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Four-String Kings

Article from International Musician & Recording World, December 1985

Pino Palladino, Mark King, Robbie Shakespeare and Geddy Lee — student of the groove Chris Maillard gets some lessons


In everybody's Bass Hall Of Fame there must be a place for these four — the first in the fields of Pop, Funk, Reggae and Rock. Pino Palladino, Mark King, Robbie Shakespeare, and Geddy Lee told us all about the art of four-string fame

Pino Palladino is instantly recognisable. Not for his long, cheerful Welsh countenance or his teen appeal, though. No, leave the moody glamour poses and the Smash Hits covers to his employer, Paul Young. But give Pino his fretless bass and his head and he'll decorate any song with tasteful yet distinctive slippery bass runs.

His sound first popped upon the nation's jukeboxes on Young's Wherever I Lay My Hat; who could hear the unmissable 'oob-be-doo' that started the song without knowing instantly what (and who) it is?

Then he appeared in Nick Heyward's Take That Situation; his warm, middly sound fronting the brass and percussion-driven Funk and even slipping into a solo (A bass solo? On a hit single? Not since The Who's My Generation etc. etc.) in the middle eight.

Nowadays, with sessions for such as Elton John, and various ex-members of Pink Floyd and The Eagles under his belt, Pino has gained all the acceptance anyone could need. However, he isn't a session man — he's a full-time member of Paul Young's band, the Royal Family, and spends a large proportion of his time touring the world in the Family way.

Which is how he started; trekking the globe with Jools Holland's ill-fated Millionaires. After leaving his native Wales with his Fender Precision, Pino met an old friend who knew that Jools was looking for a bassist and he promptly landed his first job. After some time and a few of the disagreements that tend to arise when a band gets nowhere fast, our hero left to find himself in the running for a job with Gary Numan. The result was impressive enough to gain him a reasonable living doing sessions — one of which was for the embryonic Paul Young band.

"I didn't hear the track when I did it," he recalled. "I just played bass on a couple of tracks to rough backings and never got to hear the finished mixes. When the single came out I was amazed that the bass was so far up in the mix. The same thing happened with the Nick Heyward single. I did it, with a few fills on the middle eight between the brass stabs, and they pushed it right up to the top of the track."


Geddy Lee is no longer just a bassist. If, that is, he ever was in the 'normal' sense of the word. No, the Canadian who forms one third of Rush is also the singer, the keyboard player, and occasionally second guitarist of the progressive power trio.

His basslines, though, even when the group's influences were very definitely Heavy Rock, were several steps beyond the rumble of the standard Rock bassist. His trebly, piercing tone carried the melodies of the band nearly as much as the guitar or the vocals and he's never been a man to play one note where a superfast run would do as well.

And even though the new role he's undertaken means he has to leave space for keyboard parts between the bass riffs, (after all, even a megastar can't grow extra hands to order) the ration of bass on the band's latest album, Power Windows, is no smaller.

The style he developed in the sparse power trio format has been retained, even with the band's more recent fuller sound, to great effect, making the usually staid bottom-end-root-notes that characterise most Rock into an integral, constantly-moving part of the melodies.

Another distinctive trait is the odd time signatures beloved of the band; some would allege cleverness for the sake of it, but none could ignore the consummate musicianship needed to hold down a solid cross-rhythm allied with a countermelody while at the same time singing and playing the occasional keyboard part or bass pedal fill.

"I've got much more into bass playing again on the latest album," he affirmed. "I'm still playing keyboards, but I made sure to leave a lot more room for the bass. Because I like playing bass. It's my instrument, really, and it's something I enjoy doing very much."


Robbie Shakespeare is one of the most respected and highly-paid session men in the world. Astonishing really, considering the fact that along with his partner, drummer Sly Dunbar, he's not only come out of the closed world of Reggae but has never strayed very far from its distinctive and some would say one-dimensional sound.

