My buddy Andre is getting married today, and in classic Andre-style he asked a few of his buddies (just 5 days ago!) to gather into a last-minute motley band to cover Neil Young’s Harvest Moon as his bride walks down the aisle. Andre is playing guitar along with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, another guy is playing glockenspiel, someone else on percussion, a few female singers. Did he ask me to play banjo? Of course not… certainly not for that song. The band needed an electric bass, so he asked me to fill in.
No problem. I mean, I’ve played a bunch of bluegrass guitar and banjo, and a bass is just an oversized guitar, right? What could possibly go wrong?
It turns out I do have an electric bass already, sitting in my closet unused. I bought it at a garage sale in 1997 for $25, and it was in almost-new condition: it had already been sitting unused in a box for 30 years. It was in fine condition except that all the electronics had rusted and become static-ey. Well, I brought it over to good old Dr. Fretgood this week and they replaced the jack and pot-knobs completely, put new strings on… voila! Works great!
It’s a pretty cheap piece of junk, though. It’s a beginner-level bass made by Kay (who is known for excellent upright basses), but made cheap-o basses in the late 60′s. They were all clones of the famous Gibson SG models. As others have said on the net, this bass was the proverbial Sears-Roebuck catalog bass, easily affordable by every 12 year old who wanted to get into rock and roll. Interestingly, these 40 year old basses are now starting to sell for high prices in internet auctions, just because they’re kitchey and some people get a kick out of the retro sound!
We had a simple practice session late last night, and things went great. The band sounds fine, and I managed to bounce simple 1-5 notes on all four chords in the song. I did have an unexepected revelation, however: I never realized how incredibly long the sustain is on a bass. You pluck a note, and it just rings for 10 seconds! So while my guitar skills transferred over okay, I suddenly found myself having to deliberately mute every note I played at some specific time after I plucked it. After a while, it became clear that the muting actions are just as important to the ‘rhythm’ of the bass as the plucking actions. What a strange new thing to have to pay attention to!
I fooled around a bit more today, and figured out how to play the bassline to Zepplin’s Ramble On, one of my most favorite basslines ever. Wow. This could be… really fun. Must resist, I don’t have time for new instruments.
I need to sit down with a real bass player, however, and learn right-hand picking technique. Right now my instinct is to pluck every darn note with my thumb, because the strings are so huge. I’m sure that’s not right.