Chick bass players are a growing trend. More and more female bassists appear on the music scene. In the last 30 years the trend has changed from girls studying cello, French horn, and piano to girls rocking out on guitars, drums, and bass.
The bass may seem an unusual choice for a female musician in today’s world. Women in all industries want to step out in front, not be relegated to the sidelines. Guitarist, keyboardists, drummers, and singers usually get most of the time in the spotlight Yet, many of the women interviewed for this article have found their own particular niche in this role. They do not see themselves as merely sidemen. At the least, most say, they are providing foundation. The chick bass player’s reaction to sexual discrimination and being written off as a sideman varied from one musician to another, depending on each one’s sensitivity and temperament. Just as there’s no two women alike, there’s no two women bass players alike.
Let’s start with southern New Hampshire’s LauraJean Graham, a late 20s musician who started playing out in her teens. Graham’s current band right now is Squish Mitten., a brainchild of her and Manchester drummer, Lee Sevigny, that also features Pat Herlehy on guitar and saxophone. Graham also plays bass for a Manchester based blues band called Catfish Howl. In her spare time, Graham fills in for countless others, Howard Randall, Chris Noyes, and Little Harpo. In the past, she played with a German heavy metal band for two months when she was overseas.
Graham’s previous band, Elysium, an original rock alt funk band in Boston, played at T.T. The Bears, The Middle East, Scullers, and in Harvard Square. Elysium also played The Stage Door in Manchester and Harlow’s Pub in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Graham’s resume includes The Lokals , a jazz-fusion band in the Keene area, and Dana Shellmire.
Graham is a classically trained pianist who started at age four. In high school, the jazz band didn’t have a bassist. Graham’s father was a bass player, so she mentioned her interest to the band director.
“A keyboard player said, ‘Girl’s can’t play bass,’ and I said, ‘Oh, ya?’ and that’s literally how it started,” Graham recounted. “I still remember the guy’s name to this day.” That was Graham’s sophomore year at ConVal High School in Peterborough.
“I just kind of grabbed it by the nads and went with it,” Graham said. Soon after, she was jamming at The Rynborn in Antrim, New Hampshire and the Strange Brew Tavern in Manchester, and Stormy Monday’s in Merrimack. “I just decided I liked jamming a lot more than regimented music. I like a lot more just listening to something and going with the groove,” she said.
Graham loves the instrument because it let’s her follow her instincts. “I like the fact that I don’t have to think about it,” she said. “When I’m playing all these other instruments, I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next. I love my bass because I just get lost in it. I don’t think about it at all. Everything is feel. Everything is instinct. It just allows me to completely go into my cosmic Zen. Everything just kind of moves through me and doesn’t stop. It just kind of goes.”
Her earliest influences are John Paul Jones and John Entwistle. She loves Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clark, Chris Squire, and Geddy Lee. “I’ve never been a clinic bassist. I’m the kind of person, I’ll be listening to a song and I’ll be like, ‘Wow! That’s a really cool line’ then I’ll go home and figure it out.” Graham does not like many of the bass players on commercial radio. She prefers a tasteful bassist to somebody who jumps all over a song.
Graham believes her versatility sets her apart from other low end players. Complete and utter open-mindedness will allow her to play everything. “I will never tell you I’m the best bassist in the area. But I will tell you that I think I’m pretty amazingly diverse,” she said. “I can play with anybody. I’ve made a career out of following really, really well. I’ll play anything, and I’ll play it with conviction. I’m an awfully quick study.”
Some musicians may think of bass players as mere sidemen. Like most of the women interviewed for this article, Graham doesn’t think it is a big deal to be termed a side person. “I giggle about that discrimination. Yes, you can say we are, in fact, sidemen because very few of us actually do leads. OK, there’s Geddy Lee. He does lead vocals and pretty much does everything. You can say Sting, although I don’t really care much for Sting’s bass playing. The fact of the matter is, we’re the engine in the bus. We keep everything going. I wouldn’t say ‘side.’ I’d say foundation. Everything is built upon the rhythm, the drummer and the bass.”
When asked if she has ever dealt with discrimination from male musicians, Graham firmly answered with: “Every single day of my entire life, as soon as I started playing. Whenever I go into a new jam or whenever I meet somebody that’s never met me before, they automatically assume I’m an idiot and have no idea how to play the instrument.” Male musicians offer patronize her by asking her if she needs help plugging in or tuning.
“I’ll walk into a music store, and they’re hesitant to actually let me try playing the bass. I’ll look at the six-string fretless series up on the wall, and they’ll be like ’You should try a four string first.’” To which Graham will reply with: “Ya, honey, I have three. Shut up, and give me the fretless.”
