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Chops: Take Your Pick

Bass greats Steve Swallow and Bobby Vega on the underrated art of the plectrum

Bobby Vega (photo by Paul Haggard)
Bobby Vega (photo by Paul Haggard)
Steve Swallow (photo by Claire Stefani/ECM Records)

It took a while for the electric bass to find its footing as a jazz instrument. Monk Montgomery adopted the ax while in Lionel Hampton’s band during the early to mid-1950s, and jazz-trained R&B players made groundbreaking popular music with it during the ’60s. But it wasn’t until the fusion and funk era of the ’70s and ’80s that the instrument really came to prominence, via fingerstyle greats like Jaco Pastorius, slap virtuosos like Marcus Miller, or masters of both techniques like Stanley Clarke. Along the way, some players—including Montgomery—have preferred a pick to using their fingers. But flatpicking an electric bass, while common in rock, is still rare in jazz-oriented music.

For Steve Swallow, who has recorded extensively as both leader and sideman—with his wife Carla Bley, Gary Burton, John Scofield and others—the decision to use a pick came naturally, but not immediately. At the start of his professional career, playing with musicians like Jimmy Giuffre and Art Farmer, he used the standard acoustic double bass. But by the 1970s, he’d switched exclusively to electric. “It was something that happened to me, not something that I did,” he says. “I kind of fell in love. I picked up an electric bass and my fingers told me, ‘This is it.’ My head screamed back at them, ‘No!’ But they insisted. It was an improbable choice and it created all kinds of difficulties for my career. But I just couldn’t deny the feeling that I had for the electric bass. It hit me like a freight train the first time I picked up the instrument.”

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