How to play Bass like a Boss: Schalk Joubert
On Saturday I attended a bass guitar workshop by well-known call-to bassist and music producer Schalk Joubert. The workshop was held at W. Heuer music shop in Stellenbosch and featured the accompaniment of top SA drummer Kevin Gibson and pianist Ramon Alexander.
I first saw Schalk Joubert at the Woordfees in early 2007 after I mentioned to one of my first year university drama lecturers that I was interested in music and bass playing. She told me I should come to a place called Klein Libertas Theatre that evening to see an industrial rock band called Battery 9, who were doing a reunion show especially for the Woordfees. Not knowing what to expect at the event, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a bass player leading an African traditional women’s choir with a bunch of poets thrown into the mix for good measure. That bassist was Schalk Joubert. He subsequently blew my mind.
Keeping in mind that this was all of 6 months before I would even pick up a bass guitar (being 18 at the time), I was hooked by what this guy could achieve – the number of sounds he got out of his bass was phenomenal. He did things I’d never seen anyone do on the bass guitar before – like palm mutes (that made the bass sound like a marimba), volume knob effects, lead playing like a soloist and the fact that he played the bass like a black man. These all formed part of what made that particular night special.
Chatting to the guy next to me, I found out that Schalk was (according to him and many others) the best bassist in South Africa and was known to session for almost every Afrikaans artist in the music industry. I wasn’t ready to dispute that.
My dad then obliged to buying me a bass guitar and an amp. I started looking around for great bass guitar albums to transcribe. Later that year I was milling around in Look & Listen, about two months after I started playing bass – where I saw Schalk’s debut album Kayamandi on the shelf at the African Jazz section. I bought it and immediately attempted to learn his bass lines note for note – it was arduous at best. Kayamandi featured an ensemble line-up of famous South African artists including Zolani Mahola (of Freshly Ground), Gloria Bosman, Breyten Breytenbach, Lize Beekman, Neo Muyanga and a bunch of top session musicians. The album was nominated for a SAMA in the category ‘Best Jazz Album’.
At one of Schalk’s later shows he told me he’d only started playing bass when he was 19 years old and quite by accident. This inspired me. I’m still inspired.
I have to add that since I’ve started playing bass – I’ve been to tons of bass guitar workshops from various excellent bassists and I’m just going to touch on some of the things that stood out for me the most.
Schalk prides himself on his individuality of playing, even when recognising the role of the bass guitar in an ensemble – that of support. From what he said, I gather that in addition to exercising the basics of the instrument in whatever context, what has worked for him has been his creative approach to bass playing. I understand that he has a very distinguishable voice on the instrument which makes him identifiable – a showman of sorts. Schalk says that playing music that he personally enjoys on the instrument has been formative in his current way of playing – whether that is The Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ or Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bomb Track’, playing chords and melody lines in addition to the underlying rhythm has made him better for the job of in-demand bassist. This has inspired many artists to book him for shows/recordings because he brings something fresh every time in addition to playing what is necessary. What is absolutely necessary is as follows:
- Knowledge of harmony – outlining the chords for the other musicians
- Rhythm – Groove
- Timing – Slightly behind the beat. If a crotchet/quarter note cannot be played at 40 bpm (beats per minute) on each click of the metronome, then a bassist’s timing sucks
One illustration that the workshop trio made was that of 3 against 2 or 6 against 4 poly-rhythms, where your right hand counts out 3 or 6 while your left hand counts out 2 or 4 simultaneously. This is an exercise I learnt in 2008 at the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival and helps with rhythmic sub-divisions. Kevin Gibson illustrated how this type of rhythm can easily turn a slow traditional blues groove into a burning 12/8 African feel. It is difficult for me to explain in writing.
Annaline, one of my students who I’ve been teaching since early last year was really amped to attend this workshop and I’m happy that everything we covered in our lessons was mentioned by Schalk at some point in the workshop.
Schalk, here’s to your next album!