who listened, politely, to the whole train wreck of staves and notes).

Home on a break from Princeton, and after my first bit of delayed rebellion (I bought hockey skates and insisted on taking them on our annual winter vacation) I drove myself to Caiazzo and picked a Fender Squire bass off the wall, tobacco burst color, for just under $200. I didn’t buy an amp, deciding instead to use the Rube Goldberg sound chain: bass connected to Radio Shack cassette player with a 1/4″ to 1/8″ cable, putting the cassette deck into “record” mode to use it as a notoriously noisy pre-amplifier, 1/8″ to mono RCA cable to connect cassette player output jack to tape deck input (with correct impedance and level matching!) on my stereo amplifier and voila! Bass sounds came out of my component stereo system, the “adult purchase” of the previous break. I bought a fedora (because, you know, the cover of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather” had one) and had no idea what I was doing, until some sophomores from nearby Wilson College heard my thrashing about and invited me to sit outside and play with them. Not only did I not know how to find the roots on the bass, when they mentioned Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” or “Sweet Jane” I had no idea who Lou Reed was. Thank you, Steve “Rat” for opening my ears and teaching me the first song I played (truly horribly) on bass. Every single time I hear “Rock and Roll” I think of that afternoon on the steps outside of Wilson Hall.

Later that academic year, deep in the throes of Physics 106, I had an epiphany. I figured out how electric guitars work — the magic of pickups and inducted current and moving magnetic fields. It didn’t help my playing one iota but it convinced me that maybe there was something to my tone chain that didn’t result in electrocution. Some introductory electrical engineering, discovery of WPRB-FM, and new friends with diverse musical tastes. But my performing days — with an instrument, not just a voice — were done. I played other people’s music and told stories about and around the songs, a trend that lasted until 2015. I sold my bass to a fellow WPRB DJ, never playing more than one song on it. But thank you Matteo Cavelli-Sforza, Supersonic Surber, Bill, Alan, Brita, Chuck, Mark, Steve, Jordan, and Ray.

After watching our son turn into an accomplished bass player, and applying that moldering but still useful electrical engineering knowledge to building guitar effects pedals, I decided it was time to really, truly, certainly learn to play the bass. Having won a month of lessons in a tricky tray auction (which I bid on only after discovering the offering new music school — So.I.Heard in Millburn — via a search for a pedal retailer), I bought my second bass — another Fender Squire, this time in Lake Placid blue, for only slightly more than I paid in 1980. Thank you, Ben, for being patient with me, teaching me about strings and tone and setups and technique and making sure my left hand was at least in the vicinity of correct position.

Here’s the hard thing about picking up anything new after age 50: it’s really hard. Your brain isn’t as plastic, your reflexes aren’t as good, and new motions tend to tweak anything that was bordering on the arthritic. But patient, fun teachers with similar musical tastes produced a bit of deja vu all over again this spring: When Max suggested some recital pieces, he asked “What’s the best Who song with a bass solo” and my first thought was “Boris the Spider” (revisited, 42 years after 7th grade lunch table). He was aiming for the Ox signature piece, “My Generation”, 16 bars of bass solo recognized by anyone who has listened to a radio. And so my recital piece was selected. That was the easy part.

Entwistle got that demanding tone out of his bass through pure physical effort. He played hard, he played dangerously loudly, and he was technically on another large-handed planet. Listen to the bass lines on “The Real Me” and you hear a jet engine, a blues scale, and a working class cry. Most of Entwistle’s lines are, it turns out, based on fairly simple blues progressions. Playing them isn’t nearly as easy, but that was my lesson in recital prep: play what you feel, play the song the way you want to perform it, and worry less about the notes and more about making music. My Caiazzo clarinet teacher, who later also taught me saxophone, used to describe a good solo as “Not a lot of notes, but the right ones.” Right is a many valued thing, always in the moment, but better when louder.

Two days before the recital I was convinced I wouldn’t ever master enough of the song to avoid sounding like the punch line to every bass player joke on the internet. And Max and Fabian just had us trade four bar solos around the practice room, truly an etude in G, until I felt that I could play with confidence. If you want to know the difference between music education of the 1970s and the 2010s, it’s that – developing the confidence to own my own notes. Thank you Max, Fabian, and Sam.

And so 37 years after stepping off of the Freehold Township High School stage, I strapped on the blue bass, turned up the volume (after plugging into the correct amp on the second try) and plucked out “My Generation”. I was, for two minutes, back in the pit jamming away, and it was insanely fun. Mike Gordon has nothing to worry about, and I’m more inspired than ever to lose another 20 pounds so it’s easier to see the frets when I play standing up, but I now feel like the story that began in Caiazzo Music (now, sadly, a condo building) has hit the dramatic climax. And no drummers exploded along the way…..

