Fretprints: Hiram Bullock

Dangerously Funky Fusioneer
Fretprints: Hiram Bullock
Hiram Bullock circa 1988 with his heavily modded – and worn – Strat.

In the sonic constellation orbiting jazz-rock, Hiram Bullock traveled a separate trajectory. His work on “Angela,” the theme for “Taxi,” was heard weekly by the masses. A member of the original The World’s Most Dangerous Band on “Late Night With David Letterman,” he captivated nightly audiences with his flamboyant style and soulful grooving presence.

In the studio, Bullock was a double threat. His work with the Brecker Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Art Farmer, 24th Street Band, Jaco Pastorius, Spyro Gyra, Kenwood Dennard, John Scofield, Steely Dan, Carla Bley, Marcus Miller, and a succession of solo albums bolstered his credentials as fusion guitarist extraordinaire, while contributions to the smooth-jazz of David Sanborn and Bob James, along with pop outings accompanying Sting, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Roberta Flack, Bonnie Tyler, Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, Pete Townshend, Burt Bacharach, Eric Clapton, Al Green, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, and others established him as one of the world’s most sought-after session stars.

Hiram Law Bullock was born September 11, 1955, to military parents in Osaka, Japan. His family returned to Baltimore when he was two. He enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, gave his first recital at six, and learned to play piano, sax, and electric bass. At 16, he picked up electric guitar and gravitated to the blues-rock of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, along with the funk of James Brown (unapologetically honored in “Mr. Brown”). After high school, he enrolled at the University of Miami, where he studied guitar and interacted with Pat Metheny, Steve Morse, Jaco Pastorius, and Will Lee. Bullock played in local clubs and wound up working with R&B/jazz singer Phyllis Hyman, who brought him to New York and hired him for her ’77 debut album. In New York City, he caught the attention of producer Phil Ramone, who recruited him for other ’70s sessions with Billy Joel (The Stranger), Kenny Loggins (Celebrate Me Home), Paul Simon (One Trick Pony), Bob James (Touchdown, with “Angela”), Roberta Flack (Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway), Steely Dan (Gaucho) and, most significantly, saxophonist David Sanborn. Bullock appeared on 10 Sanborn albums and was, as Dave put it, “the cornerstone of the band.” He also performed with Sanborn on his late-’80s NBC showcase, “Night Music,” and played in the house band of “Saturday Night Live.” In ’78, he formed 24th Street Band with Lee, Steve Jordan (drums), and Clifford Carter (keyboards), then released three albums from ’79 through ’81.

In ’82, music director/keyboardist Paul Shaffer inducted Bullock, Lee, and Jordan to The World’s Most Dangerous Band; Bullock stayed through ’84 while launching a solo career with First Class Vagabond, backed by Lee and Sanborn. He secured a contract with Atlantic in ’86 and released three albums – From All Sides, Give It What U Got, and Way Kool. He punctuated solo work with PDB (Pastorius, Dennard, Bullock) in ’86, and a live set from Indigo Blues in ’91. The following year, he appeared as one of the Bail Jumpers and wrote six songs for the Steven Seagal film Under Siege.

“Window Shoppin’” was the first track on From All Sides, Hiram’s major-label debut. It established the funk and groove for which he is famed from the opening bars. A capsule view of his engaging rhythm style, it exemplifies his use of deceptively simple ingredients and feel to form a memorable statement. After an introductory fanfare on a B7 altered chord–strummed as 16th notes in the James Brown fashion (“Brand New Bag”) – he launched into a well-pocketed chord riff defining extensions of Em9 chord. This pattern utilized parallel-third dyads and percussive muted string scrapes in a funky mix emphasizing syncopation and groove. Note his vibrato on the D-F# dyads in measures 2-4, single-note Em pentatonic fill in 3, and sustaining arpeggiation implying Em9 in 5, further coloring the riff.

The next two decades saw him stretching, musically, with World of Collision, Manny’s Car Wash, Carrasco (Latin-tinged fusion), Late Night Talk (a jazz-based album with several standards), Guitar Man, Color Me, Try Livin’ It, Too Funky 2 Ignore, and Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (with Billy Cobham).

Bullock died of throat cancer exacerbated by drug abuse on July 25, 2008. He was 52.

Bullock’s style was true fusion – a blend of rock, blues, jazz, pop, country, and funk governed and animated by groove. That mindset and superior musicianship allowed him to move in any direction as leader and seamlessly operate in the disparate worlds of his celebrity employers. Funk was a prominent factor in his equation, underscored by his emphatic proclamations in “Can’t Fight the Funk” on Try Livin’ It and telling songs like “Funky Broadway” and “Mr. Brown.”

An exceptional R&B rhythm guitarist, he orchestrated and layered parts over a funky central-chord riff, adding single-note and dyad counter lines and embellishments as well as clean and dirty lead playing to pieces like “Window Shoppin’” and “Try Livin’ It.” On solo albums, he pursued fusion aspirations in well-crafted compositions, arrangements, and improvisations while addressing pop concerns in equally strong, commercially viable vocal numbers like “Until I Do,” “Angelina,” “Another Night,” and “When You’re Lovin’.”

Hiram’s solo on Sting’s version of “Little Wing” stands as one of his most-beloved session outings. This example presents his navigation through Jimi’s chord progression. He outlines the Bm and Bbm chords in measure 1 with minor 9th arpeggios as a saxophonist would and adds half-step string bends as his guitar refinement. Note his use of the Em pentatonic as a modal extension through Am and C in 2, and broken octaves to define G and F in 3. His final melody over D in 5-6 begins simply enough with a bluesy bend and an arpeggio outline of the D major triad but culminates in an intriguing pedal-tone melody that coveys a quasi-classical impression, proving Bullock’s fusion didn’t end with jazz-rock but encompassed a variety of influences without resorting to obvious clichés.

