The Light Bulb Moment: I Want To Be Like That

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

At the age of 15, I dreaded the thought of being caught at a movie theater on a Friday night with my parents. So. Lame. If spotted by my fellow classmates, I would immediately be identified as weird, uncool, and antisocial. Who am I kidding… I definitely was (and am) weird, uncool, and antisocial. It wasn’t my fault that my best friend was out of town for the weekend and that I had been bribed by dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant. Worse yet, I was going to see a documentary instead of the latest chick-flick or action film. The only saving grace was the fact that I actually did want to see the movie… it was unlikely that any of my teenage friends would spend two hours watching a film about Motown music that was recorded 40 years ago. I, on the other hand, had been listening to The Four Tops and The Temptations for longer than I could remember and after picking up the bass a year ago, “My Girl” had already become a staple part of my repertoire.

Needless to say, seeing the movie was well worth the risk of social degradation. Exiting the theater, I felt like a new person. Inspired by the music, the stories, and the bass playing of James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt, I couldn’t wait to get home and pick up my instrument. My father and I drove home from the theater and stopped off at a local record shop just before closing time. Lucky for me, they happened to carry the soundtrack to Standing in the Shadows of Motown and my dad deemed it a necessary addition to the CD collection. We returned home and after fumbling with the plastic wrap, I finally opened the disk and retired to the confines of the basement. Armed with a boom box, my bass, and a novice set of ears, I decided it was time to get to work.

I instantaneously skipped to track four, the instrumental version of “Bernadette” that had been featured in the film. Mesmerized by the round and slightly muted tone of the instrument, the complexity of the phrases, and those mysteriously percussive dead notes, it was my mission to learn this bass line. I vowed not to go to bed until I could at least play through the chorus.

The next four hours were quite possibly the most frustrating, patience-trying, and rewarding musical experiences that I can remember. I wore out the rewind button on the boom box and strained my ears, desperately hoping to figure out which note came after the last. It was as if I were trying to define every shade of blue in a painting of Monet’s water lilies. Jamerson’s phrases were similar, yet there were slight nuances in both the notes and rhythms that made the bass line more complex with every listen. I loved the sound of the bass, the way it fit in with the rest of the band, and how the song wouldn’t be the same without it.

By 2:00 am, my fingers were raw; I could hardly move them fast enough to play through the verse and there was absolutely no way I’d make it through the whole song. I could barely keep my eyes open, let alone keep all of the notes straight. As I gave the song a final listen, I wondered why I didn’t just go to bed when I got home. Why did I stay awake past my bedtime, alone in the basement, struggling to figure out how to play one third of a song? It seemed completely irrational and could only be described as love. I was enamored—challenged by the notes on the record and intrigued by the bass player that I had always heard but never fully appreciated. At that moment I realized that this is how I want to play bass; this is the player that I want to be.

Before I knew it, my Jamerson obsession morphed into a Duck Dunn phase—I wanted to be the guy in the Blues Brothers, playing a shuffle to “Sweet Home Chicago” and backing up Aretha Franklin. That was until I discovered Marcus’ slap chops, Victor’s soloing, Paul McCartney’s melodic lines, Flea’s rock-funk style, and Christian McBride’s walking. The more music I listened to, the more amazing these bass players became. Each one had their own style, their own tone, character, and sense of groove. I wanted to be like all of them, though I constantly changed my mind as to who was at the top of the list. It was as if I were a child who idolized different professions, hoping to one day become an astronaut and the next day a firefighter, a businessman, a teacher, a football player, and then a rock star.

Thousands of records and bass players later, I still find myself coming back to the sounds of Motown, Stax, Chess, and Muscle Shoals: the dead notes, the flat 7th, the syncopated phrasing, and the ever-present groove. Though I still rock out to Nirvana, play along with “Lopsy Lu,” and revisit the “Bach for Bass” book, I can’t help but revert back to the players who inspired me from the get go. When I grow up, I still want to be like James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, David Hood, Tommy Cogbill, Willie Dixon, Carol Kaye, and Joe Osborne. And yet, I know full well that I can only be myself. The bass player that I’ve become is an amalgamation of all of the players I’ve ever listened to, with a heavy emphasis on a few of my favorites and an infusion of my own stories, experiences, and feelings. Who knows, perhaps one day, someone might hear me and say, “I want to be like that.”

