Welcome back for part two of my interview with the wonderful Mr. Ralphe Armstrong. In this segment Ralphe talks about his favorite electric basses, the need for us all to embrace new technology and lesson times with and the inspiration he recieved from Ron Carter, Ray Brown and Buster Williams.
JS - Tell me about your times with Ron Carter.
Ralphe - Ron Carter was my teacher, hold on, stop right there. let me finish this, let me explain something. We’re from Detroit and we have a little comraderie. Ron Carter would come to Detroit, he would give me 2 hour lessons while he watched the basketball game. I would play scales and he would work on my technique and my tone over and over and over and over and over until I got it right. Everytime he’d come, he would give me lessons. This is a period of two years, that’s how he taught me and he made me into the bass violinist that I am. I learned a lot about music and tone from Ron, he’s like my father.
Another person that did a lot of the same thing, not as extensively as Ron did, was Buster Williams. Those jazz guys back then, they were working together. Buster would give me pointers on technique and they sort of adopted me. Everytime they would come to town, I would be there. They would play and be like, “Here, check this bass out, let me hear you play this, let me hear ya play a blues, let’s see what you’re doing, how’s your technique.”
(Referring to his conversations with Ray Brown regarding technological advances with the Bass Violin)
Ray Brown looked at me and said, “They’re trying to play like how it was back in the day.” and he looked at me and said, I’m not going to tell you what he said exactly, he used the “F” word.
Drummers played loud, you know, people don’t understand, the bass is like Buster would say, a big violin, a big sound chamber and when you have drums that shake, they shake our instruments, they vibrate and so you have to have a way to amplify it. Those who don’t know the physicis and science and contruction, most of them are horn players who think they know a lot about our instruments, I wish they would shut the hell up and learn the physics because a lot of the physicis start with the bass part in the bridge you know, in the soundpost in there. It’s the physics that gets the sound and they want to hear the tube sound. How they hell they gonna go about a tube sound when they don’t know how the bass is constructed?At Harvard, they did the bass violin, the physics on it, where the soundpoints of the bass are, where the sound really evolves from. Different parts, like in the viol area of the instrument, that’s the lower half of it.
So, that’s why I don’t dig people trying to set the instrument back 60 years. You have to move forward with the new devices, like Larry Fishman transducers, the pick-ups. I use Fishman, the reason why I use Fishman, it’s the only one that has the ability to be heard at high volumes.
When people get excited on the bandstand you know, if you’re not just playing straight acoustic you know you’ve got to have something that’s going to amplify the instrument ‘cuz it gets lost. I’ve had a lot of scenerios where if I’m just playing something soft, a Realist is a perfect pick-up. But when I get to the guys I work with like James Carter, they play high energy jazz, you know, a little bit like fusion, the drummers banging on the cymbals and all that stuff is going right through my sound chamber, that’s my big violin. A lot of those pick-ups feed back, Fishman is the only one I can get volume on and I’d rather give an engineer my frequency instead of him creating one for me.
That’s just something that musician’s need to address. It’s modern technology, this is the 21st century not the 20th century. So many musician’s have that problem and American’s in general on addressing a new technology but you have to move forward. I know I’m kind of a rattler when it comes to instruments but we have to move this instrument forward not backwards… I’ve done the past, who wants to go backwards. It’s just like people in government who don’t want high speed rails. What is it going to take for the United States to get high speed trains?…They’re on their 3rd train in Japan.
The thing with younger people, they don’t undertsand that I played with a high arched bridge and good strings. My fingers were so big and swollen from playing those monstrosities. This is one of the reasons why we have chrome strings today you know, Flexicone, because it was very hard on your strings and we had to keep the bridge high for volume. So, if they really wanna play like we did back then, like Ray Brown was talking about, let them use a very high arch bridge, go back to playing a good G, D, copper E or a G, D, copper A, copper E. What would happen, the copper would rub off on your fingers, your hands would be black by the end of the night. This is why we stopped playing like that.
We had a party for Buster Williams in Detroit. We (Ron Carter and Buster Williams) talked about the bass for 4 hours, we just had a ball. We were talking about new concepts, strings you know, ways to improve on the instrument, those who don’t like that to me are mediocre. You have to work on improving that, making it easy to express yourself and setting it back 50 years is ridiculous. Ron Carter is always coming up with new pick-ups, new ways of improving. I love him with all my heart.
You know what me and Stanley Clarke call Ron Carter? “Godbass” Man, that guy can play so much bass. We were in Warsaw, Poland about 2 years ago, it was like I was there with my father again and we just had such a good time, I love that man.
JS - As far as electric basses go, who do you endorse?
Ralphe - I love Warwick, they’re the best basses I’ve ever owned in my life. I’m waiting for them to make my own model next year. I want to make a model that everyone can play and that’s simple to use.
JS - Will it be fretless?
Ralphe - Fretted and fretless, yeah but just a workhorse, an easy model to play and use.
JS - You are a very versatile bassist, what is your favorite style to play?
Ralphe - You knw what I like playing… the Blues. It’s in my blood because my people are from Tennessee.
JS - What do you like about the Blues?
Ralphe - You know when you have rough times, you’re tired of listening to these politicians and everybody that doesn’t care about their citizens, they care about their parties. I just like the blues, it relates to you, it makes you feel good, it just releases you.
JS – Which 5 of your tunes and/or bass lines need to be preserved and heard 100 years from now?
1) Sunset Drive – John Luc-Ponty
2) Ambidextrous - Eddie Harris
3) Let’s Get back to Living - Aretha Franklin
4) Apocolypse - Mahavishnu Orchestra
5) Planetary Citizen - Mahavishnu Orchestra
JS – What top bass lines from other players need to be preserved and heard 100 years from now?
1) School Days - Stanley Clarke
2) Donna Lee - Jaco Pastorius
3) Wanna Take You Higher - Larry Graham
4) So What - Ron Carter and Paul Chambers with Miles Davis
5) Dear Old Stockholm - Richard Davis
6) What’s Goin’ On - James Jameson
7) Buster Williams with Herbie Hancock
That concludes my time with Ralphe Armstrong, a bassist who will undoubtedly be remembered as a fusion great. Thank you Mr. Armstrong for all the great bass lines you have given and will continue to give to us.
Ralphe is now the host of a live internet variety show featuring many great musicians. See it here at: theralphearmstrongshow.com
Enjoy your BASS!!!