Pearl Jam song ‘Black’, which famously featured on their now-iconic debut album Ten, has been, undeniably, one of the most popular compositions of the band and undoubtedly a fan favourite.
Designed initially as an instrumental demo titled ‘E Ballad’, the lyrics developed under the penmanship of vocalist Eddie Vedder. With the poignant lyrics and an impassioned instrumental, the band’s record label saw great potential in the song to release it as a single. However, in spite of the song’s success, the band was unwilling to release it as a single because the lyrics of the song were too personal in nature, and they feared that giving it the attention as a single would destroy its emotional weight. Even then, ‘Black’ became one of the most unique tracks by the band, one that would carry their legacy much after the hype about the initial release had died down.
In this regard, the song’s instrumental piece and the people behind those instruments deserve a special mention. One of them being, of course, a co-founder and the bassist for Pearl Jam, the one and only, Jeff Ament. The bass is, arguably, and somewhat unfairly, one of the most underrated instruments in a band. But it is ultimately the bass that gives a kind of depth to a song and elevates its overall experience. In the case of ‘Black’, Jeff Ament manages to introduce a whole new dimension to the track.
A self-taught bassist, Ament drew inspiration from listening to bands like the Ramones, the Clash, Devo, the Who and musicians such as Tony Franklin, Mick Karn, Jah Wobble and so on, a list who helped him develop his own style of introducing rich tones and a rumbling flexibility to it. His skills lay in playing fretless bass, often 12-stringed, with his fingers to produce the rich bass setting that would be crucial to the sound of the songs.
Describing his approach to Ten and how his style evolved, Ament said: “After Andy died and Stone [Gossard, Pearl Jam’s guitarist] decided to keep playing together, I thought, ‘I need to get better. I need to change it up.’” Subsequently, Ament learned how to play the fretless bass. He further added: “Stone was always writing from kind of a Zeppelin angle, so seeing if the fretless could work in that realm was exciting”. The most important part of the process was how Ament kept experimenting with his style and approach, therefore never leaving any room for the bass sounding monotonous.
Ament was particular on how he wanted the bass to sound when playing it, and that is probably what continuously changed his outlook on every song and the kind of vibe it ought to exude. He said: “I have to be able to feel the bass. I’ve worked hard with our producers to make sure that when you play our records on your stereo, you can feel the bass. You might not necessarily be able to hear it all the time, but if you turn it up you can feel the movement in the low end – that it’s moving the song.”
Ament said about the absence of the bass, too: “When it’s not there, it should be creating a dynamic”. In the end, for Ament, it was all about what the song needed while also making sure that the instruments did not go unnoticed. It was a collaborative process, and Ament made sure the sound of the songs portrayed the sentiment by the same token.
Ament’s work in ‘Black’ displayed his firm grip of the fretless bass and produced a sound that not only captivated the fans and bass enthusiasts but anybody who listened to it. His basslines were as profound and evocative as the lyrics to the song, incorporating upright riffs and tasteful slides to the music of the song.
Listen to Jeff Ament’s isolated bass on Pearl Jam’s ‘Black’ below.