Bass Guitar

In Memoriam – John Wetton

On “days like these” I “lament” that I have “nothing to lose.” Vocalist, bassist, and all around Progressive Rock musician extraordinaire, John Wetton, passed away this January 31st. Only “Providence” can explain why we shall hear his innovative bass lines and stellar vocals “nevermore.” I wish someone would “hold me now.”

I’ve been listening to Mr. Wetton’s music for over “thirty years.” Whenever I had “time kill” “in the dead of night” I’d pass the time listening to his live work with King Crimson. Upon discovering the band’s live box set, The Great Deceiver, I’d never felt both so inspired and intimidated by a fellow bass player. I’d marvel at the myriad different arrangements to the classic “Easy Money.” His improvs would rival those of any jazz musician. His capability to push the boundaries of an already revolutionary genre exhibited the scope of his proficiency.

Mr. Wetton’s innovative approach to the bass guitar could only be rivaled by legendary Motown session man, James Jamerson. Like the latter, he chose an early 1960s Fender Precision Bass as his means of expanding the instrument’s traditional boundaries.

In an encomium to the legendary Motown session man, bassist Anthony Jackson explained the three components of genius:

  1. Original style.
  2. The technical proficiency to execute that style.
  3. The persistence to push that style onto an unreceptive world.

For that reason, Mr. Wetton earned a place in music history among the likes of music’s luminaries. Yes, he even deserves to be ranked with James Jamerson.

While a laudable achievement in itself, Mr. Wetton even expanded pop music into an art form. The most memorable musical moment of my life occurred the first time I listened to Chasing the Dragon. Like many of his fans, the band Asia served as my first exposure to his talents. This 1994 live album opened with “Heat of the Moment.” Instead of the high power rock anthem I knew, Mr. Wetton performed it as an acoustic ballad. I never could’ve imagined delivering it this way. His slow somber vocals gave the track a new character. To my amazement it even sounded much better than the original.

As a performer who spent most of his career playing progressive rock, many of his songs are unfamiliar to the larger public. It’s truly a shame that more people haven’t been exposed to such outstanding tracks as “Rendezvous 602”, “Battle Lines” and the greatest instrumental track ever recorded, “Red.” The eponymous UK album is still one of the best recordings released in any genre.

What King Crimson fan doesn’t hear John Wetton’s lugubrious vocal from “Starless” run through his/her mind while watching the setting sun?

            Sundown. Dazzling day. 

            Gold through my eyes.

            But my eyes turn within; only see

            Starless and Bible Black.

            This seems a fitting epitaph for those of us who adored his music.

I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Wetton’s friends, family and fans.

In Memoriam – Chris Squire

I still remember blowing out the rear speakers in my car listening to 1973’s Yessongs. I’d just purchased the remastered CD. I turned up the bass volume and cranked it. Having the opportunity to listen to a few minutes of Chris Squire’s basslines from Yes’ best days made it well worthwhile.

Chris Squire, bassist and founding member of Yes, passed away this June 27th. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally. As a life-long Yes fan, lover of Progressive Rock and bass guitarist, I do feel like I got to know Mr. Squire somewhat through his music.

Mr. Squire didn’t just have an “original” style. The man revolutionized the approach to the bass guitar. In his proficient hands, the instrument transcended its original bounds. It became both a melodic and harmonic instrument. Mr. Squire transformed it into a compliment to and a rival for the lead vocals, lead guitar and keyboards. That was an astounding accomplishment while playing alongside virtuosos like Jon Anderson, Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman.

It’s difficult to define Mr. Squire’s style. Not to overdo it, the word progressive would be an apt description. When it fit the song he played “traditional” bass lines extremely well. Thundering chops like the bass line from “Roundabout” came blasting out of his amplifier with ease. He added a jazzy walking bassline to the rock anthem “Yours in No Disgrace”.  Always seeking new musical horizons I enjoyed his use of a fretless bass on a number of the tracks from 1983’s 90125.

