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A Deep Dive into the Unique Way Flea Plays Bass

Image screenshot: YouTube / Polyphonic

The Red Hot Chili Peppers emerged from the Los Angeles 1980s punk scene. And, along with helping bring that sound into the mainstream, they also brought the funk too. And that came in the form of their bassist Flea.

YouTuber Polyphonic, who’s previously analysed what makes Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham so great, takes an in-depth look at Flea’s career and his incredible talent as a bassist. As Polyphonic notes, while their lineup and trajectory has changed, going from cult band to chart toppers, what has remained solid is their intense and wild bass lines.

It’s a talent that has made Flea one of the most acclaimed bassists in contemporary music. And not only is he heralded as a great bass player, he’s become a hugely influential one too.

Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea having some chill out time. © Catherine McGann

Pulling on influences like Larry Graham, the former bass player for Sly and the Family Stone, Flea combined the slap bass method Graham created, with the West Coast punk sound. The foundation of Flea’s bass playing comes from this slapping technique. Which involves aggressively slapping the bass with your thumb rather than plucking at it, and makes for a more percussive and heavier sound.

Flea took this not unusual way to play bass and merged it with the punk way of playing bass, which is super fast. So Flea begun slapping fast, and that created a very distinctive sound that become associated with and recognisable as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their hit song “Higher Ground” from 1989’s Mother’s Milk is just one of many examples of this.

But that’s not the end of Flea’s talents and input to the band either. Because while that method of fast slapping can be heard throughout their earlier work, Flea shifted away from it on future albums. Like Blood Sugar Sex Magik where, much like how Bonham’s drumming worked with his bandmate’s instruments, Flea’s bass harmonised the band’s sound.

Photographer Matt Anker recalls when he photographed the Red Hot Chili Peppers in October 1991, "Anthony Kiedis comes alive when you aim a camera at him, John Frusciante was stoned and subdued, a perfect combo!" © Matt Anker

On Blood Sugar Sex Magik his bass playing provided a great contrast to John Frusciante’s minimal guitar for instance, and it meant Flea created more melodic sounds. And not just Frusciante’s guitar either, but Flea was able to provide counter melodies to Chad Smith’s drumming and Anthony Kiedis’ vocals too.

It’s meant that not only has Flea created a unique sound for the band, but on the wider scale he’s created a new role for bass players too. In most rock bands the bass player provides the same harmonic structure for the guitar to work off and the drummer to link to. But Flea branches out of those traditional bass lines, bringing added versatility.

“There’s nothing wrong with a solid bass playing traditional bass lines but part of what makes Flea so great is that he isn’t confined to traditional definitions of what bass lines can be.” notes the video, continuing,”Rock bass can sometimes feel like an afterthought thrown in just to fill out the sound but Flea’s bass lines never feel like that they always add something new and essential to the song.”

Check out the video below and you can check out more videos from Polyphonic at their YouTube channel here.

Rockarchive is delighted to offer various Red Hot Chili Peppers images as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.