Veteran bassist Jack Bruce is back in action with a new album and tour. Best known for his membership in the legendary British trio, Cream (with Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker), Bruce has stayed active over the decades, and his dynamic bass playing and searing vocal style are inimitable.
In a recent conversation with Vintage Guitar, the affable Scot discussed his musical history and the basses he has wielded.
Vintage Guitar: You started on upright bass…
Jack Bruce: I started on cello. I wanted to play bass simply because there was one available at school. I took lessons from a very old teacher; he must have been in his 70s. He thought my hands were too small. They wouldn’t go around the neck.
Another music teacher named Jean Kidd, who was a huge influence on me and on many other people in Glasgow, suggested I pick up the cello, and I took to that like a duck to water. After about six weeks I got a scholarship to the Conservatory. I had some formal lessons on bass a little later, but I was mostly applying cello techniques to the bass.
A lot of electric bass players are actually converted guitarists, but apparently that wasn’t the case for you.
Bill Black was an upright bassist who played electric bass later, and amongst my peers, Jaco Pastorius was a bass player from the word go; Steve Swallow, like me, switched from double bass to bass guitar – in fact, he saw me at the Fillmore in ’67, and decided to purchase a bass guitar.
In some of the British rock bands, the guy who wasn’t very good on guitar might have taken up bass (chuckles), but I think the serious bass players or bass guitarists are the ones who are in love with the bass and didn’t start off on another instrument.
But I have played guitar [since] my early skiffle days. I played acoustic, and still do. In fact, I play guitar on one track on the new album.
What about your switch from upright to electric bass?
I was very much a purist in wanting to play double bass, but then I was asked to do a session for a Jamaican jazz guitarist named Ernest Ranglin. He was very important in the development of Jamaican music like ska and reggae, as well as artists like Bob Marley, but he was also a jazz player. Island Records was doing a jazz EP, and I was doing quite a few sessions at the time. They told me, specifically, to bring a “bass guitar.” So I borrowed one; I think it was an old Guild semi-acoustic I got from a music shop, and I was immediately hooked.
Your musical associations with Alexis Korner and Graham Bond would have gotten more into R&B and blues, so how limiting – musically and physically – was a double bass, since it had a 42″ scale?
More importantly, I think the invention of the bass guitar changed the whole direction of music. I would argue that it was more important than the guitar, because there have been guitars for a long time, and it was easy to amplify the guitar. But the bass guitar changed the whole sound and writing of music.
If you listen to early Elvis tracks, they’re using a double bass, and it’s a whole different feel – almost a country approach – from what came later. When the bass guitar began to be used more, that whole area – the bass frequencies – became more important, and that led to people like James Jamerson, who played very melodic bass. Sometimes, the bass was as important as the lead vocals, while the guitar was just chinking away rhythmically. There’s a very good book about that subject by a guy named Jim Roberts called How the Fender Bass Changed the World.
With an amplified guitar, the basic instrument is still the same. But the bass guitar had a different scale, and because of its sound, it made people write different kinds of music.
The first pictures I’ve seen of you playing a solidbody electric bass were from your stint with the Graham Bond Organization; it appears to be a P-Bass copy.
It’s called a Top Ten; a Japanese copy of a Fender, and a very poor instrument. But the first real instrument I played – also with Graham Bond – was a Fender Bass VI.
…which was a true “bass guitar” in that it bad six strings, but was tuned an octave lower than a standard guitar.
Exactly. And the reason I played that one was that originally, John McLaughlin had played guitar with Graham Bond, and when he left, we got Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone. So with no guitar, I was occasionally able to play little guitar-like solos. I continued using that instrument into the beginning of Cream.
Didn’t it ultimately receive a “psychedelic” paint job by the Fool, the Dutch art collective that also painted Clapton’s Gibson SG?
It did. But when it got painted, the neck was so sticky I couldn’t play it.
I used some borrowed instruments, and started looking for something new, and that’s when I found the Gibson EB-3, which was very important because I wanted to develop a style of playing that was very guitar-like, instead of playing root notes. I used La Bella light-gauge strings, which I could bend.
It seems a paradox that you went from an upright bass scale to short-scale electric basses like the Bass VI and EB-3, bypassing the standard Fender 34″ scale.
