Guitar Player Interview of Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, September 1974 Issue
By Steve Rosen
Greg Lake is the surrounded L in ELP, the British trio which has brought to the forefront the power of classical music in a rock format. Revolving around Keith Emerson's keyboard wizardry, it is Greg's indisputably precise singing which form the foundation of the band. As a singing bassist he takes on new qualities as a musician (witness Jack Bruce or Paul McCartney): He not only acts as one-half of a rhythm section, but must coordinate and regulate (melodically) his singing with his playing.
His style brings in elements of the guitar as well as the bass, and is founded on his past experience with the six-stringed instrument. In sound Greg's bass is remarkably similar to a treble instrument, but it is actually the end product of a long search to find a true and natural bass sound. His thoughts were to amplify uncluttered the sound of an unamplified bass, and - via a specially made instrument and a series of horns - Lake has come close to that realization.
His original idea of becoming a guitarist was waylaid after an encounter with Robert Fripp [of King Crimson; see GP May '74], but the professional changeover didn't come until several years later, after Greg had developed a working grasp of the guitar. Beginning when he was twelve, Lake took a year's training from an instructor, but still feeling musically empty, left to train on his own. Though he learned how to read during that year, for a lad who "wanted to just get out and play hit tunes" the tutoring proved too boring. There followed various acquisitions of cheap guitars (both acoustic and electric) and a series of positions in nondescript bands. Until fellow guitarist Bob Fripp approached him with the prospect of playing bass in a new group he was forming called King Crimson, Lake's career had no real consequence.
"I started playing bass with King Crimson through necessity more than anything," he elaborates. "When I was younger I used to live near Bob Fripp. We even went to the same guitar teacher, and generally he and were competitors. When Bob started to form this band, he needed a bass player because he couldn't find anybody he could play with. So he said to me, 'Would you like to play bass?' I said, 'No, not really.' And he said, 'Yeah, but if you don't we'll never get it off the ground.' So I said, 'OK, I'll play bass for you.'
Consequently, Greg appeared on King Crimson's first two albums [In the Court of the Crimson King, Atlantic, SD 8245 and In The Wake of Poseidon, Atlantic, SD 8266]. Though the idea of playing bass was still new to him, the more he played, the more natural it became, and in truth he now relates that it's far harder for him to choose where not to play than what to play. Never practicing, when the time comes to perform, he just tries to lay down the bass part he'd like to hear someone else playing. This in itself poses a problem, because having worked on guitar for several years Lake is conditioned to think along melodic lines. "I've got a far faster technique because I've played guitar," he says, "but the problem for me is to think of the pattern or line of a bass movement. That - not playing it - is the problem."
His first instrument with the Crimson band was a Fender Jazz Bass which in his estimate is one of the best basses in existence. He shifted from the Fender to Gibson and Rickenbacker, but found the former to be too inaccurate an instrument (frets out-of-phase, dissonant octaves), and the latter too difficult to play because the neck, he claims, actually "moved four inches" in either direction. Lake maintains that every stringed instrument should be fashioned of one piece of wood, so that it's impossible for the neck to sway.
From the beginning Greg has used a guitar pick with the bass. His particular one is a thin, triangular tortoiseshell recommended to him by his first guitar teacher, who had instantly produced it from a drawer full of plectrums as the best design for Greg. After years of playing he realized his teacher was right, because he went through "plastic ones, great thick ones, and ones with Hank Marvin written on them," and never found anything quite as accurate.
Greg does not think that a player can achieve real speed utilizing only his fingers. While he acknowledges that straight chromatic runs going up one string can be executed adequately with the fingers, he believes that any type of arpeggio would be nearly impossible. The pick gave him the ability to strum rapid up-and-down strokes (another major foundation of his technique), in a style of cross-picking which hinges entirely on its use. With approximately 1/16th of the pick he hits the string straight on to achieve a snapping sound (hitting the string at an angle causes a scraping sound which Greg warrants has no place in his playing). But he believes the right hand, which starts the note, is even more important than the left for achieving clarity, especially in a staccato passage where a series of notes have to be picked rapidly.
"In a way I developed a style of playing for myself," he explains. "The thing with fingers is for your 'boom-boom' bass players, people into the Motown-type of bass playing. That's a fine style, but I was really looking for something a bit new from a bass guitar. That's why I got into Rotosound strings. I tried to get as close as I could to the bottom end of a Steinway piano, as far as the sound goes, and it's upon that that I tried to develop my playing." In his mind Rotosound is the best string to use for anyone trying to reproduce his particular sound of bass. The company recently manufactured a thinner gauge string which they gave Lake to try out, but unless one is thinking of bending strings, he sees no real utility in lighter weight strings.
With the switch from guitar to bass Greg acquired a new consciousness about his role as an instrumentalist. When the transition did finally come, he became aware that he'd have to play a different music, since the bass and the guitar were different instruments and, more importantly, filled separate roles. "It's as different as being a doctor and a farmer," Lake says. "But if you love music, you get into it, and you bob along."