Graham freely admits to having a chip on her shoulder. “Oh my God, do I ever. I really do. That kind of treatment pisses me off. What pisses me off even more—and this is the easiest, fastest way to get on my bad side.—is if I’ve played a really rocking set, and some, well, pardon the term, but, douche bag, comes up to me afterwards and says, ’Hey, you’re pretty hot.’ ’Well, great. I was playing too. Did you happen to notice any of that? Go to hell.’”
Graham got her musical training from her father’s piano lessons. After she learned the bass clef, she taught herself. She named her favorite bass, Tyrone. “He’s the one man that’s never let me down,” she said. Tyrone is an ESP 1PD B304 with dual Humbuckers with a five-band equalizer that allows her to adjust the sound for different kinds of situations. “He’s way better than any man. No question about it. That bass is never leaving me. I will get other basses, but I’m never letting go of him. He’s my favorite. I have two others ,and I almost never play them because Tyrone does everything I want.”
Graham‘s parting comment was “Chicks have rhythm too.”
Yukiko Fujii from the Tokyo Tramps used to play with a heavy metal band that called itself Troll before changing its moniker to Knight‘s Storm. She also played with a punk-pop-rock band called The Swallows for seven years.
Fujii became a bass player in Tokyo when she was in junior high school. A Japanese trend toward arena rock bands Queen, Kiss, and the Bay City Rollers prompted many Japanese boys to form bands. Dismayed that there were no girl bands forming, Fujii and her friends started an all girl unit.
Fujii, not having a preference when her friends were choosing instruments, picked up the bass, as she already knew piano from playing as a child and was familiar with the bass clef. Her big dream was to become a singer.
Fujii loves the bass because it has a low register “and that sounds so cool to me.” She also played some acoustic guitar in junior high, but it didn’t click with her like her bass. “It has more body. I just loved it. There’s no specific reason,” Fujii explained, her slight Japanese accent soft and pretty.
Fujii had a tough time answering who her bass idols are. “When I was in Japan, I grew up listening to all kinds of American music, from rock, blues, jazz. I just loved the music itself,” she said.. “I just wanted to play music. I didn’t pick up any particular bass player. Every time I listened to music, the bass line was in my ear. Whoever played the music, I just loved the bass lines. I just picked up the bass lines and I just imitated it.”
Fujii distinguishes herself from other low-end musicians by being a lead singer and back up singer. “I always think about the melodies and I always play with melodies. I graduated from Berklee, and all the Berklee bass players try to play very complicated bass lines or some difficult modes. I’m not interested in that. I love to play the music with the vocals, so I always listen to the melodies. I cannot play complicated jazz bass lines. That makes the music simpler, I think, and simpler is always better I always think.”
So Fujii doesn’t get written off as a sideman because she is a singer. The rhythm section, she said, is always fundamental. Yukiko does feel some discrimination from audiences because she is female and Asian. “I try not to pay attention to those discriminations. It’s natural. It’s a natural thing that people have discrimination, but that’s OK. If you don’t like me, that’s OK. I am I am.”
The name Tokyo Tramps gives people the wrong impression, Fujii said. “It’s an advantage. People look so surprised to see us playing blues in a good way. That calls people’s attention. People see an Asian female bass player/vocalist playing low end. It’s adding more value, I believe.”
Fujii received her musical training in Japan with private piano lessons as a child, music classes in junior high school, and voice training for four years in a Japanese college. In Japan, high school kids have to study hard, so there was no time for her music ambitions and she quit for several years. The first company she worked for was a young, up and coming company with many events, festivals, and parities. She formed a band with her colleagues to play those functions. She feels she became a real musician when she came to Boston.
Fujii plays a Gibson EB3 1967. The bass was given to her by a good friend, which saved her at least $1,500. She also has an Epiphany, Newport series from 1963. She used to play a Yamaha and an Ibanez during her punk band years. Her husband didn’t like the sound of any but the Gibson EB3. “I cannot live without this Gibson bass,” Fujii said. “It’s a very low end, very bassy bass. I even have to cut the bass range on my EQ, my amps. I have to put up the treble, otherwise it’s so muddy.” Fujii plays through Harpke amps and HWR 2-10s.
New Hampshire bass player, Rachel Green, who goes by the moniker The Legendary Rachel Green, currently plays with Brookes Young Band and acoustic singer-songwriter Andrea Paquin. Additionally, Green freelances and she shows up at jams. Green, though, mostly storms Manchester and Connecticut with the Brookes Young Band, with whom she opened for B.B. King at Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. She also opened for James Montgomery and J. Geils with Brookes Young.
Green became a bass player after playing saxophone all through high school. She tried to learn guitar but her hands were too small and the high school jazz band needed a bass player. Later that year, Greene was performing with local New Hampshire legend Jerry Paquette, a job that lasted a year.
