In 1994, a revolution hit popular music. For an entire generation of burnouts, slackers, stoners, and losers, a new style of music offered an alternative to the heavy tones and dour themes of grunge. It was the same aggression, but with a noticeable mix of pop earworms and wanton immaturity. This was pop-punk, and although the genre had been kicking around since the late-1970s, millions of kids heard it for the first time when Green Day’s ‘Longview’ began getting played on MTV.
With a focus on masturbation and getting high, ‘Longview’ was like every teenager’s dream of a hit single with snotty insolence and goofy fun intact. More than anything else, Green Day managed to fit those themes into a four-minute single that was as catchy and energetic as anything that was on the radio. Every piece of ‘Longview’ was memorable, from Billie Joe Armstrong’s nasally whine to Tre Cool’s tumbling shuffle beat. But what caught ears immediately was the slinky and complicated bassline that gave the song its wonky and hazy hook.
That bassline came courtesy of Michael Ryan Pritchard, operating under the punk rock stage name Mike Dirnt. Dirnt had been the lanky and laconic yin to Armstrong’s wound-up sarcastic yang for a solid decade before anybody had ever heard of Green Day. As kids growing up in San Francisco Bay area, Armstrong and Dirnt were outcasts who found solace in the likes of classic hard rock icons like The Who and AC/DC. Soon their attention turned to the burgeoning punk rock scene that was quickly transforming into alternative rock, with acts like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü merging pop hooks with loud guitars.
At the same time, the duo were looking for a place that allowed them to escape. They found it in 924 Gillman Street, the all-ages community centre turned punk rock club that allowed teenagers a safe space to enjoy music and camaraderie without the influence of drugs, alcohol, or violence. Influential punk acts like Operation Ivy and The Lookouts played frequently at the club, with Armstrong and Dirnt quickly forming a band called Sweet Children in order to get onstage themselves.
Originally a guitar player, Dirnt switched to bass once the band settled on a power trio format. Retaining the fleet-fingered dexterity and lead playing style that was more commonly associated with the guitar, Dirnt favoured fills, high-neck runs, and speedy pull-offs that were the opposite of the rumbling and muddy tones of grunge bass. In a strange way, Dirnt actually played more like progressive rock greats like Geddy Lee and Chris Squire, moving up and down the fretboard while filling in the spaces that Armstrong’s power chords left open for him.
At the same time, Dirnt is unmistakably punk rock in his approach. Pairing the eclectic style of Paul Simonon with the rock-solid foundation and drive of Dee Dee Ramone, Dirnt became a man of all styles and approaches. Mainly a pick player, but unafraid to go to fingers when the mood strikes. Although he is mainly known for his overdriven punch, Dirnt’s tones can be warm and full when the song calls for it, getting rubbery and wavering tones on songs like ‘King for a Day’ and ‘Nightlife’.
If you’re looking to replicate Dirnt’s signature sound, a Fender Precision Bass is your best bet. It’s the instrument that Dirnt has consistently used for his entire career in Green Day and it provides the perfect balance of low-end anchor and punchy treble tones. Stick with Fender for the amps as well, as Dirnt usually opts for Bassman amps live and in the studio, using them almost exclusively over the past two decades.
Pure speed is a must for Green Day songs, and if you want to hear Dirnt’s unmatched mix of precision and power, go directly for ‘Panic Song’ or ‘Jaded’. Tracks like ‘No One Knows’ can show off his melodic ear, while songs like ‘Knowledge’ show that the vital humour of Green Day can extend beyond Armstrong’s lyrics. More than anything else, Dirnt is usually just trying to find “his moment”: a part of a song that jumps out of the speakers.
“I just like anything with a melody to it,” Dirnt shares about hit philosophy towards bass playing. “That’s what inspires me to want to write my own song within a song or find that moment, whether it’s as small as just going ‘doo-doot’ in ‘When I Come Around’ or whether it’s something more walking around [like] ‘Longview’ or, again, like one note in ‘Bang Bang’, where I just take my thumb and drop the hammer one time and that’s it.”
Dirnt’s style is all about sticking out, something that most bass players aren’t taught to do. Dirnt wasn’t taught by anybody and had to find his own identity within the music he was playing. What he found was an opening to play as fast or as busy as he wanted, unencumbered by what a bass guitar “should” do. Giddy, vibrant, and instantly recognisable, Dirnt’s tone and style are reflective of his personality, still offering a window into the world of a teenager who’s still searching for that one moment of greatness.