Spotlight On: Legendary Bassist Carol Kaye

Carol Kaye (1970). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives Getty Images.

Carol Kaye's discography reads like the Encyclopedia Britannica of the music industry, with entries covering every genre and style. Her studio career began on a Sam Cooke session. From there, she played on recordings by Joe Cocker, Simon & Garfunkel, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, Glen Campbell, the Beach Boys—that's her on the iconic Pet Sounds album—and thousands more. She even played electric guitar and 12-string on Frank Zappa's Freak Out!.

She's also worked with a Who's Who of producers, including Phil Spector, Lou Adler, and composer Michel Legrand. Quincy Jones couldn't imagine booking a session without her. Her work on hundreds of scores, movie soundtracks, and television programs includes The Thomas Crown Affair, Mission Impossible, Airport, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

A professional musician since she was 14, Kaye played many gigs in her teens, later toured in a big band with her first husband, played jazz and bebop guitar in Los Angeles clubs, worked as a technical typist by day, and in 1957 began working day and night as a studio musician, first on guitar and then on bass.

Hear Carol Kaye on The Beach Boys' "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)"

"I look back at my log and think, 'How did I do that?'" she says. "In studio work, no matter how you felt, you got up and went to your sessions. I had my coffee, wheat germ, and half a grapefruit in the morning, and I was off to the studio." It was serious work afforded only to the best of the best. She put in long hours while supporting a full house that included her three children, her mother, and a housekeeper/nanny.

Since the '50s, Kaye has been busy teaching jazz guitar and bass to professional musicians, a service she now offers via Skype. She has released 46 educational books, DVDs, CDs, and other products. Plus, her website offers meticulously crafted posts about technique, gear, and recording. She also communicates with fans via her website's forum and her Facebook page.

Despite all that, Carol Kaye recently made time to sit down to talk with Reverb.

You've said the Fender bass wasn't a great instrument, but it got a certain sound that no other instruments got. Why was it not great?

It was a great instrument for recording those kinds of sounds back in the '60s and '70s, but it wasn't great like a Steinway piano or a Gibson L-5. It was a board with four strings on it, but it got the job done; it got the sound and the feel for the music.

The first Fender I played was neck heavy and always pointed toward the floor. You had to constantly hold that neck up because it was not balanced, and that is very hard on your neck. I usually bought a new Fender every two years to get new strings. I was working day and night, so I'd run into the music store on my lunch hour, grab a new bass, and sometimes I had to pull the neck off real fast to put a shim in the neck to make it play well.

What did it take to get that "certain sound"?

To create that sound in studio work, we all muted. Most of us played with a pick; 90% of the music cut in the '60s in Hollywood was done with a pick on flatwound strings. Whether it sounds like it had a pick to it or not, it was done with a pick. For the finest sounds in recording studio work, you have to mute your bass. It doesn't matter whether you play with your fingers or with a pick; you always mute your bass for recording. I would tape a doubled-up, 25-cent piece of felt on top of the strings where they exit the bridge. That cuts down the overtones and the undertones. I didn't record with EQ or compression or any of that.

Carol Kaye's String Muting Technique

I recorded flat with a mic in front of my amp, and it sounded great. I'd walk in the studio with my bass, and the engineers would say, "Oh, Carol, I'm so glad to see you. All I have to do is put a mic in front of your amp, and there's the sound." But you have to have the right strings, the mute, and the right picking technique. You pick at the end of the neck, not anywhere near the bridge. You have to have a powerful way of picking that doesn't tire you out, so you pick from the wrist with the wrist moving—not the whole arm—and you pick with a flat wrist because that's powerful. You can pick all day and pick real hard and not get tired. Plus you have to adjust your volume. You never want to play with your volume full on, because there's a tendency to distort. You have to pull the volume down on the bass about a third of the way, and then you get the right sounds from the bass. That's the same with all basses.

How did you get into bass, and what is the bass you use now?

It was accidental. I was enjoying the guitar dates, but it was getting kind of tiresome because I'm a jazz musician, and to try to play rock solos on guitar—I couldn't do it. I did a lot of different things on the 12-string guitar, I did fills—which was a major part of the Sonny and Cher sound—but you just get kind of tired of all that. Then I accidentally got put on bass in '63 [when a musician didn't show up for a session] and I had to switch to a different technique.

