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, 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

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

What Made John Entwistle One of the Great Rock Bassists? Hear Iso­lat­ed Tracks from “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley” & “Pin­ball Wiz­ard”

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


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