Bass Players To Know: Ross Valory
If you’ve ever played in a top forty band, I’d say there’s a 95% chance that you’ve had to learn at least one, if not a few, Journey songs. A mainstay in the wedding, night club, casino, and “weekend warrior” repertoire, songs like “Don’t Stop Believin’” continue to reign supreme by enticing people to get out on the dance floor and sing along at the top of their lungs. Perhaps it’s because their lyrics speak to our deepest desires—a small town girl living in a lonely world took the midnight train going anywhere. Who wouldn’t want to take a risk, get out of town, and have an adventure? Or perhaps we’re all just born to roll the dice or sing the blues.
Personally, I’d like to think that the appeal of Journey’s music has a lot to do with the bass lines that propel the songs. Harmonically clever and tonally unique, Ross Valory’s playing can be heard on most of the band’s catalog and the hits that we know and love (or have heard a thousand times), certifying him as the latest Bass Player to Know.
So Who Is Ross Valory?
Born in San Francisco in 1949, Valory grew up in a musical household and began singing at an early age. While he played a variety of instruments, including piano, guitar, and clarinet, he picked up the bass as a sophomore in high school when asked to join a band. As a self-taught bass player, he learned primarily by ear and cut his teeth in the Bay Area. After playing with the group Frumious Bandersnatch followed by Steve Miller Band in the early 1970s, Valory formed the Golden Gate Rhythm Section alongside Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie of Santana’s band. Once they added Aynsley Dunbar (drums) and changing the name to Journey in 1973, they got a record deal and released their first album, Journey, in 1975.
By 1977, the band added vocalist Steve Perry and began writing in a more commercial manner, finally finding some success with “Wheel In The Sky” on Infinity. Between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, Journey became a household name with platinum-selling albums, multiple hit songs, and a worldwide fan base. Valory decided to leave the group in 1985 and the band went on hiatus shortly after. Finally reuniting in 1995, Valory continues to hold down the low end and has subsequently been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Let’s Talk Style
Despite the label of “classic” now pinned on much of Journey’s music, Valory’s bass playing is nothing short of progressive. A product of the Bay Area melting pot which sparked a number of particularly creative yet commercial musical entities, there’s no doubt that he embraced musicality and originality.
As a creator of bass lines, Valory integrates clever melodic movement and singability in an effort to maneuver through chord progressions typical of popular music. He often favors the suspended motion that other instrumentalists use to create a feeling of tension and resolution, toggling between the 4th and 3rd scale degrees or the 7th and octave. In addition to jumping between registers and using the full range of the instrument, he emphasizes the chord tones (specifically the root and 3rd) with this half-step tension.
Another signature move by Valory (and the band as a whole) is for the bass to follow or mimic the lower notes played by the keys or guitar. By doubling this signature riff, it becomes an instantly recognizable part of the composition and further emphasizes the intentionality of the band. In an effort to differentiate his tone, particularly on recordings that feature a doubled part, he tunes just a few cents off. This makes the bass stand out ever so slightly—it doesn’t register to the ear as overtly sharp, yet it does have a unique tonal quality that highlights the attack of his notes next to those of the other instruments.
Known for stringing his bass B-E-A-D (commonly referred to as “Nashville” tuning), Valory married the comfort of a four string bass with the ability to access the lower notes available on a five string. This gave him the freedom to move around the neck with greater ease while playing the lower, foundational notes appropriate for the music.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Don’t Stop Believin’” (Journey: Escape)
If you’ve heard this song a thousand times but never intently listened to the bass line, I highly recommend that you do so. As Valory doubles the famed piano riff during the verses and final chorus, he brings intensity, foundation, and heightened dynamics to the signature part. He plays a driving pedal note during the pre-choruses while creatively integrating chromatic tension-resolution, toggling between octave and major 7th to give the part a greater sense of motion.
“Line of Fire” (Journey: Departure)
A notably bluesy song, Valory emphasizes the swing while doubling the main riff that supports the lead vocal. He plays with severity and intensity, energizing the song with his powerful right hand, fantastic sense of groove, and brisk flourishes up the octave.
“To Play Some Music” (Journey: Journey)
This deep cut from their fusion-influenced first album, this song features Valory executing some particularly tasty bass nuggets throughout the song, specifically at the end of the verses and during the solo section. Exemplifying the band signatures of doubling riffs, a sharp bass tone, and quick jumps in register, this song also showcases Valory’s indisputable sense of groove.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Ross Valory? 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!