What are the greatest basslines ever?

The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.

Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.

John Coltrane – “Equinox”

Another devastatingly simple groove.

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Blues basics

Since I’m teaching the twelve-bar blues to some guitar students, I figured I’d put the lessons in the form of a blog post. Blues is a big topic and this isn’t going to be anything like a definitive guide. Think of it more as a tasting menu.

Blues is a confusing term. You probably have some idea of what blues is, but it’s surprisingly hard to define it specifically. There are many songs with the word “blues” in the title that aren’t technically blues at all, like “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams. John Lee Hooker was the living embodiment of blues, but a lot of his best-known songs aren’t technically blues either.

Meanwhile, there are quite a few songs using the blues form that you might not think to identify as blues. Two examples: “Shuckin’ The Corn” by Flatt and Scruggs, and the theme from the sixties Batman TV show.

So what exactly is blues?

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Blue notes and other microtones

Blue notes are a big part of what makes the blues sound like the blues. Most other American vernacular music uses blue notes too: jazz, funk, rock, country, gospel, folk and so on. In the video below, John Lee Hooker hits a blue note in just about every single guitar phrase.

For such a foundational element of America’s music, there’s a surprising amount of confusion as to what a blue note is exactly. So allow me to clear it up: a blue note is a microtonal pitch in between a note from the blues scale and a neighboring note from the major scale.

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When I was younger I was obsessed with authenticity in music. I wouldn’t even play electric guitar because it felt too easy, like cheating somehow. I expended a lot of energy and attention trying to figure out what is and isn’t authentic. Now, at the age of 34, I’ve officially given up. I doubt there’s even such a thing as authenticity in music, at least not in America. There’s just stuff that I enjoy hearing, and stuff I don’t. But the concept of authenticity meant a lot to me for a long time, and it continues to mean a lot to many of the musicians and music fans I know. So what is it, and why do people care about it?

At various points in my quest, I thought I had identified some truly authentic musical forms and styles. Here they are, more or less in order of my embracing them.

Sixties Motown

When I was growing up, my mom and stepfather had the Big Chill soundtrack in heavy rotation. You could equate authenticity with soul, and there’s plenty of soul here.

In the eighties, my parents’ friends liked to praise the classic Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin recordings on this soundtrack as “pure,” by contrast to the music of the then-present: hip-hop, synth-heavy pop, Michael Jackson. I dutifully accepted this formulation, even though my ears told me to like the eighties stuff as much as the sixties stuff. Continue reading

DJ on the one and two

Turntablists use record players to play records in ways they weren’t meant to be played. By speeding up, slowing down and reversing the record under the needle, a whole universe of new sounds becomes possible. The record player as musical instrument is still in its early stages of development. DJs already invented the instrumental sound of hip-hop. I wonder what else they have coming.

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Can robots DJ?

Now that I have an office job, I’m spending a lot of time under headphones while I correct people’s grammar. It’s a good opportunity to explore the outer reaches of my music tastes. The office has some networked iTunes libraries heavy on the Pitchfork 500, and I have whatever I’m bringing from home. I’ve also been making my first serious adventure with internet radio. I arbitrarily picked Pandora because they have a free iPhone app. The web version is nothing to write home about design-wise, but the iPhone version is fun, and over wi-fi there are none of the buffering delays that have kept me from enjoying internet radio in the past.

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A synthesizer is like an axe

I found this picture of Herbie Hancock on a stranger’s blog.

Herbie with Fairlight

There was no caption or any other context. So I posted it on my Flickr with a note asking if anyone could identify the computer Herbie is sitting in front of. A couple of days later my friend Mike responded with this video of Herbie and Quincy Jones demonstrating Herbie’s Fairlight CMI in 1983. Continue reading

Herbie Hancock gets future shock

Herbie Hancock is a musician’s musician. He pushed the boundaries of acoustic piano in the sixties. He found a uniquely personal voice on an array of synthesizers in the seventies. And in the eighties, he helped bring turntablism into the pop mainstream.

People have been experimenting with recording playback devices as musical instruments for a hundred years. But the concept didn’t cross into mass consciousness until the rise of hip-hop turntablism in the early 1980s. The breakthrough moment for a lot of people was Herbie’s song “Rockit” from his 1983 album Future Shock. The song includes turntable scratching over a blend of live and programmed drums and synths, along with some heavily processed robo-vocals. Future Shock is named for the Curtis Mayfield song, which is itself named for the Alvin Toffler book. The basic gist is, “Too much change too fast is stressful for people.” Herbie, at least, has managed to get some pleasure from his future shock. Continue reading