Well, I wanted to play bass like a guitar, and you can’t do that on a regular Fender; you can’t bend the strings. And since I was the lead vocalist, I needed some kind of compact instrument that I could more or less forget about while I was singing. But probably the most important reason was that I didn’t want it to sound like a Fender; I wanted it to sound very personal. So the EB-3 fit the bill in all of those ways; I was able to get some great distortion, and it didn’t sound like a Fender at all!
And distortion was part of your signature sound back then, as well.
It was with all of us. It wasn’t something we were trying to do, but we had to play loud, because PAs weren’t very happening in those days. They were usually for voices only, so we had to play loud onstage.
So did the distorted tone seem like another paradox, considering your experiences on upright bass?
No. To me it was actually a more musical sound than the very bland “thumpy” sound of even P-Basses. Certainly, in the hands of a master like James Jamerson, and later, Jaco Pastorius, they sound great, and I’ve got a couple of them myself. But at the time, I wanted to do something completely different.
At one point during your stint with Cream, you tried a Danelectro Longhorn.
Dan Armstrong actually “doctored” all of our guitars back then. He had a place just opposite Manny’s (Music store) on 42nd Street (New York City), and we would take our guitars to get them souped up. There was a Danelectro in his shop that he’d been working on, and I bought it. It was useful for some things, but I didn’t use it much. I did use it on some tracks. It had a very interesting sound, more like a piano, and it was quite twangy. But I used the EB-3 up until the mid ’70s.
Around the 7:20 mark of “Sweet Wine” on the Live Cream album, Clapton starts playing simple “chirping” chords, while you play a passage that starts in C#. The song is in the key of C, and I’ve always wondered if that was a misfret that you covered up quickly, or if it was intentional.
I’m not that familiar with that anymore, but quite often, some of the best things that happen in improvisation come from mistakes. There’s an old adage: “If you make a mistake, do it again; they’ll think you meant it!” (laughs).
You’ve always used a hard finger approach to plucking bass strings.
That’s because I was applying double bass techniques, and I still play that way, even on fretless. It’s a bit peculiar, but it also comes from playing a veena, which is a classical Indian instrument. I studied that in the ’60s, and have actually started studying it again. The technique on it involves almost a tremolo-type of playing, with your index finger going backward and forward.
I thought I had kind of a unique thing, but when I met James Jamerson, I discovered that be was known as “the hook,” because he also used mostly his index finger, but of course you use your second and third fingers on occasion. But he was interested in this veena technique I’d developed for playing very fast passages.
There were photos in the concert booklet from Cream’s farewell tour that showed you playing what appeared to be a sitar.
That’s a veena. The sitar is a recent instrument, invented by the grandfather of a player who is still alive named Viliat Khan, who’s a genius. He was actually a court musician for the Shah of Iran. But the veena is at least 2,000 years old. Viliat Khan is about 80 years old, so that puts the sitar into perspective.
Post-Cream, did your first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, come out before the Blind Faith album?
I don’t recall, but it was recorded before. I had my own band in 1970, and we did a very successful tour of the States. It had Larry Coryell on guitar, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and Mike Mandel on organ. During that tour, I met Tony Williams, and he asked me to join his band, Lifetime.
Was that more jazz-oriented?
I would argue it was playing exactly the same kind of music Cream was playing. I think music is really more about the people playing in the band; I don’t agree with labels being applied indiscriminately. Ginger and I had been a modern jazz rhythm section for quite a few years, and Eric had probably never heard any jazz in his life (chuckles). So obviously, we weren’t playing the same since Eric was in the band, but we were still bringing in those improvisational playing techniques to a rock arena, and Lifetime was very much in the same direction as Cream.
Miles Davis was a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix and of Cream, and he was trying to go in that direction back then, as well.
Yeah, so there was obviously some elements of jazz in Lifetime, but it was more of a fusion of people and cultures. My present band, the Cuicoland Express, is similar in its concept.
Did you have any musical associations between Lifetime and West, Bruce & Laing?
I had another band with Chris Spedding on guitar, Graham Bond on organ, Art Theman on saxophone, and John Marshal on drums. During the course of that band, I met Leslie West, and he suggested forming a band, so I dissolved my band to form West, Bruce & Laing.
