Global Bass Online June 2001
Taiwan, a small island in the edge of Pacific Ocean,
makes herself world famous in some strange ways: Conflicts with China, products
from sport shoes to computer components, or eating rhino’s horns!
besides these political and commercial affairs, Taiwan also has definite
dominant influences in other areas. One of them is the demanding power of the
Mandarin Chinese pop music market, which includes Taiwan, China, Hong Kong,
Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and nearly all around the world where
Chinese-speaking people live.
has become the production center of Chinese pop music since the mid 1980s, with
a $200 to $300 million annual local market value, and the overseas market is
even bigger. Taiwanese super stars are eager to gain their exposure in global
scale, and critics acclaim that Chinese pop music will be the next big thing,
just like Latin music has been this past few years.
Taiwan’s pop music scene has changed a lot recently;
for example: with the tendency to become more globalized, most native record
companies now have branches of international major labels. Although one can
easily find a world famous session player’s name in a Chinese CD — like
Anthony Jackson or John Pena –most elite Taiwanese session and studio players
still survive after all this competitions. They face the rapidly changing music
trends and high pressure of studio needs with ease and grace.
JOY KUO, the Taiwanese studio bass ace for more than two decades, gained his nearly
god-like status in Taiwan, with his 1000 plus albums credits, incredible time
and feel, amazing creativity, and totally humble attitude.
a veteran studio musician, it seemed to be routine that his sound and musical
approach would become more and more conservative, just to keep him in the
business. But that’s not him. “If you want to
categorize me, I’d say I belong to the type of players that likes to ‘mess
around’. Most producers hire me for this ability, not how precisely I can
play with the click track. They
want my vision of music, and my uniqueness.”
top-notch Chinese pop stars have admired Kuo’s play so much, that they just
tell Joy to do whatever he wants in the music, to “mess around” with their
top-of-charts mega hits.
of those admirers is Taiwan’s best singer/songwriter, Emil Chou. Kuo has
worked as not only his world tour’s musical director and bandleader for
straight 4 years since 1995, but also as the producer and main arranger of his
“unplugged” album Little Heaven in
1996. Kuo played his Martin B-1
fretless acoustic bass guitar on the record (“Chou’s voice is very suitable
to accompany with fretless”), but it’s not the typical softer sound that you
have come to know.
On Love Follows Us in the album, Kuo draws a deeply,
growling slap sound out of his Martin. He soon changes to a percussive staccato
when he plays a Baroque counterpoint passage with electric violin, and back to a
long legato swell by using different right hand positions.
How Are You Getting Along? is very Afro-Cuban,
and on it Kuo plays a lyrical, Jimmy Johnson-ish beautiful solo, above
his own over-dubbed Jaco muting slide. Kuo accompanies double tracked slide
guitars with only chords on The Ferryman’s Time – tapping arpeggios, double
stops, strumming noises with both hands – there’s no single bass notes in
tap a lot, mostly arpeggios and combinations of chord tones, and I usually use
them on the bottom to make different layers of sound.” His magic spread even
wilder in rock star Chyi Chin’s music. Through
the Cat’s Eyes is a heavy dance tune; and Kuo’s playing is just like
what Marcus Miller would do to this one: carefully-placed pops and syncopations,
the tone sounds deep and bright at the same time, plus an over-the-top slap solo
across the whole range of his Fender Jazz.
Have Nothing At All
features his multi-tracked double thumping, “Chyi’s concert bass player even
asked me how I played on that one. He just can’t figure it out.” The most
significant single is Chin’s cover version of the old Taiwanese folk song Fix
the Broken Fish Web. Except Chyi’s voice and drums, it’s all bass: he
tapped, slapped, multi-tracked, played several fretless solos with different
colors and sliding harmonics. It sounds like Jaco, Marcus, Stu Hamm and Percy
Jones decided to join this project. He can do nearly everything.