Green said anybody can play the bass, but she said she has a unique feel for the instrument. It’s simply in her tone. “Every bassist can develop their own tone. I just love how playing bass, I can stretch myself.” Green listens to many bass players, and she digs bass line from anywhere, hip-hop to hard core to Lawrence Welk. “You can pull anything from anywhere. You just got to listen to it and grab your own feel,” she said.
Her favorite band these days is Save The Day, a new emo band with decent bass lines. “There’s not one way to play bass, and there’s not one way to listen to music.” Green said she can get an idea for a rhythm from something as mundane as hearing her tires turn on the pavement. “I’m pretty untraditional,” Green explained. “So many people want to master Jaco and so many people want to master Dave Matthews or his band. They want to copy it. But really, I just try to make my own rhythm and sound.”
Green strives to differentiate herself by having fun and building a solid foundation for a band to build off of. “My lines are pretty simple, but they’re solid. They’re just a little different from everybody else.” Green said four different bass players can play the same bass line, but how each player hits the notes and their timing can make the structures distinct. “Drummers have talked to me about how they feel really in the pocket with me, just finding your space and owning it,” she said.
She is not offended by musicians who think of bass players as sidemen. Green could not disagree with that, as she finds it hard to play the bass alone, as a opposed to a guitarist who can play melodies with chords. In that sense she is a sideman, but “in all reality it’s the foundation of most music. As long as the bassist and the drummer can click, you don’t really need a good front man. The front man can either be really good or really terrible. It doesn’t really matter, as long as the band is solid.,” she opined.
Green, at 22, has only seen a short amount of sexual discrimination. A house bassist at 16, she has gotten more favorable attention than negative. “Not only did I have the ‘Wow, she’s a girl playing bass.’ But I also got ‘Wow, she can’t even legally be in this bar.’ So, my dad would go with me. I was the kid doing my homework in the back between sets. I’ve always been the different one. It doesn’t really bother me. It doesn’t phase me as it would other people. The music community won’t dismiss you because of who you are. It’s more how you play.”
Green received her musical training from school music programs but she is mostly self-taught on bass. Her high school saxophone years helped her understand the form of music. “I know if there’s a strong melody going on, that’s not the time to throw in a really strong, over the top bass line.” Green uses a Fender Mexican Jazz bass and SIR Cabinets with a Harkpe head.
Green‘s final statement: “Do what you love and love what you’re doing. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a guy or a girl. Just stick with it.”
Southern, Maine bass player, Fran Calo, who is more known for her vocal abilities, can be called a “hack bassist” in that she plays bass so she doesn’t have to hire a specialist. Calo plays in the Fran Calo trio with her husband Paul Calo on guitar and John Hoik on drums. Her upcoming CD has been put on hold as her producer has gone back to school, and she has had to make do with a home studio to record her original stuff.
Calo has sung with 2120 South Michigan Avenue and she still plays with the Skip Philbrick Blues Band. For Calo, the bass is fun. She played guitar for years. But when she and her husband moved back to New Hampshire from Arizona six years ago, she needed a bass player. So, she picked up a four string she had around the house for recording.
“We can go out as a trio for three hundred dollars,” she said. “So it’s a good moneymaker. We used to do a duo thing with a drum machine, and that was a real good moneymaker, and really boring. With a drum machine, you’re locked in. You can’t really jam. If you’re tired, it seems likes it’s playing too fast.”
“I don’t really aspire to be a great bass player,” Calo allowed. “I’m basically just getting it done. I’m a singer, first and foremost, and the bass is really a sideline with me. It’s more of a utility thing.
I play with a pick, which a lot of bass players consider a no no. I do it for accuracy. If I tried to play like most other real bass players…..like Rachel and LJ, now those girls can play. They’re real bass players. Me, no, I’m just a hack, by comparison. It’s down and dirty and I get the job done. It was out of necessity.”
Calo, like the other women bass players, does not mind being called a sideman. “That’s all right with me. I do adopt that mentality,” she said. “Whenever I’m playing bass, I feel like I’m part of the back line, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m part of the rhythm section. I blend it with the drummer, and that’s my job.”
Calo may face some discrimination from male musicians but it “doesn’t matter to me at all. My background, what I went to school for, was motorcycle mechanics. In that industry you develop a real thick skin. So if somebody is like, ‘What’s the chick doing here?’ that doesn’t bother me at all. When I first started working in motorcycle shops, they mud checked me hard. They eventually found out that not only could I take it, but I could sling it.”
Mostly self-taught, Calo’s musical training came from growing up in a musical family and taking piano lessons when she was a little girl. She plays a Fender Jazz Bass. For small gigs, Calo uses a Carvin 100 watts combo bass amp. For larger rooms she uses a Galien Krueger 600-watt amp with a no name cabinet set up, and two ten inch speakers in a separate cabinet on top of a 15-inch speaker.
