The Genius of Tina Weymouth: Breaking Down the Style of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club’s Basslines

The best part about watching videos of my favorite musicians talking about their playing is the moment they reveal that certain stylistic quirks--the ones that made them who they are--came about more-or-less by accident. Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, for example, well-known for his huge, open chords as well as his long, expressive solos, recently told Matt Sweeney that he only learned to palm-mute (dampen the strings to muffle excessive ringing) a couple years ago. Maybe he was joking, but the idea that an essential element of his massive sound emerged because he didn’t know another way to play fills me with joy.

Another of my favorite players is also a self-confessed “complete autodidact,” Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. As distinctive a player as Mascis, it's impossible to mistake her style for anyone else's. “I was only playing bass for five months when the band first played [live],” she told an audience in 2014 at the Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo. “I did not take a lesson. Nobody taught me.” But unlike many of her self-taught male counterparts with roots in punk and a decades-long association with a band that defined an era, Weymouth, argues Carrie Courogen at PAPER, has been tragically under-recognized.




Yet “without her there would be no ‘Psycho Killer,’ no ‘Burning Down the House,’ no ‘Once in a Lifetime,’—grooves which are immediately recognizable.” It takes nothing away from the smarts of David Byrne’s songwriting to point out that Talking Heads was just as much a product of its top-notch rhythm section. Weymouth’s “basslines became the pulse of the band,” writes Courogen, “infusing downtown punk with a new sound: a danceable combination of the soulful, funky jams of Parliament and James Brown with the rock steadiness of Carol Kaye.” In the video above from Reverb.com, our host Jeremy walks us through the elements of Weymouth's playing

As Jeremy points out, unlike many players, Weymouth’s sound was not defined by one particular instrument: throughout her long career, she played Fender Mustang and Jazz basses, a Hofner Club, and several custom basses. “She really used what she needed,” he says, “to fit the sound to the tune.” Jeremy himself demonstrates her basslines on a Fender Mustang. He gives her high praise indeed by comparing her simple yet melodic lines to those of greats Donald “Duck” Dunn and James Jamerson—long considered two of the best players in funk and soul. It’s a well-deserved comparison, and Weymouth has mentioned both as influences.

That she took their Motown and Memphis sounds and turned them into angular art-rock makes her all the more interesting a player to study, and a reason for her major influence on generations of bassists who draw as much from classic funk as from 80s New Wave. There may be no more perfect fusion of the two than in Weymouth’s playing—and in her songwriting too, as Tom Tom Club’s 1981 “Genius of Love” made abundantly clear. Jeremy covers this one as well, and if you’re a bass player, you should too.

Related Content:

7 Female Bass Players Who Helped Shape Modern Music: Kim Gordon, Tina Weymouth, Kim Deal & More

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

 


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