The Lightbulb Moment: NAMM Chops or Lamb Chops?
Walking through the NAMM show is like transporting yourself to the largest Guitar Center in the universe on Black Friday. The instruments on the walls don’t quietly beckon to you — they are in a constant state of demonstration. The showroom floor seems to extend for miles, making you feel disoriented in a sea of bright colors, shiny metals, whatta-tat-tats and wheedly-wheedly-wheedlies.
People stroll along at a pace slow enough to enter a turtle race, their eyes glazed over after staring at electric drums, fog machines, violins, boutique overdrive pedals, and everything else that in some way creates, contributes to, or accompanies the making of sound. You may catch a glimpse of Victor Wooten or Stevie Wonder or you may bump into a long lost band mate. It is a place of excitement, a place of wonder, a place of noise.
As a seasoned NAMM-goer, I look forward to seeing old friends, meeting new ones, visiting and representing the companies that I have relationships with, and of course, checking out gear. Am I happy with the tools in my arsenal? Of course, but I sure could use a few more things. In fact, most people feel that way. Attendees are only too happy to get an instrument in their hands; they act like kids in a candy shop hoping to get free samples. Unfortunately, the majority of bass players who grab hold of an instrument decide to exhibit “NAMM chops.” For those of you unfamiliar with the term, here is my working definition:
NAMM Chops: the public display of superfluous technical ability when a player decides to “check out” a piece of gear. Including (but not limited to) slapping, double-thumping, tapping, aggressive plucking, or lightning fast runs.
The equivalent of NAMM Chops exist for practically any instrument; guitar players shred and drummers attempt to paradiddle their way into endorsement deals. It seems to be an epidemic and one that isn’t limited to the halls of NAMM. It creeps into almost any music store, expo, or gear trade. It is a demonstration of flashy “basement” playing that rarely is seen in a professional scenario. It may seem impressive, especially for those trying to attract the attention of a crowd or artist rep, though it is inherently amusical. There is simply too much “slappin’ da bass.”
What I find mystifying about this concept is that unless you’re in a Graham Central Station tribute band, most of the bass playing that people listen to, learn, and get hired to play doesn’t involve a lot of slapping. It’s usually quite the opposite… long, low notes, a mid-tempo walking line, a consistent pedal, or a simple groove. Most people revert to slapping in order to hear themselves over the clatter in the room and to “show off” whatever fancy skills they’ve developed. The problem here is that they often focus too much on what they can do rather than what the instrument can do. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best way to check out a piece of gear.
Picking up an instrument in front of other passers-by can be an intimidating situation, whether you’re at a trade show or in a small music store. After all, people are listening, watching, and worse… judging. In the few moments you have with an instrument, you happen to reveal a lot of about yourself and the way you play. Sometimes that’s scary, especially if everyone in your vicinity seems to out-slap you, but it shouldn’t be something that deters you from playing an instrument that you have your eye on.
A long time ago, I decided to forget about how other people demo an instrument and instead, figure out the best way for me to dig into a piece of gear. I like the meat-and-potatoes aspect of playing… the “lamb chops,” if you will. I want to play a note on the 3rd fret, the 5th, the 12th and the 15th to hear how the sustain changes at different parts of the neck. I want to sit down at an amp, turn all of the knobs to 12 o’clock, and discover great tone without much adjustment. I want to intuitively be able to work a pedal to discover the right sound for playing “Flashlight.”
And lastly, I want to be inspired by the piece of gear. I would rather have it tell me what to play. After all, the reason why we acquire certain instruments is because we aspire to find the right sound or enhance a skill that the instrument caters to. Picking up a bass may magically bring out an aspect of our playing that we hadn’t developed before. A good hollow body bass may inspire us to work on our Paul McCartney or Jack Cassidy lines. A fretless jazz may be the catalyst for finally learning “Continuum.” We want an amp that comes closest to truthfully representing the sound that we hear in our head, a medium for realizing our tone. The gear should facilitate musicality, personality, and, for those of you who do favor other techniques, showmanship.
So, next time you find yourself in a music store, at a gear expo, or perhaps at the infamous NAMM show, think about why you want to check out a piece of gear and let that guide your experience. If you happen to be looking for a bass suitable for slapping or tapping, then go on with yo’ bad self… try out those hammer-ons and make sure the pickups don’t get in the way of your thumbs. If you’re looking for an octave pedal, listen to what the individual knobs do before you turn them every which way. Take a deep breath, slow down, and think about lamb chops over NAMM chops.
Believe it or not, you’re likely to get more attention by playing something that’s got more feel than flash.
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!