Bass Workshop
Guitar & Bass (UK)
May 2005

Moulding's basslines are brilliantly oddball yet always deeply musical and supportive of the song. Gareth Morgan salutes a West Country wonder...

Generally Major
Colin Moulding Workshop

There are always great bass players who remain underrated, and there are those who we just forget about. In the case of Colin Moulding, bassist/singer/songwriter with quirky English pop overlords XTC, the lack of recognition he receives should be made a criminal offence.

XTC first appeared in 1977, riding the punk wave with their angry, often frantic, but ultimately melodic guitar-pop classic White Music. After the second offering, Go 2 ('78), keyboardist Barry Andrews jumped ship to be replaced by guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory, another in a long line of unsung British guitar stylists, who remained with the band until 1999. Although [Andy] Partridge is the main writer (he allegedly writes all of his lyrics while on the toilet), Moulding's tunes are often the most remembered XTC songs: Making Plans For Nigel ('79) was their breakthrough hit and Generals And Majors ('80) was equally successful.

Moulding describes his style as ‘probably the bastard son of [Free bass player] Andy Fraser and Paul McCartney’, although he cites others, including Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler. If you've never heard him, check out either the Black Sea ('80) or English Settlement ('82) albums immediately and prepare for a treat.

Although Moulding is firmly rooted in the Macca camp as regards his use of both scalar and triadic melodies, as well as legato slides, his generosity with space and unusual interval leaps are a true Fraser characteristic. The XTC bassist's individualism shines through in his unusual choice of dissonant passing tones, fostered by Partridge's odd choice of guitar voicings. Space, melody, all-round phrasing, feel — not to mention dogged devotion to the requirements of ‘the Song God’ — spawn one seriously funky Wiltshireman.

His main basses include an Epiphone Newporter, an old '69 Vox Orbit (right) named to celebrate Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, a semi-hollowbody made by Dennis Fano in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a Wal, a Precision and various fretless basses. Whatever Moulding's choice of weapon, his fat, rich, organic tone always sings and his wonderful grooves just force you to listen.

Ex. 1

Quirky Tower
XTC have only ever recorded one cover version — a frenetic rendition of Dylan's All Along The Watchtower (White Music, 1977). Partridge's vocal delivery is stutteringly pneumatic and Barry Andrews' cheap organ sound throws a legato blanket over the whole affair. We've given you a taste of Moulding's contribution here; the space is crucial but the real gem is the chromatic pull-off from the octave D down to C. Try using a 4-2-1 fingering for this and concentrate on getting it to sound smooth and flowing.

Ex. 2

Meccanik Grooving
Meccanik Dancing opened Go 2 and our exercise gives you a good flavour of the verse groove. If you look closely and fiddle with the phrasing a bit you'll get something akin to Elvis Costello's Pump It Up, so maybe both Bruce Thomas (see workshop in issue 16/1) and Moulding had sampled the delights of both The Everly Brothers and Richard Hell... stranger things have happened. Other than marking the end of Andrews' tenure, Go 2 is also notable as the album where Moulding the stylist really emerges.

Ex. 3

A Future In British Steel
1979 was a good year for XTC: Dave Gregory replaced Andrews, the splendid Drums And Wires was released and Moulding's wonderful Making Plans For Nigel gave the band their biggest hit to date. Legend has it that, upon hearing the references to themselves in not totally glowing terms, British Steel took a poll of all of their employees named Nigel to find out if they were actually happy! We've condensed four bars into two here so doubling the length of time on each chord will get you there, as will observing the staccato dots and the slides that mark each change.

Ex. 4

In the Order of Their Hedgerows
Most diehard XTC fans regard Black Sea as the classic album: it's chock-full of wonderful tunes, including four hit singles, yet it still retains a quirky edge and obviously represents the band reaching maturity.

The opener, Respectable Street, is a Partridge tirade against upper-middle class suburban life, and Moulding comes up with a groove similar to the one above. Again, we've condensed a four-bar phrase into two by halving the note lengths, but what you get is the McCartney triadic approach coupled with Fraser's phrasing all bound up in Moulding's fat, rubbery tone.

Ex. 5

Moulding's Gem
Partridge's commentary on industrial progress, Towers Of London (from Black Sea) sees Moulding's groove moving from a half-note feel (with two in the bar) to a quarter-note one (four in the bar) to mark the end of each four bars or the change of section: super-simple, yet super-effective. Our example is based on the melodic snippets Moulding injects, once more mixing scale and triad, tastefully clipping the note lengths but never treading on anyone else's toes. Phrasing control is the key here.

Ex. 6

The Direction of Dublin
When Colin Moulding allows himself the rare luxury of playing a full note length, you just know there's a good reason. He often combines this approach with swooping legato slides, both ascending and descending in pitch, and highly derivative of phrasing innovations that McCartney first employed. This example echoes another snippet from Towers Of London — it's similar to the idea Moulding produces as the song breaks down before charging back to the chorus. You need to play this on one string to get the right vibe, and pay close attention to precisely timing your arrival at each note.

Ex. 7

Bassist Grooving Overtime
English Settlement is another must-have XTC album. Moulding's playing simply soars, and his fretless work is revelatory: it's as if he had a cupboard-full of killer ideas in waiting, and he lets them all out on one record. And yet it's in no way a chops-fest. Taste and musicality are the watchwords, and our snippet — based on the two-bar phrase at the end of the chorus in the sublime Senses Working Overtime — also features wonderful legato slides, solid grooving and high-register fills.

Ex. 8

Funky Toys
Our last snipped it based on the almost Pastorius-like groove on Toys from Mummer ('83). This is a bass player totally at ease with his craft, and one who's not afraid to integrate more modern techniques, for the pure quirkiness of much of XTC's material has always left plenty of scope for the boys to play. The double stops comprise the fifth and octave and, if you can't fret them with your third and fourth fingers, simply bar across at the seventh fret. The space is crucial to this one's underlying funk. Enjoy!

Gareth Morgan is a professional bass player and teacher, ex of M.I., London and Guitar's bass man in residence.
If you'd like to ask any questions about this feature of book a lesson you can e-mail him at

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[Thanks to Robert Mallows]