Published On: Mon, Dec 9th, 2013

Bass Techniques – Play Like: Aston Barrett

Melodic, subtle and rooted to the centre of the earth, Aston Barrett’s bass playing lay at the heart of many of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ biggest hits. Gareth Morgan delves into his approach


With over 25 million in sales, Bob Marley & The Wailers’ best of compilation, Legend, released three years after Marley’s untimely death in 1981 from cancer aged 36, is reggae’s most commercially successful album by some distance. It’s the culmination of a sequence of 11 albums starting with 1973’s Catch A Fire and ending with the posthumously-released Confrontation in 1983, that developed and defined the reggae genre. Through all this time, the man who provided the low end, and arguably the pre-eminent reggae bass player, is Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett.

Barrett, born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 22 November, 1946, is self-taught and built his own one-string bass so that he could jam with brother Carlton, who played drums on empty paint tins. He moved through various bands including the bizarrely-named Hippy Boys, played with singer Lee Perry and also provided the bottom end on international hits like Liquidator by the Harry J. Allstars, before joining the Wailers in 1969.

After the release of Soul Revolution (1971) and various abortive attempts to commercialise the Wailers’ sound, the band became stranded in London, where Marley approached

Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. Blackwell, recognising the massive potential of the music and that Marley’s image and persona were perfect for pushing it forwards, provided the funding to enable the band to record Catch A Fire… and the rest is history. Barrett still tours and leads the Wailers and, despite a failed £60 million royalties claim against Island Records in 2006, he is still well-received.

Given the predilection of roots-music bass players towards the Precision, you’ll be surprised to learn that Barrett crafted all of his parts on a Fender Jazz Bass and he still favours it to this day. ‘Some [other basses] look good, but the Fender bass not only sounds like a bass… it looks like a bass,’ he says. Depth and width are essential elements of what Barrett does, but he doesn’t see his role as simply to provide a supportive undertow. ‘I love singing, so when I’m playing the bass it’s like I’m singing baritone, so I create a melodic line each time.’

Barrett’s bass often provides a secondary melody beneath Marley’s vocal, often equally as memorable. The other element is feel, and not just the subtle, loping swing that characterises the Wailers’ songs and reggae in general, but Barrett’s ability to create a groove that’s relaxed and seemingly effortless; he never pushes against the tempo, but still manages to keep the song bubbling along. In many ways, Barrett is the classic example of a pure bass player – and a world-class one at that.

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1: Descending Scalar Bassline
First, be aware that all of the examples this month are written in half-time, primarily because it enables us to squeeze more bass onto the page. For the genre-correct interpretation, double the stated tempos and halve the note lengths, although this’ll mean the notation takes up twice as much space.

Our first example is based on Barrett’s bassline from No Woman, No Cry, which basically descends through scale steps and features offbeat rhythmic interest and some neat pick-ups.

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2: Bubbling Rootsy Line
In terms of the sort of sound required to play these bass parts, the answer is not to simply whack up the bass EQ. It does need to be fat and warm but it also needs, as Barrett himself says, to ‘punch more smoother’. In other words, definition is a key element… or else where does the forward motion come from? There’s plenty of forward motion in the hummable chorus groove from the timeless Jamming, and our version should get you very close to it. You need to really swing the 1/16ths with this one.

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3: Guitar and Bass Unison With Triadic Melody
Most incarnations of the Wailers featured two guitar players, the job of one being to play the classic ‘cha-cha’ reggae riff on beats two and four, whereas the second was charged with supplying lead lines and, more often than not, doubling up on crucial parts of Barrett’s bassline, a feature you’ll clearly hear on the chorus section from Stir it Up. Check out our demonstration of this technique: as you can hear, doubling the riff on guitar changes it from being a simple accompaniment into a major feature of the entire track.

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4: Half and Half Riff With Melodic Hook
As well as full unisons between bass and guitar, you’ll also find plenty of half-and-half riffs on Wailers songs. By this, we mean guitar playing a rhythmic idea and the bass grooving on root notes for the first half, then doubling a melodic fragment in the second half of a pattern. Waiting In Vain is one great example but we’ve based our example on Buffalo Soldier, Marley’s ode to the plight of the all-black 10th Cavalry Division (and subsequent others) that initially fought in the Indian wars in America in the 1870s.

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5: Soul-Influenced Bassline
When Eric Clapton recorded his cover version of I Shot The Sheriff in 1974 it became a huge American hit, raising Marley’s international profile in the process. The fact that the song has gone on to become a generally poorly-played pub-rock standard is a damn shame, especially when you go back to the original version with its lazy vibe, great use of space and those slightly quirky backing vocals in the chorus. Our tribute below should get you close to the wicked, soul-inflected part that Barrett played in the verse of the original.

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6: Funky Broken Part With Fill
Barrett has a very open approach to his playing. ‘I listen to a little jazz and I mix all those kinds of those concepts of music and put into the reggae,’ he explains. ‘It’s got funk.
It got rhythm and blues. It got soul, and there’s a little jazz in there too.’ Consequently there’s a real funkiness to many of his basslines and every now and then he pulls out a genuinely authentic funk fill, as you can see in the second bar of our example below, which is based on the bridge/coda section from Could You Be Loved.

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7: Triplets and Use of Range
Occasionally Barrett gets the opportunity to deliver a bass part whose main function is melodic. Get Up, Stand Up is an excellent example both of this tuneful approach and of the extra dimension given to the music when these ideas are delivered in unison by guitar and bass. Check out our approximation: the triplets should be played with a subtle staccato and the high note needs to be held for its full written length. Also, notice how the pickup note into each bar injects a little funk into the proceedings.

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8: Unison Riff With Subtle Swing.
For our final example we thought we’d check out the intro melody from the classic Is This Love. It’s one of Barrett’s most complete lines with bubbling root work, injections of space, triplets and slightly quirky high-register riffing in the bridge section. It’s well worth checking out the whole song, but in the meantime have fun with the intro; it isn’t particularly difficult in a technical sense but care does need to be taken with the note lengths – and you’ll need to inject some of that subtle swing for real authenticity.



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