You also worked with Robin Trower on the BLT and Truce albums. Was there any particular musical goal with that association, since Trower has been compared to Hendrix?
I think the comparison was kind of unfortunate, but Robin is a great player. I saw him two years ago in San Francisco, and he played one of the most amazing gigs I’ve ever seen; a wonderful show with his trio.
I think the first album is the better; it’s a very simple, straight-ahead rock album, and I’ve always enjoyed that. Right now, I’m working with Gov’t Mule; making honest records like that is something I’ll make a lot of time for.
Was there any bass that you used between the EB-3 and your current instrument, a Warwick?
Yeah, I tried a Music Man for awhile, and a Dan Armstrong plexiglas fretless he made for me. I still have that one, and I played it on the How’s Tricks album.
I found Warwick almost by accident. I was in Germany making a record, and I went to a local music store, where they had a Warwick fretless. I’d never heard of it, but I bought it immediately. The maker heard that I’d bought it, and got in touch with me, and I worked with them in order to improve the instrument – mainly the balance; it was very top-heavy. We improved it by making one of the horns a bit longer, and they incorporated a couple of other suggestions.
They’re now making a special Jack Bruce signature model. If that instrument had been in existence years ago, I would probably have been playing it all along. I play the fretless version, and it’s a challenge, but having been a double-bass player is an obvious asset. I wasn’t as clever as Jaco, taking the frets out of a fretted bass (chuckles).
But when I found that instrument, I fell in love with it and I’ve played it for a number of years. It’s what I played on the new Shadows in the Air album, and I’m playing live with it, as well.
In the late ’80s, you and Baker got together with Blues Saraceno.
We were going to promote my Epic album, A Question of Time, and auditioned about 45 players in New York – some famous, some unknown. And he was the last one. He’s a great player. I’ve got a live recording that we did in Leeds, but it would be presumptuous to call it Live in Leeds (laughs)! It’s one of the best live things I’ve ever had, and I’m hoping it comes out someday. It’s astounding, and it shows that age is no barrier, it’s your heart that counts.
Is it fair to say that your 50th birthday concert, which was released on an album called Sittin’ On Top of the World, was the genesis of the BBM venture consisting of you, Ginger Baker, and Gary Moore?
It originally was a proper boxed set called Cities of the Heart; an American company released an edited version of it called Sittin’ On Top of the World. Cities of the Heart is a lovely package. I started off playing cello, then went to solo piano, and gradually, the band got bigger (chuckles). It was a lot of fun. My manager, Margrit, did a tremendous amount of work putting that together, and afterward she put together a couple of shows for me in a trio with Gary Moore, and Gary Husband on drums. It was so great, we decided to make a record, but then Gary Husband got a gig with Billy Cobham, on piano. So he bailed out, because it was his big ambition to be a keyboard player. So Gary Moore and I were ready to go into the studio, and I looked at him and said, “The red man?” (laughs).
In some ways, that was one of the best things that could have happened, but it was also one of the worst things that could have happened. It made for a great record and some great gigs, but it also made for an early demise of the band (chuckles).
You described Baker and yourself as a “rhythm section,” but most fans consider you both to be virtuosos, as well. And your relationship has been off/on or love/hate for /I>decades.
I certainly wouldn’t argue with that (laughs). Ask anybody – he’s not the easiest person in the world to get along with. He’s a wonderful player and probably one of the greatest drummers ever.
One commentary about BBM was titled “2/3 of a Dream… Okay, make it 90 percent of a Dream” – the point being that although it wasn’t a Cream reunion, Gary Moore is a fine player in his own right.
I agree totally. When Gary and I wrote the material, we deliberately wrote what we thought Cream songs would have been at that point in time. In other words, there are bands like Oasis in England, who, if you want to be honest about it, are sort of ripping off the Beatles, and there are other bands that rip off Cream or Led Zeppelin. Those bands seem to get applauded for doing that, but when we did it, we got very bad press for it, although the record sold very, very well, and was a huge hit. And I think it’s a fine record, even now.
And I would dispute that we “missed” Eric, because I think Gary is… Gary. And a lot of the press people, especially in Britain, where they’re renowned for being kind of weird, always compared him to Eric. If they were saying, “Why isn’t it Eric?” they were stating the obvious. And at the time, Eric wasn’t playing like Gary was. Gary was a very passionate, fiery, and soulful player, and Eric was going through one of his “bland” periods.