Low ender Holly Gnip, from Saugerties, New York, near Woodstock, recently belonged to a group called Blue Stone. After Blue Stone ran its course, Gnip started recording her own solo artist demo. Until a few years ago she was content just playing bass in a band. Yet, she is also a singer-songwriter, and she writes her songs on the bass.
Gnip has played in many local bands in the Hudson Valley, including Generous Thief that created a buzz with radio play and mini tours. She became a bass player because she was drawn into the lower end of songs. “The bass always moved me even before I knew which instrument I was hearing,” she said. “Around my teens I started listening and paying more attention to music and the individual instruments, and I decided I wanted to play the bass. My parents had said ‘Oh, no, bass isn’t an instrument that females generally play.”
Her folks tried to push her toward piano, and she had to pick up a heirloom violin that had been in the family. She played it for four years until she started to resent the violin. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s when she bought herself an inexpensive Peavey bass.
“I love the sound of it and the way it resonates with me, the way it makes me feel. It’s something that’ hard to explain in words. It’s almost like the high you get from performing.,” Gnip said.
Gnip listens to many bass players that have influenced her. She likes bass players who are only a little melodic and funky. “I feel that a lot people stray away from the function of the bass, which is just to lay a solid foundation for the song,” she said. “I’m not a busy player. I can get busier in parts. But I don’t believe that the bass should be a busy instrument. That’s not the function of bass. Leave that to the lead guitar player.”
Gnip likes Stefan Lessard from Dave Matthews Band. “He knows just where to be busy, where not to.” She also praised Nathan East. “He can just sustain a note, or in spots throw in something a little bit busier but really cool that calls for it in the song.”
Gnip’s unique quality is she writes songs on the electric bass. “People always say, ‘How do you write a song on the bass? You’ve got to learn a melody instrument,’” she said. “The truth is, I don’t know any other instruments. You can’t tell they’re written on the bass.”
Being called a sideman is not offensive to her. She said musician’s dismissing other musicians as sidemen usually comes from someone’s ego. “Realistically, there’s not one instrument in a band that’s more important than the others. Collectively, all the instruments come together to make a song.”
Gnip has dealt with discrimination from some male musicians. She said there’s a lot less of that now than 20 years ago. “I’ve run into that. It’s unfortunate, but what are you going to do? I’ve seen the ego thing come out in all aspects, even with some women. I’ve been fortunate, though, too because I’ve worked with a number of different males who weren’t like that at all.”
Gnip is self-taught because she couldn’t afford lessons, and she didn’t have the patience to learn music theory. She uses a GNL 2000 for the studio, and she plays live with an Ernie Ball Music Man. She plays through a SVT350 classic head. She has two Amp Peg cabinets. She uses a four-ten cabinet for the larger gigs.
Joining up with an already popular local band gives a musician a chance to strut her stuff in front of many. Bassist Clair Finley recently joined Jen Kearney And The Lost Onion, which plays every Monday night at Toad in Cambridge. Finley’s previous project, Cole DeGenova and the People’s Republic, ended last summer.
Finley started playing piano at age 4, violin in fourth grade, then she wanted to play in her school band but she wanted something cooler than a horn. She stumbled on bass and instantly fell in love with it.
“I continued to play a bunch of other instruments through out high school, but when it came time to go to college, I knew I wanted to study music and I knew that bass was my passion,” Finley said.
“There’s a sexuality to the bass. It’s a very sensual instrument, I feel, because you have so much control. The way you play the notes, and the low end is like a big hug. It takes all the sounds around it and mellows it out. I listen to a lot of neo soul music that’s really groove-based. Any instrument can be sexy, but I feel like the bass is naturally sexy.”
Finley loves the instrument because it ties the rhythm and the harmony together. She said that even if a person who doesn’t know a lot about music, if the bass suddenly stopped playing, you might not know what happened, you’ll know that something is wrong. “It’s the instrument for the people who secretly want to have all the control,” she said. “It’s a big influence on everything that’s going on around you.”
Finley’s favorite bassists includes neo soul bassist Michelle N‘Dege, Marcus Miller, Nathan East, and her favorite is The Who’s touring bassist Pino Palladino, who also plays with John Mayer and D’Angelo. Finley distinguishes herself by being a woman bass player. “I feel like there’s a special quality about female bass players in particular. There’s more sensitivity involved when you’re playing. I really try to use my ears all the time, only play what the music needs, not what I want to hear come out of my instrument. I feel a lot of musicians don’t really have that sensitivity to really convey their musical ideas.”
