A few weeks ago, after I learned Gentle Giant bassist Ray Shulman had died, I posted this YouTube video:
The video featured a transcription of Ray’s bass part from “The House the Street the Room,” a song on Gentle Giant’s 1971 sophomore album, Acquiring the Taste. The transcription was one I had made in a music notebook shortly after graduating from college in 1996.
In the video, I pointed out a few errors I had made in the transcription, and then I proceeded to play along with the recording, correcting those mistakes.
A commenter on the video asked me to post my corrected transcription, so this morning I decided to do just that! Of course, not being willing (or able) to just leave it at fixing a careless time signature error and a few inaccurate rhythms (plus actually counting the number of times the vamps are repeated), I probed the original recording deeper, with the greater (though still limited) music theory knowledge I possess today. There were two things that bothered me that I really wanted to address:
Chords. Yes, there are long stretches of the main (A) section where the instruments are playing a unison line and chords are only implied, but then there are some chord hits. And the B section definitely has chords and generally a more “functional harmony” kind of feeling. So I wanted to determine what all of those chords were.
Time signatures. Yes, there’s that one odd 3/4 measure, but when I listen to it, there’s a bit in the middle where it feels like there’s an awkward beat thrown in occasionally. Then when I worked out the chords, I realized that one of those keyboard hits comes decisively on beat 4 of a 4/4 measure… and the result is that it feels more like a measure of 3/4 and a measure of 5/4. That also makes the transition into the B section a bit more logical, in that it’s returning to 4/4 on the 2nd ending, rather than throwing in a single odd measure of 3/4.
I also added tablature because, why not? (It’s really easy in MuseScore.) Note that I have no idea of these tabs are correct to what Ray played; it’s just how I played it when I recorded the video.
I’ve posted the score file on Musescore.org, and here’s a PDF version:
I want to talk more about those chords, because they’re very interesting. When the actual chords do hit in the A section, they perfectly match the notes the bass is outlining. You could think of the B diminished 7 chord as an F diminished 7 — they contain the exact same notes, and the piano/vocal parts really do feel like they’re just descending by a half step, but since the bass hits B on the downbeat, I went with that. (Plus, it’s kinda-sorta almost functional?)
Those C minor-major 7th chords — definitely just implied — arise from a double harmonic minor (Hungarian minor) scale. It’s a minor scale with both the 4th and 7th degrees raised, creating leading tones to both the root and the 5th. It’s a mysterious, yearning kind of sound, which fits well with the somewhat (?) ambiguous lyrics about a house where people go to safely engage in activities that would be frowned upon in public.
Anyway… that B diminished 7 chord really feels like it’s hitting on a downbeat… which is why I decided to switch from 4/4 to a measure of 3/4 and a measure of 5/4.
Now I just wonder if I’ll look back on this new version after another 27-year break (when I’m… yeesh… 76 years old) and find just as much to criticize as I do in the original today. Maybe I’ll even finally transcribe the fugue section.
Whew, that title is worthy of a master’s thesis. (Note: The majority of what follows is adapted from the script I wrote for a follow-up video that I have since decided not to make.)
About 3 months ago, I bought a Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass, and the day I took it out of the box, I made a YouTube video demoing the instrument and giving my first impressions:
In the time since I made that video, I’ve played the bass a lot, and I’ve had some ongoing frustrations with one specific aspect: I just can’t seem to get the action set to my satisfaction. The frustrations were exacerbated by a comment the video received last week, criticizing the high action on this bass due to the Fender Hi-Mass bridge… and also my abilities as a player.
Feeding the trolls
I’m not thin-skinned, but I do take criticism to heart. I know I’m not the most technically dazzling player, and I don’t aspire to be. I’ve been playing bass since I was 15 — that’s 34 years, if you’re into math — but I’ve never become a “shredder” for three reasons:
I just don’t have the manual dexterity for it, especially as I’m getting older.
I have not made my living as a professional player, so I have limited time (and motivation) to practice.
Flashy technique is not the pinnacle of good bass playing.
I want to focus for a minute on that last point. Yes, technique matters. But playing fast is rarely the most important part of playing bass. Tone, groove, and fitting into the context of the rest music, where the bass is almost never the focus, are all, I would argue, far more important than ripping 32nd note runs at 200 BPM. Of course it depends on the genre, and on your goals as a musician.
These are my goals as a bassist: to play with a good tone, to lock into the groove, and to play lines that fit the music. And I think I’m in good company.
No, I am not implying that I am anywhere near as good a bassist as Tony Levin.
I’m saying that he prioritizes the music over flashy technique.