Eric’s always been a fine player, and I look up to him a lot as a guitar player, but be did follow a route that was not quite as adventurous as it might have been, and I’m not alone in that thinking. Whereas Gary just goes for it, and I think that’s what rock and roll is all about.
Other fairly recent recordings?
I did Somethin’ Els in the early ’90s, before BBM and after BBM.
I did Monkjack, which was just solo piano and organ. After that, I went on sort of a hiatus from recording my own stuff until I started Shadows in the Air.
There’s a lot of percussion on your new album…
I would describe it as “Afro-Caribbean,” not exactly “Latin.” What I was trying to do was show the development of rhythm from Africa, through the Caribbean, through New Orleans, then to Glasgow, if you like. The rhythm came from West Africa, Aruba, then went through places like Cuba and Haiti. In those days, New Orleans was really regarded as the capital of the Caribbean, before it was even part of the U.S.
A lot of music developed in New Orleans in sections like Storyville, until the music was literally kicked out, and was forced to go elsewhere in the States – Kansas City, Count Basie, and Washington with Duke Ellington, and so forth. It’s a fabulous story, and in my own way, I was trying to show the development.
I used two trap drummers, Robbie Ameen and El Negro Horacio Hernandez, and they’re very cutting-edge players; Horacio is from Cuba, and Robbie’s from Lebanon.
Some of the tracks were based on improvisation.
Two songs actually happened in the studio from ideas I had. One of them, “Directions Home,” comes from the development of an African rhythm that I had in my head. We improvised over the rhythm with percussion, hand claps, and piano. The other one, “Milonga,” has an Argentinian rhythm; it’s rather more of a serious and personal tango. The tracks that had Vernon Reid also had a lot of improvisation in the studio.
You got Clapton to help out with remakes of “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room,” and again, there’s a noticeable amount of percussion on those tracks.
The focus of the album is the two trap drummers and my voice; those are common to all of the tracks. In fact, the last track has only those elements.
I’d written two songs, “This Anger’s A Liar” and “Windowless Rooms,” with Dr. John in mind, and my original idea was to have him sing them. But then, because of the way the rest of the album was panning out, I wanted to have a very focused record, so I decided that Mac [Rebennack, a.k.a Dr. John] would play, and not sing (chuckles).
Tell me about your touring band.
It’s called Jack Bruce and the Cuicoland Express. I have Vernon Reid on guitar; my son was on the album, but is not touring with us – he’s working in Colorado at the moment, producing some bands. I’ve also got Bernie Worrell on organ, the two trap drummers I mentioned earlier, and a wonderful percussionist named Richie Flores. We’ll be touring in Europe for three weeks, followed by the U.S., then Japan.
You also participated in the recent Gov’t Mule project.
They did a tribute to Allen Woody, and asked me to sing and play on one track. They’d like to do some more, but it’s kind of difficult right now because of my own commitments.
There have also been reports that you were going to form a band with Andy Summers called HotFlash.
That’s something I’d still like to do. I loved playing with Andy, and the direction was fascinating because of his influences. I think he’s a very underrated guitarist, in the sense that be turned a lot of stuff around with the Police. It didn’t work out at the time, but it’s something I’d still like to do in the future.
Allen Woody had noted the Cream influence in Gov’t Mule’s sound, as well as a reason he used short-scale basses. Do you think you’ll ever go back to basses with that scale length?
Well, that was something I did way back when, and I’ve kind of moved on. I have a very personal style now, which I’m more comfortable with. I don’t like to stand still, and I certainly don’t want to go back.
Occasionally, when I’m playing in a certain situation, I’ll play an EB-1, but since it has a short scale, I’ve now found that it’s a pretty limiting instrument, which means I have to limit my playing, and it has sort of a “woofy” sound. I used it when I was playing live with BBM, but with my own band, I’m playing more melodically and more “technically,” so I need to play what I love the most – the Warwick fretless.
Shadows in the Air avers that Jack Bruce is indeed averse to standing still. Its an intriguing mix of percussion and melodic chops from the bassist, his band, and assorted guests, and underlines the fact that the legendary bassist is as viable and vital as ever.