Finley, too, does not have a problem with being considered a sideman. “It’s definitely a supporting instrument,” she said. “I like having that role in the band, as being more part of the foundation. When I play with Jen, I like to provide a very strong, sturdy foundation so that she can feel comfortable when she’s performing. That’s the main point. You have to be supportive of whoever you’re backing up.”
When Finley plays with a bunch of guys, audiences seem surprised she’s hanging with all those men. “I get a lot of ‘I didn’t know a girl could play bass like that.’ Whenever I go into a new playing situation, the less they expect of me the better because I’ll blow them away. The look on their faces afterwards is priceless.”
Finley’s training came from taking private lessons on numerous instruments, practicing and listening, and graduating from Berklee with a degree in Electric Bass Performance and Music Business. “My whole life has been dedicated to music. It’s been a big conglomeration of everything so far.”
Finley plays Pedulla basses, made in Massachusetts, and Epifani amps, made in Brooklyn, and she is endorsed by Epifani.
If anybody can remember the Boston 1980s all girl sensation Girls Night Out, they will remember bass player Sandy Martin. Martin currently plays bass in a Salem, Massachusetts band called Roundabout that offers classic rock. Getting back to the 1980’s, when Martin played with the hugely popular seven piece girl band, she was one of the most visible bass players on the scene. Girls Night Out opened for big names and had many accomplishments. Martin has also played with Pousette-Dart Band, John Lincoln Wright, and Stormin’ Norman and Suzie, and Daryl Scott.
Martin became a bass player in Hawaii while visiting musician friends. Martin’s friend had a friend whose band’s bass player just up and left. “My friend kicked me under the table and said ‘Sandy knows how to play bass,’ and I had never even held one in my entire life.” Fortunately, Martin had played trumpet very well in high school. She borrowed a bass guitar, locked herself in a room with 8-track tapes, and figured out how to play it.
Martin likes the instrument for its groove thing. “When you get into the whole dancer thing, you can see people just respond,” she said.. “The bass is such a primal thing. It fills up your chest cavity. It gets you going.”
Martin’s favorite bass players include Emory Gordy, Bill Lee, James Jameson, Donald “Duck” Dunn. Her distinction from other players is she is a straight-ahead bassist. “I’m not a big showy player. I’m really buried into a groove. I can find the pocket fast, and I kick.”
She also does not have a problem with being called a sideman. She said bass players are usually sidemen with the role of backing singers, guitarists, and keyboardists. She said there were some notable exceptions. Martin named Sting as somebody who is out in front, as well as Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, and Stuart Hamm, who play the bass as a lead instrument.
“That’s what they like. That’s what they need as a player,” she said. “But in most situations, by far, what a band is looking for is someone who can hold down that foundation and create something that the lead players can actually build upon, which you can’t do with a bass player who plays like a lead player.”
As for discrimination, Martin was hired by a friend who had to call her two weeks before that gig to tell her she was out: the band leader did not want a female musician. Other times she knew of people who would not hire women for road gigs because it would cost more for a second motel room.
Martin has played with guitarist Duke Levine, and she got her musical training in junior high school, high school, and Berklee College of Music. Her college education brought her to Boston from Sacramento, California. She won several awards and recognitions in her high school jazz band. She won the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for her teenage trumpet abilities.
“When I went to Berklee I had to decide if I wanted to continue playing trumpet or go on with bass. I thought there was more of a future in being able to play full time by studying bass.” She received a Bass Performance degree.
For equipment, Martin has a Sadowsky bass custom made for her in New York City, and she plays through a Dave Eden Metro combo amp. She also has an external cabinet with two 4 x 12 inch speakers.
Lysie, from Worcester’s nine-year-old punk rock band The Numbskulls, became a bass player because her boyfriend is the lead singer and his band needed a bassist. So he taught her how to play it. She was never in a band before that. She only played clarinet and violin in grade school. Lysie’s family does have a musical history. Her father plays guitar and piano. Her family listened to doo-wops and Tina Turner during dinner. She had tried to learn the guitar but the strings were too tiny. “I didn’t really like music all that much. But I love bass, so there you go,” she said.
Lysie loves the bass because it sounds like it means business. She doesn’t listen to music that doesn’t have a good bass to it. “I like a lot of cock rock, a lot of guitar rock. I like a lot of punk rock, a lot of disco. Anything that makes me dance, I love.”
Lysie admires female bass player Cathy Cah from Musclecah. “She’s just on stage and she’s an animal.,” she said. “Her hands go a mile a minute. She sings.” Lysie plays it cooler in her own band, The Numbskulls. “I try to keep everybody on board,” she said. “I try to make sure everybody’s on the same page, that we get shit done at practice. Guys can wander off a little and doodle.”