Springsteen Stories

Received my copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography this week, and eager to read his own words about his own life (Peter Carlin’s “Bruce” was outstanding, and “Born To Run” holds even higher potential – and it’s sitting in the top slot in Amazon’s best seller list). One of the online groups in which I lurk has burst open with contemporaries sharing their own stories, his life as viewed through their words, and two of my own floated to the surface.

Attending Freehold Township High School (Bruce went to Freehold High School, later distinguished with the surname “Boro” once the Township school was opened), there was quite a bit of shared history with teachers and younger siblings who had some effective arm’s length human touch with Bruce. At least half a dozen people claimed to know the identity of “Wendy;” another half dozen laid claim to the “giant Exxon sign” in its exact location as their own turf. My favorite story, which I hold up as the stuff of teenage rebellion and not fact, goes like this: A certain teacher (who moved from Boro to Township) vaguely hinted that he had failed Bruce Springsteen and wouldn’t hesitate to fail you. The wordier version included Springsteen’s reply that “One day, I’ll be famous and you’ll still be here teaching the same class and driving the same car” — punctuated with the remark that after “Born to Run,” Springsteen proved himself correct with a visit. With a lot of hindsight, I find that incongruous; Springsteen has never been one to gloat or boast, and the thought of diminishing someone who had an impact, however random or tangential, is just counter to just about every theme in every Springsteen song.

The better stories are variations on this theme: Parents said “You better shape up or you’ll turn out like Bruce Springsteen” and then every one of us who laments the wilting of our salad days of musical talent wishes our parents had actually been more correct in their predictions.

My own (weakly remembered, but directionally correct) story sits in the Venn diagram intersection of those storyline mechanics. At the beginning of each school year, we’d get text books that looked like they’d been through the wringer and conveyor belts at the mercy of United’s baggage handlers, and the first act was to flip to the back inside cover and see who had been issued the book in previous years. The golden ticket was to find one with a scrawled “B Springsteen,” a feat that required a book in service for about a decade in a class that was still in the academic rotation. Sure enough, one day I found the magic signature, and yet never considered stealing the book for later collector value. Bruce entered our lives on an almost daily basis, there was no need to pay a $15 fine to prove evidence of our shared geographic heritage. “Born to Run” thundered from our FM clock radios, usually introduced by a WNEW DJ with nothing more than “Bruce” or “This” or some other Mark Rothko colored impact statement; that was sufficient to remind us Bruce Springsteen turned out alright even if his English book suffered the slings, arrows and lockers of time.

For the next six years, Bruce constructed and destructed much of my musical life. As a DJ at WPRB-FM, we were implicitly discouraged from playing Top 40, but his obscure and wonderfully textured songs found their way into my shows. I mailed in a check (via “special delivery!”) for the ticket lottery for his July 1981 shows at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the first arena rock show I attended. After meeting amazing keyboardist (later turned drummer) Steve, another Springsteen fan, I realized that my saxophone playing wasn’t anywhere near what was required to play in a band; as Steve said “Clarence is always playing, but you don’t notice it; he just plays what needs to be played”. That stuck with me as a metaphor for a lot of things, but also made me take stock of my own ability to hear and contribute musically. Thirty-five years later, “New York City Serenade” is one of my favorite songs; “Darkness” is a desert island album; the opening chords of “Born To Run” still give me chills; and yet I haven’t given up the dream of playing since I picked up the bass two years ago — maybe we all still have the chance to turn out the way our parents eventually wanted — creatively happy.

“Born To Run” is next up on my reading list (provided I finish Annie Duke’s book before attending her charity poker ball next weekend) and I know it will fill in the facts of my own stories, not diminishing them but giving them color and connection and concreteness.

Guitar Heaven: Chicago Music Exchange

After years of second hand conveyance of its greatness, we ventured into the Chicago Music Exchange Saturday afternoon as part of our pre-Phish-at-Wrigley festivities. With adulthood musical interests heavily influenced by the original Sam Ash and Manny’s (when they were two entities) in Musician’s Row, we are both somewhat snarky about music shops and also always on the lookout for that sincere mix of expertise, axes, and environment that makes you feel at ease no matter the extent of your chops, geography or wallet.

The Chicago Music Exchange (@ChicagoMusicEx) is our new comfort zone.

The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

When you walk in you’re greeted by walls of guitars, sorted by vendor – if you’ve never seen a wall of Rickenbackers, or better yet, an entire wall of Gibson Les Pauls (further sorted into black and sunburst/tobacco finishes) then you should make the trip. It’s hard to quantize properly – imagine being at a car show where car from commuter can to high end speedster is on display with all variations in color, options and vintage. There are 50 year old guitars with all of the signs of being played hard, and pristine mint models that await their first introduction to an amplifier.

The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

The second, and more subtle, sense is that the store is optimized for people to come in, play and relax. There are comfy couches and chairs, and some benches lining the display walls. Sound protected rooms with an abundance of high-end amps and cabinets are there for you to audition guitars, so you avoid the cacophony and fatigue-inducing “I can go one louder” of a purely open floor. I was looking for the “No Stairway To Heaven” sign – although this weekend it more properly should have read “No Stash” (the dexterity demonstration of Phans with six strings everywhere).

