Tapping Into The Bluesby Chris Jisi
(This interview first appeared in the April 1994 issue of Bass Player magazine. Reprinted with permission.)
Many bassists who aspire to grow beyond the role of groovemaker find themselves traveling up the neck in an effort to emulate other instruments. Others look beyond their fingerboards and adopt a producer's ear for the performance and placement of their instruments. Count Roscoe Beck among the latter group.
After earning a reputation from Austin to L.A. as a solid bottom-liner with such artists as Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, and Joe Ely, Beck made his behind-the-board debut on Jennifer Warnes's highly acclaimed collection of Leonard Cohen songs, Famous Blue Raincoat. Since then, he has gone on to produce numerous projects, including discs by Cohen and Ford. "I reached the point where I wanted to be more than someone's bass player," he says, "and producing seemed the logical direction." Ironically, in his current playing and co-producing role with Robben Ford & the Blue Line, Beck's consideration for the sonic overview has led him to move up the fingerboard, where he rounds out the trio's sound with simultaneously tapped chords and bass lines.
Charles Roscoe Beck spent the first 14 years of his life in Poughkeepsie, New York, first trying drums and then guitar, beginning at age 7. Feasting on his older brother's diverse collection of blues and jazz records as well as the radio sounds of Elvis, Motown, and the Beatles, Roscoe was soon teaching himself--and his brother--guitar. "Before long, I was in a bunch of local bands, playing stuff like Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, and the Ventures," he recalls. "I was always the youngest but the most serious--the one who showed everyone else their parts." Realizing they needed a bass player, the brothers bought a Japanese hollowbody and began to alternate bass and guitar duties. After his family moved to rural Atlanta, Texas, Beck found few prospective bandmates in town, so he headed to Austin on his own, at age 17. There he finished school and moved in with Byron Atkins, a fellow guitarist who introduced him to Austin's active music scene.
Sharing a house with Atkins proved to be a revelation for Beck. "We would have these nightly jams with a great jazz guitarist named Fred Walter, and coming from a rock background I'd have trouble staying with those guys on guitar. As a result, I often played bass, and I found I was able to keep up. I could walk through the changes and lock in, and I soon began to feel more at home on bass. Byron and Fred were turning me on to jazz recods by Bill Evans and Miles Davis, so I was hearing bass players like Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, Ron Carter, and Dave Holland. Also, there was a great organist in town named James Polk, who later played with Ray Charles. I learned a lot by checking out his left hand." Inspired, Beck eventually got his hands on an upright and headed for North Texas State University, where he studied jazz by day and plucked a Precision in a horn band at night.
Following school, Beck returned to the thriving mid-'70s Austin scene. He jammed at Antone's with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and others, worked with Eric Johnson and Bill Carter, and formed Passenger, an R&B/fusion unit. Thanks to a local guitarist who was touring in California, Passenger's tape got into the hands of Joni Mitchell's producer, Henry Lewy, who called to inquire about hiring the band for an upcoming Mitchell tour. Word about Passenger's prowess spread quickly on the West Coast, and labels began to call. "In 1979 we made our L.A. debut at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach," says Beck with a chuckle. "What we didn't know was that we had been booked on Grammy night, so there were only about 15 people in the place. Fortunately, one of them happened to be Robben. He dug the band, and he needed an opening act for his shows at the club the next three nights. We ended up playing to standing-room crowds and making connections with a lot of the top session musicians who came by."
Although the Mitchell tour fell through, Beck spent the next 12 months shuttling back and forth to L.A. where he eventually resettled. During the transition, he put in sideman time with everyone from Ford to the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin big band and also received a pivotal call from Lewy. "Henry hired me to play on the Recent Songs album by Leonard Cohen. I had only fleeting knowledge of him. At the time, I was coming from the techno-chops side of things, where it's all about the note--but here was this whole other world, where everything was in the lyrics. Leonard's songs had an immediate and profound emotional impact on me, and they changed my musical perspective. He ended up hiring Passenger [as a road band], and along with [vocalist] Jennifer Warnes, we toured extensively in Europe."
Beck's new outlook and an inclination to try producing led him to work behind the glass for Warnes's aforementioned 1986 Grammy-nominated effort and a steady flow of other projects. In addition, he and a partner ran a recording studio for three years. At the same time, he maintained his playing position with Ford. The guitarists's second disc, Talk To Your Daughter, took four years to complete, allowing Beck to work with Eric Johnson and Joe Ely during lulls. After the album was released in 1988, however, Ford formed a quintet for two years of extensive roadwork. By 1990, economics dictated that the group pare down to a trio--with surprisingly good results. "At the end of the final show of that tour," recalls Beck, "we looked at each other and said, this is the band." Dubbing themselves Robben Ford & The Blue Line (the third member is drummer Tom Brechtlein), they made their recording debut with the release of a self-titled effort in 1992.
