Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin

All About the Bass

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When I wrote a blog about recording the bass guitar parts for Songs From the Last Chance Saloon back in 2014, I started with a list of my favourite bass players.  They were many and varied. Classic rock and blues bassists like Phil Lynott and Jack Bruce rubbed shoulders with session greats like James Jamerson and Carol Kaye and the funky guys like Little Feat’s Roy Estrada and Chic’s Bernard Edwards.  And of course, being a massive Beatles fan, McCartney was flagged up (more for the lines he played on songs he hadn’t written).

For this missive on the recording of bass lines for my new album, I thought I’d narrow it down to the players who directly inspired me to pick up the bass guitar – and to continue with it!

The first time I thought ‘I can do that’ was hearing Sting’s bass parts on The Police’s first two albums Outlandos d’Amour and Reggatta de Blanc.  The simplicity and economy of his lines which give the songs so much room to breathe was startling.  The first time I heard Roxanne on the radio stopped me in my tracks.

The complete opposite of Sting’s frugality on four strings would be the wonderful meanderings of Ronnie Lane – particularly his work with the Faces and his own band Slim Chance.  He seemed to be in a world of his own, his lines staggering around the fretboard like a drunk after Happy Hour.  By rights, they shouldn’t work but somehow they do, oozing charm and musicality and refusing to be ignored.  Check out Cindy Incidentally or You Wear it Well.

You never see the name Randy Meisner in polls for best bass player but the former Poco and Eagles member’s lines are always thoughtful.  If ever I’m putting a bass line to a country song, I always ask myself: “What would Randy Meisner play?”  He has a knack of varying his riffs just slightly from verse to verse to keep the part interesting.  He may have only got the gig in The Eagles because they needed someone with a high falsetto voice to complete their harmonies (check out One of these Nights, or Take it to the Limit) but he brought so much more.  And it wasn’t just country.  His line on Hotel California is perfect for the song and on Life in the Fast Lane he proves he can rock out, too.

Another unsung hero of mine is Davey Faragher.  The Californian first came to my attention with his work on several John Hiatt albums in the 1990s.  But time and time again, I would hear bass lines I liked on albums by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Stigers (a great country album from the jazz saxophonist called Brighter Days), Sheryl Crowe and Elvis Costello only to find it was Faragher playing them.

Andy Fraser, in my opinion, is the finest rock bass player there has ever been.  The bass playing on the albums Tons of Sobs and Fire and Water is simply outstanding (check out the instrumental track Sugar for Mr Morrison) and of course, he co-wrote Alright Now.  Incidentally, when Fraser recorded a solo album in 1984 called Fine, Fine Line, he had Davey Faragher playing bass on it.

But by far and away, the most influential bass player in my life has been Bruce Thomas.  I have been a fan of the former Attraction since the first time I heard Pump it Up and I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea from the This Year’s Model album.  Ten years later, I would get to learn from him up close and personal when he was booked to play on my debut album for CBS Records as part of Shev and the Brakes. Watching him take the basis demo bass parts and turn them into vibrant, interesting and highly melodic parts was a master-class in bass playing.  His style and technique (and his use of harmony notes) was my inspiration when I swapped six strings for four, five years later.

I am very lucky that I get to live with the drum tracks for a week or so before having to commit to recording bass lines.  There is no pressure to come up with something instantly; I can try things out, consider and re-jig things that aren’t working as well as I had hoped.

Having said that, quite often, even in the early stages of writing a song, I’m already thinking about other parts; my friend and mentor, producer Colin Fairley used to call it ‘writing a record’ – thinking about it in terms of a recording, not just a song.

For the current recording session, I dusted down my old Fender Jazz Bass (1990).  I rarely play it at gigs anymore because it’s just so damn heavy!  This was put through an old Ashdown 300 watt amplifier head (1999) and newish Hartke 4 x 10 cab (2012).  This gave off a lovely warm, round and full low-end resonance.  Any top-end we needed was supplied by the D.I. to the desk.

