Masterclass: Bow techniques for jazz bass

john goldsby cr. helge strauss

By John Goldsby, bassist with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, and author of Jazz Bowing Techniques For The Improving Bassist and The Jazz Bass Book

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Leroy ’Slam’ Stewart was a bass star who rose to fame in the 1930s entertaining huge audiences on radio shows and in films as part of his duo with guitarist Slim Gaillard. Until his death in 1987, Stewart played almost every improvised solo with the bow – a rare approach for jazz bassists. In addition, he would sing along with his improvised lines, one octave above the bass. The aural effect was stunning – a mixture of human singing and rhythmically adventurous bowing that defi ned his distinctive jazz voice.

Was it the bowing, the singing, or the combination of the two that made Stewart’s improvised lines so compelling? Jazz is a never-ending search for identity. Musicians spend years imitating their heroes, but also strive to develop an individual sound that sets them apart from all other voices speaking the jazz language. Because of his bow technique, Stewart had an individual voice from the beginning of his career – he is identifi able on a recording within a few bars.

Improvising with the bow is a wonderful addition to the bassist’s arsenal. But a bassist must devote considerable practice time to making improvising with the bow a viable option that actually sounds good. Sometimes bassists look down on jazz bowing because it can magnify intonation issues, poor rhythm, or bad note choices. These are all problems that can – with proper practice – be overcome.

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