Happy 70th birthday to Geddy Lee of Rush!

I got seriously into Rush in late 1988, as a freshman in high school. But several years later — 2003, I think — when this 1984 tour film was finally released on DVD, I realized that I had seen it on TV (only once) circa 1985, presumably either on MTV or HBO, and had been completely enthralled with it as an 11-year-old. But since I never saw Rush again on TV, or heard them on the radio, I kind of forgot they existed until a friend (re)introduced me to them in high school, with a cassette tape of the then-new A Show of Hands concert album.

My jaw dropped the first time I watched this Grace Under Pressure Tour DVD, because I knew I had seen it before. Specifically, it was the video intro to “The Weapon” by Joe Flaherty as his SCTV vampire character “Count Floyd” that triggered the memory. Wow!

Geddy Lee was the reason I picked up the electric bass as a sophomore in high school. Happy birthday!

Getting out of my comfort zone… on bass and in the world

After two years of mostly not performing (or even interacting) with other people, suddenly I find myself thrust deeply into both.

I’m currently rehearsing on bass with the Minneapolis South High Community Jazz Band for a concert in the park on June 3, and I’ll also be playing bass in the pit orchestra (which is neither an orchestra, nor will it be in the “pit” for this show, but on stage!) for Summerset Theatre‘s production of the Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You in Austin, Minnesota at the end of June.

Going into this, I figured the jarring proximity of other people in the post- (or, ongoing-) covid era would be the hardest thing for me to handle about the experience, but sight-reading sheet music for bass is reminding me of a much more enduring challenge.

I formally studied clarinet from 5th grade through my senior year of college, and I played saxophone in school jazz bands throughout high school and college as well. I was a music major, to boot. But I am entirely self-taught on bass (including reading bass clef), having mostly just played it in rock bands since first picking it up as a sophomore in high school so I could emulate Geddy Lee and Chris Squire.

I would label my bass skills as “intermediate” in general, maybe “intermediate-plus” if I’m feeling generous to myself. But I have three major weaknesses: occasional struggles to coordinate my left and right hands, less-than-instant recognition of notes above the staff in bass clef, and most significantly, a fear of the 6th to 11th frets.

It’s amazing how far you can get playing rock music and rarely venturing above the 5th fret (or outside of the 12th to 17th frets, which are easy to mentally map to the first 5). I have an immediate, instinctive recognition of where the notes on a piece of sheet music in bass clef are on the bass neck, if I’m thinking about the first 5 frets.

The problem is, jazz and musical theater expect a bit more out of a bassist. The past few years of playing in the jazz band (and having played in the pit for Summerset’s production of The Little Mermaid in 2019), along with numerous gigs as a part of 32nd Street Jazz, have forced me to finally learn the middle of the neck. But I still don’t have that immediate instinctive recognition of where the notes are.

And the weird thing about guitar and bass, compared to woodwinds, is that there are multiple places to play just about every note. So when you’re playing, say, a second line B-flat, you need to consider, “Am I going to play this on the 1st fret of the A string, or the 6th fret of the E string?” That consideration depends a lot on what comes next. If the line suddenly soars up to, say, a D above the staff, you really need to be on that 6th fret.

So far so good. If there are just a few sporadic notes, or a repetitive pattern, that sits best in the middle of the neck, I can get that down. But when there’s a fast run with a bunch of accidentals, I’m still just not tracking fast enough to pull it off. Until I have a part down cold, I often find myself in rehearsal panicking in the middle of a measure and quickly dropping back to the first 5 frets, where I immediately know a top-line A-flat is the 1st fret on the G string, for instance. Never mind the fact that in 2 beats I’m going to need to be up at the 9th fret. Eek!

It’s easy to get stuck for a long time as an “intermediate” bassist, especially if you’re in your 40s and not making a living as a musician, because there’s a big bump in the learning curve to get to that advanced level.

