JJ Burnell Bass Techniques
Punk threw up some superb bassists, from Peter Hook to Colin Moulding to the Stranglers JJ Burnel. Gareth Morgan pays tribute to a player who won our hearts by claiming he played maple-necked Precisions because they bounce better
In 1977, as the punk explosion was sweeping away the pub rock cobwebs, a band with a new bass sound – a sound that at times could be, frankly, bloody scary – exploded onto the scene. The name of the band was The Stranglers, and Jean-Jacques Burnel was the man holding it all down and shoving it right in your face.
Born in London on 21 February, 1952 to French parents, Burnel studied history at the University of Bradford and originally trained as classical guitarist. He’d never seriously considered a career in music; besides Triumph motorbikes, his life-long passion was and still is karate (he’s now at black belt, 6th Dan level, and head of Shidokan UK). However, through a chance hitch-hiking incident in 1974 Burnel met guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell and drummer Jet Black. When keyboardist Dave Greenfield answered a Melody Maker ad in 1975 the ‘classic’ line-up was born.
Greenfield’s expansive keyboard playing harked back to The Doors and added a highly individual element to a band that, notwithstanding their aggressive attitude, played music that didn’t exactly sit comfortably in the punk camp. Nevertheless, they gained a huge following, signed with United Artists in 1976 and went on to release a string of successful albums and singles right up until the departure of Cornwell in 1990. From the ’90s to the present, the trio of Burnel, Black and Greenfield have remained constant, with Baz Warne currently handling guitar and vocal duties, and they continue to tour and record to this day.
Burnel’s trademark crunching, fizzing clang is usually attributed to a Precision bass (he currently plays a Shuker JJ Burnel Signature bass custom built in the UK by Jon Shuker) strung with Rotosound strings and played with a heavy pick with the right hand positioned near the bridge. The origin of the sound is far more accidental, as Cornwell explained in the book The Stranglers Song By Song: ‘Jean had a speaker cabinet that was about the size of a door with 16 or so 10″ speakers. 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.’
Burnel‘s classical grounding gave him fretting dexterity and a far greater grasp of melodic possibilities than most of his punk contemporaries. Although there’s plenty of creative use of arpeggio and scale fragments and no shortage of killer hooks in his bass parts, Burnel‘s sound and approach guaranteed that anything spewing from his P-Bass stood out as a feature. Our exercises are all inspired by his work on the first three Stranglers albums.