Jack Bruce’s Gibson EB-3 Short-Scale Icon
Unlike some fabled instruments associated with venerable players, the primary Gibson EB-3 bass utilized by Jack Bruce from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s has been accounted for, although at one time it had disappeared into the murky mists of legend and rumor.
For about the last 15 years, it’s been in the possession of drummer Bruce Gary, who recently spoke with VG about his longtime friendship with Jack Bruce, and his acquisition of the instrument.
Gary is originally from Woodland Hills, California, and came of musical age in the Topanga Canyon musical scene of the late ’60s. That locale included bands and singers like Spirit, Linda Ronstadt, Canned Heat, Taj Mahal, and Albert Collins. Gary toured extensively with Collins, and formed a lifetime friendship with Spirit guitarist Randy California (VG, January ’96). In fact, Gary produced Spirit’s Cosmic Smile album, released after California’s tragic demise in January ’97.
In addition to extensive session work over the decades (“Juliet Prowse to Ferlin Huskey to everything in between”), Gary was also the drummer for the Knack, but after he quit that band in ’81, he went on the road with Bob Dylan, double-drumming with the legendary Jim Keltner.
“He’s my mentor,” Bruce said of Keltner. “In fact, he’s responsible for me meeting Jack in the first place. I’d met Jim in ’68, and he used to have jam sessions at the Record Plant (recording studio) on Sunday nights. One night when I walked in, I saw Mick Jagger, Jack Bruce, and John Lennon. I got to play with Jack, and I drove him back to his hotel. He told me he was putting a band together, and asked me to send him a tape. Within a month, he called, and I moved into his house for three months.”
The first musical association of Jack Bruce and Bruce Gary also included Mick Taylor and Carla Bley (the Jack Bruce Band was Taylor’s first effort following his departure from the Rolling Stones). That combo debuted in ’74, and over the ensuing decades, Gary has performed and recorded with Bruce on numerous occasions and in various band incarnations. His most recent efforts with the bassist also included guitarist Andy Summers.
And Bruce Gary’s recollection of how he became the owner of the legendary EB-3 is intriguing.
“We were in New York in ’84, playing at the Bottom Line,” he said. “Backstage after soundcheck, some kid came up and said ‘Jack, I’ve got your old bass.’ Jack told him to bring it in. He’d used an EB-3 all the way from (Cream’s) Disraeli Gears through solo albums like Songs for as Tailor and Harmony Row, and with West, Bruce, and Laing. When West, Bruce, and Laing broke up, one of the roadies walked off with the bass.
“When the kid brought it in, Jack opened the case, picked it up, felt the neck, and immediately said, ‘Yeah, this is the one,’” Gary recalled. “He unscrewed the cover to the (control cavity) and looked inside. At the time they were recording Disraeli Gears, Dan Armstrong was working with Eric and Jack; he literally had a small shop set up in the studio, and if they wanted a certain sound, Dan would come up with some inventions for them. So in lieu of Jack blowing up bass cabinets – which he did a lot, and continued to do when I was on the road with him – Dan installed a diode in the #2 position of the pickup switch, which caused some overdrive; made it sound distorted, and that thing was in there, so that added to the confirmation that it was the EB-3 that Jack used.
“Jack played it during the first set that night, and he didn’t like it,” recounted Gary. “He put it down after two songs, saying, ‘It feels like a toy in my hands, because I’m used to playing this long-scale fretless.’ He made a deal with the kid to swap it for one of Jack’s old Dan Armstrong basses. Jack said okay, and while it was a nice gesture by the kid, Jack lost interest in the EB-3. I asked if I could ‘babysit’ it, because I was a fledgling bass player. I kept watch on it for a couple of weeks, and at the end of the tour, Jack asked if I still had my Chapman Stick; I’d done a lot of work with Emmett Chapman. Jack said, ‘I know you really like that old bass; how’d you like to swap it for your Chapman Stick?’ I said, ‘Done!’”
The EB-3 is scheduled to be auctioned on the internet in early 2002, and Gary has high hopes for its ultimate destination.
“I’d like to see it end up in some place like Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’s such a historically important instrument, it needs to be sitting in a display case, not in a private collection.”
Bruce with his favored bass, a fretless Warwick, at a recent concert in New York. Photos: Lisa Sharken.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.