His bass sound is deep, thick and warm, with the precise phrases slotting around the clattery offbeat drumming of Sly to form a seamless rhythm track that has been used by many artists you wouldn't normally associate with the Jamaican groove such as Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and even, recently, British electronic hard dance band Chakk. Of course, the Sly'n'Robbie team made their first moves in the incestuous world of dreadlocks and roots and gained credence in this country with artists such as Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, and probably most successfully, Black Uhuru.

Sly and Robbie are legends in the studio world for their consummate professionalism and their speed of working. Rarely needing a second take, they can put down a note-perfect bass and drum track in the time it takes most bands to dial up the first synth preset. Stories about being able to put down one hundred takes in one day or of their nonchalantly wandering into a studio, laying down a note-perfect album's worth of material then leaving in good time for lunch are legion.

But what is more rarely appreciated is that Robbie has expanded the horizons of Reggae bass significantly, mainly through the effect of juxtaposing it against a variety of other artists' and producers' styles. Maybe he's in such constant demand because despite his distinctive style he never overpowers the artist he's backing, preferring to lay down the solid foundations rather than embellish with needless fills.

"I think to myself," he said, "what would the person on the street want to hear? He listens to a song on the radio and he doesn't know whether there's a drum, a bass, a synthesizer or whatever on it. He just likes the sound of the record. So I play what will make the whole song sound good, not just my part. You get people who play fast who play what musicians want to hear, but nobody else listens to them because their songs don't sound so good. I just try and make the bass go with the song; fit under the melody."


Mark King's bass style is explained instantly by the fact that he started out as a drummer. His explosively percussive pops, slaps and twangs merge into a driving, syncopated and impressively fast roar that pushes his band, Level 42, firmly along.

At first, Mark (coincidentally an early member of Re-Flex, Paul Fishman's outfit) was purely percussion-biased, but when he spent a spell working in Macari's music shop in London the opportunity to sit at the back of the shop playing a borrowed bass was too good to miss — or at least it was better than flogging Japanese guitars to spotty youths. Consequently, his self-learnt style was unorthodox, and embodied a good deal of the rhythms and heavily accented pushes of his drumming background.

He joined Level 42 as bass player and singer and they leapt to at least a middling level of fame along with a few other homegrown Jazz-Funk outfits when the British Soul scene suddenly became credible. From then on they steered a course away from the bland, sterile Pop sound of their contemporaries and built up a strong following through huge amounts of gigging. This culminated in a live album, A Physical Presence, and very recently another studio album for the band.

Mark's not been idle on the non-band front, either. Sessions aren't something he makes a habit of despite the fact that he gets a huge number of offers to sprinkle his basslines over other people's material. But he does work with people he likes and respects, such as Nik Kershaw and more recently Midge Ure. The number one single If I Was had an uncharacteristically mellow but nonetheless Mark King-played bassline, but the most comprehensive display of his talents was on his solo album.

Titled appropriately Influences, the LP contained a fair dose of homage to past heroes like Cream, intermingled with King songs surprisingly few of which contained the trademark fast and flashy playing that he's known for.

"I was getting able to play faster and faster," he explained, "and the faster I played the easier it got. Then I thought 'hang on a minute, what's the point?' Once you play that quickly, you tend to overpower the song. And the song, the melody, must be the most important thing. I'm playing much less these days. I prefer to support the song rather than solo over it."


Pino: "Just the standard Rotosounds, Swing Bass I think. They're roundwound, which gives you a nicer, toppier sound, but they do tend to grind the fingerboard up a bit. They're medium gauge or thereabouts, .40 to .90"

Mark: "Roundwounds, very light ones, which is great while they last but when I sweat they go off really quickly, I get through several sets a night on tour."

Robbie: "Flatwound ones, Dean Markleys. I leave them on as long as I can, until they snap. The older a string, the more seasoned it gets. I leave them on, oh, a year sometimes. They sound really good then, mellow. But I play pretty hard sometimes so they don't often last that long."

