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Bass legend Carol Kaye: “98% of bass parts cut in Hollywood in the '60s were done with a pick on flatwound strings”

Carol Kaye plays bass guitar in a Los Angeles recording studio in the mid 1960's
(Image credit: GAB Archive/Redferns)

If anyone knows a thing or two about bass guitar, it’s Carol Kaye.

Kaye has played on an estimated 10,000 sessions in her more than 50-year career, and was also a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew. Her discography includes works with the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand and Simon & Garfunkel; she even played acoustic guitar on Ritchie Valens' La Bamba.

Kaye turned 85 years old on March 24, and to mark the occasion Ernie Ball sat down to interview the bassist – who was also one of the first musicians to ever demo the StingRay bass – to discuss her career.

Among the many pieces of wisdom Kaye dropped during the chat was to reveal the prominence of a particular bass sound and style on many legendary recordings.

“Most people don’t know that about 98% of things cut in Hollywood in the '60s were done with a pick on flatwound strings,” Kaye said.

There are bass players who rip people to death for playing with a pick. I say, hey, they don’t know the history

“There are bass players who rip people to death for playing with a pick. I say, hey, they don’t know the history. Most of those records that came out in the '60s were done with a pick on flatwounds. That was the sound. There was a piece of felt muting on there, too, to kill the natural overtones and undertones that could hurt your sound.

She continued, "They just don’t know the history. And it’s still a good sound. If you turn the knob, you’ve got Motown on one end and Boots [Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’] on the other end. You have to play it right: up on the upbeat, down on the downbeat, and play close to the neck. Never near the bridge.”

As for some of her favorite sessions?

“I think one of my favorites is Feeling Alright with Joe Cocker,” Kaye said.

She also added that while she enjoyed some of her Beach Boys sessions, “Brian Wilson worked us to death on one tune for three hours. 

"We were used to going in on a three-hour date and cutting four or five tunes, so it was different.”