Lesson With Jeff Harshbarger

Jeff Harshbarger is my kind of bass player. His amazing playing reflects a lifelong study of the great masters. Jeff talks fondly of the opportunity to have lessons with heavyweights like Ray Brown and Francois Rabbath. But as a composer, bandleader and collaborator of some of the freshest new jazz around, he refuses to live in the past. The way he’s pushing music forward, it’s obvious how much thought and commitment goes into what he does. What can I say? I’m a fan. Check him out at http://www.jeffharshbarger.com

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Sound

Jeff immediately latched onto my sound, like my nervous habit of going into classical-vibrato mode. “Your vibrato – how purposeful is it?” (i.e. do you use it consciously or unconsciously?). He suggested that I not use it because it doesn’t serve my ideas and that it’s not traditionally done in jazz.

He used some great imagery to get me to involve my whole body in sound production. “Use the full (right) arm – don’t just ‘reach’ with the fingers.” “What’s the strongest thing in your arm? Your bones.” “Weight equals sound… it’s the difference of 3 oz. vs. 20 lbs”

Jeff talked about pulling “all the way from your feet.” “When I’m activating my legs, when I’m thinking about the earth pushing back, up against my feet, I know my sound is bigger… I can feel it happen…” “I know Mingus did this, you see it in his hips, and Ray (Brown) clearly, did it. And Francois (Rabbath) does it. Even though he’s playing a small bass with thin strings and action half of mine, his tone is massive – earth-shattering.” To prove his point, Jeff and I played a duet, and, yes, he gets a monstrously huge sound.

“Rabbath’s strings are very low, same w/ Edgar Meyer, those strings are laying on the fingerboard. But his sound is massive because he’s doing the same thing with his hips. Especially when he pulls down on the low strings. (demonstrates – pushes forward from the R foot through the hip as he pulls the string.)”

He recommends the old-school approach, using the side of the RH index finger, with the 2nd finger supporting the first – even in fast walking, if possible. Ray Brown told him “first finger only.” But it “wasn’t just fingers – every muscle in his body was involved.”

But the left hand is also important for Jeff’s concept of sound: “‘Tone’ comes from your left hand – how you ‘seat’ the string into the fingerboard. That’s why Paul Chambers and Ray Brown sound different from Scott LaFaro and George Duvivier.“ Jeff recommends practicing with the bow to improve the left hand.

Bass Setup

Jeff keeps his string height between 6mm-9mm and 7mm-10mm – much higher than that of Rabbath.  We talked a lot about sounds that are too “electronic”, especially on recordings from the ‘70s by players who set their string height too low and rely on the amp – “there’s no ‘wood!’”

He suggested a different mic’ing technique: using a hypercardioid mic mirroring the soundpost an inch off the top. “I saw Patitucci do it – the best sound I’ve ever seen.”

Taste/Musicality

Jeff stays mindful of his role in the ensemble. “I try to never walk above a (written) middle C … It’s called a ‘bass’ for a reason.”

He stays conscious of breathing to help phrasing. We discussed singing along with what you are playing. He likes it because it helps you play less and more tasty. Since we can’t play as fast as other instruments, “we have try to out-taste them.” One way is by being more literate: “Refer to the melody when you start your solo. Or refer to the previous solo.”

Practice Techniques

He recommends trying to make practice the first thing of the day. Whether he’s doing 30 minutes or three hours, Jeff splits his practice time into four equal parts,:

  1. Long tones, especially open “A.” This puts him in the frame of mind to concentrate; it “gets my brain quiet.”
  2. Technique – scales, arpeggios, etc. (see below)
  3. Repertoire – E.g. he assigns his student groups to learn an entire record (Sonny Rollins, e.g.). “The reason Sonny Rollins is so good is that he learned 10,000 melodies.”
  4. Goofing around” – Jeff says this is the most important part. He just plays what he feels like playing. It’s when “I remind myself why I play the bass, even if it’s 45 minutes on a Beatles tune”

Scales and Arpeggios

lesson-with-jeff-harshbarger

You can download this here: lesson-with-jeff-harshbarger

  • Scales and Thirds – do them ascending (Ex. 1) and descending (Ex. 2). Repeat the last note when you change directions .
  • “Twisties” (sequences of thirds with alternating directions) – do them in all keys, ascending (Ex. 3) and descending (Ex. 4). “These are great in the different minors” (e.g. Melodic, Harmonic, etc.) (Ex. 5). Do them modally as well (e.g. second mode of E harmonic minor). We talked about how a lot of cool soloing ideas can come from twisties: “Carol Kaye said that all great bebop solos were based on thirds.”
  • Modes – do them “hierarchically,” playing the same root and progressing through key signatures by taking away sharps or adding flats one at a time:  Lydian, Ionian, mixolydian, etc., to locrian. These are especially good to do on electric bass (Ex. 6).

He practices these using the “Metronome game.” e.g. put MM = 40 and displace the notes so that the click is on the “and” of 2 (Ex. 7)

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