Of course, with bass you play very different notes on the bottom than you ever would on any other instrument. I used the Fender bass, but I knew at the time I wrote my first book, How to Play the Electric Bass, in '69 that other, better basses would be made, and it came to pass. A lot of basses come out; you're curious, you try this bass and that bass, but I always came back to Fender. Then I didn't play for a while because I'd had an accident. I finally had surgery and I went back to playing.

Ibanez SRX700

I tried the Aria bass and it had a nice sound, but I wasn't completely satisfied. I tried the Fender again, but it was so poorly made. I walked into the Ibanez booth at a NAMM trade show, tried one of their basses, and I fell in love with it. I bought that bass and I endorsed Ibanez for a while, so they gave me another bass. I still have those two basses. I don't see any other basses out there that can beat it. That was the SRX700, which they renamed as the 690.

What about guitars?

I did go back to Fender guitars. I went into the store and saw a short-scale Stratocaster. It sounds great just the way it is. I'm going to change the bridges a little bit, but it's a fine guitar. I love it. It plays in tune, it has the right sound, and the neck is perfect. It has that rounded fingerboard. When you play rock 'n' roll, it's OK to have a flat fingerboard because you're bending strings, but when you play jazz, you have to have a rounded fingerboard for the playing and the sound. This guitar sounds great and it's easy to play. You get the right pickups and the right strings and you can turn anything into a fine-sounding jazz guitar. You don't need those big guitars to sound great.

You share so much instructional information online, information that many people are willing to pay for. Why give it away?

As you age, you find that you're not doing the things you used to do. You're not doing studio work anymore, you're not out there playing live, and you have so much inside of you that you want to pass along. And music needs help.

Our music world is in such a poor state. Many teachers got caught up in the note scale business because it was a quick way to teach. They didn't know the chord changes or how to teach chordal tones or substitute chords, so they did the only thing that they could figure out to teach, and that was note scales. It's not the way to learn. Modern music is in chord form. You have to learn chords, you have to learn the chordal notes, and you have to know how to use those chordal notes. Books would come out with pieces of this and pieces of that, but they didn't have the system down.

The Snapshots Foundation | Carol Kaye: Session Legend Interview

When I first learned jazz, I had a very good teacher. He got me going with the chordal stuff, which was commonly taught back then, and I continued the way that I was taught. The system that we all went by in the '50s is easy to learn, but not if you're thinking note scales and things that have nothing to do with real music learning. Therefore I, and many others who teach it, feel dedicated to help everybody learn, because that is a beautiful thing in your life. It's dedication to music. When you hear good music, it makes you feel good. It's as simple as that. To give it away free—how many are really going to learn from that? They'll pick up a few things, and sometimes it does help them, but what really helps is if they work with a tutor. Then it starts to fall in place. I'm not worried about giving away music education. What I give away is not all of it, and you can't teach all of it in print because music is sounds, not words.

How often do you still play?

After all these years, I don't practice. I've been working for 72 years, and that's a lot! But I do play every day because I'm teaching on Skype just about every day. It's about two-thirds bass lessons and a third guitar. It's a lot of fun. We talk, and they know they're taking lessons from somebody who's been there and who's trying to help them get there too. Jazz is coming back because the younger generations are into it. It's the wildest thing. I'm in touch with educators in other states, and the older guys are mentoring the kids. That's exciting. I haven't been this excited for years because it looked like music was almost dead, but it's coming back because of the young kids.

I teach some young guys on Skype, they're 19, 20, 21, 22, and they want to learn. They're having so much fun, and I'm excited as heck with them because they're serious about it. The college teachers can't give them what I can give because they have to help everybody; they don't have the time and they're not into all the things I'm into. So they send them my way, and it really is fun to see that excitement in their eyes and the way that they're playing.

There's something about playing music that makes you feel at one with the world. It's a way of communicating with others. You feel it in the clubs and gigs. When you play concerts, you feel the flow of the music between the audience and yourself. It's that feeling right there that I want to convey to the students. To pass along what you know is one of the best things that anybody can do in this life.

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