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Expanding your Vocabulary with MIDI: Extended Bass With Al Caldwell


Expanding your Vocabulary with MIDI: Extended Bass With Al Caldwell

I have a band called the Traveling Black Hillbilly’s. I play Banjo and Bass in the band. We played for a festival in Ohio in September and the show was great. When we finished, the sponsor asked if we could play one more song, so I grabbed my 11 string and set it to Harmonica. I thought of Stevie Wonder and his song “Fingertips”. He could work a crowd with just a Harmonica. Thank God for my trusty MPC 1000 drum machine.

We started jamming and the crowd was dancing and I realized that if I played with tons of chops, I would have lost the crowd. This started out as a sit down concert until I played some new material from an unreleased CD. They jumped up and started to dance; I didn’t have a clue that we were a dance band.


I thought of every harmonica motif that I could think of as well as sax riffs and horn lines since the last thing that I wanted to do was play a bass line with the bass set on harmonica. I get overwhelmed sometimes and change the settings in a song to show the audience that my bass can play tons of sounds, but I can feel when I’ve lost them. I regret my poor choice of “Brilliant Stage Thoughts”. This time I realized that they felt what I was doing and all they wanted was for the music to stay funky. That’s when I decided to sing a riff from one of my other songs. I was nervous as hell and my pitch started to drift. My brain said to run back to the harmonica and save yourself; I did and they danced.

I’m still learning how and when to use this new tool, as note selection and taste will always be paramount in making the right decision onstage. I still feel like a kid with a new toy. This bass has a role in the future development of tomorrows expanding musicians. I’ve heard music in my head since I was a little kid. Being able to find the sound you want and blend it with your bass sound or other keyboard sounds is unbelievable. The hardest thing is to control yourself.

I wanted you to see me have fun on a gig and to watch the live thought process when you have choices. I didn’t have a clue what I would do, but I do have a large vocabulary of riffs and lines, and I knew that “back in the day”, if you found a riff that worked, you drove it down their throat!! It seems that everyone plays everything that they know in three songs; we have to learn to pace ourselves. I’ve been in music for 37 years and I’m still learning when to make the right moves. I always hear too much. I feel like I’m 16 years old again with this MIDI bass. I have a great bass collection and I love my 5 string bass, but I’ve played “honest bass” for so many years that I have the hardest time leaving that respectful world. When I play Motown, I play like James Jameson or Bob Babbitt. I don’t try to improve what those masters played. It’s a hit song because of what they did. When I play Vanessa’s hit songs, I don’t stick in a lot of runs or put my stamp on the music. Her songs were hits before I came on board. The 2 CD’s that I recorded with her allowed me to play the 9 string bass (because of the tone and lower range), but I stayed true to the style of the musicians who were there before me. You must have respect for the situation. I played bass on a rock fusion project with Greg Howe. The CD was “Introspection”. I’m on 6 tracks. The song” Jump= Start” was a joy to play on. Check it out on “Youtube”. Greg plays so much tastefully fast guitar that you don’t have to overplay to put your stamp on it.

I sound like a guitar player sometimes now. I used to take that as an insult in the past. I sound like a trumpet player (I started as a classical trumpet player) and I’m learning to sound like a host of instrumentalists. My house is filled with instructional DVD’s. The point that I’m trying to make is to expand your vocabulary. In the new world of Extended Range Bass, the rules are being written everyday. You have so many people to listen to and to be inspired by. Some people play their basses like a Chapman stick. Some people, like Avon Lucas, can play his bass and sound like a symphony. I think that this new batch of musicians could change the world. Youtube has taught us that everyone can play fast if they practice enough.

The most beloved musicians were always inspiring because they could speak musically to the masses. Melody and taste always wins as the richest musicians play slow and tasteful. The fastest musicians play with themselves or other speed demons. I have nothing against speed. I’m old and I can still play fast as hell. I just want bassist and musicians to think about substance. That’s what keeps your phone ringing. If you can outplay most of your pals and your not working, then think about what I said. Music is new to me again. I feel like a kid again and have so much to learn again. This year alone, I have bought four guitars. I’m learning how guitars get such great tone, and am learning how patterns that we’ve heard on guitars for years lay so differently on bass. I’m learning how a mandolin player phrases. I’m learning country fiddle. I need to learn more bluegrass. It has so much to offer to a guy who grew up playing funk and jazz.

I too still need to continue to “Expand my Vocabulary…”

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