What was your “I Want To Be Like That” moment? Please share in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Wayne Renardson

    Nicely written Ryan. A good read. Thank you,

  2. Enrique

    I started playing the bass in 1970 at age 13. My idols were the Motown guys, the blue-eyed soul players and Carol Kaye, yes Carol Kaye. Few guys knew that some of the most memorable bass licks of the time were executed by Mrs. Kaye. If you can find her older books
    (e.g., the one on chords), by all means get them. My father was a swing band sax player and he idolized the bassists who provided bottom and rhythmic texture to that big sound.
    He liked Kaye’s bass too, a shared musical interest which softened the influence of the Generation Gap. I mean, a soccer mom who played bass for Nancy Sinatra as well as the Doors! How utterly un-hip was that! But it worked for me.
    My moments came in stages: listening to the jazz of Brubeck and Mingus and listening to the
    r&b of Crazy Elephant, The Rascals and Sam and Dave. Later on it was the bluesy sound of Steppenwolf, those Zeppelin boys and Traffic. There were just too many moments to
    keep track of.

  3. Mickey Maguire

    You already have I said that the night at Strange Brew when you were playing My bass … “I want to play my bass like that ” … I have the Same influence. .Add some George Porter Jr. … John Ross ..Jerry Jammot. .. You got my vote you sound like you and that’s a good thing

  4. John Entwistle’s playing in the movie “The Kids Are Alright” changed my life.

  5. Can’t go wrong with all those superb rhythm sections ; Motown , Muscle Shoals, STAX…. and don’t forget The Section and The Wrecking Crew . Amazing grooves and amazing legacy of tunes .Nice article, Ryan !

  6. I had exchanged Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run that my sister bought for me for an album that came out on my 11th birthday, Master of Puppets. I was never the same after Cliff Burton’s soulful playing during the breakdown of “Orion.” It was all bass after that: Cliff, then Jason, then Flea, then Stymie (who became Robert Trujillo), and Les, and Paul, and so many more. Such a rewarding moment, and to this day when I hear “Orion” it all happens again, just as good as the first time.

  7. My “I want to be like that” moment came only a year ago. I had really gotten into Kings of Leon a little over a year ago and their latest album, Mechanical Bull, would be the first one I would be looking forward to. One listen of the album and I instantly fell in love with Jared Followill’s bass lines. A few more listens and I knew, this is what I want to do. I want to play bass and I want to play it like that. I got my first bass shortly afterward, and then started listening to other alt and indie rockers of the past decade like The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, Cage the Elephant, Young the Giant, etc. All these newer bands are coming out with melodic and groovy bass lines, but always fall back to Kings of Leon. Jared’s bass lines fit their songs like a glove.

    So that’s my moment, a relatively new bass player with relatively recent influences.

  8. Mike

    When I first saw what Peter Hook does here at the 39 second mark. That is all I ever wanted to do.

  9. I started this journey late in life, however I totally dig where you’re coming from. I’m a long way from my “Glenn Miller & Maynard Ferguson” trumpet days. The influences you mention are nearly in the same order that I’ve experienced them. I’m still in the Duck Dunn, David Hood area of your spectrum. I’m looking forward to my own Lightbulb moment of having my own sound. Thanks for article and sharing your steps along the journey.

  10. Nathan Rubenacker

    When I first heard Cliff Burton and the amazing sound he got out of that Fireglo Ric of his is when I wanted to be a bass player. Hearing Rex Brown on Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven made me say “that’s the guy I want to be”. Solid, melodic, driving, and great sense of tone. Whether or not I have achieved any of the above adjectives is still up for debate but since then, there have been a plethora of bassists who have inspired me to get better and hone the low end craft we all love so much. Of course, I’ll never be any of the guys whose music I enjoy, but it doesn’t stop me from learning and adding a tad bit of their style to my own, making my own style.

  11. Kris'tina Ackerman

    Stereolab’s Percolator was a bassline that I thought was impossible. Until years after I had heard it for the first time I got a bass and it was one of the first things I tried to play. The initial attempt was a failure, but knowing that all the notes were just there… waiting for me to learn them, got me kind of obsessed.