It’s funny that most people these days think of me as a bass player. But holding down the rhythm with four giant steel strings is a relatively new development in my life. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar since I was a wee ten years old – thanks to Daddy. But going electric was as adventurous as I’d gotten – and that didn’t even happen in full force until a couple decades later.
Playing bass was at first a practical matter: Jamie and I were playing in The Modeens in Los Angeles with our friend Phil on drums. Jamie was the bass player, but he’s a much more powerful and versatile guitar player than I am and we started thinking: what about changing roles? I’d admired the bass since my New York days – I’d played with some amazing bass players in New York, including Dan Green and Michael P Nordberg (though he’s gone over to the 6-string side these days to great effect). And Jamie himself is a rockin’ bass man (check him out singing and playing in his old band, Frankenorange!) They all had schooled me in blues and rock and the important role bass plays as part of the bedrock of those sounds. You gotta groove those lower notes in time with the beats to create the undeniable soul sensation that gets other people to move with you. So let’s say I was a little bit intimidated at first.
Then Jamie gave me my birthday present: a lesson with Carol Kaye. I freaked out. THE Carol Kaye! She was alive and living in Los Angeles and you could actually pay her for a lesson! Can you believe it? What? Carol who? C’mon, you’ve never heard of Carol Kaye? Well sit yerself down and I’ll tell you about the most badass of bass players whose funky fingers helped create almost all of your favorite sounds from the sixties and seventies.
Carol Kaye came from a musical family and had already started playing as a professional jazz guitarist (and teacher) in the fifties when she was just 14. At that time, a bass string sound only had one source: a giant standup double bass about six feet tall. Then somebody (Leo Fender) had the bright idea that if you could make guitars electric, why not make a bass version? So Fender became the enterprising company that produced these new fangled instruments, but nobody really knew how to play them yet. Carol recalls that she was at a Sam Cooke gig, getting ready to take out her guitar when the word came down that the only guy they knew who could play the studio’s Fender bass couldn’t make it. They asked Carol if she could give it a shot and she said, sure, why not?
That was the beginning of an amazing career. She became the top session player – any time a big studio needed players for a recording artist or TV show or soundtrack, Carol was the first on their list in Hollywood, recording over 10,000 sessions in her heydey. She was even part of the Wrecking Crew – a stable of top-notch musicians including Tommy Tedesco and Hal Blaine who did the actual performing of tunes you thought were played by The Beach Boys, The Mamas and The Papas, Derek and The Dominos, and the like.
And she was a single mother – yeah, she would work 13-16 hour days recording as many as 3 different songs while raising three young-uns of her own. In fly gogo boots to boot. So what did she play on? For starters, Good Vibrations, Feelin’ Alright, I’m A Believer, These Boots Are Made For Walkin, and thousands more. Heard any of those? Then you know who I’m talking about!
And I was going to meet her. And she was gonna teach me to play the bass! The day of our first lesson, Jamie was almost more nervous than I was – she was his bass hero! It was a bit of a drive from Venice (then again, this is Los Angeles where everything is a bit of a drive.) After some time on the 405, we finally found her house in a cluster of condos in a very suburban area. We collectively held our breath after ringing the doorbell. When the door opened, we met a mature, petite woman with short, frosted hair and large tinted glasses. She gave us a big smile and welcomed us inside. Carol had just moved from another home, so there were still unpacked boxes and the occasional coo from her covey of doves upstairs. In the living room, she had a very simple set up for lessons: small practice amp, a couple of stools and her Ibanez bass. She encouraged me to record the session and soon she was teaching me her technique for playing bass.
Now I wasn’t a total newbie – Jamie had taught me some things. But technique is totally different between four string and six string guitars. Not only do you have much thicker strings and a longer, heavier neck to contend with – you’re going for a different effect – holding down the root note of each chord (though there are expections to that rule), usually concentrating on single notes rather than chords (again there are exceptions) and making sure that you provide the harmonic foundation for the tune but while throwing in some riffs at the right times to add some interest. Carol would take it even further. With her jazz background, she knew how to improvise – and if a tune was too boring for her, she’d find a way to add a little sonic sparkle with a well-placed riff or new take on a line. You know that song “The Beat Goes On” by Sonny and Cher? That descending bass line in the verse? Before Carol came along, it was just a straight and steady single note. But the descending line totally makes the tune – and I can’t imagine it would have gotten very far on the charts without it.
