Pick up the bass early enough in your career, and with truckloads of hard work, persistence and just a dash of luck, you might find yourself in a working band that manages to stick around a while. And if that band should ever ascend the ladder of success, then you and your bass just might find yourselves in a studio with Mike Bradford, at which time you will find out just how good you really are.
Despite the urban and social decay that ate away at Detroit’s brick heart, the city has generated some of the most exciting, boundary-slashing music of the modern era. In the 60s, Detroit was the home of Motown Records, Del Shannon, The Fifth Dimension, and later in the decade, MC5, Iggy and The Stooges and Alice Cooper. It was also the city where a sixyear-old kid named Michael Bradford picked up his first guitar, a gift from his mother, launching a musical odyssey that would see him go on to play with the likes of Ringo Starr, Dave Stewart, Anita Baker and Deep Purple among others.
Now a successful producer, arranger and player, Mike looks back on those days with equal doses of pride and relief. “There were a lot of riots and violence and general dying going on,” Mike tells Bass Guitar Magazine. “My mom just wanted me in the house and out of harm’s way, so she got me a guitar. I picked up a bass a few years later because my brother was in a bunch of different bands and he brought abass home. I picked it up and found that I just had a natural affinity for the bass. I play guitar still, but bass just became my natural instrument.”
That first bass came with a bass amp called a Vox Kingston, which featured a built-in G tuner on the back, allowing Mike to tune his bass using the G string. Eventually, with the G note embedded in his mind, Mike set about memorising the other notes and, by the age of 11, he had developed perfect pitch, a skill that has served him well through the ensuing decades. “I started playing bass, but I could hear everything in my head anyway, so it didn’t matter to me what instrument I was playing. But bass is so much cooler. It just has that sound. At the time, all the really cool stuff was happening on the bass. James Jamerson was still doing all his stuff and Paul McCartney was doing some crazy stuff: also, you had bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. In a lot of these bands, the bass guitar was doing some really great musical stuff, of course keeping the rhythm going, but connecting things as well, like taking you from one chord to the other by using a clever transitioning riff or something creative like that.”
By the time he was 15, Mike was playing gigs, and not the kind of gigs involving a bunch of other 15-year-olds playing in somebody’s backyard for a few of their mates. By then, Mike was playing cabaret shows, a popular latenight tradition in Detroit where a large group of adults – usually factory workers – would rent out a hall, hire a professional band and charge a fee for people to dance and party late into the night. Playing with older, seasoned musicians, Mike quickly learned that the hard-working and harder-drinking crowds were also sophisticated music fans with a broad palette of tastes. Consequently, to avoid unpleasant, sometimes physical rebukes from the punters who had paid hard-earned money for the entertainment, the band had to navigate a number of styles in order to accommodate the ever-changing vibe of the crowd.
“You had to be able to play as many kinds of songs as you could, because you usually had to start the night by playing more jazzy, mellow stuff, and as the night went on, you played more funky and more dancy party music. Most of the musicians were much older than me, so I had to really keep up: having to play a lot of different kinds of songs really made my bass playing get good fast.”
50 years later, Mike sees this period as one of the most critical components of his musical evolution, explaining, “A lot of kids, when they want to play the guitar or the bass or some instrument, usually want to play a certain song or a certain kind of music, which might be nice, but it won’t make you good very quickly. You really need to play a lot of different kinds of music and see what makes each kind of music unique, and what you have to change in your phrasing and your hands and your timing in order to play each style. If you really want to be a good bass player, the most important thing you can do is listen, because the bass player is obviously laying down a groove, but he’s also reacting to whatever else is happening, even if it’s just making space for something else. You can’t be playing all over everything. That was a big influence and help for me.”
The other secret ingredient in Mike’s bass playing has been his experience playing gospel music, a somewhat surprising notion for an instrument whose greatest practitioners are often steeped in smoky jazz scales or baffling prog rhythms. “Playing gospel music has been great for my bass playing because gospel music has some of the most advanced charts: the rhythm arrangements and chord arrangements are constantly changing keys, they’re constantly doing all these accents, and you’ve gotta be reading that chart and you’ve gotta be paying attention. You can’t miss that hit, otherwise you’re the one that sounds bad.”
