How high can a double bass go

Jack Bruce: The bass is a wonderful instrument

Tips for aspiring bass players
by Peter Chrisp,

There are many good bass players, but few outstanding bass icons. Because even good bass players are not necessarily in the spotlight, and if they want to be remembered for a long time, they usually have to shine without exception through their talent and ability. During a 2008 interview, we took the opportunity to ask Jack Bruce about his career secrets.

What advice would you give to young bass players who are looking for the right inspiration?

Jack Bruce: I would advise you to play live as often as possible. Don't sit in your room all the time and record or analyze things, but play with other people as often as possible! And experience your limits!

Whenever I reached my limits - and then it got really interesting - it was in live situations, in a band, with other musicians. You can practice, practice and practice again, and it is certainly good to do so - but you don't learn to play until you are on stage with other musicians.

There are some great bands today, but unfortunately no more good record companies because the record companies shy away from any risk. You really can't say that there are no more good bands. Radiohead, for example. Or System Of A Down - great musicians. Someone like Amy Winehouse is really good too.

Do you hear your influence as a bass player in today's music?

Jack Bruce: There are really some great bass players - there are today and they have always been. And then there are always these crazy virtuosos who just go a few steps further than the rest. Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) is a good example of this - a great bass player!

The bass is an extremely important instrument within a band, it determines the entire direction of the music. I think the bass has the function of making the other instruments work better than they really are. That's what you're there for as a bassist. But at the same time you can influence the direction the band goes - more than any other instrumentalist. Bass - it's just a wonderful instrument!

Singing and playing bass at the same time - do you think this is an exercise that few musicians can do well?

Jack Bruce: I think it can all be worked out. There are definite differences, no one will be able to play bass at the same high level and sing really well. You have to be a little willing to compromise.

I can remember the first piece that gave me problems in this regard was "Politician". The singing is totally contrary to the beat.

When we played the piece for the first time - it was recorded by the BBC - I sang the vocals over it afterwards. When we wanted to play it live, I had to work hard to get it right.

But that was good for me because it taught me, like a drummer, to do two independent things at the same time. Some people find it easier than others, but it can definitely be worked on and improved all the time.

Your right hand often plays a kind of flamenco attack ...

Jack Bruce: Yeah, that's how it developed, along with my role on Cream. Perhaps this attack is also due to the fact that I learned the veena, a classical Indian instrument (from the lute family), for a while. This is a fairly low-pitched string instrument that is struck with the index finger - always up and down. And I have probably transferred this technique to the bass - a process that developed rather by chance and quite naturally.

I was always amazed that you played the Fender VI baritone guitar as a bassist back in the early days.

Jack Bruce: I was a double bass player and it took a long time before I wanted to switch to the electric bass; precisely because I was quite a purist at the time. I actually wanted to play modern jazz and my heroes were these great double bass players.

There weren't many really good bass players in those days, the late fifties and early sixties, and because of the recording technology back then, you never heard a lot of bass on the records.

In 1964 I was asked if I wanted to play a session for a West Indian guitarist named Ernest Ranglin. That was the guy who more or less invented ska, which then became western reggae. He was an influential guy and he really wanted a bass guitar on his recordings and not a double bass. So I borrowed a semi-acoustic Guild electric bass for this session and fell in love with the instrument straight away.

Switching from double bass to electric bass was actually incredibly easy because the electric bass is such a compact, small instrument! My first own bass was then a model called Top 20 from Japan, which was pretty rubbish. As far as I can remember, it was a bad copy of the Fender Precision Bass.

I quickly looked for an alternative. Also, I've always liked different approaches and approaches, and since I played in a band that didn't have a guitarist - the Graham Bond Organization - I figured a six-string guitar bass would go well; I could also play chords and sometimes a few guitar-sounding solos!

When the time began with Cream, I also played the Fender, but soon had to realize that the instrument was more of a limitation in my playing here. I didn't want to compete with Eric Clapton, so I quickly looked around for other instruments. I never liked Fender basses, even though everyone was playing them back then.

Maybe that was why I didn't want to play them - they had become a standard, but I wanted a different sound. It was then that I discovered the Gibson EB-3, which suited me well. Here I was able to put on thin strings and pull the strings correctly and thus create an individual sound. The short scale length of the EB-3 was good for what I was doing with Cream, because here I wanted to play the bass like a guitar.

I don't mean tonally as high as a guitar, but just using a distorted sound and the technique of pulling strings - and that would of course not have worked on a long-scale bass at all. I think that by chance I found exactly the right instrument at the right time - which actually often happened to me when I think back.

Then how did your connection with Warwick come about?

Jack Bruce: At some point I didn't want to play a short-scale bass anymore, so I tried other instruments. For example a Dan Armstrong Fretless, and then some Japanese basses from Aria.

I was in Germany in the mid-80s to record, and because I needed a set of new strings, I went to a music store somewhere in northern Germany - and there I saw this Warwick - a very early Thumb Bass.

