Jimmy Haslip: “I know I don’t play the instrument correctly! I've just tried to find my own way of expressing myself“

Jimmy Haslip
(Image credit: Andrew Lepley/Redferns)

We’re so used to thinking of our fingers moving towards the floor when we play an ascending bass part that it comes as something of a shock to see the unique former Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip in action. 

Not only does he play a left-handed bass guitar, he strings it upside-down – in other words, his low B string is physically lower than his high C. Add to this his phenomenal ability when it comes to fast soloing, and your brain ends up tied in knots.  

Fortunately we have the great Grammy-winning bassist right here, 69 years old and full of energy, ready to talk about his unorthodox technique, some of the many albums on which it appears, and his memories of taking bass lessons 46 years ago with a certain J. Pastorius... 

I feel like I’m progressing as a musician and becoming a better one as time goes on. I still put in a lot of time with the instrument

Have you done much recording from home in the pandemic, Jimmy? 

“I have two studios that are a stone’s throw away from my home here in Venice Beach. For that reason I’ve dragged my feet about getting a home studio set up, but in February 2020 it started looking a bit crazy with the virus, so I realized that I needed to get some gear together to allow me to work from home. 

“I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with it. I don’t profess to be a very good engineer, but I can actually sit here and record electric bass, and even some keyboards, so I’m happy.“ 

What is your go-to bass gear these days? 

“Aside from the Roscoe basses that I’ve been using for some years, I also have a bunch of old Tobias basses and some newer MTDs. I’ve been in touch with [luthier] Mike Tobias for a long, long time and I absolutely love his instruments. I feel connected to them, just as I do with Keith Roscoe’s basses. 

“I met a luthier in Japan named Hirotaka Kiuchi who has a boutique company called Inner Wood, and I hooked up with him. I introduced him to Keith Roscoe’s company, and he ended up being the rep in Japan for them. We became friends, and he built me three beautiful instruments. 

“They’re pretty straight-ahead: off the top of my head, I would just describe them as souped-up Fender basses with great-quality sounds. You plug one of those into a direct box in the studio for a session and engineers and very comfortable with it.“ 

Tell us about the reissues of your albums Red Heat and Nightfall

“I was originally signed to a small label named Unitone, and I did the original version of Red Heat for them in the early Nineties. I did that record with [pianist] Joe Vannelli, having already worked with him on a variety of projects. 

“At the time, my father wasn’t well, and he had always wanted the Yellowjackets to do a Latin-influenced album, which – as I told him – would be difficult because the band was a consortium of four musicians, and I wasn’t comfortable pushing a certain genre of music on the band. 

“When he took ill, I thought it would be a good idea to do a project of music that was influenced by my Latin roots, which are not especially deep, because I grew up in Long Island.“ 

Do you know the theory of becoming good at anything you want to do as long as you put at least 10,000 hours into it? I know I’ve put at least that many hours into it already, but I’m still not satisfied

You weren’t an aficionado of that culture?

“The culture that I got from Puerto Rico was really from my parents and my cousins; it wasn’t as steeped in tradition as it would have been if I’d been born and raised in Puerto Rico. 

“I did learn a lot as a young kid, being around the culture and the music, from Tito Puente to Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto, and I saw a lot of these bands play in New York, which made a big impact on me when I was growing up and studying music. 

“So I made the decision to focus Red Heat on anything I could bring to the party that concerned Latin music and culture. It was my own take on it. It was a wonderful experience to work on that album, and to have my father be the focus of the emotion that I put into it. 

“Unitone did a good job and it achieved some success when it came out. Joe was right there with me: He put 1000 percent into helping me put it together, just as he did with Nightfall some years later, which I wrote when my daughter was enduring a health crisis. There was no real support for that album, which is why I decided to reissue it, along with Red Heat, on Blue Canoe Records, where I’ve been A&R-ing for a while.“

Do you ever listen back to a recording and feel that you could have done better? 

