Entertainment & Arts

Mitch Benn: Paying homage to 'slap' bass guitar

Mitch Benn
Image caption Mitch Benn was a novice to the bass guitar

For some music critics the word "slap" paints a picture of indulgent bass guitar solos and dodgy disco clothing. A Radio 4 documentary, Spank the Plank looks to rehabilitate a technique, which can loosely be described as "whacking the strings with your thumb".

It's a fascinating story for anyone who loves pop - chronicling the evolution of slap guitar from upright bass on early 78rpm recordings, and Elvis's Sun sessions, "slap bass" morphed into the backbone of '70s funk, pristine '80s pop and into the metal crossover of bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus.

When word got out the documentary was being made, there were tentative emails from BBC engineers and mixers - all of them bass players - almost a masonic underground of slap players who became involved.

It was decided the presenter, Mitch Benn, had to convey not just the history of the technique, but to learn it himself and perform it live before an audience.

Slap can be such a technically difficult thing that whoever was presenting had to have a level of skill - which meant being a guitarist.

Benn had not only the technical ability needed, but a lack of ego. He had to sit in front of bass legends, holding a bass, getting schooled. It was a process he christened "humiliation time".

In preparation for an actual performance in front of an audience, Benn took lessons from some of the UK's best bass players - Mark King, Yolanda Charles and Guy Pratt - and was given a history lesson.

Guitarist and author Sid Griffin explained the double-bass version of slap, saying: "Everyone heard Elvis's Sun Recordings, such as That's All Right.

Language of slap bass

  • Slap: hitting a string with the thumb.
  • Pop or pluck: after a slap, fingers pull a string, often the octave note, on the way back up.
  • Hammer on: sharply bringing a finger on the fretting hand down behind a fret to make a note.
  • Pull off: Like a hammer on in reverse.

"As there were no drums Bill Black pulled the string away from the fingerboard, it snaps back and fills up the sound - that was the dam breaking."

The man who popularised the technique on electric bass was Larry Graham, who used his thumb to create a drum-like thud when playing without a drummer in bars alongside his mother.

That percussive ability to mimic the drums saw the bass move out of the shadows and into the bright lights of disco and '70s funk - and into the consciousness of bass players like the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea.

By the '90s, a whole generation of white, suburban rockers were binding together thrash and funk with mixed results.

The parallel world of pop had seen bass's development into what Pratt calls "absolutely a glamour instrument", lending itself to the super shiny productions of the '80s - but a change was coming.

Critics, often wrongly, associated it with the excesses of the decade. Slap bass seemed of its time: one individual, set apart from the band, skilled, virtuosic, but not part of the overall sound.

With slackers, shoe-gazers and grunge around the corner, the musical landscape was changing.

Benn says: "Maybe one of the reasons it gets a bit sneered at and frowned upon in this country is it's definitely not that pasty, British, indie stuff.

"I think we get a bit self-conscious here about anyone who seems too good at what they do. If you ask someone, 'Can you play that?' and the answer is a definite yes - we get uncomfortable."

Image copyright Pat Graham
Image caption Yolanda Charles has played with some of the biggest names in contemporary pop and rock

There was an atmosphere of competitive sport surrounding the excesses of the technique - a feeling that when it came to who deserved praise, only speed could sort the men from the boys.

Charles says in a session market dominated by men, she can think of few females in the UK who regularly slap the bass.

A respected session player with Robbie Williams and Paul Weller and formerly of Raw Stylus, she's faced a phone audition with one question: "You dress sexy right?"

She didn't take the gig. But the players who get into slap purely as a badge of speed - unattached to the needs of a song - only get so far.

Throughout the recording we found players like Charles, who have amazing careers and who have played with the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd, all have the same thing in common.

They know that less is more. The incredible technical ability in the arsenal of some of these players is impressive, but the taste to rein back your ability and serve the song is their badge of musicality.

The message to new players is that slap bass is like seasoning: It's a strong flavour, make sure you don't spoil your tea.

The bass players featured in Spank the Plank know that evenings spent practising on the edge of your bed may get you some hits on YouTube. But they're happy with long careers featuring actual hits.

Spank the Plank can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 1130 GMT on Thursday 6 November.

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