In the pantheon of electric bass players, Jack Bruce is an almost iconic figurehead. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on the same night as Bootsy Collins, he recently had the honour of being the third recipient of the prestigious International Bassist Award.
‘I don’t give a lot of thought to it,’ he says with disarming modesty. ‘It’s nice, but in the end they’re just things. A lot of it is being given these awards for still being alive.’ Which is oddly relevant, as Bruce has just come out on the right side of a life-threatening liver transplant.
Growing up in a flat in Glasgow with a mother who sang Scottish folk songs and a jazz piano playing father – ‘he had a dubious left hand, but swung like the clappers’ – Bruce took up the cello at an early age and eventually gained a scholarship to study classical cello at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and DraaMaa (he makes a play on the AA’s).
‘But I didn’t go for long,’ he counters, ‘and now they’ve given me an honorary doctorate! So it shows you that what you should really do is go for a few months, then drop out. I recommend that to every student.’
So what made him take up the bass, and who and what were his early influences? ‘I played bass in order to supplement my income and meet girls,’ comes the candid reply. ‘Charles Mingus was my biggest influence, because he was also a composer, which is what I do. As far as electric bass players go… not so much. Jaco was very good.
When I was starting out, it was the jazz string bass players like Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown who influenced me. I once jokingly made the comment that Bach was a major influence, but actually I was being semi-serious. Classical music and classical composers have always had a great effect.’
Bruce’s first upright bass was a plywood one. ‘I bought her from McCormacks Music in Glasgow – she was quite fashionable at the time.’ After playing in jazz bands in Glasgow and American airforce bases in Italy, Bruce eventually landed in London.
‘I used to go down to Archer Street, next to the Windmill Theatre, which was a famous hangout for musicians on a Monday lunchtime to get work, and that’s where I picked up my first London gig with the seminal and famous band led by Alexis Korner. Those were interesting times,’ comments Bruce. ‘In the beginning with Alexis, both he and I went into the same amp. I used to just stick a microphone in the tailpiece of the bass, wrapped up in a duster.’
Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated effectively morphed into the Graham Bond Organisation (without Alexis) with Bond on Hammond organ, Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor sax and the rhythm section of drummer Ginger Baker (who had also played with Korner) and Bruce on bass.
The GBO was the first band where Bruce played electric bass – a six-string Fender Bass VI. Bands were constantly in flux in the mid-’60s, and it wasn’t long before Bruce and Baker were on the move again to form what is now considered to be the first of the great supergroups, Cream.
Any partnership has its ups and downs, but it was an open secret that theirs was a rocky relationship. ‘It was much more than that,’ counters Bruce. ‘A lot of times it was like life-threatening. But the nice thing is that we’re really friendly now.’
Bruce was the songwriter in the band. ‘I wrote the melody and all that to Sunshine Of Your Love, White Room, I Feel Free and a couple of others, and Pete Brown wrote the lyrics.’ Which is his favourite album? ‘They reckon that the classic Cream album is Disraeli Gears, and who am I to disagree? It’s such a long time ago.’
Between the GBO and Cream, Bruce dropped the Fender Bass VI in favour of the Gibson EB-3. ‘I like the four-string – it’s the classic instrument and I feel that the limitations are important. The EB-3 has a through-body neck which is great for sustain and I liked the short scale. I played it like a guitar with very light-gauge flatwound LaBella strings that I could bend.’ Cream were one of the first groups to use a full Marshall backline: ‘We really nicked that idea from the Who,’ says Bruce. ‘They were the first to use them. Actually I was never that keen on them, although I did have one that I liked a lot – a 50W. I think somebody nicked it.’
Bruce is happy to trawl the ‘early years’ memory bank. ‘In the late 1960s while I was still with Cream I recorded a jazz acoustic album with John McLaughlin, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Jon Hiseman. It took about four days to record. I did that on an old full-size flatback 19th century German bass which I still have.’ Does Bruce adapt his playing method when playing an acoustic upright bass? ‘I don’t consciously think I’m playing jazz, so I have to play in a certain way – it just comes naturally. Most of the sound comes out of my fingers. I’m not playing jazz… I’m playing Jack. But I’m lucky in that I can play in many different styles.’
After the Cream split, Bruce either ‘sat in’ or joined a number of bands including the influential jazz/fusion outfit Tony Williams’ Lifetime, where he continued to use his EB-3. ‘I started playing a fretless Warwick in the ’70s. I was recording in Germany and went into a guitar shop and there was one there. I picked it up and liked it, so I bought it. Now I have a couple of beautiful basses that Warwick have made especially for me. My favourite bass is the Thumb Bass which is a special custom one – a real Rio rosewood bass, the only one. The wood was cut in the ’60s, and you can no longer get it. It’s the most wonderful bass I have ever played.’
This year Warwick are bringing out a Jack Bruce signature bass, appropriately named the Survivor. ‘The Survivor is like the EB-3 with a through-body neck,’ says Bruce, ‘although it’s a full scale rather than a short scale instrument.’ Will he will be playing it in the future? ‘I’m in love with my Rio rosewood bass – who knows?’
Bruce’s current string choice is SIT. ‘I use them because they stay in tune and you don’t have to go through three or four sets before you find a good set.’ He no longer uses Marshall amps: ‘I don’t really like the sound from the Celestion speakers they often use. For many years I’ve been using Hartke, who were the first company to start using aluminium in their speaker cones, which gave a much wider dynamic range. But that wasn’t the sound I was looking for. Now they’ve moved on to combine aluminium and paper in their speakers, and of course they’re now the biggest bass amplification manufacturer in the world.’ More recently, Bruce has been experimenting with Jonas Hellborg amps which are manufactured by Warwick.
In March 2012 Jack Bruce once again takes to the road with his Big Blues Band for a short but intensive UK tour. ‘It’s an eight-piece band with a full brass section,’ says Bruce. Once again, a disarming modesty sets in. ‘I just play the bass [actually, with BBB he also plays piano]. I don’t think about why I do it – it’s just something I do.
‘It’s not something I try to work out why – I should have probably given up years ago, but I didn’t, and I’m still doing it. I also sing, so I’ve got the top and the bottom… and that’s kind of interesting.’