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Artist’s Choice: Christian McBride on Classic Funk/R&B Bass

James Brown, EW&F, Temptations and more

Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire in the '70s
Larry Graham
Christian McBride at NJPAC press conference, 4/13

My favorite funk and R&B tracks have active bass parts that are creative but also disciplined. The discipline of what makes funk funk is the exact opposite of what makes jazz jazz. As jazz bass players, we’re taught to milk every possibility out of every chord change in every bar, so we’re constantly creating something new. Whereas in funk, the goal for the bass player is to find something that works and keep repeating it over and over again. If you break that pattern, the whole thing is going to fall apart.

James Brown

(Bootsy Collins, bass)

“Soul Power” (King, 1971)

When I was a kid I would listen to “Soul Power” and go, “Man, I cannot stop listening to this bassline. This is absolutely incredible!” It didn’t surprise me later on to find out that that was Bootsy Collins, and that Bootsy Collins had played with James Brown from 1970 to 1971. I went, “Ohhh, that explains it,” ’cause I was a big fan of Bootsy’s Rubber Band as a kid and a teenager.

Larry Graham and Graham Central Station

(Graham, bass)

“Pow” My Radio Sure Sounds Good to Me (Warner Bros., 1978)

“Pow” has one of the most seminal funk bass solos ever. I mean, his slap solo on that track, I hope people like Louis Johnson, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten have a picture of Larry Graham right next to whatever god they pray to every night. [laughs] Sheer power and funkiness.

Jr. Walker and the All Stars

(James Jamerson, bass)

“Home Cookin'”
Home Cookin’ (Soul, 1968)

There are a couple of breaks in there, in between the verse and the chorus-little, quick two-bar breaks-that are just classic Jamerson, man. You can’t help but make the funk face when you hear those two bars. And just the sound of it, the pull of his bass, is monumental.

Aretha Franklin

(Chuck Rainey, bass)

“Rock Steady”
Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic, 1972)

I got a chance to watch Chuck Rainey give a bass clinic somewhere in Chicago, and he was playing by himself-no drums, no percussion, no nothing-and he had the room rockin’ back and forth. No slapping, either-I mean, he did a little tiny bit-but mostly it was just some solid, funky basslines. And that’s what he does on “Rock Steady.” A song’s title couldn’t ring any truer, you know?

Earth, Wind & Fire

(Verdine White, bass)

“Mighty Mighty”
Open Our Eyes (Columbia, 1974)

This is one of the first tracks I know of where the bass is tuned down. This is before they had five-string basses, so he tunes his low E down to a low D, and there are certain times in the track where he’ll pull that low D and you feel it in your stomach.

Donny Hathaway

(Willie Weeks, bass)

“Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)”

Live (Atco, 1972)

This is one of Questlove’s favorite bass solos, and whenever we’ve done live shows together in the Philadelphia Experiment, he’ll shout out, “Gimme some Willie Weeks,” and then I have to quote something from the “Everything Is Everything” solo. It’s one of the most perfectly constructed solos I can think of, and Willie Weeks was not necessarily known as a soloist.

The Temptations

(William “Billy Bass” Nelson, bass)

“Shakey Ground”
A Song for You (Gordy, 1975)

If you listen closely, there are two bass parts playing. The classic funk formula is that you have two guitars and a bass, but on this track you have Eddie Hazel playing the guitar part and Billy Bass playing a rhythm bass part, and then you have a lead bass part. That’s a display of genius, somebody thinking to put a second bass part on.

The O’Jays

(Anthony Jackson, bass)

“For the Love of Money”
Ship Ahoy (Philadelphia International, 1973)

If you know anything about Anthony Jackson, you know his reputation for being a stickler in the studio. He’s very, very conscious about the sound that his instrument is producing, and you know he had a big part to do with his sound in terms of pre- and post-production. So not only is this track a great example of some extremely fine bass work, but I think it’s an example of some extremely fine overall studio work.

[As told to Brad Farberman]

Originally Published