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Marcus Miller

If you’re looking for a challenge, this month we’ve got a feast of slapping and popping inspired by the third solo album of a jazz-funk great. Gareth Morgan is all thumbs.

The name Marcus Miller first started appearing on records in the mid-’70s by jazz/funk greats such as alto saxophonist David Sanborn and the Return To Forever alumni, drummer Lenny White. By the time Miller released The Sun Don’t Lie in 1993 he’d recorded, written and produced for Sanborn and jazz trumpet great Miles Davis, and played bass – invariably slapped via his thumb – on hundreds of records by artists including the late, great Luther Vandross, Carly Simon, Bryan Ferry and Bill Withers.

The Sun Don’t Lie was Miller’s third solo offering. You can pretty much discount the first two, Suddenly (1983) and 1984’s self-titled album, as plucky first attempts, burdened by the poor quality of the songs, with too much of Miller’s singing and not enough bass playing. The Sun Don’t Lie was a completely different animal; Miller’s confidence in his own ability had never been higher, especially after his work with Miles Davis had been so well received, and he had a concept, a composing methodology if you like, that he’d developed for Davis and was now using for his own solo career.

‘I began to hit on a sound kind of based on fourths,’ he explained. ‘It was different from the way [pianist] McCoy [Tyner] and those guys used it, but it was still based on fourths. It gave me a different lean. Ever since then, I’ve been refining it.

‘Miles used to use those fourths. He had a keyboard usually set up on the stage, and when he wasn’t playing trumpet, every once in a while he’d bang out a couple of chords. He used to play these fourth voicings. It was a loud, harsh sound and those chords would sound really dark and menacing.’ For the harmonically-inclined, we’re talking about chordal voicings involving stacking fourths, voicings which Miller used to great effect on The Sun Don’t Lie and continued to refine through five further studio albums; his latest, Renaissance, was released in 2012.

While no slouch on fretless bass, Miller has been one of the most revered bassists on the planet for 25 years because of his prodigious slapping technique and his sound. His primary instrument has always been a Fender Jazz Bass with a Sadowsky preamp, and this, combined with his fantastic technique, produces perhaps the perfect slap tone: clean, with a singing, piano-esque quality. Miller tended to be a rhythmic slapper, but the responsibility of delivering the main melody on The Sun Don’t Lie means you get much more variety than this suggests. If you check out his subsequent solo offerings as well, the amazing thing is that you can hear Miller slowly assimilating newer techniques like tapping and up-and-down thumb strokes in an effort to remove as many restraints as possible on his ability to fully express himself via the four-string electric bass.

1. FINGER FUNK PART IN E (4/4 TIME)

When it comes to this month’s musical examples, there’s good news and there’s bad news. On the down side, all of them – even this innocuous-looking opener – are of a technically awkward nature; on the plus side, tempos are provided. This means that you can notch the tempo right back (always start at least 20bpm below the target and halve the tempo for most of these examples) and take your time. Our first example is based on Miller’s fingerstyle groove during the solo section from Teen Town.

2. MELODIC SLAP PART WITH PENTATONIC LICK (4/4 TIME)

Our second example is based on Miller’s bassline under the alto sax solo that closes Steveland; Miller uses his thumb, but it also works well as a fingerstyle part. Slapping-wise, play every note with your thumb except the octave As, which you pop/pull with the first finger. In terms of how to slap, Miller says ‘Just do it until it sounds right. Strike the string with the hard bony part of your thumb (near the line that crosses the middle of your thumb on the inside). Pluck with your index finger by pulling the string up and letting it slap back.’

3. SLAP BREAK WITH CHORD AND 16TH NOTES (4/4 TIME)

Fans of Miller’s playing will probably be familiar with one of his most famous slap solos on a tune called Run For Cover, a Miller composition on the David Sanborn live album Straight To The Heart. Most of his soloing here is based on melodic patterns rather than simply thumping along with the drummer, but Rampage is a great example of his more ‘traditional’ slap solo approach. Have a go at our version below: the tempo dictates that nailing this one is all about relaxation and suppleness of the wrist.

4. SLAP PART WITH SPACE AND DEAD NOTES (4/4 TIME)

As well as pitched notes, Miller’s main bass part from Panther uses dead notes (percussive hits with no discernible pitch), giving a more aggressive feel and more intensity without influencing the melodic content of the song. As you can see, the dead notes are written by replacing the standard note head or TAB number with an ‘x’, and they are played with both thumb and popping finger. Simply damp the strings, preferably with two fingers of your fretting hand, to ensure you get the necessary ‘click’ sound.

5. SLAPPED VERSION OF SYNTH BASSLINE (4/4 TIME)

Doubling or reproducing a synth bassline became a trademark element in Miller’s mid-’80s work with David Sanborn and Luther Vandross, amongst others. You’ll hear him make a similar move in the first sax solo section on Steveland (first solo by Wayne Shorter, second by David Sanborn), although here he takes over from the synth line to provide better support for the soloist. Dig into our version: you’ll need to be fairly precise with your technique, and be very careful with the string-crossing licks.

6. D-TUNED SLAP PART WITH 16TH NOTES AND SYNCOPATION (4/4 TIME)

The album’s title track begins with Miller on 6-string Modulus fretless bass, delivering the song’s main theme before breaking out the Jazz Bass to deliver a solid bassline under a piano solo courtesy of Crusaders legend Joe Sample. If you want to check out our version and you’re not lucky enough to own a 5-string, you’ll need to tune your E string down to D – which, to be fair, is exactly what Miller did. Given the slacker string tension that results, it’s probably a good idea to mitigate the force with which you hit it with your thumb.

7. SLAP VERSION OF FINGERSTYLE MELODY (4/4 TIME)

Between 1988 and 1990 Miller was the house bass player in NBC TV’s Sunday Night band, appearing in the first season and reappearing towards the end as musical director. The band would often close the programme with Teen Town from Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, and Miller freaked out the bass fraternity with his slapped version of Jaco Pastorius’ fretless fingerstyle melody. Try our tribute, below: start really slowly and, technically speaking, pop the octave C, Bb and G in bar one and the A in bar two and play the rest with your thumb.

8. SLAP LINE WITH DOUBLE STOPS, DEAD NOTES AND 32ND NOTES (4/4 TIME)

Our final example is based on Scoop, a tune which opens with Miller displaying his new-found tapping facility and then breaking into a tricky kinetic slap theme with chords, dead notes and two 32nd-note licks. Needless to say, extreme patience and careful practising is necessary to get anywhere close to replicating Miller’s dexterity and flair. The song is well worth a careful listen, as elsewhere Miller uncorks his box of slap tricks which include logic-defying dead-note rhythms and a multitude of variations on the song’s themes.

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