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Slap Bass 101

by Jason Gubbels

Slap Bass 101


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Few things in music are as easily parodied as slap bass. But slap bass was doomed long before Seinfeld became inextricably associated with the technique: The near-ubiquity of bass pops and slaps in the 1980s helped ensure the style's frozen-in-amber qualities.

So maybe it's safe to look back. Although stand-up bassists in rockabilly and jazz had been slapping strings for decades, general credit for transferring the technique onto electric instruments goes to Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone (check out 1969's "Thank You [Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin]" for one of the earliest examples of the style), even if Graham himself avoided the "slap" designation, preferring "thumpin' and pluckin'."

Funk and soul performers went nuts for the percussive slap, as witness the session greats who made their name poppin' behind big names -- in addition to Bootsy Collins, you'll find Louis Johnson slapping with everybody from Herb Alpert to Jeffrey Osbourne, Chuck Rainey doing the same for Smokey Robinson and Robert Palmer, and Marcus Miller proving bassist of choice for Luther Vandross and Tutu-era Miles Davis. Even Bernard Edwards of Chic got into the act (check out his T. Rex cover for Power Station).

We've also compiled Mark King of Level 42, smooth jazzers like Brian Bromberg, Pino Palladino slapping his fretless bass for Paul Young (note: not easy), modern rock adepts Flea and Les Claypool, and weirdoes Squarepusher and Doug Wimbish. And lest you think this is all ancient history, Bryan Ferry is still using slap bass to ground recent tunes ("BF Bass (Ode to Olympia)" is from 2010, believe it or not). So don't be ashamed -- turn up the slap! (You can always use your headphones).

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