Larry Graham Slap Bass Technique…
Larry Graham is widely accepted to be the originator of the slap bass technique, but what prompted him to start a whole new style of bass playing? Tim Fletcher investigates…
Larry Graham first became known as the bassist for one of the iconic bands of the late 1960s, Sly and The Family Stone, but he later had a successful career as leader of Graham Central Station, and as a solo artist. However, he started his music career as a guitarist.
His mother was a professional singer and pianist, and often spent long periods away from the household.
As a youngster, Larry learned to tap dance and took piano lessons and played drums in his junior high school band. But when he was eleven, his father had given him a guitar, and he taught himself how to play. Soon he was playing in his first band The Five Riffs, and they gigged regularly around Oakland, California. One song he learned was Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown’s 1954 hit ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’, and this was to bring him his first taste of playing on a big stage. As he recalls: “A mutual friend told Ike and Tina Turner I could play it well, and they brought me onstage with their band at the Fillmore West…The crowd went crazy watching this little thirteen-year-old guy playing that song note for note.”
By the time he was fifteen, he was playing with his mother in the Dell Graham Trio.
Larry played guitar, his mother sang and played piano, and to start with, Rueben Kerr, Larry’s former bandmate from the Five Riffs, played drums. Reuben soon left, but it was difficult to find a permanent replacement.
The trio found plenty of work around the Bay Area, including a regular gig at The Escort Club in Redwood City. The club had an organ with bass pedals, and Larry would play the guitar and the pedals at the same time. This added a depth to the sound of the band, but one night, the pedals broke and needed to be taken away to be mended. To make up for the lack of bottom end sound from the organ pedals, Larry decided to rent a bass from a local music shop, but the pedals were beyond repair and Larry found himself playing bass permanently.
Around this time, Dell Graham decided to reduce the band to a duo, and they continued without a drummer.
In order to make up for the strong groove the drums had provided, Larry started to ‘thump and pluck’ the strings: “I would thump the strings with my thumb to make up for the bass drum, and pluck the strings with my fingers to make up for the backbeat snare drum.” Although this was not considered to be ‘correct’ bass technique, Larry wasn’t too worried as he thought he’d be going back to playing guitar.
At another club, ‘Relax with Yvonne’ in Haight-Ashbury, one of the regulars was a huge fan of the duo, but also of KSOL radio DJ Sly Stone. They had heard that Stone had formed a band, and began to call him to suggest that he should come and see Larry Graham play. Eventually Sly visited the club and was impressed with Larry’s bass playing, and soon asked him to join Sly and the Family Stone.
This was one of the first racially mixed groups, and the material blended rock, funk, soul and psychedelia.
The band were signed to Epic Records and released their first album ‘A Whole New Thing’ in 1967. Other bass players were quick to notice Graham’s new bass sound and began to copy his technique.
The band had huge success with the singles ‘Dance to the Music’ and ‘Everyday People’, and their fourth album ‘Stand’ sold more than three million copies. The band played at the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969, and were one of the highlights of the event and the film released in its aftermath.
Graham’s relationship with Sly Stone gradually deteriorated, and he eventually left the band after their 1972 album ‘There’s a Riot Going On’.
Graham began to produce and write material for a band called Hot Chocolate (not the British band) which he later joined and renamed Graham Central Station. This band went on to release thirteen albums, and Larry Graham has also released six solo albums.
Although Larry Graham is widely accepted as the originator of the slap technique on electric bass, he didn’t think he’d really created anything important until later in his career when he recalled: “I didn’t even think that my way of playing the bass was anything special, I was just doing it out of necessity. As time passed…and when I started hearing and seeing other bass players playing like me as opposed to playing like other bass players… that just started to make me feel wonderful, that I could make a contribution.”