Roger and I used to play for the same pop singer while we were in college. Hey Roger, do you remember the bass I used to play? [Do I ever! – ed.] It was a one-of-a-kind rip-off of an old 50s Fender Jazz with a sunburst, swamp ash body, built by a guy named Brian Dickle. Guess what—I still use that bass, and almost exclusively. Because when you think about it, there are really only two bass tones: smooth jazz and bumpa-bump, the latter having an attack and decay while the former is about consistent sustain. I have a giant, unwieldy Fender 5-string made in Korea with active pickups that I use on pop and soul studio sessions (smooth jazz tone), but I use the Dickle for everything else. It feels good in my hands, and it looks like a little punk rocker—weathered, greasy, and stinky.
Seriously, it stinks. This time of year is always the worst, too. Playing for country stars means lots of outdoor shows during the summer—county and state fairs, special radio events, etc. It’s something we touring guys like to call the Funnelcake Circuit, kinda like what the Chitlin Circuit used to be but with fewer black people and better accommodations.
Roger, I don’t know if you remember, but I’m a pretty kinesthetic dude. [Unforgettably so! – ed.] I’m always dancing (some call it fidgeting and others call it substance abuse, but it’s dancing), so when we play outdoor shows in 100° heat, I sweat like a madman. I’m talking about the kind of sweat that you can wring out of a pair of sneakers, like, jump in a lake with all your clothes on kinda sweat. So when a show’s over, and the first thing I wanna do is smoke a cigarette and take a shot and be somewhere strangers can’t objectify me, the last thing I wanna do is find a safe place to hang my drenched guitar strap to dry, so it normally just goes right back in the front pocket of my gig bag (fuck a flight case—they’re too heavy, and Roger, I’ll never forget when your PRS got snapped in half at the airport. Where was that? Dulles? [Oh god. LAX. Dulles to LAX. – ed.]).
After a while, with no ventilation and soaked in metallic, pungent sweat, a cheap nylon strap starts to stink. We were playing in Bloomington, Indiana, last week, and during soundcheck Randy, the singer/songwriter I play for, asked what stank. The smell to which he was referring was something like soaking nylon in a warm mixture of vinegar and formaldehyde. I fessed up, and he told me I had to get a new strap, that mine was literally stinking up the place, but I told him I would do no such thing, that to ask me to replace my funky strap is like telling me I can’t stomp to the music. To compromise, I soaked it in hydrogen peroxide and hung it up overnight in the trailer next to the merchandise. It helped a little.
Tone is in the fingers, Roger. [An old cliche. – ed.] It’s an old cliche, but it’s true, and for me to maintain a true tone I need to keep everything consistent. That’s why I like my crusty Dickle with old dead strings and a stinky strap: it does whatever I tell it to do, it responds to the commands of my kinesthetia. It’s the only instrument I carry on the road. A guy asked me recently, “What do you do when you break a string?” and I said, “Math.”
And that happened just a few months ago. I was visiting my family in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and I played a show with our old buddy, Mike Davis. When’s the last time you saw Mikey, Roger? [Answer coming. – ed.] He and I were playing a three-hour covers show as the Acoustic Deuce, an old project we had which was shockingly lucrative for how unseriously we took it. Our slogan used to be: “We’ll take all your favorite songs and shit on them.” Mikey’s a pro now, but I still use the occasional Deuce show just as an excuse to get hammered and hit on college girls. And since I left the JaneDear Girls it’s the only chance I get anymore to perform “Billy Jean,” the best bassline ever.
Anyway, I broke my E-string two songs into the three-hour set, and after the show an old friend of mine criticized my professionalism for not carrying an extra bass or at least an extra set of strings, but I reject his criticism, straight up. Roger, I understand you guitarists have to change between a Tele, a Strat, and a Paul depending on what kind of tone a song calls for, but bass is different: it’s more fundamental, it carries more weight. To change basses in the middle of a show is like adjusting the thermostat, or worse, altering gravity. Changing guitars is like moving a plant to the other side of the windowsill.
So I played the three-hour set with just three strings, and you know what, Roger? I did it like this, I did it like that, and I did it with a wiffle ball bat. Drunk as a skunk, too. And it was in that moment, when my old friend was calling me out for lacking professionalism (because he sure as hell wasn’t calling me out for hitting sour notes or dropping the beat—that’s like an injury in the workplace: once a year, tops, or they’ll come shut down the factory), I had an epiphany: for almost seven years, I haven’t lifted a finger to make money that didn’t involve diddling this crusty old bass with the dents and the blood stains.
Can you believe it only cost me $300? In the words of what I’d like to hear Shaquille O’Neal say: “That’s value, dog.”
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.