The Bass Lines of Larry Graham
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if there is a more significant way that four strings have changed the world, we don’t know what it is.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Larry Graham served some significant sorts of time playing a tough gig during a tougher time — bass for Sly and the Family Stone from 1966 to 1972 — but that doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story.
Sly’s well-publicized struggles with sobriety and showing up on time, or at all, to shows are part of it: Graham held down the bass guitar duties for a band that was known for how much its low end ruled, after all. But he did it while playing in the pocket like he invented the pocket and innovating on an instrument that’s seen more than its share of geniuses.
… using the slap of his thumb to copy a bass drum and his other fingers to imitate the snare.
He may have made it look easy, but in truth it’s like running and winning a foot race while also delivering crazy color commentary on that race. Color that achievement colossal.
Don’t believe us?
Ask Les Claypool from Primus, or Bootsy Collins, or Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and a whole other rogues’ gallery of bass-meisters if any of them were doing what Graham called “thumpin’ and pluckin’” before he did it. The percussive slapping of the strings alternated with popping the strings instead of strumming them is something Graham started to do when he was playing with his mother’s band (yes, his mother), and, missing a drummer, he started using the slap of his thumb to copy a bass drum and his other fingers to imitate the snare.
Without this sound, whatever people mean when they describe music as “funk” just does not exist.
You see, Graham’s instrument has been über-instrumental in anything and everything R&B-tinged in today’s musical landscape. And even some that aren’t. His oeuvre includes work with Sly to his own Graham Central Station, and beyond to Betty Davis and Prince (who he turned on to Jehovah’s Witnesses), not to mention being the uncle of Drake.
Chiara Locardi, bass player for the French-Italian band L’Enfance Rouge (total disclosure: author Eugene S. Robinson just recorded a record with L’Enfance Rouge), while not an R&B fan, thinks that Graham has “at least three brilliant attitudes, even if he wonderfully plays the kind of music I can only stand for a few seconds: He has great consideration for the crucial role of silence in between notes, his sound is totally, um, impolite and he plays on gold strings.”
Which all amount to genius to us.
See what we mean?