(Also, when he does want to do the flashier stuff, he uses the Chapman Stick.)
There’s also a fourth factor limiting my bass skills: since I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I’ve never tried to express all of my musical ideas on the bass. Playing other instruments has given me a measured perspective on the role of the bass in my own music.
OK, enough feeding the trolls. But even trolls sometimes make good points, and there is definitely a point here: even with the 10% discount I received from Fender, I expect a little more for $2000 than what I got with the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass.
First impressions should never be made in the dead of winter
When I made the initial demo video, the bass had just arrived 24 hours earlier. (I let it sit for a day because it was the middle of a classic Minnesota January “deep freeze” where the high temperature was -8ºF.) I literally took it out of the box on camera. I shot the entire video, including doing what setup I could on a bass that was still adjusting to a new climate, that afternoon. I hadn’t had time to get to know the bass and really learn its strengths and weaknesses. Now that I’ve had it for three months, I understand it better.
There are a lot of really great things about this bass. But there are problems too. I’m judging it against my 2018 Fender American Professional Precision Bass. That bass, to me, is perfect. I mean, the Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass are very different beasts. But in terms of build quality, my American Professional P-Bass is as good as I’ve ever seen with a production instrument.
2018 Fender American Professional Precision Bass Antique Olive, pickguard and pickup covers customized La Bella Deep Talkin’ Bass Gold flatwound strings
2022 Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass Arctic Pearl, no mods… yet La Bella Deep Talkin’ Bass White Nylon tapewound strings
When I decided to get a Jazz Bass early this year, I admit I was swayed by the “Ultra” label… I decided that if I was going to spend a good chunk of money on an American-made Jazz Bass anyway, I might as well get the best production instrument Fender makes.
Then, Fender replaced the Elite with the Ultra. Overall, it seemed like mostly a lateral move. One really odd thing though, was the switch from the modern 3-screw high-mass bridge — the one that’s in my P-Bass — to the chunky 5-screw Hi-Mass bridge. Especially since it eliminates the string-through-body option. (They also changed the truss rod access in a way that definitely seemed like a cost-saving downgrade.)
3-screw bridge on the American Professional Precision Bass
5-screw bridge on the American Ultra Jazz Bass
This is the same bridge I had bought from Fender’s parts department to install on the “Frankenstein” fretless Jazz Bass I assembled a few years ago. It’s decent, but it’s not as nice as the 3-screw bridge, although it has the benefit of being drop-in compatible with the classic 5-screw bridge design, so it increases the mod potential.
The Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Jazz Bass that was the basis for my “Frankenstein” fretless. Source: Fender
But… who wants to mod what’s already supposed to be the “Ultra” bass? Hmm…
The bridge or not the bridge? Many factors affect the action
The Fender Hi-Mass bridge on the Ultra is chunky, and it affects how low you can set the strings. But how much does that really matter? Today we’re going to find out.
What is the goal of adjusting the action — a.k.a. the string height? Most players I know want the strings as low as possible, because it makes it easier to play fast notes… or really, just easier to play in general, because you’re not having to press the strings down as far, or as hard, to cleanly fret the notes.
I definitely want low action, because I want it to be easy to play. But the lower the action, the more likely you are to get fret buzz. Why? When you’re fretting a note, you’re basically creating a very long, thin triangle between the string, the bridge, and the neck.
Buzz happens when the vibrating string makes contact with other frets, so you need the angle between the string and the neck to be just large enough to keep the string from making contact with other frets. There are three ways to minimize buzz: adjust the truss rod to add curve to the neck, raise the bridge saddles, increasing the length of that “side” of the triangle, or… pluck gently, so the strings don’t vibrate as much!
It sounds like a joke, but the last point is important… turn up your amp and use a light touch, and you can really help this problem. It’s the only solution that doesn’t result in higher action. Still… this has been gnawing at me for 3 months with this bass. I’ve tweaked the truss rod and the saddles a bunch of times, tried modifying my plucking technique, and I just can’t get to a buzz-free sound without high action.
Some who have criticized Fender’s design of the Ultra Jazz Bass cite the height of the bridge as the problem, but I’m not convinced that is it. I can very easily lower the saddles and adjust the truss rod enough to get satisfactory “low action” on this bass… but at the cost of terrible buzz.
So, is it the bridge? We’re going to find out. As I mentioned earlier, I bought one of these bridges for a fretless Jazz Bass I was putting together — which, incidentally, I sold to help pay for this bass. The body of that bass was a Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Jazz Bass in Daphne Blue. I still have the stock bridge that came with that Squier. And now I’m going to install it on my American Ultra Jazz Bass, to see if a different, thinner bridge design can solve the problem of the high action on the Ultra Jazz.