“Always, haha! Even on the day I finish a session, I think maybe I could have done a better job. As I get older I feel like I’m changing as a bass player on a daily basis.“ 

In a good way? 

“I hope so! I feel like I’m progressing as a musician and becoming a better one as time goes on. I still put in a lot of time with the instrument, just as I’ve done in the past. Do you know the theory of becoming good at anything you want to do as long as you put at least 10,000 hours into it? 

“I know I’ve put at least that many hours into it already, but I’m still not satisfied. I’ll be happy to put another 10,000 hours into it, although I don’t know if I’ll have enough time, because I turned 69 this year. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve put in at least 1000 hours this year alone.“ 

Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve put in at least 1000 hours this year alone

With the way you string your basses, do you think that upper-register fills are easier to play for you, because the higher strings are closer to your fingers? 

“It’s very possible. I really haven’t analyzed that at all. I look at playing any instrument as a difficult task. To get proficient takes time and energy, as it does to get comfortable with the instrument and to get a sound out of it, and then to start getting into the technical and mechanical aspects of playing it. 

“In my case, I always felt that because I play the bass guitar unconventionally, I was always having to deal with some unconventional hurdle, to play the instrument correctly. 

“And at this point in my life, I know I don’t play the instrument correctly, haha! I’ve sort of abandoned some of those kinds of rules and just tried to find my own way of expressing myself on the instrument, for better or for worse. That’s led me down some interesting paths and studies.“

Jimmy Haslip

(Image credit: C Brandon/Redferns)

Tell us about your lessons with Jaco. 

“That was an explosion of an experience. You know how things just happen, by coincidence or fate or chance – all these things that come into a lifetime of experience? It so happened that at the time in 1975, I was just settling in to Los Angeles, having moved here from New Orleans. 

“The goal was to get a record deal, and I ran into a drummer that I had met in New York but got to know in New Orleans. He invited me and our guitar player to come to Los Angeles. The drummer was Carmine Appice, who is a force of nature. I’ve been friends with him ever since. 

“He graciously put us up, and I think he wanted to play with us, but he was committed contractually to his band KGB. He introduced us to his brother Vinny, and we formed a trio. He then introduced us to these guys Cavallo, Ruffalo and Fargnoli, who had a huge management company. 

“At the time they were managing a new artist called Prince, as well as Earth, Wind And Fire, and Little Feat, who I loved – and Weather Report, who I had always been in awe of.“ 

Not a bad artist roster. 

“Right! They took us on, and we were managed by them. They were very interested in what we were doing and they were seeking a record deal for us. In the process we ended up in a rehearsal hall that belonged to Frank Zappa. It had two rooms, a small one that we were in because we were just a trio, and a larger one with a stage with Weather Report in it. 

“They were rehearsing at the same time as us, so I was incredibly excited, and I snuck in to watch. To my surprise, I saw this long-haired guy playing bass, and I was thinking ‘Who’s this?’ because I was expecting to see Alphonso Johnson. But I’d never heard anything quite like this new guy, and he blew me away. I waited around, and when they finished I went up to Jaco and introduced myself and asked if he gave lessons. 

“He said ‘Well, I’m going to be in town for the next 10 or 12 days, so if you want we can get together and have some lessons’. I said ‘Great!’ and with that I took probably a half-dozen lessons with him, as well as some regular time just hanging out with him. In the first lesson he said ‘I just finished my first solo project, do you want to hear something? It’s not out yet but it’s coming out soon’. I said ‘Sure’ and he stuck some headphones on my head, and the first thing I heard was Donna Lee.“ 

Was he impressed by your playing? 

“I was astounded that he said I actually had pretty good technique. I took that as a very high compliment, coming from him, and it was very motivating. Now that I’ve done a lot of teaching, I understand that the job of a good teacher is to motivate the students. Jaco was right to do that, although whether he meant it or not, I don’t know! I did feel like I had some things going on in my favor at that point, though.“

What were they? 

