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The Book & The Column

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The first series of BBC TV's "Rockschool" has proved so (deservedly) successful that the people involved – bassist Henry Thomas, guitarist Deirdre Cartwright, and drummer Geoff Nicholls – have now put together an instructional book to take you, in detail, beyond the basic concepts covered on-screen. The book, a weighty and wide-ranging paperback volume, is published early July and will cost £8.50. Here's a preview from just three sections...


Sound and technique
HM bass sound varies according to personal taste and the style of your band. The common factor is, of course, volume. Getting the bass to cut through the other instruments at high volume can be a problem and will usually require considerable experimentation on your part. Earlier heavy bassists, like those I've just mentioned, tended to go for a full, rich, clean bassy sound (with the possible exception of Bruce and Entwistle who on occasion opted for a drier, trebly feel). This bassiness underpinned the music, but left things at best indistinct, and at worst muddy and muffled.

More recently, bassists have gone for a middly, punchy sound, which allows the bass lines to cut through, while still providing the thud you need to kick the music along.

"An audible bass sound, that's the most important thing. When you go and see a band and can't hear the bass, that's not necessarily because it's not there, it's just because the sound they've chosen doesn't cut through... If you're too boomy, the boom will be covered by the bass drum, and if you're too trebly, you'll be wiped out by the guitars and cymbals...

"It took me two years to find a sound with Whitesnake that fitted in with the drums, and with two guitars, the organ and the vocal." NEIL MURRAY

To get a middly HM bass sound, try turning your amp up as high as it will go without distorting. Set all the tone controls on about half, but be prepared to make fine adjustments depending on the acoustics of the room and the sound of the other instruments. You may need to ease the Middle or Presence control forward a bit.

Open out all the tone and volume controls on the bass itself. If you've got active circuitry, switch it on, but then increase the bass setting on the amp to compensate for the extra treble of the boosted signal.

How you play the bass will also affect the sound dramatically. Most heavy bassists, I think, use the standard two-finger pluck style described in my chapter on basic technique elsewhere. If you play this way, pluck the string right over the middle pickup. One thing you must do is play hard.

If you use a plectrum (like Phil Lynott, late of Thin Lizzy, Alan Lancaster of Status Quo, or Chris Aylmer of Samson), you will automatically get a sharper, more trebly sound, and you will have to cut back on the Middle and Treble controls on your amp.


Reggae drum patterns
As in all styles of dance music, the bass and drums in reggae work very closely together, developing a formal relationship. A tried and tested bass and drum riff is called a 'riddim'. The relatively small circle of Jamaican musicians who produced the vast majority of seminal reggae recordings have names for many of the riddims (often derived from the original recording of the bass line), so they can be referred to and used again – preferably in the original key.

From the point of view of the drums, however, we can distinguish three main areas of style:
1 'one-drops'
2 'steppers'
3 contemporary rock/funk reggae

In each of these styles reggae is performed with straight 1/8th, 1/16th and shuffle feels as in the other categories of music we've looked at.

One-drop is the technique which stems from the late 1960s/early 1970s classic reggae period; it is a technique which is totally unique and at variance with other drum kit styles. Experienced drummers hearing reggae for the first time feel that something is the wrong way round – or upside down. Why is this? To begin with we notice that the distinguishing feature of almost all of reggae drumming is its half-time pulse. This means, rather than the snare drum backbeat falling on beats 2 and 4 as in rock the snare drum beat falls on 3 with the accents on beats 2 and 4 being transferred to the hi-hat and beefed-up by the rhythm guitar and keyboard right hand. Further, the bass drum is played simultaneously with the snare drum, both 'dropping' on the third beat of the bar: The unsettling feature of this pattern is that there is no strong downbeat (from the bass drum) on the first beat of the bar, as there is in most funk and rock. Sometimes the bass guitar provides the stabilising role on count one, but not always. This is what has caused so much perplexity among non-reggae drummers. The snare drum is also usually played on the rim, ie the butt end of the left stick strikes the rim while the tip end rests on the batter head.

Played synchronously with the bass drum this gives the percussive edge to the drop. The snare mechanism is sometimes turned off so that the sound is very clean and dry. Finally the hi-hat (almost never the ride cymbal) is used to state the rhythmic feel. It is also played in a very tight and staccato fashion – 'sticky'. The hi-hat cymbals are mostly shut tight, but for variety they may be opened and shut either in the normal disco 'barking' fashion, lasting a whole 1/4th, 1/8th or 1/16th beat (according to tempo), or for a much shorter stabbing accent. This is achieved by opening the hi-hat slightly, crashing the top cymbal with the shoulder of the stick and closing the hi-hat as swiftly as possible.

The tempo of reggae gradually slowed as the music became more political, so that by the mid-1970s a new style emerged where a heavier feel was obtained by playing four to the bar on the bass drum – steppers, or 4-drop. This is the basis of the 'militant' and 'rockers' styles and was pioneered by Sly Dunbar and Leroy Horsemouth Wallace. The drop on the snare is still on the third beat, although, because the tempo is often slower, there is room for doubling up, as some of the following examples show.

But there is nearly always a return to the half-time feel.

The Column

And next month One Two Testing becomes the headquarters of the new Rockschool Club.

Following the screening of the original series, many viewers wrote praising the show and looking for extra advice. Producer Chris Lent and his team answered as many letters as possible, but from now on you'll be able to direct your enquiries through One Two Testing.

We'll be setting aside regular space for Rockschool presenters Deirdre Cartwright, Geoff Nicholls and Henry Thomas to answer your questions on guitar, drums and bass – both playing and performing.

Rockschool has already brought encouragement and help to a million musicians. Stay tuned to THIS channel for the next step – the BEST in music advice.

Write to Rockschool Club, (Contact Details)

Also in June and July you can catch repeats of the first series of Rockschool, and see the team playing and demonstrating live. More details in Shredder, page 84.

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