MY BLOG RE-BOOT
So after several years (and several people who were secretly reading my OLD blog had asked where it had gone), I have finally decided to renew my efforts. Partially because typing gives my right hand the exercise needed to keep those digits moving as much as possible for as long as possible, but also because I feel that there’s an interesting tale to be told regarding my life as 1) a professional bassist and instructor and 2) a man in my mid 40s with Multiple Sclerosis (SPMS for those who are curious). And so the decision was made to litter cyberspace with more blather that hardly anybody else will ever read. You’re welcome. Consider yourself warned.
I was diagnosed in late ‘06, and since then I have had to contend with new physical challenges as they pertain to living my life, as well as playing my instrument at a high professional level. Over the last 9 years I have dealt with severe muscle spasms, heat sensitivity, fatigue, double vision, numbness, cognitive issues, lost the use of my right leg, and partial use of my right hand, diaphragm, and sphincter (you WERE warned, remember?) to varying degrees and periods of time. Short distances can be traversed by use of a rolling walker (know in the biz as a “rollator”), but for me anything much farther than 150 feet requires a powerchair. My current ride is called a Quickie Pulse 6, and I’ve had it modified to fit my height and allow for ease of playing my bass. I have a chair lift built into the back of my van to get the chair in & out when necessary.
And if all of this sounds horrible to you and your eyes are filling up with tears, you can knock it off right now; the truth is that EVERYONE is handicapped in some way, and that my handicap simply happens to be more obvious than most. Just look at Peyton Manning; great athlete, talented tactician on the field, but then he walks to the sideline and takes off his helmet, and you see that awful red mark. Poor bloke….
I live less than a quarter mile from a shopping center where I can get groceries, do my banking, get my oil changed, have printing and shipping done, get a great espresso drink, have a whiskey or a pint, and even get a pedicure when I want (and I DO want…. always feels good to get the little piggies done)… and all without getting into the van. It’s terribly convenient. Somehow I had the good sense to buy this place shortly after my DX (that’s shorthand for “diagnosis”), and I’ve been here nearly 9 years.
As far as my bass playing goes, things have been rough. By God’s grace, my fretting (left) hand is completely unaffected by the short circuitry in my head; otherwise, bass playing would have ceased long ago and I’d be a greeter at Walmart. On the other hand (see what I did there?), plucking strings is very slow, and lacks dexterity and power in a useful form. So I have been forced to abandon the use of my fingertips in traditional bass playing technique in favor of….. ulp!…. PICKS.
Yep, that’s right; guitar picks. Go ahead; give me your best bass pick joke. I’ve heard ’em all: wanna-be guitarist, too lazy to have learned to play correctly, obvious sign of a stupid and mediocre musician, yeah, yeah, whatever. Much as I hate to admit it, though, there’s a sliver of validity to one thing the haters say: picks just don’t sound like fingers. They’re edgy and scrape-y sounding, they have more attack and less roundness to the tone, and they’re rather limiting compared to what a skilled fingerstyle bassist can achieve (Victor Wooten and Michael Manring, et al).
So I have been on a quest: to find picks that sound as much like fingers as possible, and that allow me to play nimbly. I must have spent close to a thousand dollars over the last few years trying new picks. I have picks made of nylon, delrin, steer horn, rubber, felt, plastic, biodegradable plastic, graphite, leather, faux tortoiseshell, brass, copper, some thinner than 1mm, some as thick as 6mm, and some that have a loop that goes around your finger – I even have one that hangs by a hinge from a strange apparatus that fits into your hand just so. And there ARE some decent picks for bassists out there. A short list of what I like includes Mick’s Picks, Phat-Tone, V-Picks, and the Jim Dunlop 208. I’ve even created what I call The Careersaver out of an Orbit Gravity Pick, a Planet Waves Adjustable Insert Pick, and a JD Tortex Wedge (click here).
These picks give me a variety of sounds that I like, from warm and tubby to bright and aggressive. And I’m grateful that new products keep coming out that give me more options for tones. But the truth is: I MISS MY RIGHT HAND. Picks are great, but it’s just not the same… they physically come between the player and the instrument. If my right hand was healed tomorrow, and I never had to use a pick again, I’d be crying tears of joy for a month and a half at least. You can have my leg, I don’t care; heck, take ’em both if you want, but if I got my right hand and arm back in return, I’d forever claim that I got the better end of the deal.
Much of my bass playing career has been as a “hired gun” – a musician who can show up to a gig for an artist and nail it with little-to-no rehearsal. And that usually means setting aside the creativity and individuality, and Doing My Job – playing my parts with a familiar, easily accessible sound and feel so the artist is comfortable with the music onstage. Fingers, unfortunately, are part of that familiar sound…
Thus, my decision to reboot the blog has been made… with the focus on what someone like me has to go through to continue doing the only thing he loves doing, and the only thing he’s good at, and the only real job he’s ever known besides waiting tables. Lots of people struggle with what they want to do versus what they’re able to do. For me, however, the “what I’m able to do” part keeps changing, and the list is inevitably going to shrink as I progress through this stupid disease. The gauntlet has been thrown; like so many others I’ve picked up over the last decade, I will meet this challenge one way or another.