Having held down the bass chair on Canadian rocker Pat Traver’s career-defining albums of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Peter ‘Mars’ Cowling wasn’t exactly plucking under the radar for 1979’s Live! Go For What You Know.
One of the album’s high points is Gettin’ Betta, a gritty, blues-tinged rocker that starts with a rhythmically tricky intro. “We didn’t count out the rhythms,” Cowling told BP back in 2014. “We just learned it the way it was, but if you try practicing it with a metronome with a 4/4/ feel, then suddenly you’re all over the place.”
Finding your rhythmic feet as the song kicks off is no walk in the park. The snare hits and subsequent bass-drum thump can easily lull the ear into hearing a 5-6-7-8 pickup, which erroneously puts the start of the melody on the downbeat, so be sure to mentally lash that post-snare kick-drum to the one of the first bar.
Following the chiming guitar chords, Cowling hits a meaty open E before climbing the neck for a tasty double-stopped slide that ushers in the main guitar riff. The two-bar-long E7-based riff incorporates both the minor and major 3rd while also touching on the 6th and 7th, which lends the line a classic bluesy-vibe.
Listen to the interlocking pattern that Cowling sets up with the guitars in the first part of the phrase, aping their on-the-beat B and C# with his own off-the-beat reply. “I went in between the notes of the guitar, and that really opens up the phrase. I always tried to find a bass guitar part that wasn’t exactly the same as the main guitar or piano part.”
In the C section, Cowling sets up a neat string-skipping phrase over the A chord, which he then reuses a tone higher over the B chord. He then revisits the main bassline, leading to the pre-solo, where, instead of plucking the scintillating 10th and 11ths with forefinger and thumb in a conventional pincer movement, Cowling hooks his thumb and forefinger under the E and G strings and plucks upwards with both digits. “I never had lessons, so I never really learned how to do things right. My basslines always came from the way I played.”
During the guitar solo, Cowling incorporates multiple slides, hammer-ons and chromatic passing notes to enhance his minor pentatonic-based bassline. In this section he uses orthodox index-finger pull-offs, but rather than thumping the E-string notes with his thumb, he plays them fingerstyle.
The intro is then re-worked with lyrics, before the verse and bridge are reprised, leading to the Cowling-penned, octave-heavy outro. “That section’s got nothing to do with the rest of the song, but we somehow got away with it!”
Highlights include brawny A-string bends, flamenco-strummed 5ths, and a subtle upward G-string slide. A cascading E minor pentatonic run brings the song to a dramatic close. “I had to listen to the track again the other day. I’d make it a lot simpler now. I think I overplayed a bit, probably because it was live.”
Looking back on his time with Travers, Cowling mused, “That quartet had something going on, especially live. I really believe in the concept of the ensemble – the sum of the parts being greater than the whole – and I don’t think we could have achieved what we did with anybody else.”
Cowling spent two stints with Pat Travers, from 1976-1982 and then again from 1989-1993, appearing on a total of 10 studio albums, from his self-titled 1976 debut to 1993’s Blues Tracks. He was 72 when he passed away in March 2018.