Bass Techniques – Play Like: The Stranglers
They arrived on the DIY punk wave but the Stranglers were a skilled, hard-bitten bunch of musicians with a monster bass player – Jean-Jacques Burnel. Gareth Morgan smells a rat
The Stranglers are probably best known for the single Golden Brown. Taken from 1981’s La Folie album, the song – a twisted waltz rock ballad based on a four-bar pattern of three bars of 3/4 and one of 4/4 – reached #2 in the UK charts and re-energised the band’s career.
When original guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell quit in 1990 the band had seemed to be a spent force – but since the turn of the century the Stranglers, still with three original members and now shorn back to a four-piece after 10 years with five, have undergone something of a resurgence and recently celebrated 50 years as a band. The album that started it all, with the classic line-up of Cornwell, drummer Jet Black, keyboardist Dave Greenfield and mega bassman Jean-Jacques Burnel, was Rattus Norvegicus, released in 1977.
Although in attitude the Stranglers fitted snugly into the punk movement with which they were associated, musically it was a different matter. For a start, they had a keyboardist (which was virtually unheard of in punk bands), and not only that, but they had obvious technical prowess. Cornwell was a decent guitarist capable of solid rhythm-playing and cohesive, musical solos, and Black’s kitsmanship drove the music forwards with a rock-solid foundation. All important cogs in the wheel – and Jean-Jacques Burnel contributed equally with his tough attitude, in-your-face bass playing and signature sound… a sound that’s up there in the Top 20 most revered bass sounds of all time.
Burnel’s trademark tone is massive – all solid, crunching edges with lots of fizzing, harmonic life. On Rattus Norvegicus Burnel played a Fender Precision Bass (he currently wields a Shuker JJ Burnel Signature Bass custom built in the UK by Jon Shuker). He used a heavy pick on the bridge side of the split pickup with both controls on full.
The origin of his sound is rooted not so much in design as in the endemic financial difficulties experienced by four musicians sharing a squat in Guildford in the mid-’70s: ‘Jean had a speaker cabinet that was about the size of a door with 16 or so 10″ speakers,’ wrote Cornwell in the book The Stranglers Song By Song. ‘They all blew one after another, so he ended up with a huge bass cabinet with blown speakers, but the sound got dirtier and dirtier and became a feature of the band.’
JJ Burnel’s early training as a classical guitarist imbued him with real technical ability on the bass. He employed his prowess, sure, but alongside that sound, it’s his rock-solid timekeeping and keen melodic sensibilities that really mark him out as a bit special.
1: Root Note Rock
Rattus Norvegicus is bursting with bass goodies and melody is one of Burnel’s trademarks, but he’s is just as happy bustin’ out solid root notes when it’s the right thing to do (and when handling vocal duties). With his sound, though, it still sounds like he’s having an absolute ball. Just to recap on getting the tone: Precision, controls on maximum, heavy pick, played towards the bridge with plenty of aggressive intent. Once you’ve sorted that, have a go at our first example which is based on the underlying bass part from Ugly.
2: Uptempo Eigth-Note Scalar Fill
Most of Burnel’s best melodic work is pretty straight-ahead and played in eighth-notes. Take Sometimes, a cheerful ditty penned by Cornwell about a violent argument with a girlfriend that opens the set: the intro bass groove sounds a bit like Duane Eddy, and then there’s solid roots all the way in the bridge section and for most of the verse. At the verses end Burnel hits a tasty two-bar figure that we’ve tried to get you close to with our example. The theoretically-minded will note it comes from the A natural minor scale.
3: Roots and Octaves With Off-Beat Phrasing
We can all think of iconic bass intros: some get membership of the club for the sheer number of notes involved (Burnel is in this category for No More Heroes), some for their simplicity, and some for the sound. In the latter category even though it’s not strictly the first thing you hear, Burnel gets an entry in for Hanging Around, a heavy pick/Precision assault so pugnacious that you actually fear for your bodily safety when you hear it for the first time. Our example is based on the mainly offbeat root and octave line that follows.
4: Melodic Shape Through Four Chord Changes
The Stranglers were always very adept at varying or creating new sections in their songs for keyboard or guitar features, and this inevitably provided Burnel with another place in the song where he could stretch out and get creative with his bassline. With (Get A) Grip (On Yourself), the long central section runs such a course and, as it’s a major chord each time, Burnel uses the same shape (i.e. the same fingering pattern) against each. Our fourth example below should get you close to nailing that shape.
5: Keyboard/Bass Tritone Unison Riff
Peaches was the second single release from Rattus in May 1977. It reached #8 in the chart, though as the first version contained the word ‘shit’ and references to the female anatomy, the BBC banned it and the band recorded a second, tamer version for airplay. Another was the bass intro… arguably the most iconic punk bassline ever. In this example we’re focusing on the quirky figure Burnel doubles with Greenfield which features the doom-laden tritone interval (three tones or six frets distance) and a distorted bass sound.
6: Broken 9/4 Part
Whilst fans always regarded the Stranglers as a punk band, the music press were far more cynical about the band’s credentials. When Rattus was released it rapidly became obvious that the band could really play, but they had also been featuring Peasant In The Big Shitty in all the live sets, a brooding treatise on life in London in broken 9/4 time, which was exceptionally un-punk. You’ll find a live version on the remastered Rattus and our version, broken down into two bars, should get you close to the main unison theme.
7: High Tempo Sixteenth-Note Variation
On the face of it, our seventh example looks fairly straightforward. It’s based on some of the variations on the root note groove Burnel hits us with when (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) really gets going. It’s just one note, but one delivered in a number of sixteenth-note variations at 144 beats per minute. The result is a nightmare for fingerstyle players and a pretty damn tough workout for those conversant with a pick. As always, start your practice at a much slower tempo (try 100bpm) and be patient.
8: High Tempo Melody in Eight Notes
Our final example also strays from 4/4 time to Burnel’s muscular workout on Goodbye Toulouse, a song about the destruction of the city predicted by Nostradamus. It’s in 3/4 (we’ve used 6/4 in order to squeeze more information in) and finds Burnel dextrously running up and down using scale and pentatonic fragments through an awkward chord sequence in excess of 160bpm. It’s not quite as tough as it sounds, but it’s a fun challenge and one of those bass parts guaranteed to sharpen your chops.
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