Bass, Sports, And Adventure
By Frank Zappa
AS A GUITARIST and a leader, what do you expect from a bass player?
The important thing that I expect the bass player to do is to tell me what key I'm in. I'm not looking for notes faster than what I'm playing or implications of harmonic situations other than what we started out doing. I like to have a bass player with a good ear and a good sense of tempo, but the main function is to make sure that I know and that the audience knows what key we're in. And I like bass players that tell you the story by playing the roots every once in a while. A lot of these modernistic-type personages don't want to do that. They think it's beneath their dignity to play the bottom note of the chord. And that's not for me. I like somebody who tells me the key I'm in.
So you want to hear the I, IV, and V once in a while.
I want to hear something in there that just lets me know that I didn't go too far out to lunch, because if you start improvising and you get into a kind of trance – you're whizzing around out there in the zones – and the bass player goes out there too, then it's all over: The audience has completely lost contact with what you're doing. It just turns into swill. There's got to be some reference point so that the extrapolations can be comprehended. In other words, if you're in, say, the key of E, and somebody's playing an E note while you're playing an A, then you're playing a fourth or an eleventh, and it's recognizable as such and you can make it behave as such. But the minute the bass player starts playing something else, and decides to stick an F# down there, then that A that you're playing isn't saying eleventh-land information anymore: It turns out to be the minor 3rd of the second degree of the scale. And that may totally destroy what your melodic message was. When you're playing a melody note that you want to have function as an eleventh, and somebody puts a bass note in that changes the function of your melody note, he's doing you a great disservice.
Your parts are tightly arranged, yet back around 1974 or '75 your bass player on your tour had someone pointing the notes out for him onstage. Why?
Our regular bass player. Tom Fowler, had broken his arm, and that was the only way we could have finished the tour. And that's why we have a rule in the band now: "No sports for the musicians." There had been a game of touch football between the members of the crew and some of the guys in the band, and after that game – with ten shows left to play on the tour – I heard a knock on my door, and here comes Tom Fowler with his arm in a cast. He'd just been tagged the wrong way, and it broke his arm. Now, what was I going to do? We had a show with really complicated bass parts, and here is our bass player with a broken arm. How do you get somebody out of nowhere to play the shows? You can't. We tried two or three guys, and they couldn't hack it. Finally, we wound up with one guy that was willing to stand there and have Tom point to the notes. We had all the 12 names of the pitches strung out on little cards on the stage, and Tom would stand there with a pointer and point to those note names as fast as he could, in order to help the bass player. But still, the audience is the one that loses out because they don't get to hear the music played the right way. And it's all because of sports. So, I try to discourage the guys from any kind of competitive sports activities while we're out on the road. I don't like to see them go skiing or anything like that.
Are the bass parts as critical to you as the drum lines?
They're very important. In fact, I like a bass part that you can sing along with. If it's a written song, I like to have a totally hummable bass part. That doesn't always apply to all the different types of things that I do, though. We did a song a while back that had one of the most hummable bass parts of 1982: it's "No Not Now" [from Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. Barking Pumpkin. FW 38066].
What if you're an average guitarist who is suddenly tired of playing music that's firmly entrenched in a pounding, steady beat, where the drummer sounds like the timekeeper for the oarsmen on a Roman slave ship? How can they abandon this?
I don't recommend that they do. I think that it's important that a person be able to earn a living at what they like to do. In other words, if you're a guitar player, you'll be a happier guy if you earn a living as a guitar player rather than as a gas station attendant. I mean, your chances for earning a living go down rapidly the more you try to play like what's on my albums. You'd be losing jobs all over the place. So, stay in 4/4. That's my advice to you if you want to be a happy guitar player. But if you happen to be some weird fiend and fanatic, then try it. Try to play along with it. Try to understand what's going on. But it's definitely not for the average guy.
What about people into free improvisation or unusual instruments, or even those who beat on gutter pipes?
Okay. If you call that music, and you like to listen to that, then go for it! What I'm talking about here is the personalized musical expression: "That's what I think; that's what I play." There's a direct connection between who I am, what I think, and what I play. It's real stuff. It's not squeezed into a little format that makes it acceptable to top-40 radio or what a club owner thinks ought to be played, or even what the average other guitar player thinks ought to be going on. I don't care about that stuff. It's a very personalized type of approach, and if you think that beating on drainpipes or salad bowls or anything else is you, then you should do it. That should be your musical message.
Do you think there can logically be a middle ground?
I don't think there ought to be a middle ground. It ought to be polarized as hell. I think it should be one way or the other. Look. If you're a guy that really likes to hear a drummer go bonk, bonk, bonk, like the oarsman in the Roman Empire days, and if you like to play along with a drummer that goes like that, you're not going to sound particularly enthralling if you're playing nine in the space of seven in the space of five in the space of three over six bars against the guy's bonk, bonk, bonk. You're going to sound like a sloppy guy. And it's not going to be fun to hear. But if you're in a format where you can take those chances and go out there and communicate with another musician who understands that kind of rhythm, and that's what you want to do, then you should do it. But to just toss in a few of those kinds of rhythms in the middle of a straight 4/4 top-40 number, it's stupid. The ultimate result of that will be that the audience that's trying to tap its feet to the bonk, bonk, bonk that the oarsman drummer is laying down is going to lose interest and think that you're just screwing up. I think that stuff only works when the rhythm section is doing it, too.
But a transition from one style to another must be made, regardless, and that can be difficult, especially if a guitarist isn't sure enough to make a firm commitment to a new approach.
Then they shouldn't, because if they're chicken, they should just do what they're doing. I mean, it's a big risk to take. When you try new stuff, you put yourself in a position where people can listen to it and say. "Aw, that's shit!" Okay? So anybody that doesn't want to take that kind of risk shouldn't. Let's face it: A lot of people start playing musical instruments because they want to make friends and influence people; basically they want to get laid, right? So if that's your thinking, then stick to the bonk, bonk, bonk, and get your costume together, and you'll be okay.
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