Anyone who saw Mark King and his band at last year’s London Bass Guitar Show will have been left in no doubt that he is a worldclass player. At the forefront of the 1980s British funk boom, his radio-friendly voice and muscular slap-bass parts helped launch Level 42 to chart success and spawned countless imitations.
Born on the Isle of Wight, King started playing drums aged nine. 10 years later, having moved to London, he took up bass and developed the slap style for which he would become so admired. He already knew the Gould brothers, Phil and Boon, from his island days and in 1980 this trio, together with keyboard player Mike Lindup, formed Level 42. They enjoyed huge chart success, with their 1987 album Running In The Family going double platinum and, despite the Gould brothers leaving in October the same year, the band continued to record and tour with top session players including guitarist Alan Holdsworth and drummer Gary Husband. Although Level 42 officially finished in 1994, in 2002 King secured the rights to the name and has since toured and performed both with a new version of Level 42 and his own band featuring Husband on keys and Pete Ray-Biggin on drums.
Mark King’s style
As an ex-drummer, King’s bass-lines have a strong bias toward the rhythmic aspect, with percussive ghost notes adding to the fast and furious sound of his up-tempo slap lines. These are created in several ways, but the most common is for notes to be damped or ‘choked’ with the fingers of the left hand resting against the strings to deaden the sound as they’re slapped or plucked with the right. He also creates complex polyrhythms using percussive hits with his left and right hands on the strings (see exercise 4). Apart from octaves, listen out for sliding major 10th intervals in his playing.
Try this classic Mark King bass-line. The first note of each triplet group is slapped, but the note is choked with the left hand. The second note is slapped in the normal way and the third plucked or popped, giving three different tones per beat.
Here’s a variation of the same technique. All the notes here are slapped. This is similar to the technique he uses on the track ‘Heathrow’.
Here’s another example of how Mark King uses ghost and grace notes to add rhythmic interest to a slapped bass groove. Again, this should be played using just ‘thumbed’ notes with the ghost notes muted with the left hand. Listen to ‘Running In The Family’ to hear how effective this can be.
Another way of producing muted and ghosted notes to add rhythmic complexity to the bass-line is to create percussive sounds by striking the strings with the left and right hands.
T = Thumbed (slapped in the normal way)
P = Popped (or plucked in the normal way)
L = a percussive sound made by slapping the strings onto the fretboard with the left-hand fingers
R = a percussive sound made by striking the strings over the pickups with the right hand while muting them with the left.
Mark King’s gear
Mark King has always had top bass makers like Alembic, Status and Fender falling over themselves to create signature models for him. But for those who’ve followed his career from the start, he’ll always be associated with Birmingham luthier John Diggins. It was a JD Supernatural bass that Mark King used on the first two albums and helped define that classic slap sound. Until his recent endorsement of TC Electronic amps, Mark King was a proud user of British designed and manufactured equipment, firstly with Trace Ellliot, who he helped to develop into a global brand, and later Ashdown, who created the bespoke MK500 amp head for him. His current setup consists of a TC RH750 amp and a mix of 10 and 12-inch drivers. His favoured bass for some time now has been the Status Kingbass Paramatrix. Always a user of light gauge strings, Mark prefers 35s to 90s.
Essential Mark King tracks
Level 42 - ‘Dune Tune’
Proof if any were needed that there’s a lot more to Mark King’s playing than just slap. A beautiful solo ballad.
Level 42 - ‘Heathrow’
Instrumental with a great shuffle groove – the ultimate driving song.
Level 42 - ‘Love Games’
The song that brought Level 42 to the masses. Brilliant and tasteful slap part.
The Pursuit of Accidents -‘The Chinese Way’
Tight and punchy Jaco-esque bass line in the chorus. And talking of chorus…
The Early Tapes - ‘Mr Pink’
Check out this live version for the most amazing slap soloing.
Kev Sanders is a freelance electric and double bassist who has gigged and recorded with many artists. As well as numerous BBC radio and television sessions, he’s played over 4000 live gigs. He is the head of Bass Studies at AMS.