Geddy: "I've just started playing very light strings, I think they're Superwounds, which make the bass sound like a sort of twangy lead guitar. It gives the basslines much more separation and a much more defined attack. I don't know how they'll stand up live, though."


Pino: "Trace Elliots, the graphic top with fifteen-inch speakers. I prefer big speakers, they're warmer and smoother than the tens everyone seems to use. I set the graphic pretty well flat, although I'll take my cues from the soundman outfront when we're playing live. Often during the soundcheck he'll tell me to drop the 150Hz slider if it's too boomy, or cut a little bit of something else to suit the hall."

Mark: "The Trace Elliot amps and cabinets with ten-inch speakers — they're much faster than bigger ones, you really need the quick response of tens. Some speakers, you'll be playing your third note and the speaker cone will still be coming back from the first one. It mushes up completely. They're great amps, I've never had them distort yet and they're very reliable too. I use the graphic like a set of very fine tone controls, really. I know sound engineers and people always set their graphics in a nice neat curve, but I just stick the controls where I think they sound good — which is usually all over the place, some right up the top and some next to them cut to nothing."

Robbie: "The Ampeg bass amps, with the 8x10" speaker cabinet. Some people say you can't get real deep bass from ten inch speakers, but I like them. They sound tight, not too flappy like with big speakers. The only problem is that they change tone in different climates. Like if it's hot they expand and get loose and if it's cold they'll tighten up and sound different again. I'm looking at some speakers made by a company in America called Hartke. They're aluminium, the cones on those, so that won't happen. How do I set my amp? It changes every night, depending on where I am, but nothing too drastic."

Geddy: "It's a sort of component system I use — I go into a Furman preamp, which then goes through an API graphic equaliser and then into several BGW power amps, which drive some 2x15" cabs, custom-built ones which are really good. I also use some old Ampeg 2x15" speakers, but they're only for the bottom half of the sound, just to give a solid low end sound. I don't like them at all, they're really woolly-sounding, but they're OK for that, I guess. I don't set the graphics to anything too drastic, I think the sound should basically come from your guitar right rather than have to meddle with it at the later stage."


Pino: "Fingerstyle is how I normally play. I slap a little bit, but not as much as I used to because it wears down the fingerboard too much. It does sound good on fretless bass, though you need to be more exact and hit the strings a bit harder. I'm not playing as hard generally as I was a few years ago. I rest my right thumb on the 'E' string usually, lifting it when I play that string, and I play over the pickup most of the time. If I want a harder sound or a harmonic I'll play by the bridge."

Mark: "I vary quite a bit; most of the time I'll have my hand by the end of the fingerboard and slap with the edge of my thumb on to the top fret. Sometimes I might play down by the bridge, though, for a more attacking riff. I let my hand relax, which you have to do if you want to play slap style fast. I have to tape my thumb up on tour because it splits otherwise and, being on the edge of the joint, it takes ages to heal. I take a few feet of gaffa tape and wind it loosely round the thumb, then mould it on more tightly so it doesn't restrict the circulation."

Robbie: "I use my fingers. I rest my thumb on the pickup and play there, but some riffs where I need to play fast patterns or I need that brighter sound I'll move my hand nearer to the bridge. Often I'll move my hand for just one note in a riff, just to give it an extra accent, push it a little more. I play really hard, pull the strings quite a bit to get the sound."

Geddy: "Generally I rest my thumb on the front pickup; I use my fingers which I find most comfortable. I tried using a pick a few times, like Chris Squire, one of my early influences, but I couldn't really get on with it at all. You have to play quite hard to get a good sound, but using your fingers makes it easier for me to play riffs across all the strings."


Pino: "I've got a Music Man StingRay. It's on it's third or fourth fretboard now. I keep having to put new ones on because I destroy them by using roundwound strings and slapping and so on. I've tried quite a few others, but there's something about this bass which just feels right... it's difficult to say what it is, but when I picked it up off the wall in the shop it said 'Yes!' to me. It's got active electronics, but I only ever use the tone controls set flat. I like the natural sound of the guitar as it is. I've scratched a map of the world on the back with my belt buckle."

