According to Gene Simmons of the New York band KISS, Geddy Lee of the Canadian band Rush once didn’t know what a blues scale was; upon finding this out, the KISS bassist offered to help teach Lee how to play a blues scale.
Simmons recently shared this story during a new conversation with Ultimate Guitar. Prior to even mentioning Lee, the KISS member is asked where one starts when it comes to learning how to play bass. Simmons replies by saying that some of the most talented musicians ever – like Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon – couldn’t read or write music but could play it by ear.
This eventually prompts him to bring up that story involving Lee – that story taking place many years ago during a tour KISS and Rush did together. Through this story, Simmons reveals that the Rush bassist once had no clue what a blues scale was and that Lee also played “purely by ear.” When he learned that Lee didn’t know what a blues scale was, Simmons taught him how to play it.
Regarding how he teaches bass and what it was like teaching Geddy Lee, Gene Simmons shares the following: “It’s a simple idea. I can write songs and I can play various instruments, guitar, bass keyboards, and something like that, and even though I understand the basics of it, I understand that this handheld chord on a guitar is an, A minor, or A major, I understand that. But I can’t read or write music. Nor could Jimi Hendrix or Lennon and McCartney or anybody who’s in popular music almost without exception. And likewise, I can speak various languages, although it’s not important to be able to read or write.
“Buddy Rich is one of the all-time greatest band leaders and drummers, but he couldn’t read or write music, he did it all by ear. So the first thing I teach everybody is to forget what the strings are called, and what the notes are called, the first string is ‘one,’ the second string is ‘two,’ and ‘three,’ and then ‘four.’ And you’re gonna give me combinations of numbers, they’ll go, ‘three,’ and ‘one,’ and ‘four,’ and all that. And then I go, Okay, here’s the count, boom, boom, everybody starts plugging away at those three [notes they called out], and then it’s musical, they don’t have to know the names of [the notes].
“And I’ll tell you a telling story. Kiss took out Rush on their first tour. They came out to support us, you know, because we liked what they did. And this was in the, in their ‘Working Man’ period, when they sounded kind of like a Canadian Zeppelin, which I still prefer, sound-wise, but obviously, they’ve done very well, and we used to hang out with the guys and joke around everything.
“One night back at the hotel or backstage someplace, Geddy [Lee] and I were sitting down, trading licks, and I said, ‘Do you want to do a blues scale? You go first, and then I’ll continue the chord pattern,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ At least from what I recall, Geddy didn’t understand what a blues scale was or what ‘1,4,5’ meant. That also bears noting that when you go ‘1,4,5’ to a musician, that means something, it’s a relationship of notes or chords.
“And so I go, ‘Well, okay then, you hit a G, either octave or low,’ and he said, ‘Which one is that?’ Geddy played purely by ear. Now of course later on, he learned what the notes were and stuff like that, but it’s the same thing with The Edge. The reason you heard ‘jingle jangle jingle jangle,’ kind of thing — that became the style of U2‘s guitar sound is when The Edge started playing guitar in a band, he couldn’t play chords. He just strummed various notes so, it’s all open to… Music is an interesting thing. You don’t have to get complex about it, just start.”
If you are someone who plays an instrument, do you have the ability to play music by ear?