Aside from her busy recording job, Carol had been not only teaching bass, but self-publishing her own manuals, then VHS tapes, then DVDs, since 1969. So part of getting a lesson from her is getting access to these time-tested copies of her books and pamphlets bursting with various riffs she had created and played throughout her career. She also threw in lots of copies of articles she’d written, material written about her and even some royalty stubs from La Bamba or That Lovin’ Feelin.
You can still get her manuals online, many with the slightly blurry and cramped Courier font from the days of mimeographs and Xerox, and within you can find the technique she honed over many years that allowed her to play constantly for 16 hours a day and never suffer repetitive stress syndrome or other musician-related injuries. All while wearing her strappy Kinney sandals and cats eye glasses. Actually, one of the most valuable lessons on her DVD “Bass DVD Course with Manual“ is How To Groove where she clicks on her old metronome and instructs you to not only play in time with it, but to dance with it, to “groove” with it. And if you can groove with a metronome, you can groove to anything.
Some particulars of the Carol Kaye method: she uses flatwound strings and a pick (as opposed to her fingers like many other players do now), positioned in a certain way; on her left hand (her fretting hand), she uses her pinky finger instead of her ring finger to reach higher notes. And theory, lots of theory. Carol is first and foremost a jazz musician and her actual playing ability far exceeded the material she was paid to do. She thought rock was fun but kinda ‘kids stuff’. To this day, she’ll sit in with Plas Johnson (saxophone player on the Pink Panther theme) at a jazz cafe and run up and down that fretboard enough to make your head spin! So theory was very important to her (and new to me – I finally understood what a ‘fifth’ or a ‘third’ was!)
I’m not a jazzbo, but I picked up some of the basics and then she put me through my paces teaching me riffs she’d been paid to come up with throughout her career, including Wichita Lineman, Autumn Leaves,and Hikky Burr (theme from Bill Cosby’s show). Not that I could play them for you now (sad to say) but they did form a bedrock for bringing the bass to life for me on other tunes.
To our utter and sheer delight, she peppered her instructions with tales from her career. And there was some jaw-dropping stuff (at least to sixties music nerds like us). She worked with Brian Wilson (on many Beach Boys songs, but particularly on Pet Sounds) and told us how he already had everybody’s parts in his head and just dictated to each musician exactly what their lines were. Except for one part in Good Vibrations, where they needed a transition between parts. Carol had been experimenting with a fuzz-tone pedal and improvised a steadily repeated single note with the fuzz sound on the spot. Brian loved it and it’s a prominent part of one of the most classic rock songs of the sixties. Which she played for us on the spot and our hearts collectively skipped a beat hearing her do that live. She also worked with Phil Spector (and yes, he was a crazy asshole) and Quincy Jones (who she really dug).
Carol is a veritable treasure trove of music knowledge and LA stories and I got a lot from my three lessons. I don’t play nearly as well as her – or nearly as well as any of my other bass influences. But I did become a bass player. And getting to know a woman like Ms Kaye reminded me that it’s not about men vs women – it’s about working together to make amazing music happen.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Carol Kaye method, but if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend checking out her website (http://carolkaye.com/) and especially her materials here (http://www.carolkaye.com/catalog/index.php?cPath=21). You can even get a Skype lesson if you’re not close by! You’d be in the company of some other bass players who’ve been influenced by her books: Sting, John Paul Jones, Jaco Pastorius and Stu Hamm.
And this Saturday, Carol Kaye turns 77. Happy Birthday, Carol! You’re a huge inspiration to women everywhere – a fine example of being a total badass in a man’s world. People still don’t know your name but you are the unsung hero of 60′s and 70′s music in the Williams-Laboz household!
Here’s a trailer for a proposed documentary about this amazing woman and musician, “Her Name is Carol Kaye” – unfortunately they haven’t found funding but I really hope it still gets made someday. In the meantime, you can see (and hear) some of her magic:
My favorite quote: “When you hear somebody with balls, that’s me.” — Carol Kaye
That’s right, Carol – and may you keep bringin’ it on the bass for many more years to come.