Transcription: Flea Whatchu’ Playin’?

We sit down with Flea to pick his brain on eight bass moments from the Chili Pepper's new albums and break them down for you

Transcription: Flea Whatchu’ Playin’?

We sit down with Flea to pick his brain on eight bass moments from the Chili Pepper's new albums and break them down for you

Call it a bass player’s dream: The Red Hot Chili Peppers releasing two albums last year (34 tracks in all) meant a whole lot of ideas from the imaginative mind of Flea. Manning his 1961 Fender Jazz Bass (except where noted below), the sexagenarian stringsmith sure delivered. Example 1 shows the opening four bars of “Aquatic Mouth Dance,” from Unlimited Love, which also serves as the verse/chorus groove, with variations. Sit in the pocket, even though you’re driving the song. Flea utilizes his trademark punk-funk hard-plucking approach, via his alternating index and middle fingers, to create the song’s powerful subhook. He offers, “I came into our rehearsal room first thing, walked over and picked up my bass, and this line came out. With every bass part I create, I’m always trying to tell a story. I look at the other guys’ parts as stories, too, so it’s stories within stories that work in counterpoint with each other to give the song depth.” 

Example 2 contains the four-bar opening and verse groove of “Whatchu Thinkin’,” from Unlimited Love. There’s much to say about this compelling part, including the tone; the static, almost sampled way Flea plays it; and its range, which gives the impression of a low melody and a high melody unfolding at the same time, working seamlessly together. “I was messing around with one of my Jazz Basses at home, and when I first started playing this part, it brought to mind a Thom Yorke song called ‘Atoms for Peace’ [The Eraser, 2006, XL Recordings], which has a cycling bass line. But I wanted my bass line to be a longer phrase, so I worked on extending it. I also wanted a completely different tone than the rest of the album, so I used my Hofner. My concept was to play the line exactly the same way every time, with no inflections, so it sounds almost mechanized. Chad [Smith] plays a drum machine-like part to give it an electronic vibe, as well.” He continues, “I knew the part implied chords, and John [Frusciante] immediately found the right changes. Plus, I love the whimsical, quirky melody that Anthony [Kiedis] came up with.”

Example 3 has the 12-bar verse of “One Way Traffic” from Unlimited Love, at 0:08, for which Flea grabbed his pick and pumped out a sweeping line of power-chord 5ths. Dig the F–C 5ths in the 1st and 3rd endings, which grab the ear by momentarily taking us out of the E blues tonality (Flea correctly calls it “the flat 9”). “I was sitting at home one morning playing along with X’s first album, Los Angeles [1980, Slash], so the part is kind of inspired by that. I realized during recording that when you play 5ths like this on bass with a pick, it takes up a lot of bandwidth.”

Turning to Return of the Dream Canteen, the opening track, “Tippa My Tongue,” has a Sly & the Family Stone-like two-bar slapped groove during the verses and guitar solo. Example 4 shows the groove, first heard at 0:12. The C minor pentatonic line is dominated by hammer-ons two frets apart, but one interesting quirk are the downbeat hammer-ons, which are three frets apart (C–Eb). Flea, who famously slaps and pops with his thumb and middle finger, reveals, “Usually with the Chili Peppers we’ll get in a room to write, and oftentimes we’ll begin by just jamming. Someone will pick up their instrument and start playing something, and everyone else will fall in for a free-form jam. ‘Tippa My Tongue’ came out of one of those. I was simply trying to play something funky; there was zero thought going into it. I was feeling the rhythms go through my body and enjoying watching my thumb and middle finger dance on the strings.”

Example 5 contains four measures of the chorus bass line of “Eddie,” dedicated to Eddie Van Halen, as heard at 0:57. The line consists of ascending arpeggios (1-3-7, 1-3-7, and 1-3-5) held together by the high E common tone in each measure. “I also play that high E as eighth-notes for the intro,” adds Flea. “I was at home just after Eddie died, and I remember wanting to pick up my bass and play something beautiful that would soothe me in that tragic time. I got known early in my career for my fast, aggressive playing style, but this is the other side of me. I’ll sit on my deck, look out at the water, and play my bass. It gets me in harmony with the world and makes me feel like a worthwhile human.”

Back to the flipside of Flea’s playing for Example 6: four bars of the main hard-plucked groove of “Fake as F**k,” first heard at 1:07. He uses the end of every fourth measure to fill; the one shown here is at 1:38. “John came in with the idea for the song, and he had the whole thing sketched out. He played his James Brown lick, and I wanted to come up with something that gave it depth and propelled the groove along. I tried a few different variations, and this was the one that made sense to me.” Again alluding to his mellow side, he continues, “I love playing this part, but actually one of my favorite bass moments on the album is the slow part of the song in the middle [at 1:43]. John plays these beautiful chords, and I improvised in a melodic way, trying to find that warm, liquid feeling.”

Example 7 shows the two-bar opening and verse groove of “Bella,” in 7/4. Flea, who also arranged the horns on the track, uses the end of the second measure to fill; the one shown here is at 0:19. “We wrote ‘Bella’ early on, when John first returned to the band. In rehearsal one day I picked up my bass and started playing this line in seven, without thinking about it. The way Chad plays almost makes it feel like it’s in 4/4.” Regarding the low-to-high, call-and-answer movement of his hard-plucked part, he points out, “On the second Chili Peppers record [Freaky Styley, 1985, EMI], we have a song called “Yertle the Turtle,” where I play low and then answer myself up high. The bass player who first influenced me that way was Horace Panter of the Specials, on songs like ‘Nite Klub’ [The Specials, 1979, 2-Tone].”   

Finally, Example 8 has the opening and verse four-bar groove of “Copperbelly.” Note the 3/4 meter, and let all notes ring, arpeggio-style. “When the pandemic hit, we had to stop rehearsing, and while I was holed up I spent a lot of time in my garage with my recording setup creating parts. After the lockdown, I brought in the whole song structured out on bass.” For “Cooperbelly” and the previous “Eddie,” does Flea ever think of his chord-oriented lines as second guitar parts? “No — I’m very fortunate to play with John, so I never have to think in those terms. I look at it as I’m just playing something on my instrument, and I hope the guys will like it. I know John is always going to play the right thing. If I’m up high doing a chordal part, he’ll complement it with the perfect part down low. That’s something he and I have together, and it’s awesome.”

Chris Jisi   By: Chris Jisi

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