In the Shadow of Jack Bruce…

Among bassists of the Classic Rock generation, Jack Bruce casts a long, challenging, inspiring shadow…

Jack Bruce (image courtesy All Music Guide)

Jack Bruce, the bassist for the very first “super group,” Cream, died late last week.

There have been many tributes, including a lovely one from S&R’s own Pat Vecchio. Pat is a bass player himself, who, while he pooh poohs his skills, is capable of some decent licks. As he notes in his essay, he plays a Gibson SG because it looks like the Gibson EB-3 that Bruce played during those brief, glorious years of Cream’s  existence. And he even admits that he got the blues outfit he plays with to do one of Cream’s signature tunes, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” so that he could play, as he modestly puts it, “a simplified version of Bruce’s bass line.”

I know something of how Pat feels. I was a much more serious player in my day (I won’t get into that now; this is about Jack, not me). One of the ways the band I played in warmed up was by playing another Cream signature tune…here’s Cream doing the number – with Jack playing that Gibson EB-3:

Then there’s this little ditty from the album Fresh Cream that we felt we did decently enough to open shows with:

All this is simply to say that Cream was enormously influential on both fans and self-described amateurs like Pat and on serious card-carrying pros like me. We both felt a deep sense of loss when Jack Bruce left us. I put it this way in a comment on Pat’s elegy:

‘…I have no fear of being accused of hype when I say that Jack Bruce was among the very best musicians of his time.’ – Pat Vecchio

That, Pat, might be the best piece of understatement I’ve ever read. And truer words could not be spoken about my master. I played a Gibson EB3 slot neck for some years because of Jack Bruce. Even now I go online and look at them longingly even though I already own far too many basses.

“Crossroads” was the song my band often warmed up to. If you could get close to what Eric and Jack and Ginger were doing, you were more than fit to get in front of a crowd.

I feel a sense of loss. This was a player that the not usually generous Roger Waters called, ‘probably the most musically gifted bass player who’s ever been.’

That feels almost adequate for a moment of this much sadness. And certainly a fitting epitaph for one whose shadow I have never resented being in….

The conversation continued with Pat noting that he’d never heard a better bassist and me trying to explain in my own feeble way why:

You know, Pat, I think it was his cello training that made Jack so special as a bass player. He, like McCartney, who came to bass from the guitar, belonged to what I call the “melodic school.” They can write bass lines that could stand alone like lead guitar parts. Like the “Sunshine” riff – or that opening figure for “Badge” – lines that you can play on the guitar and they work, too.

Any band who wants to get better (I’d say as good as they can get, to be honest) at playing their instruments could not do better than learn Cream songs.

What a player – and singer – and superb songwriter. We will not see his like again for a long while….

I came to the bass from the guitar, too. There’s something about playing a stringed melody instrument, then going to a rhythm instrument like bass guitar, that gives one a different approach to composing parts for the bass. The sense of melody so readily available to guitarists isn’t so readily available to bassists – and that creates a fascinating challenge. For Jack, who came to the bass from playing cello, an instrument with a very long neck and a plethora of tonal possibilities, normal short necked bass instruments don’t offer, what happened was that he not only opened vistas of possibility for the short necked instrument, he got Gibson to build him a bass with a longer neck – and gave all of us who play bass both a wider range of options and a higher bar of challenge.

My old pal, the Gibson EB3 with slotted tuners (image courtesy Fly Guitars)

I played a Gibson EB-3 with a slotted neck for a number of years because of Jack Bruce. I had always liked Gibson guitars because of their narrower necks which suited my hands better. The added length of the EB-3 neck gave me whole octaves to play with – and made me a better, more adventurous player.

Jack Bruce made me a better player. By showing me and many, many bass players what was possible, he not only made great music himself, he helped others he never knew make great music.

That, I think, is what we call a legacy.

Well played, Mr. Bruce.

 

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About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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