Building a Supergroup Part II: Bassists
The feedback from last week’s article in which I selected Ginger Baker as our supergroup’s drummer was mixed. Our own Jesse Scheckner went so far as to phonetically spell out his disapproval. But as we round out our rhythm section this week, I might win a few of you back.
Often ignored, forgotten, or even dismissed (the latter by people who know nothing), a good bassist might not necessarily carry a band, but he or she can keep a band from falling apart completely. Sadly, many producers turn down bass tracks to the point where they are barely audible in today’s music but that’s not to say that there haven’t been a few “bass heroes” in rock music. Again, we’re searching for something particular here. Our group is an experimental, jam-rock group and the object is to try for cohesiveness that will brook musical improvisation rather than simply assembling an all-star group that will blitz us with thundering showmanship. With that in mind, here are the top three:
2nd Runner Up
As is the case with all three of our finalists, Michael “Flea” Balzary is a multi-instrumentalist. Though he’s known for being stalwart #2 of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and his name is synonomous with bass guitar, Flea’s first instrument was the trumpet. We have Hillel Slovak, original guitarist for the Chili Peppers, to thank for putting a bass guitar in Balzary’s hands. Flea’s playing is funky, jazzy, and he is a technical virtuoso. His playing has evolved from simple punk rock bass lines to a funk-style slapping and, in more recent years, a combination of the two with notably less slapping and more melodic tones.
“The Ox” is a bass hero. At times, his bass overshadowed Townshend’s guitar and Rolling
Stone readers selected him as the greatest bassist of all time. Entwistle was as rare a bassist as he was good: he was the timekeeper for The Who much of the time though, during live shows, he would frequently play his bass with a high degree of treble while Townshend fell more into a rhythm guitarist role. Highly unusual and counter-intuitive, Entwisle arguably had more to do with The Who’s unique sound at times than Townshend did on stage. His technique was also highly original: rather than simply fretting, he often executed pull-offs with his left hand to produce a twangy-er sound and would sometimes percuss the strings with his right hand rather than plucking, a technique he called the “typewriter” style.
John Paul Jones
Jones might not be a “bass hero,” but he’s the best musician of our three finalists. It’s easier to name the instruments Jones can not play, but it’s his fully developed musicality that makes him the obvious choice for our bassist.
You won’t find hundreds of blistering bass-run solos from Jones on the internet and he doesn’t have a tough-sounding nickname like Entwistle. What Jones has is a composer’s understanding of music. There is no shortage of Led Zeppelin fans to be sure and every single classic rock station in America plays and plays and overplays the same handful of Zeppelin tunes which, frankly, are far from the band’s best as musicians. Led Zeppelin has been pigeon-holed into an “inventors of hard rock” and “precursor to metal” role based on a very limited selection from their catalogue. Not to say Zeppelin isn’t those things, it’s simply selling them short. The band, founded by guitarist Jimmy Page, was a thought experiment. Page and Jones were both highly regarded session musicians – Jones had a reputation as being the finest session bassist in London – and the impetus behind forming Led Zeppelin was free-form experimentation, rooted in the blues. When considering the band in that light, session musicians looking for a freer form of expression, Zeppelin makes a whole lot more sense. As in architecture, form collapses without function. Zeppelin’s wildly experiemental efforts would have been a caucophony of nothing had there not been a strong musical foundation and John Paul Jones was the most critical part of that. His understanding of structure, of technique, and of composition allowed the band to break free. His bass playing was both a safety net and part of the fun. His bass lines have become classic and Jones is the perfect bassist for our band because he is the supporting wave which our group (and, fine, Led Zeppelin) can ride into oblivion.
But, yeah, he can solo…
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