Just when you thought it couldn’t be done, two young guys from England have totally revitalized, revolutionized, and practically reinvented rock and roll—or at least the way it’s played. The heavier-than-thou riffage produced by überduo Mike Kerr (bass and vocals) and Ben Thatcher (drums), a.k.a. Royal Blood, has set the collective rock world on its ear, garnering enthusiastic accolades from the likes of Jimmy Page and Dave Grohl.
But wait a minute. Bassist Mike Kerr? Shouldn’t this be in Bass Player?
Well, yes and no. Regardless of how they make it, these guys are creating a big, fresh sound that is just too cool for GP to ignore. Kerr orchestrates his amps and effects as if they were band members and the result is a hugely dynamic wall of sound—like a trio or quartet of stampeding mastodons—that belies their duo status.
What I propose here involves a bit of reverse engineering. Essentially, instead of a bass that doubles as a guitar, we’ll be using a guitar that doubles as a bass. Granted, a guitar is not a bass, and certain sonic elements will be lost due to that fact, but bear with me and this investigation will get you pretty damn close to recreating some of that groovy Royal Blood vibe, I guarantee!
WHAT HE’S GOT
Kerr has been reluctant to detail his exact signal chain—he claims to spend more time turning amps off and on than hitting pedals— but online photos of his pedalboard reveal that he runs his Gretsch Electromatic Junior Jet Bass IIs and Fender Starcaster basses through the following gear: a Boss TU-3 Tuner, two Boss PS-6 Pitch Shifters, a Palmer Triage Amp Switcher, a Boss LS-2 Line Selector, two Electro- Harmonix POG 2s, a Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer, a Strymon Flint Reverb/Tremolo, and a ZVex Mastotron Fuzz.
I’m guessing the chain begins with the tuner running into the Palmer Triage, which splits the signal into three separate outputs— one for dedicated bass sounds, and two for “fake” guitar tones. It’s probable that Kerr’s bass channel goes through the LS-2 (to mute the bass sound), a PS-6 (set for one-octave whammy-bar dives), and then directly to his bass amp (most recently a Fender Super Bassman and Bassman 810 NEO Enclosure). The first “guitar” channel most likely feeds a POG 2 (set totally wet and up one octave to create faux guitar sounds), the GE-7 EQ, another PS-6, and the Strymon Flint into a Fender Super-Sonic 22 Combo amp. This leaves another POG 2 (probably set totally wet and up two octaves) and the ZVex Fuzz for the third “guitar” output, which runs to another Super-Sonic 22 Combo.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
For our stripped-down, reverse-engineered version of Kerr’s rig, you’ll need: (1) an A/B/Y box to split your signal into two discrete outputs—one for faux bass and one for guitar sounds— either of which can be activated separately or in tandem; (2) two POG, POG 2, or similar octave generators, one set totally wet and down an octave (for bass sounds) and the other up an octave with a 50-50 wet-to-dry signal ratio; (3) a beefy fuzz or overdrive pedal (an old ProCo Rat did the trick for me); (4) any effect pedal whose output level can be set to “0” in order to completely mute the signal; (5) two amps. (Another option would be something to boost bass resonance, such as an EQ or a BBE Sonic Stomp.)
To hook up, begin by plugging your guitar into the input of the A/B/Y box and switch to the “Y” (both) setting to create two simultaneous discrete outputs. (Tip: You may have to wait until both signal chains are completed to do this.) Connect the “A” output—our guitar channel—to the input of the one-octave-up POG-type device, add your fuzz/overdrive of choice and leave it switched on with a hefty amount of gain, and then send the whole deal to a designated guitar amp. The “B” signal chain— our faux bass channel—begins with the second POG-type pedal set totally wet one octave down. Run its output to the input of your mystery pedal of choice with its Volume/Level control set to “0.” Leaving this pedal in the “off ” position will pass the signal, while switching it on will mute the bass channel. Finally, send the mystery pedal’s output to your designated bass amp and you’re good to go.
Connect everything in the prescribed order (be sure the A/B/Y box is always set to “Y”), tweak your guitar and “bass” amps, and you’ll end up with a constantly active “A” guitar channel with overdrive and octave-up capabilities, and a semiclean, faux-bass “B” channel that can be turned on or off on the fly via the mystery pedal. Just what the doctor ordered for the following examples!
“OUT OF THE BLACK”
The opening track from R.B.’s eponymous 2014 debut album blasts off with Kerr’s stuttering, stop-and-start single-note faux-guitar figure, which on first listen appears to be in an odd meter. Tune down a whole-step, select your “A” channel only by muting the “B” channel (mystery pedal “on”), turn on the fuzz, and have at the ingenious two-bar riff notated in Ex. 1a. Built from just two notes—low open-D and its #9 (F) played 15 frets higher on the same string—the figure is reinforced by Thatcher, who plays unison punctuations with bass drum hits on the open D’s and snare drum sixteenths to cover the #9s. Four bars later, the same riff is opened up by eliminating the rests and giving each note its full value, as shown in Ex. 1b. Here, Kerr kicks in the bass channel, which we’ll accomplish by switching the mystery pedal off at the end of Ex. 1a. The transition from the Intro to Verse 1 occurs via a bar of 3/8 that simply repeats the three previous eighth-notes.
