Learn to Play: Riffs in the Key of Jaco Pastorius

For bass players, Jaco Pastorius needs no introduction. He was an innovator, a virtuoso of monstrous proportions, and a truly unique personality. Self-taught on multiple instruments (bass included), Jaco overcame an early and debilitating arm injury, a youth of poverty, and an initial backlash to his bass technique to become the legendary musician he's remembered as today.

Jaco was, at times, very humble about his own innovations. In a 1983 interview with Guitar World he said, "I am a thief. … You see, I rip off everything. I have no originals. ... I just love music. I don't know what I'm doing! If I practiced reading for one week, I could sight-read anything, but that's not my thing. I'd rather go in and just be Jaco. … I'm not a magician, I'm not a politician, I'm a musician. I have no goal. You don't get better, you grow."

Today, I wanted to explore three innovative techniques that Jaco developed, as exemplified by his compositions "Portrait of Tracy," "Teen Town," and "Continuum."

This is one of the more remarkable songs by Jaco, and the first time that the bass harmonics were used as the main melodic source on a recording. Rather than focus on the note-for-note technique of playing, I wanted to introduce the concept of harmonics as a tool for writing and improvising.

The mechanics are simple. Press your finger lightly above the fret you intend to produce the harmonic with, and lightly lift right after you pluck it. This creates a deep and pure bell-like tone that gets even more exciting when you explore the other positions in which these tones can be created.

The science behind the harmonic series is fairly simple, as well. Any resonating body (string, tube, etc.), when cut into smaller ratios, produces smaller-sounding intervals. The 12th fret on the bass and guitar is the exact halfway point between the nut and bridge. Put in mathematical terms, this is a 2:1 ratio, or the fundamental pitch cut in half. Similar ratios exist elsewhere on the neck as well—for instance, the fifth of the fundamental is produced when the 7th fret harmonic sounds. This ratio is 3:2, or two-thirds of the length from a fundamental.

The next one is trickier, but it opens a lot of wonderful sounds on the bass. The third of the fundamental can be found on the 4th and 9th frets—this is because it has a 5:4 ratio, or 4/5 the length of the fundamental. It is found in both places because the same ratio can be measured from either the neck to the 12th fret or vice versa.

The way Jaco uses this concept is really unique. In his own words, "It’s very tight, but it’s all right there. Everything but the Eb has a natural harmonic—you have to press down on the A string at the B note (second fret) and then you have to touch the string on top of the Eb. If you don’t have big hands, you won’t get this. You touch the string on top of the Eb, or it’s really a D sharp, and you get the D sharp on top of the B. So it’s like you’re using your first finger as a capo."

It requires some stretching, but with some practice, you can reproduce any note as a harmonic by utilizing your finger as a kind of capo. Something to note is that due to the nature of our equally tempered tuning system (the ratio between each note being the same), the harmonic thirds are going to be a little out of tune from a fretted one. This is evident in the original recording, as some notes sound quite out of tune over time. This doesn’t register to me as bad because the sound of the harmonics are so fresh and interesting that we just get lost in the dreaminess of it all.

Jaco wrote "Teen Town" for the 1977 Weather Report record Heavy Weather. This is one of the best examples of Jaco’s speed and dexterity, with some blazing lines played over a slick drum groove (also played by Jaco). The head is played with a rapid-fire run of syncopated 16th notes that he picked near the bridge of the bass. Jaco liked this position for how it allowed him to quickly dig into the strings and for the clarity it offered—a sound he explored on countless records.

Slowly familiarize yourself with the shape and feel of these runs that span an octave or more. Learning to hold them with strength will unlock a different kind of bass playing."

The chord progression in this section remains fixed as a C13-A13-F13-D13 cycle repeats throughout. Each measure of this head can be broken down and analyzed as its own dominant lick, and learning to play this in multiple keys and positions proves to be a particularly heady workout. Something of note is the different extensions to the b7 chord that he tends to land on. The 2nd, 14th, and 15th measures all end their phrases on the 9 of each chord.

Note that this song is very difficult when played at the recorded tempo (hence the two-part video series). You should work it up slowly, first making sure to tackle the tricky string crossings with patience. Slowly familiarize yourself with the shape and feel of these runs that span an octave or more. Learning to hold them with strength will unlock a different kind of bass playing.

Continuing now with "Continuum," we’re going to look at Jaco’s unique chordal approach to the fretless bass. This was one of the first times that the electric bass stood out in front of the band as the melodic instrument, and never before had it been done so clearly. He makes good use of the open E and A strings to create a sense of harmony and even incorporates some double stops before the D#m11 chord.

In keeping with the theme of extending the harmony, the last two measures of the head are a real treat. Jaco first plays a B falling to F# on top of the A, adding the 9 and 6, respectively. Then, over the last measure, he plays a Bm triad down from F# over the D chord. This adds the color of the sixth and creates a nice rising action against the falling D-C progression.

The trick to nailing this song is in outlining the harmony with clarity. Make sure you can keep the open E and A strings ringing with the lines, and if you are playing a fretless, be careful that the m11 chords are in tune. The shape Jaco uses (1, b7 and 11) is deceptively difficult when we don’t have the frets to keep us in tune.

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