Though Lysie has the important job of writing lyrics for The Numbskulls, She feels that some bass players can be considered merely sidemen. “Some of them don’t bother doing anything,” she complained. “When I was taught, I was taught to play counter melodies, to do solos, to play in between and in and out of what the guitars are doing. I listen to the vocals, and I try to match the vocals and compliment the vocals.”
Lysie said the men in punk bands don’t usually discriminate against chick musicians. “They’re friendlier. Their girlfriends aren’t usually very nice. The male musicians are always very accepting. They’re not douche bags to me because I’m a girl. They’re douche bags to guys too. I don‘t really think it matters at all.”
For equipment, Lysie plays a Fender Jazz bass through a Peavey solid state amp, Air Peg 8-10 cabinet.
Susan Goldberg is the bass player for Boston’s blues band Dirty Blonde. Goldberg also works in musical theater, playing in orchestra pits and composing original music for avante-garde productions in Boston. She worked on Counter Productions presentation of “Insatiable Hunger.”
Goldberg started as a pianist from a musical theater family before she went to Berklee to study bass. She loves the bass because it is like a force of nature. “It’s strong and subtle at the same time,” Goldberg said. “It drives the bus. Between me and the drummer, we’re driving the bus. It’s a big, strong sound. You have to have taste to play bass. You really have to know how music works.”
Goldberg favors Sly And The Family Stone’s Larry Graham, and she also likes Paul McCartney. She digs jazz bassists as well. She listens to Jaco Pastorius, but she doesn’t try to play like him because nobody can. “He can play the bass and play all kinds of articulations around the bass line and he never loses the bass line,” she exclaimed.
Goldberg doesn’t even try to be as fanciful. “I play simple and I play in the pocket. To me, that’s the most important thing, to lay it down so the other players who are playing in the upper registers, they have no worries about the rhythm section. I just bring solidity.” Goldberg enjoys working with her favorite drummer, Diane Gately, in the Dirty Blonde blues band. “She’s brilliant,” Goldberg exclaimed.
Goldberg does, however, feel that the term sideman is very dismissive. Goldberg, like the other bass ladies, said the other musicians wouldn’t be able to sound good without a good bassist. “We give them the foundation for them to hop around on,” she explained. “The rhythm section is everything.”
As for sexual discrimination, Goldberg said it shaped her attitude, as she faced a lot of hostility at Berklee in the 1970s. Whenever she walked into a class a teacher would just roll his eyes. “Even my piano teacher said he wasn’t going to bother teaching me because he knew I would just leave and go and get married. He was just going to go eat his lunch while I played Bach’s toccatas and fugues.” When Goldberg brought her charts to ensemble classes, guys would make fun of her. “I’m surprised that any woman who went to Berklee back in those days would continue to be a musician after that because it was so discouraging,” she said. Today, she gets backhanded compliments from people who say they came into a room from an adjoining hallway and said they were surprised it was a woman they heard playing so well.
Her first year at Berklee another female student was raped and stabbed and left for dead in a parking lot. “They did not really do anything to protect us. They put a really old, old, old guy at the front door as a security guard but nobody at the side doors,” she recollected.
Goldberg said that sexual harassment was common. “The teacher and the boys in the class would just sit around and tell jerk-off jokes and wait for me to react,” she recounted. “I wasn’t a very good player yet. I didn’t have that much experience. I came from a family that did a lot show tunes. I had no knowledge of jazz at all, and I was interested in rock and roll and theater and nothing like that was at Berklee at the time. It was strictly a jazz atmosphere.” Fortunately, she aced her ear training classes and that gave her a leg up on young male guitar wankers.
After three semesters at Berklee, she went to UMass Boston, and she blended in better with the working class students who were more interested in her musical tastes. The bulk of Goldberg’s training, though, came from her family. “Everybody in my family played piano,” she said. “I was the youngest of ten grandchildren. We were all required. I played because everybody played, including my grandparents, my father, my mother, my sister, my cousins. I had aunts who were singers. We’d get together every weekend and played piano and sang.”
Goldberg plays a Steinberger L-Series bass made in the mid-1980s. She also has two custom made basses built by Carl Hoyt, a jazz bass and an upright electric. She plays through a Gallien-Krueger head and a Harpke 4-10 cabinet.
The all-girl hard rock band Jaded features the bass playing talents of a young woman named Laurel Wolff. Wolff, who has been busy recording kick ass music for a new Jaded CD and video, also plays with a heavy trio called Suicide Dream. Fairly new on the scene, she looks at the music business from the point of view of someone who has not had as many barriers as the older women interviewed for this article.
Discrimination isn’t something that’s been a big problem for her. “Not horribly, no,” she said. “I dealt with a little bit of attitude, but it hasn’t been anything outrageous, nothing I had to yell at anybody about or anything.” As female bass players have been around for a while now, Wolff doesn’t see what the older musicians went through. “Girls are definitely starting to pop up more and more on the rock scene, in general. But yeah, I think it must have been a lot harder back then.”