Mike is one of the most in-demand names in Hollywood as a player, producer and arranger. He played bass for Ringo Starr on the former Beatle’s past two releases, as well as clocking time as Ringo’s music director. He has produced releases for a platinum-selling line of industry vets, ranging from Anita Baker via Detroit native Kid Rock to British ingenue Jem, as well as producing two Deep Purple albums (Bananas and Rapture of the Deep).
Beyond the high-profile projects, Mike is first and foremost a bassist, and one who approaches his practice regimen with eye-watering precision. “I do a lot of chromatic scales,” Mike explains, “and I’ll start at the lowest string and work my way up. I play with all four fingers of my left hand on the fingerboard, so you start out with an open string and you have a finger for every fret, up until the fourth fret, while the fifth fret is the next string. I play chromatic runs from the lowest string, using all four fingers and hopping strings until I get to the top string, and then go backwards doing the exact same thing.”
According to Mike, there is one non-negotiable quality that every practice routine must hone if the player’s efforts are to yield any real fruit. “The most important thing is keeping every note the same: the same volume, the same tempo, the same duration. The one complaint I’ve had with a lot of musicians is that they’re not very consistent; when they hit the notes, the notes aren’t the same. When you’re playing a bass-line and you’re supposed to be hitting the one and the three, for example, the volume should be consistent. It shouldn’t have to change all the time. Your downbeats should have the same intensity all the time, unless you’re changing the feel. You start slow and as you play faster, you have to discipline yourself to not get sloppy.”
For funk players, Mike recommends running through an old disco exercise, suggesting, “Play the root and the octave, the root and the octave, and do that up and down the neck. You could practise playing a scale up and down the neck, but do it using the alternating octaves like the disco bass kind of pattern, which makes your wrist more flexible. But it also makes you more accurate because if you’re going to slap, you gotta hit that string. You can’t miss.” Ultimately, it all comes down to setting aside plenty of time to practise, no matter how advanced the player. “The biggest problem that most musicians have,” Mike says, “is they don’t get enough practice time so they often sound sloppy. That’s all fine when you’ve got a big loud band playing behind you, but sooner or later, if your band’s good, you’re going to end up in the studio with somebody like me. And then I’m gonna be standing there saying you’re sloppy, and you’re gonna be mad at me. And the truth of the matter is, you’re just sloppy. The bass player’s gotta keep it down: he’s gotta keep the whole thing under control and that means that his stuff has got to be solid.”
He adds: “You can tell when a band’s got a good bass player and when a band doesn’t, but you can’t always tell if the guitar player’s bad. I’m not trying to put guitar players down, because I play guitar too, but if the guitar player is doing an experimental excursion into the world of tone, nobody really notices if he’s doing something right or wrong. I mean, tell me if Sonic Youth is making a bad note or not, you know? I’m not saying that they’re not intentionally being creative, I’m just saying you won’t think, ‘Whoa, what happened to the bottom? Where’d the rhythm go?’ But if the bass player starts taking a nap, you feel it. That’s why these exercises are so important, because bass, on top of everything else, really needs to be consistent.”
2013 sees the release of Mike’s solo album, The Long Night, a groove-heavy rhythmic showcase of psychedelic trip hop, inspired by his two favourite bands, Pink Floyd and Massive Attack. It features Mike on almost all of the instruments and most of the vocals, along with an eclectic array of guests including Jem, Canadian poet/rapper Ko and Liz Primo, who channels her inner Billie Holiday on the ethereal ‘No One But Myself To Blame’. “The reason it’s called The Long Night,” Mike explains, “is that in most people’s lives, there’s always an event where if they can just wait a little longer, things just might not go so bad. You might not go to that place you shouldn’t have gone if you could just wait until morning. As my mother from Alabama used to say, ‘Nothing good ever happens after midnight’.”
Mike continues to spend his time producing albums, writing material and, of course, practising bass. And if you practise diligently enough, find the right group of musicians and the stars line up just right, someday you too could find yourself in a studio with Mike Bradford. You just better be ready.