Yes, I’m modding my Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass… by installing the bridge from an Indonesian-made Squier. Here we go.
Or… maybe not
That was the end of my prepared script for the video. The rest was going to, necessarily, come after I had swapped the bridge, which I was planning to do this morning as part of producing the follow-up video.
I woke up this morning not really wanting to spend the entire day making a video, not really wanting to swap the bridge on my Ultra Jazz, and… after having some coffee, realizing that I was still feeding the trolls (this post is too, but at least it’s less effort). I thought back to those diagrams of the “triangle” (which were still just images in my head at the time). And more importantly…
I realized that there was no possible way that swapping the bridge would help the situation.
Think about it: if the complaint is that the bridge is too thick, then I should already have the saddles bottomed out. Specifically, the action should still be too high when the saddles are bottomed out. And I’ve already verified that’s not the case. If I lower the saddles on the Hi-Mass bridge all the way, the action is fine. Beautifully low. But there’s terrible buzz. Putting on a different bridge that lowers the strings even more isn’t going to get rid of the buzz — it’s going to make it worse.
Clearly the issue I have is different. And it could probably be chalked up to my lack of expertise in guitar setup. The problem most likely could be fixed with a more careful truss rod adjustment, or possibly by shimming the neck.
I don’t have a caliper, so I can’t take a super-precise measurement of the string height. But I got out a tape measure and I compared the string height at the 12th fret on both the P-Bass and the Jazz.
String height on the P-Bass
String height on the Jazz Bass
It’s a bit hard to see because of the camera angle but… yeah, they’re pretty much the same. Within a millimeter of each other, at least. On both basses, the bottom of the E string is about 4 mm from the fretboard. (Yes, that is from the fretboard, not the top of the fret itself. It was just easier to measure this way, in this moment.) Both basses are set up fairly well in terms of fret buzz — not absolutely perfect, but little to no buzz unless I’m really plucking hard.
So… uh… what? The action isn’t really unusually high at all. It’s just my perception. But why is that?
I’m not saying it’s the strings, but… it’s the strings
The one factor, I think, that is making the biggest difference here is the strings.
I’ve had these La Bella gold flats on the P-Bass for about 6 months. I think they sound good, but I don’t really like them otherwise, for two reasons: first, they have a much higher tension than I’m used to, so it kind of hurts to play them after a while. And second, the alloy seems to have corroded slightly on the surface, making the strings a bit “sticky” to play, and they leave a distinctive metallic smell (and sometimes even black residue) on my fingers when I play.
I discovered the joys of tapewound strings during my shortlived ownership of a Schecter Stiletto Studio bass last year. (That bass had its own unique problems so I returned it.) When I got the Ultra Jazz, I immediately replaced its stock strings with these La Bella “white nylon” tapewounds. They are super-smooth and a joy to play. They are also much lower tension than the gold flats. I am now convinced that this is probably the biggest reason why I’ve had more issues with fret buzz on the Ultra Jazz than on the P-Bass.
I’m not in a huge hurry to test this theory though, for one kind of silly, superficial reason. I really like the look of the silk wraps on the ends of the strings, but I’ve learned that if you remove the strings, that silk frays really easily. So I’m trying to avoid removing these strings unless I absolutely have to.
Fortunately, for my next mod, I won’t. I’ve got a wild looking replacement pickguard coming next week. I can’t wait to see how it looks. (And, if it looks like crap, it’s easy to go back!) For now, those measurements I took are easing my mind.
Update (May 4, 2023): After I posted this, I continued to encounter some fret buzz issues, so I decided I would go ahead and try different strings. I had a set of D’Addario “half rounds” sitting around that I hadn’t tried out yet, so I put them on. They were better, but the E string was completely dead. Utterly useless… plunky and zero sustain. So I did a bit more research and decided to try DR flats. At least they call them “flatwound” but they seem almost more round than the D’Addario “half rounds”. Anyway, they’re much nicer, and seem to suit the instrument quite well.
Today is Herbie Hancock’s 83rd birthday. I’m pleased that he is still going strong and touring! He is definitely one of my biggest influences, as evidenced by the number of his songs I have recorded over the years, such as…
Today I woke up with a couple of nerdy ranking lists floating around in my head. I suspect these will get expanded into YouTube videos in the near future, but for now, just the straight lists. These are my personal rankings of all Rush albums, and all Metroid games.
Rush Albums Ranked
It’s probably worth noting here that I got seriously into Rush when I was a freshman in high school, in 1989, so there’s a definite before-and-after feel going here. The stuff that already existed when I got into them seemed mythic and eternal; the stuff after that is all “the new stuff” to me, even though the oldest of “the new stuff” is now 33 years old… but when it came out, the band’s first album was only 16 years old. (As was I.)