I’ll remember him most for his myriad innovations to the bass guitar. He took the instrument to a completely new level on “The Fish”. On that track, every instrument except the drums and the vocals was a bass guitar. I’ve been listening to that song for over 40 years. It impresses me just as much now as it did the first time I heard it. This unique approach to the instrument laid the groundwork for future innovators like Jeff Berlin and Michael Manring.

Mr. Squire was the first bassist I ever heard use distortion pedals. To this day, I feel he’s the bass player who used them the most creatively. To paraphrase the lyrics from 1994’s “The Calling”, “In the beginning is the future.” His use of a Wah-Wah pedal on 1969’s “Survival” gave fans a sample of the many creative practices to come. (The riff sounds uncannily like the chorus to the 1971 Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven”.)

Playing the bass guitar through a Leslie Amp on “And You and I” really stood out as original. I’ve never heard another bassist play the instrument with a rotating speaker effect. I doubt they would do so as well, either.

I don’t typically like it when bass players use picks. Mr. Squire was an exception. This choice as well as the use of a 1964 Rickenbacker 4001 Bass defined his signature sound. The man innovated throughout his entire career. In the late 1990’s he used a Carvin 6-String Bass. He tuned the low B-String down to A.

My deepest condolences go out to Mr. Squire’s friends and family.

In Memoriam – Jack Bruce

I felt an immense sense of personal loss today. I received the news that Jack Bruce passed away. It shows the monumental power of music that I could experience such feelings of sadness over the loss of someone I never met personally. From decades of listening to his music and attempting to play it (not nearly as well as he did) I get a sense of having spent a lot of time with the man.

Like many fans, the music of Cream introduced me to Jack Bruce. When I started playing bass guitar, my fingers would spend more time scratching my head than plucking the strings. Even “easy” songs such as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” turned out to be deceptively complicated. The more I studied his playing the more he opened my mind and ears to a whole new world of musical experiences.

It’s difficult to find enough words to convey Jack Bruce’s talent. He learned how to play the cello as a child. Before reaching adolescence he wrote a string quartet. As his love of music expanded, he took an interest in the string bass and the music of Jazz legend Charles Mingus. While difficult to emulate Mingus’ assault on the instrument, Bruce came close. When I listened to live Cream recordings, I wondered if he really needed an amplifier with the forceful way he’d pound on his bass strings. When he switched to bass guitar Motown bassist James Jamerson became his primary influence. Bach, Mingus and Jamerson: no bass player could select better sources of inspiration. This fusion of Classical, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues gave Bruce’s music its original sound.

While his years with Cream overshadowed his later work, Bruce consistently released quality material. Listeners could experience the full spectrum of Bruce’s abilities on his 1989 best of entitled Willpower. It contained heavier rocking tracks such as “Keep it Down” along with somber pieces like “Theme for an Imaginary Western”. He also treated fans to more Jazz influence cuts such as “Jet Set Jewel” and “The Best is Still to Come.” I really enjoyed “Can You Follow”. The sole instrumentation was Bruce singing and playing the piano.

While many people think of Bruce as the bass player for Cream, he also possessed tremendous skill as a vocalist. He could sing bluesy tracks like “Spoonful” and “Third Degree” (from the Bruce, West, Laing era), pop tunes such as “I’m So Glad” and sad ballads equally well. “Ships in the Night” (from his solo career) being the epitome of the latter, although “We’re Going Wrong” deserves honorable mention. I’d have to include the outstanding Jazz ballad “The Wrong Side of Town” (from the Bruce, Baker, Moore line-up) in that category, also.

Many have called Jack Bruce a “legendary bassist”. I don’t agree. That’s too glib a way to describe Bruce’s abilities. Based on the superlative quality of his singing, songwriting and proficiency with multiple instruments, I would call him a musician of the highest order who also played bass guitar extremely well.

May he Rest in Peace. I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Bruce’s friends and family.