Jack Bruce is the King of Thump.
When he arrived on the London music scene in 1962 as a member of Alexis Corner’s pioneering Blues Incorporated, he was playing upright bass and mixing the tang of jazz into his driving lines. A year later, Bruce was in a new, higher profile group, the Graham Bond Quartet, which featured guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Ginger Baker. He’d also found a new instrument for the band’s aggressive electric sound – the Gibson EB-3 bass, which was first produced in 1961.
With the EB-3 in his hands, Bruce went on to make history (following brief stays in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Manfred Mann’s band) with the inception of Cream.
Want to dial up Bruce’s magical Cream-era sound? Well, he created it with his short scale EB-3 pumped through a 100-watt Marshall amp turned up to almost maximum volume. That’s a tad impractical for today’s club stages or the practice space, but a well-structured, contemporary tube amp of half that wattage should get you in the zone. The secret to accessing Bruce’s Cream sound is really driving the mids, rolling back the highs and lows, and leaning hard on the bridge pickup. Overdrive or distortion was not as important a factor to Bruce as sheer volume, which provided natural speaker distortion. But a warm, well-rounded overdrive pedal, without treble-boost or grainy textures, should help get a working player with a more reasonable sized rig in the zone.
Bruce’s approach to bass is similar to that of Motown session man James Jamerson, with an almost claw-like picking approach, but with a fiery left hand technique developed through playing jazz and upright as well as studying the veena, an Indian fretted instrument.
The main problem with copping Bruce’s sound is that so much of it is in his hands and head. That’s proven by his sonic consistency even as he’s moved through a series of instruments and amplifiers in the ensuing decades. And that sound, as well as other aspects of Bruce’s mastery, are eminently digestible in these 10 great recordings that cover the scope of his music:
• “I Feel Free” (1966): A youthful Bruce singing at his sweetest kick starts this gem, and his bass line bumps the song along magnificently. Although the structure is fairly static, listen to how Bruce climbs up the neck of his bass by the first chorus, creating a counter melody even as he drives the bottom.
• “Spoonful” (1966): Bruce’s bass rumbles this one open and pushes it hard all the way through. It’s a perfect essay in how to build a blues arrangement from the dirty ground up.
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• “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (1967): Eric Clapton’s first recorded wah-wah performance helped make this envelope-pushing D-minor blues a sensation, but Bruce’s bass holds the tune’s disparate guitar parts together. Listen to Bruce’s intro and the descending bass line that’s the song’s backbone, laying a dark and stormy undercurrent for E.C.
• “Sunshine of Your Love” (1967): Perhaps the definitive Bruce composition, “Sunshine” thrives on his bass line, which pushes at the front of the groove. Bruce has cut this tune at least four more times over the years, but Cream’s version carved its way into rock history.
• “Born Under a Bad Sign” (1968): Cream drew on the catalog of Gibson Flying V legend Albert King for this selection from Wheels of Fire. Bruce, Clapton and Baker’s power trio arrangement splits King’s performance – he created both the lead and bass lines on his guitar – between Bruce and Clapton, and, like “Spoonful,” the results captured the band at its heaviest.
• “Badge” (1969): Just listen to Bruce’s beautifully rumbling bass intro on this track from Goodbye Cream. The perfection of tone, the melodic hook and his shift into the song’s structure are a perfect example of his ability to lure the listener’s ear.
• “Theme for an Imaginary Western” (1969): After leaving Cream, Bruce continued to work with their frequent lyricist Pete Brown. Together they composed this number, which has become a staple of Bruce’s repertoire. The original version from his debut solo album takes him out of bass mode into singer-songwriter turf, since he plays the tune’s dominant instrument – piano. For a rockier version, check Mountain’s rendition on 1970’s Climbing!, which is closer to how Cream might have played it.
• “HCKHH Blues” (1971): Bruce’s second solo album Things We Like was part of the ignition of the fusion movement, and “Ho Ho Country Kickin’ Blues” is nine minutes of full-performance rip featuring Bruce and his former Bond bandmate McLaughlin in primal roar.
• “Out in the Fields” (1972): This cut from Why Dontcha, the first album by West, Bruce and Laing, Bruce’s most notable post-Cream power trio, displays his strength as an arranger and vocalist more than his bass chops. It’s both a reflection of the orchestral approach he initially exposed on 1969’s Songs for a Tailor as well as new directions he’d continue to explore, like his collaborations with the pan-ethnic composer Kip Hanrahan.
• “Child Song” (1983): This cut from composer Hanrahan’s Desire Develops an Edge displays Bruce purposely working out of character. His bass is tweaked bright to mesh with the tune’s Afro-Cuban arrangement, cutting through the low-volume large ensemble, and Bruce’s vocal arcs along with Hanrahan’s expressive melody line, showcasing his virtuosic flexibility.