Of his Blue Line bass role, which he documents on a new instructional video due out in the spring, Beck notes, "I have complete freedom to come up with parts in the studio, but I always try to keep it simple. Live, I focus on laying it down in the verses and building on that to create excitement during Robben's solos. Where we really open it up is in the extended tags that end many of the songs. That's where I get to take some real chances by introducing different tempos, feels, or chord changes."
Proof of the trio's growth is apparent on their latest effort, the Grammy-nominated Mystic Mile, which runs the gamut from blues to funk to pop and features a Beck lead vocal on his composition "Say What's on Your Mind." "Right now," says Roscoe, who is writing in preparation for the next record, "we want to take this band to the next level." While that won't prevent him from also applying his talents as a producer, he's patient. "In recent years, I've focused on being involved with quality music and musicians, probably to my detriment with regard to financial and commercial success. But the music is all I'm concerned with. Besides, I've always believed that if you don't choose for money, you've probably made the right choice."
Beck and Blueby Gibson Keddie
(This interview first appeared in the February 1996 issue of Bassist magazine. Reprinted with permission.)
Blues bass playing. It's simple enough, isn't it? Roscoe Beck might change your mind, though.
After all, many of us probably gained our basic bass chops plodding through what seemed like five-week long blues jams in A, with our mates on various other forms of instrumentation. It's easy for the appeal of the blues as a music form to be left severely diminished after that level of abuse, and besides, what else could the blues offer after such in-depth 'exploration'...?
Let's spring forward a couple of decades. Instant picture spin, as on the 60's 'Batman' television show... Time - present day. Location - The Jazz Café, Camden. Gig - Robben Ford And The Blue Line (Robben Ford, vocals, guitar; Roscoe Beck, bass; Tom Brechtlein, drums). What's happening? Fever pitch reaction to the blues!
Standing in the middle of an
absolute crammed-to-capacity Jazz Café gig, the audience is being treated to
the sight of some blues rules being rewritten by one of the tightest outfits
around and it's an unquestionably heart-warming experience.
And so to Mr. Beck. I interviewed him at the band's hotel earlier in the day, and amongst the wealth of information gleaned from the affable bass player, he took time to proudly show me the five string Fender Jazz-like Roscoe Beck signature model developed in conjunction with the Fender Custom Shop, a process which has taken some time, given Roscoe's exacting tonal requirements. A five string bass guitar with a two octave fretboard offers an amount of notes for a bass player, more than enough, surely, given that blues bass doesn't generally take you up into the unknown regions of the narrow frets, I mocked gently. "Oh, but I do use them," he assertively countered in pleasantly understated Texan tones. And does he. Later at the gig, many an experienced bass player was suddenly looking around in attempt to spot the hidden Hammond organ player, an audience effect Roscoe obviously enjoys, as he tapped out picking hand Hammondesque double stops in that damned narrow fret region (suitably augmented by a Leslie cabinet effect!) whilst keeping the bass groove solid with his fretting hand. Suddenly those early teenage blues jams in A seemed a long, long way off...
A new album, Handful Of Blues, sees RF & TBL maintaining allegiance to the blues. The material sounds very live thanks partly to one-time James Taylor guitarist Danny 'Kootch' Kortchmar producing (and contributing occasional rhythm guitar) - all the tracks were cut in just four days. Even more surprising is the amount of double bass work which permeates the tracks, sounding as effective as any electric bass would do in such circumstances.
"I guess it does, too; we've gotten back to where we started almost," smiles Roscoe. "The transition has been quite natural, going back in a way, but when Robben and I met we were playing jazz. Both of us had momentarily left blues behind. At some point we discovered that we both had a blues background, so rather than thinking of it as back to the blues, I think of it as full circle. We came back around to it, the blues just started entering our music more; the jazz elements were more prominent at first, then there was more blues, and then at the time we became a trio here with Tom on drums in addition to blues we started remembering other early musical influences, like Cream and Hendrix, trio bands that were based in blues but rocked, and applied those sounds too."
A good cross section...
"It really is, and I definitely want to lean more towards playing acoustic bass in years to come. To me, that's really the sound. Electric bass can definitely have a really pleasing tone quality, and if you're playing fretless you can get some warmth and some woody resonance out of it, but it's nothing like picking up a really good acoustic; you play one note on that and just go, 'yes!' because it sings so well."
On the album, you've done the old classic Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. Obviously everybody knows that song fairly well. Given that, was it difficult to approach with a different king of bass line, which you did by using the upright?