Moving Pictures (1981)
A Farewell to Kings (1977)
Permanent Waves (1980)
Grace Under Pressure (1984)
Clockwork Angels (2012)
Snakes and Arrows (2007)
Power Windows (1985)
Caress of Steel (1975)
Vapor Trails (2002)
Hold Your Fire (1987)
Fly by Night (1975)
Roll the Bones (1991)
Test for Echo (1996)
I suspect many Rush fans would criticize my low placement of 2112 but I stand by it. I just don’t think it’s that great. I find the side-long suite on Caress of Steel to be more musically and conceptually interesting, and the other tracks on Caress are much more interesting than the utterly forgettable side 2 of 2112. I couldn’t even remember all of the songs. (After really straining my brain muscle I was able to come up with “Tears,” but I had to look at Wikipedia to remember “Lessons.”) I even prefer “I Think I’m Going Bald” to most of the filler tracks on 2112.
The Live Albums
Yeah, Rush had a bunch of live albums too. Earlier on in their career, they had a nice formula of four studio albums, then a live album. After Neil’s life fell apart in the late ’90s with the deaths of his wife and daughter, and the band’s future became more uncertain, they started releasing a live album after every studio album, plus some other archival material, and things got messy. I’m not even sure I’m accounting for all of them here. Anyway, here’s the list:
A Show of Hands (1989)
Grace Under Pressure Tour (recorded 1984, released 2009)
Exit… Stage Left (1981)
Rush in Rio (2003)
R40 Live (2015)
Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland (2011)
Clockwork Angels Tour (2013)
Snakes and Arrows Live (2008)
All the World’s a Stage (1976)
Different Stages (1998)
I have to give special recognition to Grace Under Pressure Tour, because when the DVD of that was finally released in 2009, and I watched it, my jaw dropped. I suddenly remembered that I had seen it on TV in 1985 and was mesmerized by it, but that was the only time TV or radio ever exposed me to Rush growing up. By the time I was in high school, I had all but forgotten it. (Which is to say, when a friend first played me a tape of A Show of Hands, I knew I had heard of Rush, but didn’t remember having ever heard them.)
Metroid Games Ranked
I’m almost as much of a Metroid nerd as I am a Rush nerd. As with Rush, my first taste of Metroid was pretty far removed from my obsession with it. The same friend who introduced me to Rush in high school also owned an NES (I didn’t), and I played Metroid a few times at his house. I was intrigued by this disturbing and immense underground world, but it was also disorienting and brutally difficult.
For various reasons I never owned or even played an SNES (Super Metroid was released when I was a junior in college), and I totally skipped the N64/PlayStation generation of consoles too, because… my god, those polygons and textures just plain sucked, and the games all looked like absolute ass. The GameCube drew me back in though — the first actual console I owned since my Atari 2600 (not counting an Atari 7800 I bought NOS from Radio Shack’s mail order catalog in the late ’90s) — and I was obsessed with Metroid Prime, the first Metroid game I truly experienced.
A year or two later I bought a Game Boy Advance SP, and played Zero Mission and Fusion, then of course Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, also on the GameCube. I loved all of those. The DS Metroid games were kind of crap though, and I could never get the hang of the Wii motion controls on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Fortunately, the Wii also introduced the Virtual Console, and I finally got to experience the magic of Super Metroid. (That was also how I introduced my then 5-year-old son to the world of Metroid.)
After that, the Metroid franchise all but died out, because Nintendo seemed to actively try to kill it with misguided garbage like Other M and Federation Force.
And then came Samus Returns, on the 3DS. Ohhhhh man. That game scratched the itch. Needless to say, Metroid Dread carried on where that one left off, and I am eagerly awaiting Metroid Prime 4.
And now, the list:
Metroid Dread (Switch)
Super Metroid (SNES)
Metroid Prime (GC)
Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS)
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (GC)
Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA)
Metroid Fusion (GBA)
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii)
Metroid Prime Pinball (DS)
Metroid II: Return of Samus (GB)
Metroid Prime: Hunters (DS)
Metroid: Other M (Wii)
Classic NES Series: Metroid (GBA)
Metroid Prime: Federation Force (3DS)
Finally… just in case you didn’t get the reference in this post’s title:
I have a reason, which will be revealed on my YouTube channel next week, for considering which type of bass Geddy Lee plays on each track of Rush’s 1981 masterpiece album Moving Pictures. There seems to be much debate out there in the world over which basses he used especially on Permanent Waves (1980), Moving Pictures, and Signals (1982), because he was known to play a Rickenbacker 4001 almost exclusively on their late ’70s prog albums, but he briefly worked a Fender Jazz Bass into the mix before going all-in on Wal basses in the mid-’80s (with an occasional Steinberger thrown in for peak ’80s futurism). From the mid-’90s on, Geddy has almost exclusively gone back to the Fender Jazz Bass.