Bullock’s lead-solo style was characterized by tight blues-based melodies over catchy funk and R&B grooves that purveyed an accessible pop quality. His blues-rock vocabulary was gleaned from Clapton and Hendrix (check out his take on “Red House” with Cobham) and flaunted idiomatic string bends and vibrato, pentatonic/blues-scale allusions, call-and-response phrases, and hard-rock ingredients like metal-tinged distortion for his “afterburner” solos, whammy-bar antics, dips and dives, and bidextral tapping. A “tapping novice,” he used his middle finger to create a “yodeling” effect, add trilled notes to flurries, and produce wide-interval leaps while holding bends. His lead playing was further informed by jazz concepts resulting in articulate bebop lines and thoughtful chord-tone awareness and substitutions, as heard in solos like “Way Kool” where he implied ii-V progressions and altered-dominant (7b9#9) changes over a single chord. He similarly applied a jazzman’s approach when extending major chords; posing a B7 sound on the D# tone of an Emaj7 or using F# to produce a dissonant “Lydian” sound on Cmaj7(#11), considering Dm7b5 an F minor or playing Ab minor on G7#5#9 and Cm on F7. The latter three are minor-conversion strategies favored by Pat Martino and other modern-jazz cognoscenti. Moreover, on tunes like “Teen Town” he used common-tone thinking to navigate unwieldy changes and jazz-oriented procedures such as free chromaticism and “side-slipping” melodies of wind players. Beginning with his earliest recordings, he enjoyed improvising over colorful chord changes that mixed extended and altered sonorities with progressions and syncopations typical of (but reaching beyond) the fusion sounds of Ritenour, Carlton, Ford, and Yellowjackets in the late ’70s. He continued to evolve in the new millennium, adding hip-hop and rap to his palette in “Too Funky 2 Ignore,” and exploring post-grunge power pop in “After the Fall.”

Bullock’s studio work exemplified the role of session specialist – a consummate rhythm player guided by the groove, and highly identifiable lead soloist. His chording included the requisite scratchy-funk strumming as well as sustaining arpeggiations, textural parts, and partial-chord fills (heard in Sting’s “Little Wing”). His guitar sound was an identifier of his style. A teacher once advised him to stick with his Strat for jazz rather than the traditional archtop, and he built a personal sound and approach with the guitar. Known for clean, compressed Strat tones in rhythm/accompaniment and lead playing as well as chord-melody, he often colored tastefully with chorus, phase, and echo effects, and used wah for slow sweeps and tone shaping in addition to the typical rocked effects. He frequently applied volume swells to melodies and chords (via the guitar’s Volume knob), as in “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” from Carrasco.

Any Hiram Bullock album offers a motherlode of listenable fusion. Atlantic gathered material from his solo releases as well as 24th Street Band cuts on two compilations, Hiram Bullock Best Grooves Selection and Real Grooves Selection. Also recommended are “Little Wing” from Sting’s Nothing Like the Sun, 24th Street Band’s three albums, and his work with David Sanborn.

“Cactus” was a signature Bullock track, bearing some of his most definitive fusion improvisation. This excerpt from his solo (1:51-2:10) is a case in point. Played over two enriched jazz chords (G11 and F11) given a repeating vamp treatment, it reveals much about his jazz-rock conception. He begins by outlining a G13 sound with a melody that is part arpeggio and part stepwise motion. Note the tritone leap (B-F) conveying the basic dominant-7th dissonance. Over F11, he not only uses the Bebop Scale in measure 3-4 but also adds an important tension note B from C Melodic Minor to suggest F9#11. A similar sound is heard in 6, where C# is used on G11. His thematic development of a catchy rhythm pattern of one eighth and two 16ths is played throughout 6-7. His final phrase in F applies horn-based lines containing bebop chromaticism and the C Melodic Minor sound. He ends decisively with a blues bend into G.

Highlights include live performances of “Cactus,” “Window Shoppin’” and “Little Wing,” “Crossfire,” with Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Green Dolphin Street,” with Les Paul, an ’86 “Ohne Filter” appearance with David Sanborn, and his Groove Music instructional video. Worth searching for are reminiscences from Will Lee and other colleagues as well as a revealing online look at and demonstration of Bullock’s guitar by Jong-Jim.

Bullock was closely associated with a battle-scarred, highly modified Strat (“the bastard”) with a ’61 rosewood slab fretboard on a ’62 sunburst body, two Gibson humbuckers in nickel covers (neck and bridge, typically used for lead playing and power chords) and a Fender single-coil middle pickup (producing a different but appropriately hollow out-of-phase sound for alternate funk rhythm and chicken-picked licks), and unique wiring scheme (master Volume for humbuckers, separate Volume for middle/main rhythm sound) and five-position switch. In the early 2000s, Bullock began using signature-model Cort HBS and HBS–2 guitars with similar appointments and modifications, and occasionally used an Armas, made in Italy. He favored Dean Markley Blue Steel or DR Tite-Fit MT-10 strings. His acoustics included Yamaha and Armas models, and a custom-made German instrument.

He used various amps – a Fender Twin DeVille, Mesa-Boogie Tri-Axis preamp, Mark III and IV heads, and Marshall heads before settling on a Mark Guitar stack with stereo cabs.

His most-used effects were all Boss – a PS-5 Super Shifter, BBD-2 Blues Driver overdrive, CS-3 Compressor-Sustainer, DS-1 distortion, and OC-2 octaver. He put his Vox wah in front of them, and occasionally added a VHRelief overdrive, Line 6 DL-4 delay modeler and Pod, and vintage MXR M134 stereo chorus.

This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

No posts to display