"It could have been, but it wasn't. You're right, it often is difficult to come up with something new on something familiar, especially if you love it. There's a version by Nina Simone which, I think, pre-dated the Animals' version, and that inspired Robben to think of the tune again. Of course, we're all more familiar with the Animals' version, it being a hit. But the first time we tried playing the song, I think Robben and Tom just started playing and I hadn't picked up a bass yet, I was just standing there looking at my basses, wondering what to play, and I think I picked up the acoustic for a second, because I'm really trying to see how much I can get away with! Acoustic didn't seem to work - I was having a feedback problem with it at the time - so I picked up my Zeta and the bass line I played on it is the first thing that came into my head. I don't know if it is, but I thin of it as kind of reggae-ish almost and immediately Robben said, 'Oh, I like that'. We kept it! I think if I'd picked up the electric I would have been tempted to sound too much like The Animals' Chas Chandler ."
Where did you grow up in the States?
"At 14 I moved from upstate New York round about the time I started bass, and I ended up in Austin, Texas in 1971. I finished high school there and went to North Texas State university for a couple of years, a music school with a good jazz program. Then back to Austin for many years, where I worked with players like Eric Johnson. I used to jam around with Stevie Ray Vaughan quite a bit, we were buds; I had a jazz band so he'd come and sit in with my jazz band; he had a blues band and I'd go play bass with his blues band. In the 70s it was a happening place. Jimmie Vaughan had a band called Storm, which I used to listen to, which was great; Stevie was just arriving then, Eric Johnson was there, there were all these good, good players, none of whom were famous at the time; we were all just lounge lizards!
"There's still a music scene in Austin. One of my all-time favourite guitarists, a guy called Derek O'Brien played there when Stevie, Jimmie and Eric were playing, and he's still playing there now. Those nights back then with everybody like that playin', you better believe they were something! I'm sure I detect a feeling now of young players thinking 'Blues is popular - if I play blues, I might get a deal.' They're more concerned with getting the record deal now, and it sure wasn't that way with us."
"The pickups - and this was the hardest thing - were made by Bill Lawrence. I told him that I wanted a Jazz bass sound, and obviously the coils are doubled up; they're switchable, each pickup can be used either as a single coil, two single coils parallel, or you can make the whole thing into a humbucking. The problem we had, one most basses have which use traditional alnico magnet pickups, is magnetic pull on the string, which causes false harmonics - wolf notes and stuff; as you go up on the neck on the low strings, they get indistinct, that's the property of the magnetic pull on the string. And when you add a B string, which has more mass than an E string, the problem is that much worse. The trick was to get a passive pickup with less magnetic pull which still had the sound. And Bill did it for me."
The poles sit either side of the strings, rather than under them...
"Yes, what's happening is there are poles directly under the strings, but they're shorter magnets and have a set amount of magnetism according to the mass of the string, all worked out mathematically, so the net result is very good, an improvement, I would say, on a regular Jazz bass pickup. A very simple set-up: volume and tone, three-way selector for pickup selection. There's no pan pot as such. I like this set-up because it's quick on stage. The only other sound I would use on a Jazz bass was sometimes to roll off the volume on the neck pickup a little bit, just to make the bridge a little bit more predominant, to get more of that 'Jaco' edge, keeping the neck pickup in the mix a little to fatten it up. Without a pan pot, or two volume controls, that couldn't be achieved. But what we ended up with is a pre-set, so if you're in the mid position and want a little bit more of this, just pull!
"So, not even talking about the pickup splits, there are four basic sounds here: neck, mid position, bridge, and this one added sound, a little more bridge than neck pre-set, easy to get to. Then you have all sorts of combinations because you can split the coils, and mix up your tones. Full string adjustment from a Gotoh bridge; between the locking bridge and the graphite neck, it's really the most stable of my basses. And the one other thing this bass doesn't show is that it'll load from the back."
A 22 fret neck, as well.
"People have asked me why I didn't do the full two octaves, but I wanted to keep the pickups in the traditional Jazz bass position. If I had added two more frets, if you pop it, you need this little space between the end of the fingerboard and where the pickup is."
Bearing in mind how much use the top two frets get anyway (Ahem - sorry, Roscoe -GK)...
"Not much, but I find I use this high F, and I use every fret on this bass. I have a prototype four string also, both 22 frets, and I use them all. I get right up here to the dusty part."
It was such a buzz, though; Mick's
singing out front, Charlies's back there, and Keith's shucking into me with his
guitar the way he does, Ronnie's there - and me! I figured it'd be three or
four songs but we played for over an hour, so they must've enjoyed it. After
playing, Ronnie says 'Wanna beer?', I said 'Sure!', then packed up my bass and
said my goodbyes. That's really something to tell the grandchildren - if I ever
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