So Moving Pictures really is kind of a pivot point, both for the band stylistically and for Geddy in terms of his bass gear. It is (I think?) well known that he used both the Rick and the Jazz on Moving Pictures, but which one does he use on which song, and how can you tell?
Well, “how can you tell?” comes down to ear and familiarity with the sonic characteristics of the different instruments. The Rickenbacker tends to have very deep, round low end and a ringing high end, with a bit of a scoop in the middle, whereas the Jazz Bass has a lot more midrange growl. That’s oversimplifying it, but once you know the sound, it’s not too hard to tell. So, let’s investigate, track by track.
“Tom Sawyer” This one is kind of tough, actually. I feel like I could make a good argument for either, but I think my impression of the whole thing is too muddled because I’ve heard so many subsequent live versions of this song — Rickenbacker on Exit Stage Left and then Jazz on the 2000s live albums, plus the 5 times I saw them live — and Geddy kind of has “his sound” regardless of which instrument he’s playing, that I just can’t tell. Fortunately I do not just need to use my ears. The band produced music videos for several songs on the album from the recording sessions at Le Studio, and we can easily see in the video that Geddy is playing a Rickenbacker.
“Red Barchetta” This one, I am fairly certain, is a Rickenbacker, even though Geddy has the mids cranked up. It’s really that first note he hits at the beginning of the guitar solo around 3:20 that is the giveaway to me. There’s no Le Studio video for this one, and on Exit Stage Left he’s playing a Rick, but he plays a Rick on pretty much all of that, so no help there. Not that we really need it.
“YYZ” It’s kind of hard to nail down the bass tone here because there’s a bunch of chorus on it, but I am fairly confident it’s a Jazz Bass. It has that Jazz Bass growl (as opposed to, y’know, that Rickenbacker growl). Once again you kind of have to focus on the bass during the guitar solo, because when Geddy and Alex are playing together in unison their sounds blend too much. I just think I am hearing the gnarl of a Jazz Bass bridge pickup here. My introduction to this song was the A Show of Hands video from the late ’80s, and there, of course, he’s playing a Wal.)
“Limelight” OK, in listening to this one I absolutely thought it was the Rickenbacker, but hey there’s another music video from the recording of the album, and Geddy is playing a Jazz Bass. Of course the video also cuts to some fake “live” footage that shows Geddy playing a Rick, but that’s from the A Farewell to Kingsera, carefully edited to make it (sort of) look like they’re playing “Limelight.” So I think it’s safe to say we definitely have a Jazz here.
“The Camera Eye” This one is definitely a Rickenbacker. Probably the easiest one to tell on the entire album. I think the verse that starts at 7:30 is where it’s easiest to tell. No question on this one. I was lucky enough to see the band on the Time Machine tour, where they played this album in its entirety, and of course at that point Geddy played it on a Jazz Bass. (Side note: No disrespect to Geddy, but you can tell he is really reaching for some of those high notes, 30 years later. Reaching, but generally hitting them!)
“Witch Hunt” This song really doesn’t sound like any other in the band’s entire catalog. And the bass on it is unquestionably a Fender Jazz Bass. I think once again the thing that distinguishes it for me is the midrange. The Rickenbacker has a scoop in the midrange but the Jazz Bass seems to be pumping out consistently at all frequencies. (But if your eyes can handle it, you can check out Geddy playing it on a Steinberger on the Grace Under Pressure tour a few years later.)
“Vital Signs” This one also definitely sounds like the Jazz Bass to me. I think around 1:20 is where it is very easy to pick out the bass tone. Fortunately this is another one with a Le Studio music video, so we can confirm it.
So there you have it. To put it another way, here’s how I break down the album:
Rickenbacker 4001:“Tom Sawyer,” “Red Barchetta,” “The Camera Eye.” Fender Jazz Bass: “Tom Sawyer”, “YYZ”, “Limelight,” “Witch Hunt,” “Vital Signs.”
Update (3/10/2023): Over at Scott’s Bass Lessons, my fellow Minneapolitan Ian Martin Allison has his take on each track. Our only difference, once I corrected my take on “Tom Sawyer” two days ago, is “YYZ.” But I still say I think he’s playing a Jazz Bass on that one!