Bass Techniques – Play Like: Stanley Clarke
Released in 1976, School Days combines crazy-ass jazz fusion chops with rock, funk, R&B and great composition. Gareth Morgan examines a bass-player’s monument that still stands today
The year 1976 saw the release of two of the most influential recordings in fusion history. Jaco Pastorius had recently joined Weather Report and his self-titled first album made bassists the world over sit up, take notice and, in extreme cases, rip the frets out of their Jazz basses. Stanley Clarke had already released three solo albums and these, alongside his work with keyboardist Chick Corea in Return To Forever, created an unusually high profile for a bass player. In 1976, however, he unleashed School Days, an album that’s become a must-own for any bassist looking to play jazz in the widest sense of the style – and the title track is one of the greatest bass guitar anthems of all time.
Clarke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 30th June 1951 and started playing bass ‘as a schoolboy’; he arrived late on the day instruments were distributed to the children, and the upright bass was one of the leftovers. Needless to say, Clarke took to it like a duck to water. After graduating from the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now part of the University of the Arts), he moved to New York in 1971 and rapidly scored a plethora of gigs with top jazz musicians including Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon and Gil Evans.
The gig playing electric and acoustic bass with Corea’s Return To Forever soon followed and, on five RTF albums and three solo LPs, Children Of Forever (1973), Stanley Clarke (1974), and Journey To Love (1975), his proficiency and profile increased. In 1973 Clarke had switched to active Alembic basses and was getting the sort of sound he wanted. By School Days he was at the peak of his powers, both technically and creatively, and ready to deliver something a bit special. It wasn’t a difficult album to record, as Clarke says: ‘We made it quickly. Most songs were one or two takes – we moved fast. I really dug in and played kind of raw. I remember during one of the songs, the engineer at Electric Ladyland said to me, ‘Now, that’s a bass solo!’ I was going for it. Of all my albums, this one has the most attitude. I wasn’t angry or anything, but my playing was fierce and unapologetic. I was passionate about what I was doing. ‘
School Days is awash with brilliant soloing on both Alembic and upright bass and jaw-dropping unison chops. Clarke’s fingerstyle bass playing is hard, his slap playing is inventive, his tone big and brash. There’s a real joy to the ensemble work which is reflected in the exuberance of Clarke’s contribution. For jazz/funk/fusion fans or anyone looking to expand their playing in this direction, School Days is an album that must be heard.
All 4/4 Time
1 – Basic E-String Slap Pattern: Slap bass at its simplest is the act of striking down on a (low) string with your thumb and pulling high strings with index or middle fingers, allowing them to snap back against the frets. Sly & the Family Stone’s bass magician Larry Graham is credited with inventing the technique, but Clarke was the first bassist to come along who actively sought to develop it. Our first example, written in double time, is based on the bridge section from School Days. Play the E string notes with thumb, and pull (or ‘pop’) everything else!
2 – Laid-Back Part With Chromatic Movement: The School Days set isn’t all about fiery soloing and aggressive slap bass – there’s plenty of top-notch groove playing and Clarke generally grasps every opportunity to develop his bassline. Good examples are School Days’ central solo section or chunks of the multi-faceted Life Is Just A Game, especially under Clarke’s vocal, but our example is based on the lazy Sunday feel on Quiet Afternoon. Clarke varies the basic idea countless times, making for a far more interesting and dynamic part than would otherwise be the case.
3 – Uptempo Funk/Rock: We’ve already mentioned the epic Life Is Just A Game, the album’s nine-minute, multi-sectioned closing statement, replete with wonderful soloing by keyboardist George Duke, guitarist Icarus Johnson and Clarke himself. Some of the unison riffing will render you speechless and the whole thing is glued together by the amazing Billy Cobham on kit. Johnson’s guitar solo commences from around 3:40 and Clarke digs in, delivering a pumping bassline of a similar nature to our example. The key is to keep the notes big and legato.
4 – E-String Slap With Dead Notes And High-Register Pops: Our fourth example is based on the bubbly slap line from The Dancer. Again, play the E and A string notes with your thumb, pop the remainder, including the dead note (represented by ‘x’), and take care to observe the rests between popped notes in beat three. In terms of setting up your sound, Clarke leans in the direction of the bridge pickup but you might find this produces a less open tone than you need. One of the best-known classic slap sounds is a Jazz-type bass in twin pickup mode with all controls on maximum.
5 – Slap and Fingerstyle Combination: For the second example drawn from Life Is Just A Game, we’re checking out the part that Clarke delivers under George Duke’s synth solo from around 2:40 in. He deals with the fairly static first bar by using fingerstyle for the low note and popping the high register lick – be careful to squeeze in the grace note when you have a go at our version, as it’s key to getting the feel. The second bar is a fingerstyle workout with many variations as the solo progresses. All in all, taking into account the tempo, this one is a bit of a challenge.
6 – Soloing Phrases: Many of you will have turned the page at the first mention of soloing on bass. You don’t need to be able to solo to be considered a bass player – it’s a personal choice. Constructing a solo is an issue so check out how Clarke does it, especially the acoustic bass offering on Desert Song. Our little snippet shows that it’s not about filling up space; look to play a melody and develop that melody, both rhythmically and melodically. Check out the one and a half minutes of Clarke’s solo: always beautiful, and at times breathtaking.
7 – Busy Slap/Fingerstyle Bassline: Just before the serious business that is Life Is Just A Game closes proceedings, Clarke hits us with Hot Fun, an outrageously danceable number where he introduces a basic root/octave slap riff in bar two via a steaming fingerstyle lick in bar one. In our version, unless you can switch over to your thumb instantaneously you might find it necessary to play the first note in bar two fingerstyle. Allowing the popped C# to ring as you play the low A might require a bit of thought and adjustments to your technique.
8 – Classic Chord Riff: For our final example we’re taking a look at the chord/double stop riff that underpins the title track. It’s basically roots on the A string and the fifth above on the D string. You’re travelling from 12th fret to open string but, other than the slide up/slide down lick in our second bar, this shouldn’t cause any problems. As with Ex 1, the example is written in double time making it look a lot scarier than the reality. Sound-wise, clean and even is the way to go – you don’t need to boost treble and cut bass – and err towards the bridge pickup.
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