Bass Players To Know: John Illsley
Following up the previous BPTK, (Rutger Gunnarrson), I found it only appropriate to highlight another late 1970’s popular music icon from across the pond. This time, we focus on the great John Illsley of Dire Straits. A longtime member of the band, his bass lines provide the perfect backdrop to Knopfler’s guitar playing and singing. Always aiming to serve the song, his parts are often simple and in the pocket, demonstrating mastery of both the instrument and its function. A recent inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy winner, and solo artist, Illsley is our latest Bass Player To Know.
So Who Is John Illsley?
Born in Leicestershire in 1949, Illsley gravitated to blues and early rock’n’roll as a teenager and picked up the guitar before transitioning to bass. After a series of jobs and studying sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, he began playing music with his roommate, guitarist David Knopfler. After meeting David’s brother, Mark Knopfler, the three enlisted their friend and drummer Pick Withers to form the group Dire Straights in 1976. The band recorded a demo of “Sultans of Swing,” got some radio play, and managed to score a record deal shortly thereafter. They recorded their first self-titled record and thanks to the success of the single “Sultans,” the band began touring Europe and North America. With the release of their third record, Making Movies, and the single “Romeo and Juliet,” the band reached greater international fame and won the Brit Award for “British Group” in 1980. The band continued to tour extensively and received multiple Grammy Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, and Brit Awards after the release of Brothers In Arms and the iconic song/video “Money For Nothing.”
After a few personnel changes, rising tensions between band members, and the tiresome touring schedule, Dire Straits officially broke up in 1993. Since then, Illsley continued to perform with his own band and embarked on a solo career. He has released multiple records under his own name, sometimes with guest appearances by Mark Knopfler, and has also performed with the Celtic rock band, Cunla. An avid artist and painter, as well as owner of the pub “East End Arms,” Illsley continues to play music, support his creative endeavors, and enjoy time with his family and friends.
Let’s Talk Style
When we consider “band players” or artists who are longtime or founding members of a particular group, their playing is a representation of both their personal voice and how they function within the ensemble. As we consider Illsley’s meat-and-potatoes approach to playing, we realize that his musical personality is supportive, thoughtful, and concise; coincidentally, it’s the perfect framework for Dire Straits’ compositional style.
If you ever need a crash course on how to lock in with a drummer, take a listen to any Dire Straits record. Illsley has a keen ear for matching kick drum patterns and enhancing the rhythmic foundation of the song. Three classic examples include emphasizing the kick accents while pedaling eighth notes (“So Far Away”), executing solid root notes with perfect duration to accompany a straight-ahead rock groove (“Money For Nothing”), or locking in with the classic “one-(two)-and-three” feel with a percussive note on the “and” (“Sultans of Swing”). Furthermore, he effortlessly differentiates between the structural elements of the song, such as switching from one groove in the verse to another in the chorus, by matching the crash hits with the drummer and working together to highlight that rhythmic shift. While his bass parts may not be flashy or even noticeable to the untrained ear, there’s no denying the fact that the rhythm section drives the band and serves the song in a masterful and particularly musical manner.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Sultans of Swing” (John Illsley: John Illsley Live In London (2015))
Performing the classic Dire Straits song with his own band, Illsley provides the musical pulse and interacts keenly with the other instrumentalists. Following the pushes of the guitar and locking in with the emphasized cymbal hits, he executes the song with ease and elaborates with quick fills. The band breaks down midway through the guitar solo, grabbing the attention of the listener and slowly building dynamically until the climax of the solo. All the while, Illsley plays assertive root notes to provide the tonal and rhythmic skeleton of the song.
“Romeo and Juliet” (Dire Straits: Making Movies)
An example of pure bass perfection, Illsley does a magnificent job supporting the song with deep and authoritative single notes. He excels at playing an appropriate yet intriguing bass part; he typically favors the root note to define the chord and then chooses the perfect moment to drop in with the third. This not only highlights the harmonic beauty of the sparser sections of the song, but it provides the perfect attitude to reinforce the heartfelt lyrics. Throughout the song, Illsley matches the intensity of the drummer, anchoring the choruses and reinforcing the dynamic movement of this timeless ballad.
“One World” (Dire Straits: Brothers In Arms)
With a groovy, in-your-face slap bass line, Illsley’s playing is prominently featured on this track. While he forcefully digs into the lower root notes, he provides rhythmic hiccups, percussive notes, and assertive higher octave slap/pop accents. The filtering effect, as well as the quick slides placed on some of the higher notes, make the bass line jump out of the mix and showcases the instrument more than most Dire Straits tracks.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with John Illsley? Please share with us 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!