What Makes Flea Such an Amazing Bass Player? A Video Essay Breaks Down His Style

When punk rock began to wend its way out of the three-chord gui­tar attack and into a new gen­er­a­tion of man­ner­isms, it tend­ed to be bass play­ers who led the way. Joy Division’s Peter Hook, Pub­lic Image Ltd’s Jah Wob­ble, The Cure’s Simon Gallup, Bauhaus’s David J. With their moody takes on dub reg­gae, chord-dri­ven melod­i­cism, and lead lines on the upper frets, these were inno­v­a­tive play­ers, but they still embraced the rel­a­tive sim­plic­i­ty of punk at their core. Across the pond, then across the con­ti­nent, how­ev­er, in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, punk bass took a much more ani­mat­ed, vir­tu­osic char­ac­ter, thanks to jazz and funk-inspired leg­ends like Min­ute­men’s Mike Watt and the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers’ Flea, who has become, since his ear­ly 80s begin­nings one of the most famous rock musi­cians in the world for his speed and unpar­al­leled tech­nique.

The shirt­less won­der, who comes across both onstage and off as incred­i­bly gre­gar­i­ous, yet hum­ble, was once vot­ed by Rolling Stone read­ers as the sec­ond best bassist of all time, and it’s not hard to see why, for exam­ple, in the mind-blow­ing video just above. But it is hard to see how. How does he do it? And what exact­ly is “it,” that incom­pa­ra­ble Flea style? Where did it come from?

The Poly­phon­ic video at the top breaks it down for us, the com­bi­na­tion of funk slap­ping and pop­ping and punk speed and aggres­sion, com­bined with a melod­i­cism Flea devel­oped as a coun­ter­point to John Frusciante’s rhyth­mic gui­tar lines. Flea’s incred­i­bly detailed attacks stand out for their nov­el­ty and pre­ci­sion, but it’s his ear for melody that makes his play­ing so dis­tinc­tive­ly musi­cal, even when pared down and slowed down in RHCP’s bal­lads.

Some bassists weave lines around gui­tars and vocals, some most­ly syn­chro­nize with the drummer’s kicks and hits—Flea does both, shift­ing from style to style with­in songs, and some­times sound­ing like he’s play­ing two bass­es at once. His syn­co­pat­ed slap bass hits, cour­tesy of Sly Stone’s Lar­ry Gra­ham, cre­ate a sec­ondary back­beat slight­ly ahead or behind Chad Smith’s drum­ming; his use of strummed chords, wild leaps around the neck, and beau­ti­ful­ly melod­ic voic­ing make his bass play­ing an essen­tial ele­ment of every song, rather than a just a low-end har­mon­ic under­pin­ning for more notice­able instru­men­ta­tion. Funk music has always been bass-dri­ven, and the Chili Pep­pers’ funki­est tracks, and most excel­lent cov­ers, fol­low the tra­di­tion. But in rock the bass can feel “like an after­thought.”

In Flea’s more than capa­ble hands, a sim­ple rock bass riff, as in “Snow,” just above, can sud­den­ly become a thing of won­der (check it out at 1:51), even on its own and unac­com­pa­nied. Per­haps no bassist since Paul McCart­ney or John Paul Jones has done as much to turn rock bass into a lead instru­ment or has writ­ten as many mem­o­rable bass lines, only Flea can play them ten times faster while leap­ing sev­er­al feet in the air. His “astound­ing instru­men­tal­ism” has always been amaz­ing to behold, and not easy to imi­tate, to say the least. But why try? Bass play­ers can learn a lot from watch­ing Flea and incor­po­rat­ing his expres­sive tech­niques into their reper­toire. But even Flea him­self, per­haps the most rec­og­niz­able bass play­er in rock, under­stands the instru­ment first and fore­most as a sup­port­ing play­er. His best advice? Play in the “spir­it of giv­ing­ness,” as he says in his video les­son below, and lis­ten to the sub­tleties of the oth­er musi­cians’ play­ing. “You want to make every­one else sound good.” Hey, if it’s good enough for Flea.…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Genius of Paul McCartney’s Bass Play­ing in 7 Iso­lat­ed Tracks

What Makes John Bon­ham Such a Good Drum­mer? A New Video Essay Breaks Down His Inim­itable Style

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

Watch the Evo­lu­tion of Ringo Starr, Dave Grohl, Tré Cool & 19 Oth­er Drum­mers in Short 5‑Minute Videos

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

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