Thursday, May 17, 2012

What I Leaned From Donald Dunn, Among Others

Donald Dunn passed away this week.  I've played dozens of his basslines thousands of times, likely more than any other single bass player I've copied. He played on every damn thing. He's sorta famous because he appeared in The Blues Brothers, but that's kinda sad to someone like me. In my mind John Belushi and Dan Akroyd were somewhat notable because they knew Donald Dunn. 

Dunn joked that he played the bass because it had fewer strings, and so was a lot easier to play, than the guitar. There's some truth in that. It is easier to be a bad bass player than a bad guitarist. I was a bad bass player, so I'm an expert in these matters. But it's much, much harder to be a good bass player than a good guitarist. It must be; there are so few of them. He was one of them.

RIP, Donald Dunn, and thanks for feeding my kids, too.


[Editor's Note: Written in December of 2008 and never used. Not sure why]
Author's Note: Don't ask me; I just write the stuff. There is no editor]

I (used to) play the electric bass. It's not a bass guitar, although everyone calls it that. There actually is an instrument called a "bass guitar." It has six strings and is tuned lower than a regular guitar, but it's not a bass. A bass is that doghouse with the four strings. The electric kind hangs on your neck and gives you a bad back (left side), deafness, and a couple hundred bucks a night for as many nights as you'll show up, because every other person in the world is an unemployed guitar player. Own a bass and you'll always work.

That's what my brother told me all those years ago. He actually knows how to play the thing properly. Everything I learned about it he taught me in one afternoon in his freezing cold, decidedly downscale apartment in Providence RI. I never had to learn anything other than what he taught me that day, and I've forgot half of that, and I could still work every night if I wanted to. I don't. No one owns one, shows up, and plays bass -- instead of monkeying around like the guitar player they wish they were on the wrong part of the neck.

But you need bass lessons, and I'm busy and don't know how to play, and my brother's busy and lives in LA, so we're stuck with YouTube. I'll teach you everything you need to know right now.

You have to play the blues first. It's easy. Just shut the hell up and never venture past the fifth fret. There are only three chords, and if you play with John Lee Hooker he's not even interested in all three of those. Muddy Waters will show you how:

That's the first song I played for money three days after my lesson. I stunk, but everybody else did too, and they practiced so they had no excuse. The audience was drunk, what difference would it make?

You can actually practice, and you can hang all sorts of musical drapes on that framework. Like Miles Davis' friend Paul Chambers:

But you're a hack whitebread dude. You gotta eat too. Duck Dunn will show you the way to play in barbands where the all the fights are merry and the dancing is violent:

Nuffin' to it. But what if you want to play pop music? Well, it's really just tuba parts from the music hall. Macca gets it.

He sings OK, too. Remember, no matter how bad you sing, make sure there's a microphone in front of you or you'll make less money than the other guys. Even Ringo figured that out eventually.

But you need rock music, too. The thudding kind, not the Beatles kind. You only need to learn one song --any song-- by any one of a dozen bands with guys that go to Chest Hair Club for Men. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Lynyrd Skynyrd; makes no nevermind. This is as good as any:

If you want to play like a real bass player, you'll have to devote your life to figuring out what the hell got into James Jamerson to make him play like that on all those Motown records. Good luck. How Einstein came up with the special theory of relativity is an easier poser.

Got all that? Me neither. I used to try to play like 10 percent of that and had to sing over it, too. The seizures are getting better, now.

Reggae bass playing is easy. Just play like James Jamerson, only backwards.

But you've got to learn one lesson, and learn it fast: Girls don't want any of that. They want to dance, and they don't want it too sophisticated. This was the National Anthem of girls in a tube top right up to the present day: Easy, too. The song, I mean:

See, even Helen Reddy will have an extra sloe gin fizz and get jiggy when that's going on.

There you have it. You're qualified to make a crummy living from 8 PM to 3 AM three nights a week and two weddings a month. Hope your girlfriend has a comfortable couch.

What's that? Country music? Which country? Our country? Don't bother. There's only two notes, and neither is all that compelling.

(You can read the amusing and trenchant comments back when I first offered this here. Apparently 4/19ths of my readers are bass players, or married to one)


Sam L. said...

Your commenters have a sense of humor. Well...most; I only think I have one. Yours is well-tuned.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I am admirer of Dunn as well (who that plays the bass is not?)

I would like to call to your attention a very significant omission. But then again, perhaps it was because she is so far out of their league, she doesn't need mention?

Carol Kaye invented the 'cock rock' bass line. Also most of those Motown bass lines...

Yes, Virginia, women CAN play Bass.

-The Captain (yes, Virginia, women CAN be captains too. Just sayin. 8-} )

Playing the Fender Fretless since 1968.

Anonymous said...

Ok, Ok, Okay. Here's a link to a Carol Kaye youtube - 'mustwatch'.

-The Captain

vanderleun said...

"Soon.... drums stop. When drums stop..... very, very bad... very bad..."

Why? Why?

"When drums stop.... bass solo."

T.K. Tortch said...

I started out playing guitar; first time I tried bass guitar couldn't wrap my head around it. I knew better than to try to play it like guitar, and I wasn't interested in trying to be Jaco Pastorious or somebody like. Just wanted to anchor, but I was wrong-footed. It really is a different instrument from guitar.

But you know what's a really different instrument from bass guitar? Bass saxophone:

Caedmon said...

where the all the fights are merry and the dancing is violent

Hey! A Chesterton reference.

And no Larry Graham? But I suppose there's not room for everyone.

Thud said...

Ah bass players, there always seemed to be one behind me doing something unspeakable with the drummer, interesting fellows.