The first Verse figure is a word-of-mouth D.I.Y. affair. With your bass channel still on, play each note in bar 1 of Ex. 2 as eight consecutive semi-palm-muted sixteenths, and then repeat. Do the same with the four notes in bar 2 (sans repeat) and you’ll end up with a six-bar rhythm figure that segues directly to the Chorus riff notated in Ex. 3. This two-bar figure, which begins with call-and-response phrasing between open D and the same note played two octaves higher fortified with a b3/#9 (F) harmony note, requires a bit of pedal dancing. Begin with both guitar and bass channels on as they were in Ex. 2, and then use the sixteenth rest on beat two to mute the bass signal so only the guitar is playing the three ensuing minor-third intervals. Switch the bass on on beat three, back off again on beat four, and on one more time to cover the F-D-E-C# sixteenths in bar 2. (Note how this implies Dm-A7/E chords.) Play the whole deal four times before tagging on the figure from bar 2 of Ex. 2 as previously described, but with a break inserted on the second sixteenth of the last beat.
Verse 2 uses the same D.I.Y. figure from Ex. 2, with the first four notes repeated three times instead of two to create an eight- versus six-bar progression. This time, we precede the Chorus with a different two-bar figure that also requires some assembly and more fancy footwork. Play the first and fourth notes in Ex. 4a as four sixteenths each with the bass on, and all others for two sixteenths each with the bass off—note again the implication of a Dm- A7/E progression—and then segue directly to another four rounds of Ex. 3’s Chorus figure. Follow up with a Re-Intro consisting of both Examples 1a (bass off) and 1b (bass on) minus the 3/8 measure in the latter. Follow up with a reprise of Ex. 4a’s pedal dance, replacing the last beat in bar 2 with a descending single-note guitar run (bass off) utilizing four sixteenths—A-GF- E. Switch the bass back on to commence another four-round Chorus dance (Ex. 3), and then add the first part of the Outro by assigning eight sixteenths to each half-note depicted in Ex. 4b. (Note how this sevenbar figure lacks a second ending.) Switch the bass off and transition to the second Outro breakdown figure shown in Ex. 4c. Here, the drums break as the first pass is played without bass before switching it back on for the remaining three, creating an exciting dynamic buildup. As for the ending, you’ve already got everything you’ll need to figure it out. Speaking of which…
“FIGURE IT OUT”
We’re back in standard tuning for this tune, which begins with another “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” riff that utilizes only two different notes, in this case a low-E pedal punctuated with b7 (D) hammer-ons and pull-offs to and from the 10th fret of the same string. Ex. 5a illustrates the guitar-only version, which is played twice instrumentally and twice with vocals. (Tip: Accent beats two and four.) Add to this Ex. 5b’s descending eighth-note figure followed by a repeat of Ex. 5a with a break on beat three of bar 2, and you’ve got the first verse covered. For Verse 2, simply switch on the bass and repeat Examples 5a and 5b without the break in the last measure.
This is followed by the instrumental interlude shown in Ex. 6. Kick it off with two pick strokes, and then use your second finger to hammer-on or pull-off every sixteenth note for the next eight bars. This leaves your pick hand free to check the time, grab a drink, or whatever. Switch the bass on for the Chorus figure presented in D.I.Y. form in Examples 7a, 7b, and 7c. The idea here is to first superimpose the rhythm from bar 1 of Ex. 7a on the notes in Ex. 7b, and then do the same with bar 2 of Ex. 7a and the notes in Ex. 7c. Play the two-bar figure four times, and then tag the last two accents three more times before returning to Ex. 5a’s intro with the bass on and including the previously described stop. A third Verse and second Chorus follow, and, except for a two-bar whammy-pedal breakdown tagged onto the end of the Chorus, both feature the same figures used previously.
The guitar channel’s POG-type pedal— set one octave higher with a 50-50 wet-to-dry blend—enters the picture for the first time in Ex. 8’s depiction of the song’s second instrumental interlude. Switch it on, kill the bass, and observe the rests that separate the first three phrases before the fourth leads into bar 4’s ascending string of manic chromatic pull-offs. Repeat this four-bar figure starting on D instead of E and segue directly to six rounds of Ex. 9’s second-finger workout. Leave the bass off for the first two passes, and then kick it back in to create three octaves of sonic mayhem during the remaining four repeats.
The Outro continues with all three octaves blazing through two bars of syncopated stops similar to the ones in Ex. 10. Keep everything turned on and follow up with four more rounds of the riff from Ex. 9, plus the stops from Ex. 10 intertwined with a short, repetitive blues lick. It’s not notated, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out!