Berklee Today

Life Beyond the Money Notes

 

Let me get this straight: I've been asked to write an instructional column for a magazine read mainly by the alumni of Berklee College of Music. To me, this implies that the best players in the world—well, the ones who aren't too busy doing gigs and sessions to read Berklee Today—will be trying to glean invaluable insight by perusing what it is I'm doing musically. Perhaps my trepidation reflects my chosen career path, one that, in terms of making a living as a musician, flies in the face of practicality.

I remember, as others probably do, the sage advice of many a fine Berklee faculty member during my later years at school. Students were repeatedly warned that "the real world" would not be nearly as creative or forgiving as the Berklee scene. Conforming to the commercial artistic tastes of the day could mean the difference between living on penne pasta or ramen noodles. The advice went something like this: "There's no room for extended solos, mixed meters, and challenging unison licks on those bubble-gum pop tunes and soda commercials, kid. You want to make it as a musician? Have as much fun as you want here, but when you leave, make sure you know how and when to play the 'money notes' if you want to eat."

Maybe I should get my hearing checked. Instead of "money notes," I heard "many notes." The bulk of my professional work has been with former Frank Zappa guitarist and avant-garde solo artist Mike Keneally. So in essence, I took this wise advice—that cost tens of thousands of dollars to obtain, mind you—and proceeded to act out the opposite course of action as vociferously as possible.

Self-deprecation aside, I suppose this column does provide the opportunity to detail some of the more esoteric stuff I'm required to pull off for Mr. Keneally, whose music can be fairly dense when he wants it to be. It's also one last chance to make those music notation classes that I took pay off. With a pithy "message to the masses" at the end, maybe this instructional column for the "educated reader" will work after all.

 

Musical Examples
 

In example one, we have a fine illustration of one of those atonal runs of sixteenth notes that never seem to end no matter how many times the time signature changes. "Career/Quimby" is something we've done as a show opener for a while, which makes the impossible run of thirty-second notes all the more daunting with cold fingers. (Full disclosure: the accented notes are the only ones I play with my right hand; all the rest are hammered on.) There are bits of tonality scattered throughout the section—some A minor, C blues, even D-flat augmented seven for a fleeting moment—but it's mostly a harmonic free-for-all. Bassists may want to note how I'm forced to change neck positions radically for the 3/8 bar in preparation for the coming onslaught of loco! in bar four.

Shown in example 2, the chorus of "We'll Be Right Back," is a far sweeter affair. With a rolling, half-time 6/8 groove behind it (bass drum on beat one, snare on four), I take a nice, easy lick and make it hard on myself by adding harmonics to outline additional chord tensions. Beginning with a simple D bar-chord outline in the first bar, the chords become more complex and dissonant as the section progresses. Bar two has G and D harmonics over F for one of those oh-so-pretty 6/9 tensions, and Bar three has one of my favorite sounds: E minor 9 by way of G and F# harmonics over low E. (Bass players: you haven't lived until you've played a minor second in harmonics.) It gives way to a G-major-over-F flavor by allowing the G and the B to sustain over the low note. For those instrumentalists who wonder about the appropriateness of all this upper-register content in a bassline, rest assured that in a live setting, I only execute the part well enough for all the harmonics to ring clearly maybe two out of every five attempts. A chorus pedal helps immeasurably in such endeavors.

Complex parts aside, there's plenty of room for stretching out on this gig, and for a bassist, that means opportunities to reharmonize underneath solo vamps like the one in "Hum," shown in example 3. The lick itself—played over a quasi-Latin groove—floats from D major to b minor to C major 7, but the notes themselves are tricky to fool around with unless you play less and syncopate more. The first variation hits the key accents and lands on A underneath the C major 7 for some instant reharm gratification. Variation two flirts with a more purely Latin counter-rhythm, while the last one is that ever-popular V-chord pedal (guaranteed to make your soloist squeal with pleasure).

But what would an instructional article be without the pièce de résistance, a sightread-this-if-you-dare musical smackdown? The instrumental bridge of Keneally's "Cause of Breakfast" (example 4) is a heavily Zappa-influenced ensemble nightmare of twisting tonalities and noninterlocking polyrhythms. The schizophrenic register-skipping poses special challenges for a bassist (check the tab notation for the way I do it though I'm sure it's not the only choice). Bar four alone is weird enough, but imagine it with three other instruments playing completely unrelated rhythmic figures, and you've got a recipe for a live train wreck if you're not careful. Plus, Mike won't be able to play his 13-notes-in-the-space-of-14 figure over the two bars of 7/16 if I don't play the preceding bars correctly. So in the spirit of giving, my problems are now yours. Good luck.

  

My years at Berklee were filled with wonderful musical experiences, and it's been my privilege to continue enjoying that level of fulfillment and beyond. As far as the "practical" side of life goes, it's a different balancing act for everyone. I eat enough penne to make the ramen nights worth it. Understandably, you may think differently. But strict adherence to the conventional wisdom of post-Berklee careerdom—hit the money note, baby—has its own pitfalls. Taken literally, one might think that pursuing any project not immediately known to Carson Daly will ultimately lead to bad skin, hearing loss, chronic halitosis, social ostracism, and general despondency untreatable with Prozac or anything else.

If there's only one point I can leave you with, it's that it doesn't have to be that way. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get some sleep so I'll be able to wake up in time for my day job tomorrow morning.

 

Bryan Beller has played, toured and recorded with Mike Keneally, Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, and Wayne Kramer. He writes a regular column for Bass Player magazine and is director of product development for SWR Sound Corporation. Visit his website at www.bryanbeller.com.