Mark: "My bass is an old red JayDee Supernatural. I've got others, some technically better, but that one is still my favourite. Playing it is like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes — you just feel at ease straight away. I've had a couple more made, though, and the white one is interesting. It's got active three-way tone controls, which work in such a way that when I want to push a riff out of the mix I can wind back the bass control and that seems to automatically give a midrange boost. It's got a Kahler tremelo fitted, which is great but the 'G' string tended to stick so I got John Diggins, the maker, to devise a ball-bearing device in the nut for the string to go over. And the arm's just a short one that you can work with the palm of your hand; I think that's better for bassists."

Robbie: "The bass I use mostly is a Fender Jazz, one of the older models with the slim neck. The bass pickup is on a bout three-quarters and the tone control about halfway. I used to have a Hofner violin bass and it had a great bottom sound, but I had it fixed and it never sounded good after that. So I picked up the Fender and took it into the studio and played it for hours, adjusted it, played it again, 'till I got a sound really liked, then I stuck with it. I know I can get just the right sound any time, just out it into the desk in the studio, no equalisation, and it comes out right every time. I use a Steinberger, too, but I'm not quite as sure about getting my sound on that. And I kept snapping strings too, so I don't use it so much live now."

Geddy: "I've just started using a Wal. Our producer, Peter Collins, brought one into the studio and I tried it and really enjoyed using it. I've always had problems in the studio with basses — I used to use Rickenbackers, which I still love, and a Fender Jazz, and Steinbergers, but I've never quite been able to get a great bass sound every time. With the Wal, I just played about with the controls and found a great sound which I used all the way through. The Rickenbackers I love, but they were a little one-dimensional; they always sounded the same and that was a little limiting. Even when I used the Fender, though, there'd always be one track where it cried out for the Rickenbacker... the Steinbergers are great live, really light, which is important when you're singing."


Pino: "I use a compressor, which evens out the bass sound and stops those occasional loud notes from standing out too far. And I also use an octaver, too, one of the little Boss pedals which is great for bass. It gives a real deep bottom end, but towards the bottom end of the fingerboard it starts to give a fifth overtone which I like but can get a bit strange if other members of the band are playing odd chord inversions. In the studio, I use a Harmoniser just to give a bit of pitch wobble, sort of like ADT, and that's about it."

Mark: "I've got an old Yamaha delay, the E1010 I think, which I know isn't the newest or most flash one you can get, but works well enough for me. I think too many people get obsessed with getting the latest gadget and not getting to know how it works well enough before buying the next big thing. I think I know how to get the best out of this one now, and I use it mainly for double-tracking effects and fast echoes."

Robbie: "I don't use effects much. I tried a bit of flanging or something on a few tracks a while ago, and it's something I'd like to get into but I haven't had the time. Maybe I'll try it soon."

Geddy: "No, not really. If I want another sound, I'll use a keyboard. I like the sound of bass guitar, and so I don't want to mess around with it too much. My synths can get all the special effects I need."


Pino: "What should bassists do? I think just listen to as many people as they can. Try and hear all kinds of things, all styles, and pick up what they I ike from those. I always used to try and work out bits of records that I liked, and incorporate them into my style."

Mark: "Practice, particularly with other people. Listen to what the other members of the band are doing, and don't think you can play all over the songs all the time."

Robbie: "Get out and play. Play with anyone. Even if they're not very good, play along with them and see how you can make the whole sound better. You learn from everybody you play with. I'm still learning things now."

Geddy: "Listen to what the other musicians are doing, particularly the drummer. It's very important to work well with the drummer, because if your songs haven't got that backbone you've lost it completely. You'll strengthen each other's playing if you listen."

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Dec 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Chris Maillard

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