But maybe I’m just being too hard on myself. After all, other people are letting me play bass in these situations, so I must be doing it adequately. Right?

RPM Challenge: Day 1

So far, so good. Well, maybe not so good. But… so far, anyway.

I made up my mind a few weeks ago that I was going to start at it right away at midnight on February 1, so that’s what I did. I plugged away at a brand new idea for about two hours, but at the end felt very disappointed with my progress. I blame two things:

1. My piece of $#!+ electric guitar (MIM Fender Strat). Pickups buzz (minor problem) and the damn thing won’t stay in tune long enough for me to even finish tuning!!! (Yeah yeah… new pickups, shielding, locking tuners… no I haven’t done any of those things and no it’s not going to happen this month!)

2. Steve Martin. Yes, Steve Martin. I spent the 90 minutes leading up to midnight watching one of my childhood heroes systematically dismantle every remaining scrap of respect I had for his work while hosting one of the most miserably bad episodes of SNL I have ever seen, culminating in an appalling performance of a song from his new banjo CD. Yes, his banjo playing is competent, not great, but the song was crap! It wasn’t well-written, his singing is, well, not even singing, and it told a lame story that wasn’t even remotely funny. Boo! Why, Steve, why?

So, I slept on it. I think a good night’s sleep helped. I listened back to the bare bones of the song I started last night (because I had deleted a few instrument tracks from it in frustration), and it’s actually kind of cool, so I think I’m going to use it.

I started two other new songs today that seem to be going well. One of them is almost done, the other is maybe 50%.

My electric guitar is also being more cooperative today as well, and my bass sounds great! Unfortunately my bass plucking fingers are no longer up to the task — I’ve slacked off on bass practice too much and I’ve lost my calluses. 30 minutes of bass playing and I have a big nasty blister on the tip of my index finger! :o

Oh well… although I used to be very anti-pick on the bass, I’ve since mellowed and now probably use a pick 60-70% of the time when I play bass. And on this album, it looks like that’s going to be somewhere in the ballpark of… 100%!

Time to call it a day, with the kids returning and my parents coming to watch the Super Bowl on the big TV. But I may resume again tonight after kids go to bed.

One disappointment with myself overall so far: I haven’t branched out with instruments or recording techniques. But I think that will come.

Selling the Music Man!

Say it ain’t so! Well, it’s so. I have my Music Man StingRay 5 bass up for auction on eBay.

I love that bass, but I just can’t justify having a $1400 bass that sits in its case 99% of the time. Especially when I can sell it and use the money to buy both a bass and a guitar from Fender’s Mexican factory. And have almost half the money left over.

Say what you will about Ed Roman, but he had it right when he was talking about the likes of Fender and Gibson. (I think he was ripping more on Gibson, because of their obscenely high prices for U.S.-made guitars, but the message applies to Fender too.) Fender has 3 basic lines of products: their low-end beginner instruments made in China under the Squier brand, their “standard” line of Fender guitars made in Mexico, and the high-end stuff made in California. But the fact is, while there’s a huge chasm in quality between the Chinese Squiers and the Mexican Fenders, at about double the retail price, there’s very little difference between the very nice Mexican Fenders and the vastly overpriced American Fenders.

This was reinforced for me last weekend when I played my father-in-law’s Mexican-made Precision Bass. He bought it to play for the contemporary services at his church, based on my recommendation. I figured it would be a decent, reliable instrument, and it would only set him back 400 bucks. I had owned a Mexican-made Fender Jazz back in high school, and it was great until I decided to take it apart and muck around with it, and even after that it was still pretty decent. But I think the Mexican factory has made great strides; if I didn’t know better, I’d never guess that P-Bass wasn’t a U.S. model.

So it is, in a week or less the Music Man will be on its way to a new home, and I’ll be applying that cash towards…

Fender Standard Jazz Bass V


Fender Standard Stratocaster

…and while I’m at it, this, to (finally!) rip all of my LPs…

USB turntable