by Anastacea Best




In this video that was created by Louis Johnson in 1985, he demonstrates his complete mastery over the art of playing the bass. Johnson is best known for being in the group The Brothers Johnson and his collaborations with other famous artists, such as Michael Jackson on the album Thriller.

This 50 minute video starts off with Johnson talking about his bass, the Music Man StingRay. This bass is held proudly in Johnson’s hands in most pictures that are found of him. According to Johnson, the bass “was made for thumping” and delivers a nice, heavy sound. No doubt, this bass is what helped Johnson gain the nickname “Thunder­Thumbs.”

Now in this video, Johnson mentions that he was going to be making some basses in partnership with Kramer. Unfortunately, in doing some research, this never happened for Johnson. However, in the 1990’s, Johnson did team up with the company Treker to create a Louis Johnson model bass. But for those who go looking, you won’t find this bass being sold anymore in brand­new condition. If you’re fortunate enough, though, you’ll find a used one being sold online by someone who once had a dream of playing like our man Johnson.

On a personal note, I like how Johnson talks about how he learned to use his thumb and his index finger while developing his technique. He states that it’s usually hard for bass players to slap using only their thumb. But, of course, with Johnson being who he is, he’s managed to make this look effortless. Then he says that he messed up his thumb while ripping on his bass a bit. So what does he do? He learns to play just as well with his index finger. But what happens when that finger is ripped apart too? Johnson figures that he’ll just pull on the strings to achieve his desired sound. But then​, what happens when he can’t pull those strings anymore? He decides to slap them, enhancing his technique further.

What does that teach us as musicians? Simply, to be determined. To play through the pain and the obstacles. If you’re determined to ace something, it’s going to take a little effort. But, in your persistence, you just might find out that you’re a little more creative than you think.

In demonstrating how to play his second lick, I notice that Johnson shows us how to play with a little finesse. A musician’s sound is just as crucial as hitting all the right notes at the right times. He shows us the difference that just pulling or slapping a string can make. He says that slapping the string while either hammering a note on or pulling it off, can make the ending of a bass line sound “slicker.” If one was to pull it, it would have a much more abrupt sound to it. Since both have their place in a song, it’s important to pay attention to small details like this.

In speaking of this small detail, Johnson gives us another reason, in lick six, why we might opt to slap a string instead of pull it. Timing for musicians is very important as well. It’s just as, if not more,​important than playing the right notes. In playing lick six, Johnson shows that slapping the string helps him put his hand in position to play the rest of the bass line. If he were to pull on the string, he might fall a fraction of a beat, or even, a complete beat behind. This concept is doubly important when playing with others. Sometimes a beat is the difference between perfection and a trainwreck. And no one wants to be that ​guy.

I also appreciate how Johnson is unafraid to enter the upper register of his bass guitar. When I first learned to play the bass guitar, I was of the mindset that it was imperative to stick to the lower register. And that can be the thought of many beginning bass players. The notes provide a much needed foundation for the melody and harmonies. But why can’t the bass have a little fun too? That’s what lick eleven shows us. Bass players shouldn’t be afraid to take a journey across the fretboard. Sometimes doing so can add another dimension to, an otherwise, mediocre song.

Obviously, learning bass licks like these have their advantages. You learn to play a bit faster and look a bit cooler to your friends. But lick twelve also shows the practicality of it. This entire lick showcases the notion that, should you need to modulate to another key, you can do so smoothly and stylishly. Multiple times, Johnson plays this lick and lands on different note, ready to play another bassline in a different key. Either learning or developing a bass lick like this one is an essential tool for any bass player’s toolbox.

By the end of this video, it’s clear that it will take time and diligent practice to master the bass like Louis Johnson. Whether the viewer is a beginner, an intermediate player or a professional, there are tips and reminders here for everyone, past the ones I’ve already pointed out. These twenty licks also show there is no shortage of ideas to play on the bass guitar. And though we live in the 21st century, the unique art of bass thumping and slap bass are very much in style. So if you’re looking to expand your musical horizons, give it a try. You might be surprised at the results

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