For no other reason than it was the song we started with on the drums session, first up was Rambling Days.  This will be the first song on the album.  For me, there is a direct musical and thematic connection with the last track on Songs From the Last Chance Saloon called Run Until we Drop.  It was also the first song I wrote on tour last year in the US.  Despite having done several gigs in Nashville, Chicago and St. Louis, I was still getting to grips with my new Martin acoustic guitar.  I was chilling out in my bedroom in the converted warehouse where I was staying in Kansas City, Missouri, not really playing anything, when I heard the sound of a train whistle coming from the nearby railroad.  It was so evocative of America for me, I immediately started writing Rambling Days.  I would perform it the following night at my gig in Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club.  As I stood on stage, singing it, I could hear the sound of the record in my head – with Bob Segar’s group, the Silver Bullet Band, backing me.

So my bass blueprint was to play what I imagined Silver Bullet bassist Chris Campbell would have played – with just a hint of Bruce Thomas harmony lines thrown in.

I pride myself in being well-rehearsed when I go in the studio, so I’m pleased to report that it only took one take to get the part down.

Travelling Man is an easy mid-tempo country-rock song, very much in the vein of The Eagles, so I did my best Randy Meisner impression.  The song is in the key of F#.  I detuned the bass a semitone and played the song as though it were in the key of G.  My brain just works better in what I think of as classic guitar keys (E, A, G, C and D).  Any classically-trained musicians reading this will be tutting right now!  This was also a first take.

I had struggled to come up with a part for Set me Down by the Singing River.  The song is about Muscle Shoals in Alabama where so much great music from the 1960s and 1970s was made.  I would have loved to have had a part something along the lines of what session player and ‘Swamper’ David Hood would have played (‘Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers’ – Sweet Home Alabama, Lynrd Skynrd) but nothing seemed to sit right.  In the end, I decided to just sit on the groove using mainly root notes (although there is a funky, bluesy riff between verses that I’m quite proud of!).  To my utter shame, it took me three attempts to get it right.

I had also found it challenging when trying to create a bass line for the verse of a song called Ride the Mississippi.  Everything I played seemed obvious.  Now, I am not against obvious at all, but in this case, for obvious read boring.

I gave up for the evening and went out to see some friends playing in a pub near where I live.  Playing bass was Steven ‘Kilby’ Mears.  Watching Kilby on stage, it occurred to me that he was a very different player to me.  Although he is a massive Beatles fan, he came from an Indie-rock background.  Why not ask him to come up with something?  So I did.  And he did.  I would never in a million years have come up with such a brilliant line.

I invited him down to the studio to play it, which he did.  I can’t wait for people to hear it!

I had already recorded Kansas City Won’t Let me Go for a CD release available only at gigs in the Missouri city earlier this year but rather than trying to re-mix that version to sound compatible with the new recordings, it was decided that it would be easier to just re-record the song.  The bass line for this is pure Ronnie Lane.  Engineer Ian raised an eyebrow when he first heard the line but soon warmed to its lilting charm and affable swaying.  And the line perfectly sums up Kansas City to me!

When Ginny Gets her Wings is a song about a lady I met in a bar in Colorado Springs CO who told me how buying a Harley Davidson motorcycle had changed her life.  I scribbled down some notes as she talked.  When I got back in my car and headed for New Mexico, I knew this was going to be a straight-ahead rock and roll song.  For the recording, I summed up my inner Nick Lowe – particularly his work with Dave Edmunds and Rockpile.  It took me a couple of attempts to find the right groove but I’m very happy with the results.

There are three slow songs in production: Santa Fe Sadness, Tucumcari Sunset and Mockingbird.  They all needed very typical country bass lines which don’t distract from the song but carry them through.  These are meat and potatoes to a seasoned bassist.  All three were dispatched very quickly.

The final track was Robert Johnson’s Tears.  I had written a part which develops with each verse.  As the track builds so does the bass line.  Just as it was on Travelling Man, the bass guitar was tuned a semitone down.  To further complicate matters, the guitar is fitted with a device called a hipshot which at the flick of a switch, drops the E string tuning a full tone.  This means that the lowest note the bass can now play is an earth-moving C#.  I like to think that I employed this note wisely and judiciously.  It feels good to play it!

I am pleased with all the bass parts.  I don’t think that there is anything flashy or out of place on any of the tracks.  For me, the bass has to rhythmically enhance the drums while providing a musical link to any harmonic instruments such as guitars or keyboards.  The bass player may be the quiet one at the back but they know that they are holding the whole thing together.  Meghan Trainor didn’t know just how right she was; it is all about the bass.

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