Guitar & Bass, December 2012

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Guitar & Bass
  • 2012 December


Play like Bruce Thomas

Gareth Morgan

Behind Costello's acerbic amphetamine pop tunes, Bruce Thomas provided a real masterclass in driving, melodic soul bass playing. Gareth Morgan delves deeper

Released in 1978, This Year's Model is the second album by Elvis Costello and — although not credited as such — the first to feature his long-standing backing band, the Attractions. The Attractions comprised Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums and, on bass, the wonderful Bruce Thomas (no relation to Pete).

Thomas, born in Stockton-on-Tees on 14 August 1948, is another from the 'accidental bassist' club, being originally a harmonica player who was seconded into the rhythm section of his first band when the regular bassist failed to show up. He served his apprenticeship in various semi-professional units in the North East, including the Roadrunners, which featured Free's Paul Rodgers and Micky Moody, later of Whitesnake. After moving to London, Thomas replied to an advert in Melody Maker and successfully auditioned for Costello in 1977. After trekking round the UK's club circuit and on Stiff Records 'Live Stiffs' tour, Thomas, Costello and the rest of the band headed to Eden Studios in London. The live work paid off, as the band were tight; they recorded This Year's Model in only 11 days, and promptly set off to conquer the USA.

The album went on to achieve gold status (500,000) in both the UK and the USA. Although it isn't Costello's biggest-selling album it's considered by many to be his best collection of songs. Of course, the tale of Costello and his band is twisted and tortuous, and while Nieve and Pete Thomas are both members of his new backing band the Impostors, Bruce Thomas and Costello have long since parted ways.

Throughout the album, Thomas — toting a modified Fender Precision bass — was on top form. He'd already racked up plenty of studio hours with various bands, and this experience combined with the keen ear for melody he'd developed by listening to the likes of Stax's Duck Dunn, Motown's James Jamerson and Paul McCartney resulted in a collection of basslines that rock hard, with a soul/funk edge that both complements and counteracts Costello's aggression. All of this is delivered fingerstyle with a big, warm, clear tone that reeks of valves, possibly old Ampeg gear, so when he plays a melodic part, delivers a tasty lick or ventures into the higher registers, you hear it clearly. It's genuinely high-class stuff, and we'd urge anyone who wanted to learn how to be more expressive within the context of a functioning bassline to check him out.

1. Clipped straight eighth notes — 4/4 time

If you listen carefully you'll find that more or less every song on This Year's Model has something ear-catching in the bass department; even "Little Triggers," which is ostensibly a ballad with a swing feel, features some neat linking ideas. "Radio, Radio" is the most root-orientated bass part on the current version of the album — it wasn't on the original release — and our first example should get you close to the basic feel. Here, Thomas ups the stakes at a pretty brisk tempo by keeping the notes tight and punchy.

2. Low register melody — 4/4 time

While Bruce Thomas undoubtedly has serious chops, there isn't much on the album that requires anything other than basic technique. Because of the very nature of Elvis Costello as a songwriter and because of the period in which that the album was recorded, many of the songs are delivered on the fast side, but this only really causes a serious problem on a couple of tunes. It's usually more about classy melody, as you can see with our second example, which is based on the bubbly intro/verse melody from "The Beat."

3. Rock/funk groove — 4/4 time

There are a number of tracks on the album that sound almost as if they've been written from the rhythm section upwards, such is the huge contribution of drums and bass to the success of the song. Live favourite "Pump It Up," the lead-off single from the set, is an excellent example. Pete Thomas' kit playing lays down a marker in very enthusiastic fashion and Bruce delivers a classic, funk-laced repetitive bass part that adds a clever, angular melody under the vocal while still keeping things moving along nicely.

4. Uptempo rock/reggae — 4/4 time

Costello himself says the Attractions 'made a huge difference to the songs'. With the classic "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," this involved changing the rhythm from something akin to the Who's "I Can't Explain" to a syncopated, almost double-time reggae rhythm that really illuminates the track. Our example should get you going in the general direction, although you might want to smooth out your tone a bit to get an appropriate sound. The shifts up and down the neck make this part a little trickier than you might think.

5. Funky eighth notes with high register licks — 4/4 time

Bruce Thomas can always surprise you. On first listen, the intro and main verse figure from "Living In Paradise" is a Jamerson/McCartney-type triadic melody — but at the end of each bar he adds a wicked high-register hammer-on lick. You'll need to think a little bit about the fingering, and you might find that a slide, as opposed to a hammer-on, is the best way to attack the problem lick.

6. Unison melody — 4/4 time

There's very little in the way of unison riffing between Nieve, Costello and Thomas, probably because Costello mainly wrote songs over chord sequences rather than static riffs. However, everyone played the melodic hook on "Lip Service." As this is mainly on the G string, fatten up your sound a little and maybe even move your plucking-hand playing position closer to the neck for the appropriate sound.

7. Uptempo sixteenth notes — 4/4 time

The most souped-up track on the album is "Lipstick Vogue," and Bruce Thomas rises to the challenge... and then some. While he kept to melodic eighth notes for the rest of the album, here he chooses one of the fiercest tempos to deliver a finger-funk workout. Check out our version of the main bass part — it's not an impossible sequence of notes by any means, but playing it cleanly at tempo will require lots of patience and careful practising. As always, adjust your drum machine to a slow setting and take your time building up to speed.

8. Double time eighth note part — 4/4 time

For our final example we're looking at Thomas' arpeggio-based part on "This Year's Girl," which Costello wrote as an 'answer song' to the Rolling Stones' "Stupid Girl." It's a neat bassline that pings back and forth between root notes, thirds and fifths, and we've written it in double time in order to squeeze a bit more in. For authenticity, double the tempo, halve the value of each note, and you've got it. Have fun!


Guitar & Bass, December 2012

Gareth Morgan profiles Bruce Thomas.


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Page scan.

Photo by Chris Gabrin.
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Page scans.

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Cover and contents pages.


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