by Anastacea Best

Some things are just born out of necessity. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” For Larry Graham, this is where his “super-chopper-bass-thumping-pluck-slap-or whatever you choose to call it” technique came from. Larry Graham is best known for his work in Sly and the Family Stone. He’s also known for his work in the group he founded, Graham Central Station.

As most bass players will know, a rhythm section is fundamental to a song. But, when Graham found him and his mother without a drummer for performances, he had to improvise. That’s when he began to thump and pluck his strings to substitute for a drumset. That produced a sound that quickly became known as the “Slap Bass.”

In the beginning of this video, Graham gives us a taste of his masterful playing as he quickly runs through some samples of songs he’s played on, schooling us on some “Bass History.” “It Ain’t No Fun To Me,” “Dance to the Music,” and “Thank You” are just some of these that he plays. And although the audience doesn’t really see his face, credit has to be given to the drummer for keeping up so splendidly with Graham. Then Graham gives us a nice run down of the different pedals he uses in his playing. The Fuzz (the Juggernaut), the Jet Phaser, and Bigfoot are all pedals that give Graham’s unique style of playing a little extra flavor.

Graham also takes us through some of his playing techniques. Now, I’ve never personally used my finger in place of pick except when I’m on stage playing and, all of a sudden, my pick becomes an acrobat and flips into the soundhole of my guitar. Only then, do I resort to tearing up the cuticle of my index finger to play because, of course, the show must go on. But Graham chooses to use his index finger because it gives him a different sound, which he demonstrates for us in the video.

Next, is his “slide bass.” When he slides on the bass, it gives his playing character and also shows what it means to play behind the beat. For anyone who’s not familiar with playing “behind the beat”, it’s when a bass line or a melody line isn’t playing exactly in the pocket of the beat. The player isn’t falling in line with the beat but is still playing in time. It’s something important for all musicians to learn and while it can be difficult to do at first, it’s worth the time and effort.

Graham then moves on to muting with his left hand. It’s this technique that gives us a crisp, clean groove. It stops the notes from bleeding into each other and clearly defines each note, in staccato fashion. Again, he demonstrates this for us with the song ‘Everyday People’ and ‘Higher,’ in combination with using his ‘up-and-down’ technique with his thumb (which he talks more about later in the video).

Then he begins to talk about my favorite thing in music : Dynamics. We use dynamic from the time we start talking. Having your mother yell “Use your inside voice!” was the first step in learning why dynamics are important in daily life. And it’s just as important in music. If all your favorite songs were played loudly, how much enjoyment would you really get from listening to them? In vice versa, if all your favorite songs were played like a whisper, there’d be no such things as ‘rocking out’ or ‘jamming’ to a song. Graham plays both quietly and loudly in the same bass line, creating the effect of two bass guitars playing when there’s really only one. That’s the power of dynamics at work.

Graham also explains why synchronization is a key element when the bass line is busy. Again, credit goes to his drummer for doing so well in this regard. While Graham is playing like a madman on his bass, his drummer is careful not overshadow him or stray from the style. Instead, he supports Graham’s bass line with well timed accents from the hi-hat and various crash symbols. With his snare, he keeps the feel of busyness, but at the same time, does it tastefully.

Towards the end of the video, Graham give us another glimpse into his musical and personal life. When he was in junior high school, one of his influences was Frankie Lymon, the soprano lead of the group The Teenagers. Another one of his influences was Chuck Berry, a famous name in traditional rock and roll. Graham’s time on stage with Ike and Tina Turner also influenced him quite a bit. But of course, two of his biggest influences were his mother and grand-mother. His grandmother encouraged him to “practice, practice, practice” and he had the great experience of actually being able to work with his mother. At the time of the video, those two big influences shifted somewhat to his wife, Tina Graham, and his daughter. There’s no other word I think of but “adorable” to describe the fact that, in their 17 years of marriage, Graham has only left his wife home twice and his daughter once. It’s apparent that they’re a very close-knit and dedicated family.

And then he gives us a nice summary/review of the things we learned in the video; thumping, plucking, sliding, “up-and-down” and more. And as a treat, Larry Graham jams with us one last time.