Another monumental transition came when Greg passed from the ranks of Fripp's outfit into the stead of his current band with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer. Though the music is totally different, Lake does not feel his style of playing changed. "The style I have," he explains, "would fit both keyboard and guitar completely. The more important factor is how it relates to a drummer. Both Michael Giles [Crimson's former drummer] and Carl Palmer are fine drummers. They both keep time, and they both know how to lay it down. So, from that point of view, all you're talking about is getting to know a different player. But they both know what four-to-the-bar is."
Still another change for Greg is to Gibson after many years of keeping company with the Fender Jazz Bass. A new prototype model distributed by Gibson called "The Ripper," Lake's instrument embodies more powerful pickups than the standard bass humbuckings, as well as a mid-range choke to wring greaters highs from the instrument. Greg feels it is the most "reliable and accurate" instrument on the market. He likes a bass that is electronically well-designed with an absolutely precise neck in perfect tune all the way up to the 22nd fret of the low E string. He also prefers for nothing to be heard resonating in sympathy with a particular note; that is, the bottom E string is of the same intensity as the high G. Lake feels the main feature of his instrument is its capacity to produce four entirely different sounds. With a front and back pickup producing two different signals, the quartet of variations is created by: (1) putting the two pickups out-of-phase, (2) inserting the mid-range choke, (3) shutting off the back pickup, and (4) turning off the front pickup.
Greg powers his guitar with Crown International Amps [1718 Mishawak Road, Elk Hart, IN 46514] which run through a separate EQ circuit. Sound comes from two or three (it varies) cabinets with JBL speakers which Lake describes as a "very flat and sensitive reproduction of what the strings are putting out." Two stacks of four JBL's (two mid-range, two bass) are powered by the two Crown stereo amps and produce a total of 2,000 watts. "It's a hi-fi system, a huge hi-fi system," Lake explains, "and it reproduces the tops, the highs, the mid-range, and the lows." The Crowns are specially built high-powered units tagged DC-1000 which drive the JBL's as well as a set of large Lansing horns. A crossover takes the bass signals, and at about 400 cycles pushes them through the horns.
Though 80% of Greg's time on stage is spent playing bass, there are certain numbers where he switches to electric and acoustic six-strings. An old three-pickup black Les Paul and a handbuilt Zemaitis (English make) are his electric instruments, and a Washburn and 12-string Zemaitis provide his acoustic setup. The two electrics run through four Fender Concert amplifiers hooked into a "Y" series. The acoustics are simply miked throught the PA system. He strings the Paul and the Zemaitis with Fender light gauge strings, and the Washburn and acoustic Zemaitis with Guild.
His only pedal is a fuzz box. "I don't know what kind it is, " Lake says, "But I only know it goes zzzz. It doesn't really matter either, they all do the same things, and it's just whatever you like. Here again with strings; there's so many different types, and they all claim to have one thing or another; and none of them have got it. They've never come up with a string which has lasted for more than one day at peak condition."
Greg makes a (seemingly) curious choice when confronted about his abilities as a vocalist and bassist. "It's not easy to sing and play any instrument at the same time," he begins. "You've almost got to use a counterpoint principle. But once you're learned it, once you've got into the habit of the two functioning independently, one doesn't detract from the other, and one really doesn't affect the other. The song and the melody is one thing, and what you play is another. I'm essentially a singer. I mean, if I had to do away with everything and just keep one of the things I do, I'd sing without a shadow of a doubt. Because nothing is so expressive, so unlimited, so flexible as the human voice, or has so much capacity to transmit feeling."
Greg's talents don't stop with singing and playing bass and guitar. As the main lyricist, producer, and writer of much of the group's material, he has little time to think of anything non-musical. "I continually try to develop clarity in what I'm playing," he says. "Above and beyond that I'm really not an effects man. I believe in playing the thing. I believe that's where it comes from. If you spend so much time developing a phase-fuzz-wah, you've got to be able to play something through it. And you'll find that the cat who has spent all that time just playing is going to come out with something a lot better, really."
Greg considers himself to be a purist with regard to his own playing. "My sound," he explains, "is a natural reproduction of the string which is connected to my fingers. That, to me, is what a purist attitude towards the instrument is. I'm not saying that it's all good. I like a lot of the sounds which have been prostituted, but that wasn't the way I went. I just got into making the instrument as beautiful and as powerful, naturally, as it could be made."
Such an approach runs parallel with his conception of his own role as a bass player which, "is to provide a bottom end, a liquid bottom end to this band, a fluid end, and - at the same time - percussive because the style of our band is a percussive style. So, if you like, it's melodic-liquid-percussion. Apart from that, I think of myself as a singer really; it's difficult to analyze. It's better that other people analyze me. That saves me a lot of problems."