Larry Graham – Hair bass lesson: unlock the funk legend's slap bass secrets

Larry Graham performs on stage during Dave Koz & Friends At Sea 2013 on September 29, 2013 in Rome, Italy.
(Image credit: Photo by Jun Sato/WireImage)

When we asked Intervals bassist Jacob Umansky to pick his favorite of the 40 best basslines of all time, he chose Hair by Larry Graham and Graham Central Station, which ranked number 37 in our list and featured on the group’s self-titled debut album from 1974. “Larry Graham literally invented slap bass,” says Umansky. “Without him, bassists like me simply wouldn’t exist."

As the style's originator, Graham once said that he was simply trying to create a drum-like sound to flesh out the rhythm section, but his newfangled technique would later pave the way for slap bass playing the world over.

"I was grooving hard to Larry Graham and Sly and the Family Stone all the way through Deep Purple’s Burn tour in 1974," said Glenn Hughes. "From slapping to finger popping to sliding, his bass playing shifted my ears, heart and soul to what was happening in California."

Having left the Family Stone fold in 1972, Graham went on to reel off thump-led hits with his own band, Graham Central Station. Tracks like Pow, It’s the Engine in Me and Hair epitomised his percussive bass guitar grooves, as demoed by Jacob in this video lesson.

We asked Jacob about some of the common pitfalls that bass players often make when replicating Graham’s style, how he kept his own tone intact for the video, and about the upcoming album from Canadian metal band, Intervals.

What mistakes do you see people make when trying to play Hair?

“One of the biggest mistakes is to use the bone on the side of your thumb to slap the string. You should be striking the string on a downward angle with the left edge of your thumb, and then landing on the next string over.”

How important is it to replicate Larry Graham’s bass sound?

"To be honest, I intentionally tried to keep the characteristics of my tone intact while also blending in with the original tune. I used the Vintage Ultra plug-in from Neural DSP and added a bit of reverb and compression, but I ultimately ended up with a pretty modern tone. I wanted to give the listener an idea of what a modern instrument could sound like on such a classic tune. I think it fits pretty well, but nothing beats the original."

What is it about Larry Graham that makes his technique so identifiable?

"It’s not just about the technique, it’s about how tastefully it’s executed and how well his bassline serves the song. With slap bass, it can be so easy to over play and lose sight of what’s actually important. Larry Graham is a master of keeping the bassline interesting, while also acknowledging everyone else in the band. That’s what makes him so iconic." 

Can you tell us about the upcoming Intervals album?

"The last record, Circadian, was my first time playing on an Intervals album, so I would be lying if I said there weren’t times where I played it safe. I feel more relaxed this time around and a lot more comfortable with throwing my crazy ideas at the guys. The vibe is also a bit darker, which I’m really excited about."

Do things feel different now that travel restrictions have been lifted?

"Recording the last album was weird. We hadn’t played shows for such a long time, and then to go into a studio and record by myself without the guys felt really strange. I’m extremely proud of the end result, but I’m much more excited to track this one altogether in a big studio. We’re working with some amazing people and introducing so many new elements into the music. I really can’t wait for everyone to hear it."

What can you tell us about your side project, JIA?

"JIA is a band that plays solo material that I co-wrote with Alan Hankers, who was the keyboard player for one of the first projects I was ever involved in called Painted in Exile. We wrote a solid amount of music together during the pandemic and it’s currently being mixed by Simon Grove. We plan to release our first body of work later in the year. We absolutely want to bring this act on the road and see how far we can take it."

Circadian by Intervals is available now on Amazon Music. To find out more about Jacob, visit

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Nick Wells

Nick Wells was the Editor of Bass Guitar magazine from 2009 to 2011, before making strides into the world of Artist Relations with Sheldon Dingwall and Dingwall Guitars. He's also the producer of bass-centric documentaries, Walking the Changes and Beneath the Bassline, as well as Production Manager and Artist Liaison for ScottsBassLessons. In his free time, you'll find him jumping around his bedroom to Kool & The Gang while hammering the life out of his P-Bass.