We all have our inspirations, the people who bring out the best of us. I have managed to do a lot of things over the course of my life that might be unexpected were you to meet me for the first time. My forays into music and writing are two of them.
I can still remember the defining moments that drove me to play music: When I was 14 and picked up a guitar for the first time I was told I would never be a guitar player because I did not have the “look”; In my sophomore year of high school, the first time I saw KISS live on video, I was hooked on bass and hooked on the epic coolness that is Gene Simmons on stage and thought, if I could not be a guitar player, perhaps I could be a bass player. In my senior year of high school I started up a fledgling rock band and began to learn bass to MTV videos, specifically to the galloping awesomeness of Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris.
But the one thing that got me absolutely driven to play was my first glimpse of the brilliance that is George Lynch. Although he is a guitar player, and I am a bass player who can also play guitar, his music is what drove me to play. I consider him a muse, one of my “heroes”. Someday I hope to simply shake his hand and tell him how much of a difference he made in my life.
I mention George, and the intensity of my love for his work, as well as the positive and negative events that led to what I consider to be a successful music career, to put context into the story of this event. To a lesser degree professionally, but perhaps to a larger degree personally, I have a similar muse in the writing world. In many ways his work is so powerful, so amazing, that at times it seems overwhelming for me to even engage as an author; I’ve written tons of poetry but I find it difficult to write actual stories because I just know it can never be that good. I would love to one day be considered a good author, and in the last few years I’ve tried to write short stories and had difficulties with finding the “voice” of various characters as I work through story ideas.
One way that I’ve managed to get the writing juices flowing is through an online community known as “Kevin’s Watch”. I joined the Watch in 2008 and have nearly 2,000 posts there. You can check it out here when you have the time and if you are so inclined. It’s simply an awesome community of people with like interests and who have actually become friends. And it’s not in the Facebook friends kind of way, either. We all have an interest in our favorite fantasy author, but on top of that we discuss other novels, other artists, tell jokes, and even rant at each other in one of the more civil (allegedly) political forums, our very own “Think Tank”. The group has turned out a few anthologies of short stories and I’ve used that as well as some internal discussion forums to try to move my writing forward.
All of which is background for an event that happened last weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the home of my favorite author, Stephen R. Donaldson. He is the author of the Series That Changed Me, the incomparable Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. They are epic fantasy in a way that Tolkien is not, driven by strong characterization and heroic characters that grip you with their passion and dedication to what is right. In the midst of this amazing world, Thomas Covenant stands as an embodiment of all that could be wrong with the universe, an anti-hero who is driven to criminal actions by his inability to believe in a fantasy world filled with the purity of untainted love and beauty. There is no more vivid world to lose yourself in, no more vivid story to immerse yourself in. A Second and Last Chronicles have followed, along with Mordant’s Need, a two-part series that is well worth reading, and the Gap Sequence, a five volume brutal examination of man’s basest desires and depravity that builds for three and half books to a gripping climax that leaves you turning page after page after page, an absolutely transcendent work of ever-increasing intensity that doesn’t let up for more than a thousand pages. And there are books of short stories as well as a mystery series.
For a different perspective on this event, visit Lynne Cantwell’s fantastic blog at Hearth/Myth
For the last decade, after the release of a book, Mr. Donaldson has agreed to meet with fans of his, mostly from Kevin’s Watch, for a dinner and interactive Q&A session. Dubbed “Elohim-fest” after a race of characters that Thomas Covenant encounters, this “meet and greet” has reached its fourth incarnation, with over 40 of us attending from as far away as Australia and Finland. I myself attended for the first time, with two goals. One was to merely shake the man’s hand and acknowledge everything he’s done for me; the other was to ask him one of those “how do you do what you do” questions, specifically around the struggles I’ve had with voice in my stories. In poetry, meter and rhyme can dictate voice; in prose, I still struggled with it.
So I asked him my question, something on the order of, “How do you write dialogue that sounds real to your readers, and that doesn’t sound like something you yourself would say?”
I can’t really tell you what he said to be honest, because as he answered the question, he maintained eye contact with me the whole time, and just to have him know for that few minutes that I existed was more than enough! It was beyond words.
That in itself was amazing. To actually meet a hero of mine. How often do people really get to do that?
But the weekend was so much more than that, mostly because Kevin’s Watch, as a community beyond your everyday internet community, made it that. I’m fairly socially awkward around people until I get to know them, and to be honest, a small part of me was dreading dropping myself into an environment with people I’d only met online. Back in 1997 I was part of the first “internet chat rooms” at Yahoo! and had some disastrous “meet and greet” events in those days. Plus I just don’t usually believe that what I have to say is going to be of much interest to others. But Danlo (the host of the event and the man we all owe much thanks to, along with his lovely wife) made everyone feel at home at a gathering the night before the event, and I completely felt as if I’d known these people all my life, which in a way, I sort of have, given my now 6 years as a member of the Watch. I had so many amazing conversations and talked to people from all over the world in ways that I would not have done without the Watch. I made some unexpected friends as well. I can’t wait for the next one when they have it…as much for another chance to sit in a room with my favorite author as to simply talk about writing with people who are engaged.
So, the moral of the story, I suppose, is to go and meet your muses if you can. And when you do, I hope that you will meet a bunch of wonderful people who are on the same journey, and be able to count them as friends. It’s a great feeling and one that is hard to describe, and even harder to replicate.