Kuo was recently voted the Most Popular Bass Player of Taiwan. He still looks
young at his 50’s; Kuo talks about his ideas about bass playing, special needs
and environment of Taiwanese musicians, and how important groove is…
Born to Play ~
father is a professional musician; he worked in Taiwan’s Provincial Orchestra
in the ‘50s. He taught me to play violin when I was 10, but I gave up pretty
soon. I didn’t know if I liked music then.
joined the marching band in junior high, tried every instrument a little bit,
and I was good at vibraphones while everyone else wanted to play horns. One of
my neighbors was a professional trumpet player, his drummer son asked me to jam
with them, I was asked to play double bass just because it’s four strings like
the violin. I didn’t like to be so normal when I played or even chose
instruments, so playing double bass was quite fun to me; I was good on it pretty
wanted to keep playing music after high school, so my dad let me worked in a
famous nightclub where the bandleader was his good friend, to start my music
career. There’s no any music school for non-classical musicians, so I just
played there to gain my musical experience. I was the “freshman” in the big
band, although I brought my dad’s sax, they asked me to play bass after I just
finished my first page of music. No one wanted to play bass; so the newest
member must fill the role. I could read treble clef staff already, it’s was
just a matter of transition to read bass clef. I thought it’s fun to play
bass. We played Dixieland and swing-era music a lot, and those basslines were
usually very simple anyway. Thus I could build my double bass chops little by
Getting Into the Studio ~
I didn’t ask to get into the studio scene, neither did
I care about fortune or fame - it just happened naturally. I started to play
bass professionally with bands in nightclubs and dancehalls since 19. After
military service, I got into the studio at age 25. When I played with club
bands, I joined a huge event, which had several famous big bands playing one
after another. I thought I was not very special among them, but obviously some
guys liked what I played, so they brought me into it.
In the ‘60s to ‘70s, there were two different groups
of musicians: one were ‘band players’; the other ‘group players’. Band
Players played music for living, so they gigged around nightclubs, hotel salons,
or restaurants that held variety shows. They played big band style music, read
staff, and usually had large horn sections. They thought they were “real
musicians” that were “in the business”. Group Players were usually
younger, played rock music with electric instruments, thought they’d gotten
the ‘rock spirit’; and played
two gangs were opposite to each other in several different aspects, even on
their political beliefs and living status.
was trained to be a “band player”, but I was too FAR-OUT to my fellows. I
listened to a lot of modern jazz music and rock music, while my fellows just
wanted to play swing. I’ve got the spirit of “group players”, but I was also superior to them because I could
read fast and knew the rules. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I could get into
On Taiwanese Music Scene ~
studio players are not very technically advanced, but they have to think fast
and be very knowledgeable in a lot of music styles.
government that came from Mainland China in the 40’s ruled Taiwan; however,
before WWII it was Japan’s territory, and had US military corps defended in
Taiwan until mid ‘70s. These political changes meant that we had to play so
many different kinds of music: Chinese folk song, Taiwanese folk song, American
rock music, Broadway music, Latin, Afro-Cuban, even Japanese Ro-Jun
style folk music.
the special needs that Taiwanese players have to face: you have to know every
kind of music, much more than western players, and play them well.
can split Taiwan’s studio works of the last quarter century in 3 parts:
mid ‘70s, studio bass players were a part of big bands, they had to record a
whole album (10 or more songs) in a working day, so you got to read bass clef
and staff very fast.
came a huge music movement in the late ‘70s that changed the Taiwanese music
and cultural environment. We called it The
New Folk Movement. I started to play electric bass a little before then, and
that’s the time the Taiwanese Number
Notation System got into the studio scene. Lots of classically trained
composers were involved in the pop music at this era, so we had to play using
electric guitar, oboes and bassoons together.
young musicians that started the movement became the main force of Taiwanese
commercial pop music in the ‘80s, and they began to use MIDI and sequencers
then. There were times that all background tracks were pre-recorded using
keyboards, and I was only asked to add some flavors to the music. There’s a
huge difference between MIDI bass track and human playing bass track, producers
soon found the later more energetic and vital. To adopt this, we developed new
recording procedure: put the sequenced demo tape on the machine, write it down
as the demo played – I had to finish my own notes in 2 runs, then played my
ass off just to surpass the original bass part.
Taiwanese Studio Player
procedure was very exhausting, you had to squeeze something fresh out in every
session, and I had worked this way 15
hours a day for more than 10 years. I’ve played on more than 1,000 records
through my 25 plus years in the studio, and that’s why I try not to play as
much as I used to, and want to get my own life back. Now I play at Grand Hyatt
Hotel Taipei in a jazz trio five nights a week, but leave sessions and live work
to my students.
don’t think I have a very personal style when I do studio work. In fact, in
the whole Far East, Asian musicians are nearly the same. We basically listen to
western music, study every player’s style and technique, and mix them all
together. I play just like the way that producers want. Sometimes I am lucky
that producers give me enough space to stretch out, and I usually put all my
energy into this kind of work, I don’t care much if it will be the major hit
or the last song in a record.
have too many expectations on what a studio player can be. It’s actually
better to form a band, play what you really want; that will be more interesting.