That must have been one of the very first basses of its kind, because it was still top-heavy. But I still really liked this bass and bought it on the spot! Warwick then heard about it indirectly and asked me if I would like to become an endorser. I was interested - and we've been working together ever since.

For example on your signature bass from 1988?

Jack Bruce: It is. Warwick has brought out various new basses for me over and over again over the years.

It often happened that I came up with an idea and asked if it could be implemented - and in the end they brought me one of those amazing basses that pushed my ideas much further than I would have ever imagined can. It was a few years ago that I thought it was time to create a new Warwick bass that I wanted to play on these Cream reunion gigs.

We sat down with a couple of guys from Warwick and I suggested that the bass should be shaped like a Gibson SG; the new bass should be reminiscent of my EB-3, which I had played most of the time with Cream.

They got to work and shortly before the shows the bass was ready, unfortunately too short that I didn't want to play it there. But at least I already had him on stage. This bass has been available for a long time and is also available as a fretless version - the Jack Bruce Cream CRB. And he just looks amazing.

But - my favorite instrument is still the fretless Warwick Thumb Bass; I actually always play the same bass that I've had for many years. I think like Ron Carter, the great double bass player who played with Miles Davis and also with my friend Tony Williams; he still has the same bass he started with as a teenager! I hold on to an instrument, and as long as this love does not die out, I don't look for another.

At the Royal Albert Hall you also played a Gibson Bass that looked like an EB-0 but is actually an EB-1, right?

Jack Bruce: Yeah, it was an EB-1. People keep getting this confused because the first Gibson bass of its kind was an EB-1. Only then did they build the EB-0. I've had this bass for a while, but hardly played it. It was only used in the band with Gary Moore (Baker, Bruce & Moore) and it worked great there. I play it for the old stuff because its sound fits perfectly with the music of the 50s and 60s.

What about five strings?

Jack Bruce: I have some Warwick five-strings and even a six-string. I like them when I play special songs in which a low C sounds good, for example. But for me the four-string is the classic electric bass in general.

Do you also use four-string with frets?

Jack Bruce: Yeah. My favorite is the Warwick Jazzman, which has a tone similar to a Fender Jazz Bass.

And do you still play the double bass?

Jack Bruce: Yeah, definitely, and cello too! Just last week I played double bass here with a young local band, The Rushes. We just improvised a little at one of them at home which was great fun. However, I haven't played both the double bass and the cello on stage for a long time.

What does your bass reinforcement look like?

Jack Bruce: I've been using Hartke equipment for a long time. I've tried all sorts of things, but then while I was out with Miles Davis I met Larry Hartke and Ron Lorman, the founders of Hartke.

You made the live sound for Miles Davis back then and later also for my band. At that time my system consisted of a wild mix of tube and transistor amplifiers with several different boxes to get my sound.

This system was difficult to use, and I kept blowing through the speakers. That had nothing to do with my volume, although I always played loud and still play today, but rather with the intensity of my playing. In any case, the loudspeakers at the time didn't handle it that well (laughs).

Jaco Pastorius also often destroyed loudspeakers with cardboard cones and when Larry and Ron noticed my problems, the idea arose to build loudspeakers with aluminum cones. They built some for Jaco and some for me - and since then I've been playing Hartke boxes with these aluminum speakers.

As I said, I've tried everything possible, but these speakers are the best for my sound. Depending on which gig I'm currently playing, I put together my Hartke equipment to match. They use tube preamps and transistor power amplifiers in their amps, so if I want a dirty, distorted sound, I'm well served there too.

Do you also use effects?

Jack Bruce: Not at the moment, no. Years ago I used a lot of effects, but now they just really bother me. Sometimes I try a pedal, but somehow the effects shape the sound too much for me. Sure you can use a wah-wah pedal, but somehow it always sounds like Cream or Jimi Hendrix.

In the seventies, I used a lot of effects. For example, delays to play bass solos in which I didn't even play bass, just turned knobs. Well, this isn't for me right now, but that doesn't mean I'll never use effects again.

You never wanted to be a star, just a good musician - you have said that several times.Do you think you achieved both today? Or have you ever wanted to remain the unknown double bass player in a jazz band - without all the traps that the rock-‘n‘-roll business sets?

Jack Bruce: I used to work as a window cleaner for a few weeks - I could have done the job until I retired! So when things go wrong and when problems arise, all these concerns arise about whether everything in life went right. But when I sit here in my country house and look out the window over the meadows and fields, then the feeling that I have done a few things right in the past clearly predominates.

I never really made big plans, things always just turned out that way for me. I think people out there say I could have sold a few more of my solo records, but my answer is always, “Look - I'm still here for that, my friend!” And that's the kind of success which I respect today and which is important to me!


Story: Peter Chrisp

Translation: Heinz Rebellius

Photos: Archives, Warwick, Fender, Gibson

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