“Well, people ask me all the time how I play fast, because I’ve had that skill from when I first started playing, although I don’t know why that happened. I guess learning to play when you’re an impatient 13-year-old might be one of the reasons, though. Jaco told me to start out slow and build up speed over a period of time, which was a good lesson for the impatient 25-year-old that I was. 

“I was always trying to learn things at speed, and sometimes that would be frustrating. It was a revelation to me that I could slow all the notes down and play at a slower tempo, before building up again once I was comfortable.“ 

Jaco told me to start out slow and build up speed over a period of time, which was a good lesson for the impatient 25-year-old that I was

What else did Jaco teach you? 

“He suggested some ideas after he watched me play for a while, and he also asked me if I had any thoughts about what I wanted to do. At the time I was trying to work on some melodic things that I was having a little trouble with, and he gave me this great tool that I use to this day. 

“He said, ‘If you can sing something, you should be able to play it.’ He also asked me to listen to more horn players, which was good advice when it comes to soloing, and he told me to study Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, which I was unaware of until he told me about it. They were very technically challenging.“ 

You also played with Allan Holdsworth. 

“That was an incredible experience. Being able to tour and perform with Allan was unmistakably one of the highlights of my career, and being able to get inside his head a little bit and to understand what he was about, was an eye-opening experience. 

“He was a genius, and it’s been said many times that he actually changed his instrument. You can count those people on one hand. I’ll always revere that experience and never take it for granted. And playing with a gentleman like Gary Husband was incredible too, because he’s not only a great drummer, he’s also an amazing piano player, which is unique. There’s really not too many of those people on the planet.“ 

Allan Holdsworth was a genius, and it’s been said many times that he actually changed his instrument. You can count those people on one hand

Tell us about the online masterclasses that you’ve been doing lately.

“When I started doing them, I looked back at some improvizational exercises that I’ve been working on over the years, because I thought they would make a good lesson. They’re just things that I’ve done off the top of my head without thinking about it – just trying to find personal ways for me to express myself on the instrument. 

“As I analyzed these things, I came to realize that there were a lot of technical aspects to them that I’d never really thought about, harmonically speaking. People would say ‘What are you doing there?’ and I had to say to myself, ‘Yeah... what am I doing there?’ Ha ha! 

“I’ve spent a lot of time on really researching what I was doing to try to make sense of it, and it’s led me down a bit of a rabbit hole, but fortunately I have a lot of books here that I work from, as well as my own book that I put out in the early Nineties, The Melodic Library For Bass.“

What were your intentions when you assembled that book? 

“It was my attempt to put on paper how I organize scales, and it stemmed from when I was 18 years old and playing in a Top 40 band in New York. This guitar player showed me the way he organized pentatonic scales, and he showed me these patterns, which were basically inversions of a major scale. 

That was a really cool lesson about harmonic structure – a very basic structure, but an extremely useful one that is used in a lot of different music all the time. So if you study that, you’re going to have a vast knowledge of music. He also showed me an interesting way to organize the modal scales, which is another scalar system that deals with the major scales and the seven inversions of those.“ 

Most of us are terrified of modes. 

“Well, I might suggest looking at The Melodic Library For Bass in that case. I tried to make them as simple and clear as possible in that book. I wrote out every scale in the modal system, in all 12 keys, with a numbers system for root, third, fourth, fifth and so on, and also in letters and notation. I felt like that took the pressure off anybody that didn’t read music.

“Reading music is important, and it should be studied in my opinion, but I’m not gonna bust anybody’s chops about reading if they don’t read. I truly believe that the music is the most important part of anything that we’re dealing with here, so if you can play music on a toothpick and a rubber band – then my hat goes off to you.“

  • Jimmy Haslip's Melodic Bass Library: Scales and Modes for the Bass Guitarist is out now (opens in new tab) via Alfred Music.

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