A lot of kids’ goal is to be a studio player, but that means nothing. In fact,
I don’t think there’re too many real studio players in Taiwan now: most
active session players are quite good in some special music genres, but they are
not all style players.
From Joe to Jaco ~
I started my studio career in the ‘70s, there were not so many authentic
foreign records available, mostly were ‘B edition’s’, which meant you
didn’t have too many choices to hear what you want. (The Taiwanese government
in the ‘70s heavily limited western music; so people could only buy “B
edition” records, the pirate copies of foreign albums pressed locally, the
originals were brought from American soldiers or Philippine musicians.)
A friend gave me Stanley Clarke’s “School Days”,
and it opened a new window to me. I learned Stanley’s style very thoroughly,
but found his sound was not very suitable to studio works. Then I heard Jaco
bass player around the world admires Jacob’s works. Although I dig his sound
and feel, I follow Joe Zawinul’s route more than Jaco’s. Weather Report’s
“Black Market” album is my all-time favorite— Now I listen to the album
only when I’m in good mood, it is the best status that can accept all things
the music can bring to me.
course I learned a lot from Jaco, from artificial harmonics to his fretless
playing. I love his touch and the ways he dealt with music, but from the
viewpoint of a fan, I think Zawinul’s composition can bring his bass
players’ playing to another level—no matter if it’s Victor Bailey or
Gerald Veasley. That’s why Jaco’s “Word of Mouth” sounds so good to me:
because the album is very Zawinul-ish, but without Joe.
When I studied Jaco, I couldn’t help but be heavily
influenced by his sound, which in reality goes against my normal studio work
needs. It’s just too thin for most situations. After some research, I found
Marcus Miller’s tone ideal to studio needs, it had pleasant highs and deep
lows. I learned slap technique mainly from Louis Johnson’s style, whacking
right hands everywhere, but I also studied Marcus’ style very precisely. Now I
can bring together different details when I slap.
my career, I’ve always spent a lot on records. I really love Percy Jones (of
Brand X fame) and Mick Karn’s Japan-era fretless playing. Percy is more
percussive while Jaco was more melodic, and Karn’s fretless approach is
extremely unusual. Mark Egan is quite good also. They all sound different, but
they are more adventurous than others, a little more edgy.
That’s why I like their music.
Fretless Offers More Fun ~
have eight basses now, and most of them are fretless. I just love the sound of
fretless, which is more expressive than fretted, though my main “career
bass” is a ‘70s cream white fretted Fender Jazz Bass. I replaced nearly all
the hardware on it. It is now equipped with Seymour Duncan / Bassline Jazz
pickups, onboard preamp of the same brand, Hipshot D-tuner, and a Schaller
roller bridge. My hands don’t sweat at all, so it looks pretty new after all
these years, except the former owner dirtied the maple fingerboard.
main fretless is a sunburst Jazz from the same era. I pulled the frets out,
filled the slots with thin maple stripes, smoothed the board, and coated the
fingerboard with a layer of very tough floor varnish. It sustains longer than my
other uncoated fretless basses because of this. When I put a Badass II bridge on
the fretless; now the sound is tighter.
also own a fretless Alembic, a Martin B-1 and a Korean-made acoustic bass, and a
Yamaha older style TRB-6 6-string. The Yamaha is the only other fretted I have;
I gave it to my son because of the onboard preamp’s annoying noise.
I got my NS Design electric upright in New York; and I usually use it in small jazz combo gigs. It plays and sounds very beautiful, but I have to replace the tuners every time I change strings, the ball end of the tri-pod also broke, so I replaced it with a real double bass.
Control and Being Controlled ~
tried many brands of strings through the years, but when I get enough highs, the
lows sounds too stiff and not “down” low enough. As the lows begin to sound
tight, the highs become too brittle. I settled down to Dean Markley’s Blue
Steel on my fretted about a decade ago: They suit my playing style, and I can
control the strings.
Most players like to use flatwound strings on fretless,
but I think they are too one-dimensional; you just can play what flatwound can
afford. But when I put GHS Boomers on my fretless, I think it’s easier to
control the sound, I can do what I want with the strings.
don’t have too much “ideal sound” in mind when I choose an instrument.