My recent sit-in with Lori Diamond and Fred Abatelli has got me thinking a bit about my musical career and its current state. While I am basically “not playing” right now, at some point down the road it might be nice to get into some studio work, or maybe find a blues power trio and play a few times a month. That said, I’ve had discussions over the years with several musicians about what I think is important in order to be a good bassist. So I’ve compiled my personal opinion here. Note this is my personal philosophy and in no way means that I have any real clue what I am talking about!
Be the “rock”
I consider the bass to be the foundation of any band. By this, I mean that I as the bassist have the most impact on dynamics, the most impact on tempo, and the most impact on tightness. By their nature, guitars are less impactful on the overall tightness and tempo of a song, and the same could be said for melody-based keyboard parts. And while the drummer certainly has a great measure of control, I consider it my responsibility to ensure that songs are at the correct tempo and the correct feel. I want to be the “rock” or the “glue” that holds the song together, that ties everything together.
My first to-do, whether it’s a new band, a sit-in, a new song, what have you, is to make sure I am absolutely 100% locked in and in tune with my drummer. It’s not called a rhythm section for nothing! But beyond that, I want to be the bridge from drummer to the other musicians, to be the one communicating, making eye contact, and keeping everything together. Good bands take hard work and communication and I want to be 99% sure that my parts are locked in and dependable, so that the other musicians have the freedom to work their magic over the top of my foundation.
Play nice with others
This is vitally important when you play with keyboardists, in particular the talented ones who utilize the full scope of their 88 keys. I’ve been lucky enough to play with several awesome keyboardists over my career, and in doing so I had to learn to play with them across their varying styles. Covers versus original ends up being slightly different, as the covers already have their parts clearly delineated, and if you are both playing the parts as executed, generally you should be fine.
In the case of originals, however, it’s critical that the bassist be highly aware of what the keyboardist is doing musically with their left hand, the hand that handles the bass keyboard parts. Rightfully so, talented players will use their left hand to enhance their keyboard parts, and it becomes necessary for the bassist to find their way around those parts and bring something different to the table to keep from blending in or blurring what the keyboardist is doing in the lower ranges.
It’s also important to key in on the techniques of your drummer and attempt to match your right hand to their rhythm. Many times you can heighten the perception of your riffs and fills by tying the timing of those fills to drum fills. My favorite bass fills are ones where it becomes difficult to separate the hit on the drum head from the pluck of the bass string; this shows tightness and makes both the drum and bass notes shine.
Bring your own sense of melody
I am not going to comment here on the specifics of note choice, because I think that’s hard to abstract away from any particular song. But I will say that you should never be afraid to give your bass parts some sort of melody or melodic impact. Whether it’s inversions against the guitar chords, i.e. walking down as the guitar part ascends, or a completely counterpoint melody to the vocals, as long as you are holding down the tempo and the feel I think it’s completely acceptable to have some melody in your parts and not just sit on the chord root notes or do triad scale walks. There’s nothing wrong with triad patterns, as they certainly have their place and time, but I have never felt obligated to use them where something a little sharper, or bouncier, or catchier might do.
Bring the passion
One thing I will definitely insist on, is to play your notes with conviction. Mean them. Attack them. Even on ballads, go after your notes with emotion. The notes themselves don’t matter from a passion standpoint; if you don’t feel the riff, or feel the fill, or feel the slide, the notes won’t resonate with you or with your audience. If your bass part isn’t making your body move, or your head wiggle a bit, then I would argue you are not committed to the part. There are a lot of bassists out there better than me, but I mean what I play, and that comes across and makes a difference.
Keep the action low
I won’t bother to say much about technique, other than acknowledging that mine is mostly by feel and technically speaking pretty bad, mostly due to my small hands compared to the size of the neck of a bass guitar. While I can write music by hand, and studied here and there with different teachers, I am largely self-taught, can’t sight-read, and have found that my style and ability changes over time the more or less I play.
At the end of my 3-year run with IronHorse Exchange I was probably at the top of my game; despite my small hands I felt a certain sense of synergy with my 5-string Fender J-bass that was the result of a tip I picked up somewhere in a magazine. I read that the higher your string action was, and/or the farther you kept your fingers from the fretboard, that both the time and energy it took to play a note was dramatically increased. It was one of those things that immediately afterward seemed very obvious. Many basses off the shelf do not have extremely low action due to the potential for fret buzz. Still, I took all of my basses in and had them strung as low as I possibly could, and then always kept my fingertips hovering just above the strings. I took them back in for adjustments every couple of months to keep the action tight. My play was faster, cleaner, and less tiring over the course of 3 or 4 60 minute sets of 80s cover material.
Embrace the obscurity
Good bassists are hard to find. Everyone wants to play guitar or drums, and a lot of times someone gets relegated to playing bass and not consciously learning the instrument or focusing on improving. I can say for sure that I would have rather been a smokin’ guitarist, but I got gigs because I was a competent bassist fluent in a variety of styles. There is always a band looking for a good bassist.
What this meant, largely, was that I did not garner the same attention at gigs and elsewhere as a result. Now I will grant you that I’m not the most attractive person, and certainly wasn’t expecting any particular attention, nor was I someone who joined bands to “get girls”, but I think it’s important to note that notoriety is something musicians will at times strive for, and that is part of what leads them down the path of guitarist or vocalist or drummer. Generally speaking most bassists go comparatively unnoticed.
I will stipulate, though, that other musicians will be aware of your contributions and will take notice, and that’s much more important. At least it is to me.