Downstairs, in the appropriately punned “Bassment” we found an equally wonderful assortment of gear, from new Rickenbacker 4004s to local luthier Serek’s work to more Fender basses than you could play in a lifetime. Again, accommodating setup for musician and family roadie alike, and the staff knowledge was as remarkably deep as it was freely and politely dispensed. Years ago I read stories about Steve Howe (of Yes fame) going into Manny’s in New York to see “what was new” and I have to believe Chicago Music Exchange provides an equivalent experience.

The bass-filled Bassment

The bass-filled Bassment

Despite the siren (and drop-D tuned) calls of the Serek, Sandowsky and Warwick basses, it was not our day to add to the ever-growing guitar collection. The coda to our visit: “We just played $50,000 of guitars, can I get a shirt?” asked Ben, and the front desk staff was only too happy to go find one in the right size/color scheme. It’s the small things that make customers — especially long-distance customers — eager to return again and again. It may be the centerpiece of our next pilgrammage to the Second City.

Theme From The Bottom 2: Synth Pedal

My first year of playing bass — for real playing, not coddling in a store while the Bubba auditions fine instruments — led me into a circle I’ve only observed from the periphery from years. Whether it was lusting after the electronic instruments in Freehold’s Caiazzo Music on South Street (and wondering how exactly they produced sound without any active electronics, only to back into the science a few years later) or guiltily leafing through “Bass Player” magazine before handing it off to Bubba, I was a bass playing wanna be. Knowing a handful of riffs and songs, some elements of chord and scale structure, and developing finger strength that puts me somewhere between “galloping metal core” and “finely manicured hands” I can at least feel as though I belong inside the first circle of competency. Most of my practice time is spent thinking about note names, frets and hand positions, and scale modes. At age 53, it’s significantly harder to put the pieces together in real time.

Last night my ever-patient bass teacher Max brought in a DigiTech Bass Synth Wah pedal, a compact combination of an auto wah (envelope filter), octave synth, and simple ADSR synth. It’s one part DIY Synth and one part Peter Frampton channeling through the bass clef, and it was fun. For the first time, I could “see” my sound — not in notes on a staff paper or circles in a tab chart, but as attack and decay envelopes, as synthesized wet signals mixed back into the dry, and I actually could predict sound effect before turning knobs for physical effect. It was some of the best fun I’ve had in the studio in a year, because I was active in producing something that was “my sound.”




Post (sound) production, I get the unique association of bass players and their tone – whether Chris Squire’s slightly ringy, full stereo sound or Geddy Lee’s overtone rich playing. Mine will get neither monikers or followers but it was, for the duration of a few dozen bars of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” all mine.

And now for the plate o shrimp moment: My foray into bass synth territory came only a few hours after the death of keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, the man who put the Moog synthesizer on the map and the stage and the turntable. Emerson’s fluidity on the keys was matched only by his creativity in patching and sequencing and hand-crafting an array of sounds that created musical history. Girded with the underlying understanding of synthesizer electronics, and coaxing a particular sound out of a physical instrument, my dual experiences yesterday just reinforced my belief that Emerson was indeed a Prog God and that any chance I have to float, for even a few moments, in the same intersections of engineering, math and music is a gift.

The Drama of Graduation

This is about the Yes album “Drama”, with a thin reference to my own high school graduation.

Thirty-five years ago today, as I was deep in final exams of my last year of high school, a friend told me that Yes had broken up, and that Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson were being replaced by Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn of the Buggles. The shock that swept over me must have been close to that felt by Red Sox fans when Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees, or when Wayne Gretzyky was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings. This wasn’t so much a trade as I felt it was a betrayal of my adolescent sense that nothing should change, that things I designated as “mine” would remain consistent and persistent until they were no longer such an integral part of my daily routine.

It’s easy to look back now and realize that (a) I didn’t really like Tormato, the last Yes album with the the “core five” on it, all that much, and that Jon Anderson’s pseudo-religious waxing lyrics had started to grate on me even then (b) It was a perfect time for a transition, for me to identify with the things that were constant (Howe, White, Squire) and embrace something new and (c) Drama is a rather good album.

I remember buying Drama in the midst of packing my things for college; I put it on my trusty Radio Shack turntable (which lasted another two months after school started, to be replaced by my first component stereo system) and listened to it all the way through. Once. Twice. It rocked out. It had soaring guitar solos. It had driving bass lines. And yet, I think I was terrified by it, as terrified as I was about driving 30 miles across the void between high school and college. As I sought comfort and stability, my musical family suffered a divorce, came back together with a trophy spouse of a vocalist (the Buggles had the first video played on MTV), and dared to challenge me. I am reminded, 35 years later, of something my friend Jim says about good art: “It is supposed to make you uncomfortable.” With hindsight, it was all good, and was the beginning of my decision to explore musically at WPRB-FM over the next few years.