Author: Ramos, Jean

Dropping Octaves

Many of us have been in jams that just “sort of happened;” they weren’t planned in advance. You know the routine, you are at a camp-out or festival and you take a quiet moment to practice on your instrument of choice, another musician walks up and starts picking with you. Next, a fiddler walking by likes what he hears and joins in. A banjo picker, not wanting to miss out on any of the fun, adds a few licks before one song ends and the next one begins. These “spontaneous combustion” jams are great; the only thing that can make them greater is the thumping of an upright bass. As my friend Dave Gooding says, “It’s all about the bottom!” I guess a jam without a bass is like a house without a foundation.

I often host jams in our camp at various events. I’ve been blessed to have our friend Lou McClenahan provide the solid bass rhythms for many of my jams. His “one liners’” and “cheap shots” are just a bonus that he tosses in for free. My friend Kristen Willis, in addition to her lovely vocals, also plays the bass and recently, Randy Shelton has taken up the bass too. The one thing I’ve noticed is that everyone is happy to see someone wheel a bass up to a jam.

Most upright bass players stand while playing. Sometimes, after a couple hours in one place, they need to take a break. Oftentimes they will hand it over to someone else for a little while. If no one else can play it, he may just lay it down. It is at times like this that I wished I could play the bass so that the jam doesn’t lose momentum. I mentioned this to my husband Terry and that was all it took. At the Susanville Festival, he went around to various bass players and “picked their brains.”

About three weeks ago, I walked in the door after being gone all day and Terry said, “Lou is coming by this evening with a bass for you.” Not only did he find me a nice bass at a fantastic price, he set it up, made some minor repairs and adjustments and he and his wife, Sunshine, delivered it! What a pleasant surprise! He gave me a quick lesson which consisted of: “It’s tuned like the lower four strings of your guitar but a couple octaves lower, this is the first position, second position, and third position, like imaginary frets…oh, you’ll figure it out! Sunshine interjected, “…and don’t put any markers on the fingerboard, they’ll become a crutch.” (That was good advice). I’d like to take this opportunity to say, “Thanks Lou.”

It happened that Jimmy Bowman (who lives in Arnold) was working here in Brentwood for a couple weeks and we invited him to stay at the house. Jimmy, as most of you know, loves to write songs and sing and is a good guitar picker and fiddler. Every night after supper, he and I got out the bass and messed around with it until we figured it out. I would play the guitar and sing and he would play the bass. The next night, he would fiddle or play guitar while I would thump on the thing. By the end of the two weeks, we were pretty proud and were calling ourselves “bass players.” In the meantime, Randy Shelton was sending me files of fiddle songs to play along with. Terry, bless his heart, got online and ordered “Band in a Box,” and other “stuff” he felt I needed. Anyway, I’ve been having fun with my bass and I have a lot of moral support.

I leave the bass out on a stand where it’s handy. I found that the best way for me to learn to play was to get out my “Parking Lot Pickers” songbook and sing the songs while accompanying myself on the bass. By doing that, I could select my own tempo and try songs in various keys. Several people told me that I may find it difficult to sing while playing the bass but I had no problem with it, I found it no more difficult than playing guitar and singing. Sometimes I listen to a CD and I’ll play along with it. I can now tell people that I’ve played with the best; Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, James King, Alison Krauss…I know, that is a stretch.

Kristen told me that I would have a feeling of accomplishment right away; this is true. I have no delusions, however, I realize I have a long ways to go. I pose no threat to her, Lou, Dave Gooding, Ron Cotnam, Mikki or any other of my bass playing friends. I might be able to step up if they need a coffee break, as long as it’s only one cup. I have a whole new respect for bass players. One thing I love about the bluegrass community and the CBA in particular is the encouragement and assistance other musicians will give when you try something new.

The bass players I know have given names to their basses. Lou’s is “Stanley.” Kristen’s is “Bubba.” Randy’s is “Bill.” I need to come up with a name for my German-made bass. Any ideas? Guess I need to know the gender first. Hmmmm, how can you tell?

Posted:  7/28/2013

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