Wolff became a bass player because of a teenage obsession with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She knew she wanted to be a musician, but she didn’t know which instrument to play. Listening to a Chili Peppers’ song, she had an epiphany. “I loved how the bass line carried the song,” she said. “It was the melody and it was the grounding. It was pretty cool.” After that, Wolff started listening to White Zombie whose chick bass player Sean Yseult held her own in a hard rock band. “I wanted to be her. That’s how it started,” Wolff said.
Wolff loves the bass because it’s “both rhythmic and melodic with the guitar. It’s totally the grounding part of the song with the drums. It’s low and it’s bad ass and it’s got a bite to it,” she said. She also likes that it’s not as flashy as the guitar.
Aside from Sean Yseult, Wolff digs Pete Steel, Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, Cliff Burton, Dave Nelson, Geezer Butler, and Victor Wooten. Wooten is someone Wolff listens to for fun. “He’s insane. He’s way out of my league, but it’s always inspiring to watch him play. It’s like, ‘God!’”
Wolff brings to Jaded and Suicide Dream a sense of restraint. “I don’t go too crazy,” she said. “I try not to stick out too much, but I like to throw in little melodic things here and there. I like the darker notes sometimes.”
Wolff giggled over the question about bass players being considered sidemen. “I’ve heard that one before. The bass player doesn’t get enough respect. It totally depends on the band. There’s some bands where the bass players are like the leader of the band. I don’t think that’s true of all bands at all.” Wolff too prefers to think of herself as not a side but a foundation.
Wolff was mostly self-taught with a few lessons here and there, but formal lessons didn’t really sit with her. She bought a bass and started tinkering with it and picked things up by ear. Wolff used to come home from school and listen to White Zombie CDs and tried to play her bass to it. “My guitar player from Suicide Dream taught me some real basic theory stuff,” she said.
Wolff plays an Ibanez bass SRX 300 through a Amp Peg SVT Classic.
Portsmouth, Rhode Island’s Joyce Sampson played with The Fighting Cocks and Beyond Blonde before taking time off to record her own material. She currently does some work with Acoustic Kats, a trio made up of her former band mates from Beyond Blonde.
Possessing a Ph.D in history, Sampson is a professor at a local college. Her specialty is 17th century British Civil Wars. Potomac Books (formerly Brassy) has commissioned her to write a 100 pager about English historical figure Oliver Cromwell aimed at a general audience. Seeing her sexy rocker chick pictures on MySpace might make it hard to imagine her at a college lectern
Sampson became a bass player after learning piano as a child and playing rhythm guitar in a band. That band couldn’t keep a low end player, so Sampson became their bass player.
Even as a kid listening to music she tuned into the rhythmic parts. She was fascinated by intricate rhythms that intertwine. “The key is to not play very much but to be able to provide the underpinnings.,” Sampson said. “I’m intrigued by how to make a good counterpoint, counter melody line with as few notes as possible but one that really allows the other segments in the song to take their place.”
Sampson didn’t listen to bass players when she was first learning the instrument. Composer Carl Czerny was her inspiration. She used his technique to learn bass parts from Bach and other classical composers, and she tried to play them on her bass guitar.
“I used classical piano exercises for the bass clef to train my hand,” she explained. Meanwhile, a drummer friend, who was a huge fusion fan, introduced her to bassists like Alfonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorius, and Jonas Hellborg, and she studied their techniques and she learned some Weather Report songs.
As a guitarist, she had listened to the grooves of Elmore James, Muddy Waters, and the Motown sound from the 1960s, which featured bassist James Jamerson. The bass was her fourth instrument, after piano, saxophone, and guitar. She plays hard and driving and in the pocket at the same time, similar to Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
As for the idea of bass players being sidemen, Sampson said it depends on the band and the bassist. “For anybody to pigeonhole a player like that is killing creativity and killing potential in the band. Take a look at Rush. The bass player is also the lead singer. Take a look at the Chili Peppers. The two most known people in that band are the bass player and the lead singer.”
On the issue of male musicians dismissing female musicians, Sampson echoed what Graham said at the beginning. “I’ve dealt with that my entire bass career. It never stops,” she said. “Sometimes, Joyce said, it happens not because of discrimination but because male musicians think it might bring trouble from their girlfriends. Some male musicians might also think a female musician is going to act like one of their girlfriends and not be like one of the guys and not be able to travel on the road.
“There’s stuff that has to do with male-female relationships in general.” Sampson does believe she was turned down for jobs and or didn’t get to audition because she is a woman. Some bands she auditioned for had female singers who didn’t want another female in the band because it would have meant competition for them with the crowd.
