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Joy Kuo


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by Lee-Ping Jiang

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! 

But 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.  

Taiwan 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. 

As 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.

Many 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. 

One 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 this song. 

 I 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.  

I 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. 

Joy 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 ~

My 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. 

I 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 quickly. 

I 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 little.


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 ‘real music’.

These two gangs were opposite to each other in several different aspects, even on their political beliefs and living status.

I 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 the business. 


On Taiwanese Music Scene ~

Taiwanese studio players are not very technically advanced, but they have to think fast and be very knowledgeable in a lot of music styles.

A 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.  

That’s 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. 

You can split Taiwan’s studio works of the last quarter century in 3 parts: 

Before 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.

Then 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. 

The 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 ~

The 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. 

I 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. 

Don’t 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 ~

When 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 Pastorius.

Every 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. 

Of 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.

Through 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 ~

I 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. 

My 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.  

I 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 ~

I’ve 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.

I 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 all.  

When 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.

Four Is Enough ~

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 ~

I’ll 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.

Theory 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 study.


Groove is Everything ~

It’s 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 useless. 

How 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.

Nowadays 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. 

Back 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.  

Lee-Ping Jiang is the board master of Taiwan's biggest bass-only discussion newsgroup, and also the leader of a bass instruction group, The Bass Saviours.   





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