When I play a bass, I just think: what can I do with it? What good stuff can I
bring out from it? As long as I believe I can control
it, let it do good, I don’t care if the bass sounds like Jaco or Marcus at
you play someone’s bass, possibly you’ll feel that the bass controls you;
you just can’t play what comes from your mind. Back to your own bass, then you
control the bass, every thing’s fine. When you can make a bass sound good,
it’s the one for you.
In studio, I use my Trace Elliot GP7SM solid-state preamp as DI, and that’s about it. It’s enough for most studio work, where the bass sound just needs to be as clean and simple as possible. The preamp’s EQ section was broken a long time ago, but I usually use it’s two pre-shaped curves only, bypass the EQ, and let the bass speaks, so whatever.
I’m not against extended range basses. Though I love the sound of a good low B, I still bring 4-string basses to the studio, just for the reason I don’t have any studio-grade 5 or 6’s now. I’ll never let the situation that I have to go out and buy a 5-string for a session happen to me. Whenever I need to reach the range of low C, I just detune a whole tone down on all 4 strings (make low E to D), and then flip the D-tuner. Of course you have to adjust your position and fingering.
Practice, Practice, Practice ~
practice everything that sounds interesting. Sometimes I’ll play Donna
Lee with my son together, using thumb and index finger snapping the strings,
or sing the same line when I play the song, like Victor Bailey. You also have to
concentrate on your playing. A lot of players sound muddy not because they
don’t practice, just because they are not concentrating.
Their coordination between left and right hand is not
precise enough. You have to feel every note when you play, just use enough force
to press and pluck the string with the velocity the note asks, instill your
feeling into every note even when you’re just practicing scales.
is important, though it only makes senses to you after you can really play some
stuff. To study theory before you can play, you’ll be afraid of it. Is the
note right? Is it the correct chord progression? You can’t make good music
this way. Theory can help you understand what you play, and enlarge your
imagination, so you’re not going to anywhere. You should just play before you
Groove is Everything ~
much easier to get music everywhere these days, but most aspiring players and
amateurs only listen to some extremely hard stuff, even right at the beginning.
However, when you consider all the aspects that form good music, groove is in
fact the hardest. You can practice techniques and solo all the time, but bass is
the instrument that supports others; groove is what a good bass player is all
about. If you can’t put your highly technical chops into your groove, it’s
to train your sense of groove? You have to learn every different kind of rhythm
pattern and music form, as many as possible. When you listen to music and find a
pattern that inspires you, just transcribe it and write it down immediately.
Write one, and you have one style and pattern done in your arsenal.
Practice the pattern with a drummer or a drum machine,
feel the connection between the pattern and the drum parts, then you can have
the groove to some degree.
You’ll catch more details or get different feelings and
after a while you listen back to the same pattern and suddenly you have
progressed to the next level. Make the other people’s pattern your own style,
this way you will be able to express yourself freely. Collect patterns, eat them
in, digest them and use them to jam with drummers.
we can record ourselves very easily with hard-disk recording or digital decks.
Record what you play, and listen to the relationships between the mechanical
click and the real rhythm. Then you can play
around the click.
to techniques, I don’t think if you’re groove playing, then you can’t put
your chops into the music. As the music flows, a bass player doesn’t play the
same patterns all through the song. There’s always some space left for you to
fill in, make the music more exciting. You just “verify” the original
pattern, but you cannot change the established feeling of it. It needs a lot of
experience and practice to have the taste that can make these variations musical
and meaningful, that’s for sure.
Suggestion to a beginner
Get out of your corner right away. Play and jam at every possible chance. Thus you can acquire the experience and taste of music little by little.
To get the records mentioned in the interview, you can buy them online at Taiwan's Fly Net.
Love Follows Us, How Are You Getting Along? and The Ferryman's Time are from Emil Chou's Little Heaven (1996)
Fix the Broken Fish Web is from Chyi Chin's The Dark Moon (1994)
Through the Cat's Eye is from Chin's What Can I Do to Love You? (1998)
I Have Nothing at All is from Chin's Collection of Love Songs of the Century (1999)
Lee-Ping Jiang, author of this article is a young writer, bassist and friend living
in Taiwan. He will be translating some of our articles and interviews into
Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese as well. For
the uninitiated Western mind, Joy Kuo is the Asian bassist, what Alain Caron,
Stanley Clarke, Jeff Berlin is to the Western bassist.
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