Sampson plays either a Fender Precision or Fender Jazz through an Amp Peg SVT or a Gallien Krueger 400 RB. Her favorite way to play is bi-amping, using at least two speakers, sending certain frequencies into the top speaker and certain frequencies into the bottom speakers. She also likes to mix metal speakers with paper speakers.
One of the most interesting female low end musicians isn’t technically a bass player. She is electric and acoustic cello player, Valerie Thompson, from Goli and formerly of the hard-charging progressive rock band Flutter Effect. Thompson, though, does function as a bass player, to a large extent, in Goli, and she certainly had to keep the bottom end in Flutter Effect, a band similar to Yes, King Crimson, Rush, Dream Theater, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
“I always wanted to play bass when I was a kid,” Thompson recounted. “They don’t start ten year old girls in fourth grade on upright bass. I said, I’ll take the next biggest thing, which was the cello.”
Thompson attended Berklee College of Music for her undergraduate work. She had to take classes specifically for string players and cellists. But, as the cello is a versatile instrument that can cover bass lines and melody lines, she also crashed some other classes in walking bass lines and poly-rhythm courses for guitarists, and percussion classes, to broaden her horizons.
After graduation, Flutter Effect took flight and Thompson found herself in a progressive rock band, even though she never thought of playing rock before. She had studied mostly classical music and jazz. So, the low end rock stuff was a bit of a challenge, finding her place sonically with a band that had midi marimba instead of keyboards and her own electric cello with electric guitar and drums. She had to find where to play lead lines and when to use octave pedals.
Cello is tuned different than the bass and she didn’t grow up playing bass lines. Yet, she loved the new chore. “One of the things that was a lot of fun for me was figuring out how to cover the bass part without sounding exactly like a bass player,” Thompson said. “One of the things I love is because the instrument is different than the bass, there are sounds I come up with that a bass player wouldn’t. I think that can be a really nice effect.”
Low frequencies on the cello playing rock, since the cello is tuned in 5th, can create particularly fat power chords. “They’re really easy to do. They’re really fun to do. You can feel it in your gut when you start to play really low,” she said. “Most bass players would do running 8th notes. It’s really nice to thicken it up and beef it up playing more than one note at a time.”
Thompson adores the music of Edgar Myers, an upright classical music, bluegrass, and jazz bass player. She can connect with his music because he often uses a bow. “When he solos, you feel like you’re listening to a big fiddle player. He gets around the instrument really well, but he’s also exceptionally soulful.”
When Thompson arrived at Berklee she thought she wanted to play jazz. She ended up in the Afro-pop ensemble and the James Brown Ensemble, and those groove oriented classes also influenced her, hearing how the small pieces fit together rhythmically, the horn hits and the bass groove, and the little vamps from a guitar. “Rocking out is really important and it’s really great. At the same time, if you ever do any rhythm playing, the perfect groove is what you’re always aiming for. Playing something that makes people move their heads. That’s always the goal, can I make people want to shake it a little?”
Thompson didn’t know how to answer the question about what makes her different from other low end players because she doesn’t “know what normal low end players do.” Not having the traditional bass vocabulary, she needs to interpret notes and octaves for her instrument. When to use the octave pedal and when to change the key are questions she always asks herself. Her cello is fretless so she can slide in between notes and she can play melodic notes in a low end register. “Whenever I hear a bass player play I have to reinterpret to fit on my instrument,” she said. “That automatically gives me a sound that’s different than someone else you’re going to encounter.”
Thompson has always thought that bass players can be sidemen because it is a support function. Yet, she believes that some bass players have character and who stand out in the audience’s memory. Some bands, she said, also let bass players have as an equal voice in the band.
Discrimination against female musicians still happens, Thompson said, but she admits to having her own pre-conceived notions. “I couldn’t imagine being a female drummer. I feel there’s still a lot of stigma attached to that.” Thompson used to get plenty of back-handed compliments from intoxicated males like “You looked cute, but man you can actually play your instrument.” Like Finley, Thompson said that those preconceived notions can work in a player’s favor as low expectations can give a musician a chance to blow people away.
“There were times it was really annoying to have someone come up to my and say, ‘You can actually play,’ as if we’re all just here for eye candy. The joke’s always on them. There’s something about proving people wrong.”
Thompson started cello in an elementary school orchestra program. She took private lessons in classical. She continued playing in youth symphonies through high school before going to Berklee. Thompson plays a Jensen electric cello and an 150 years old French cello with a David Gage Realist pickup. She plays through MXR Bass DI-Plus preamp with distortion and she uses a Boss bass chorus pedal and a Boss bass octave pedal.
The only thing left to say about female bass players is that they are here to stay and music fans will be seeing more and more of them in the coming years.