The Mike Dirnt Paradox

Green Day's bass player inspired me that question: what is defining us as musicians? What we can play? Or what we create?

Ultimate Guitar

A couple of days ago, I came across a Fender video on YouTube. It was promoting a signature P-Bass, named after Mike Dirnt, the bass player for Green Day.

I did like several of their songs when I was younger, but even back then, there was nothing about Mike's playing that struck any interest in me. He did his job okay and had a steady playing, yet he was just your every punk band's just-picking-nervously-the-roots-and-doing-nothing-else bass player. But hey, what he did was fitting the band's style, and I assumed for a long time that there would be nothing else to expect from the guy except this clichéd simplistic playing.

And he just erased that thought in the first five seconds of the aforesaid video, in which he played some intense and expressive slap sequence.

Later on in the same clip, he played a couple of chords for a short progression - to which he added a few harmonic variations, and even if that bit wasn't as technically impressive as the slap sequence, it was still executed well and had a nice melodic feel going with it, something I just never heard in punk bass playing before.

Even if I enjoyed being this pleasantly surprised by a simple P-Bass video, it kept me wondering. Seriously, if Mike had such capacities as a bass player, if he was indeed a much more versatile musician than what his band's style would need, why did he keep his bass lines that simple and unexpressive for years of career?

Don't get me wrong, guys. I don't know every single Green Day song by heart, far from it. I'm sure you Green Day fans can come up with a couple of songs in which Mike did use one nice turnaround or two, or did something that was more melodic than what he usually does. But seriously, has the guy been doing anything else than just bland and repetitive E string picking for all those years?

Which brings us to what I wanted to debate with this article.

Should we call someone a "good musician" because of what he's able to do as a musician? (to keep it simple, we'll just consider technical abilities, versatility and mastering of scales and modes)

Or should we instead deem someone a "good musician" if that person is able to write actually good and creative musical pieces, regardless of his overall ability as a musician?

If we consider that question stricto-sensus, it's all going to be in your abilities and nothing else. Mr. One is going to be a better musician than Mr. Two because, for example, he can play effortlessly at faster tempos, knows by heart way more scales and chords, is able to give more nuances to the notes he plays, ecc.

Furthermore, just because you are able to use several techniques and melodic variations doesn't mean you have to use them all in every single piece or song that you write. Sometimes, keeping it simple and efficient is better for the listener, especially if you're playing a simplistic style like punk rock for that matter. Some might say a good painter is not a painter that uses every single color he can get his hands on, but a painter that purposedly chooses the best suited colors for the effect intended by the artist.

If you're attempting to write an instrumental on the guitar, trying to cram too many fancy techniques like harmonics, tapping, or tricky finger picking, might make the thing sound too confusing and unfocused. Even if you've got a steady beat or melody going on, what you are trying to write may lose its original spark and be overshadowed by technical prowess - the kind of technical prowess that both general listeners and trained musicians tend to reject.

Thus, it would be fair to admit that what matters is not what you're able to do, but what you're able to tone down according to the style you're playing. In Mike Dirnt's case, even if he downplayed a lot of his bass abilities for Green Day, what he did with that band suited perfectly what was required from a pop-punk bass player, and that way, we could say that it makes Mike a damn fine player - who's also able, thanks to his musicianship, to outplay most punk bass amateurs that just stick with that one style.

Or is it? Just because a particular genre that you need to play - for whatever period, be it just a jam session, or a lifelong career in Mike Dirnt's case - requires you to stay in a certain niche and re-use certain "cliches," does limiting yourself to such standards actually make you a better musician? If you're not able to do your own thing out of it - all the while respecting such fundamentals, is there anything special about you at all, and so, is there anything interesting about your musical abilities?

If I stay in the rock dominion for the purpose of keeping this article short, I can still come up with several examples of musicians who have been able to showcase brilliant elements of their musicianship into songs which are inherently pretty simple and "mainstream-friendly," to say the least.

Let's quote a band. One of my favourite acts of all time, Deep Purple. If you break down most of their well-known songs, you'll notice that they are quite simplistic in terms of melody and diatonic construction - just like most rock songs, actually. Yet this band has been able to let each of its musicians express their own personal thing and perform elements of their own musicianship, thus making the songs and the band unique, and admired by critics, musicians, and casual listeners alike.

Let's quote a guitar player - we're on a guitar website, aren't we? Jimi Hendrix. He started up as a blues and rock player, but the man was able to give a great harmonic content to what those genres' niches have been so far. He included jazz chords to pop progressions and gave a tortured yet expressive feel to traditional blues soloing licks. To say that good old Jimi left its mark on both his musician peers and generations of listeners would be an understatement.

Let's quote a bass player - after all, I titled this article and started this reflexion because of a bass player. Allow me to choose my own personal favourite bassist, a legend named T. M. Stevens. He's mostly known as a session man, having worked with international acts such as Miles Davis, Billy Joel, Joe Cocker, Steve Vai, James Brown or Cyndi Lauper, just to name a few. He also recorded several funk metal albums. On these records, most of the songs have typical metal or rock chord progressions, yet he is always using a very distinctive bass playing style over them, mixing distortion to crazy slap beats and keyboard-like harmonic chords. His solos are also impressive too, fast and jazzy - it might be an influence from his early jazz gigs and maybe his unreleased sessions with Miles Davis.

Unfortunately, Stevens never enjoyed the same success as the other two acts I listed above, but still, he created himself a strong identity over a genre that was already established, and he is often quoted as a world class player.

In that regard, I think I would personally stick with the second point of view. Even if I was genuinely impressed by what Mike Dirnt was able to do in a video that wasn't even 3 minutes long, I still consider that he is not that great of a musician to begin with. Sure, he did his job okay, suited the style of his band, and kept the same quality of playing for years of touring and recording. Yet, he kept the thing simple to the point where his bass lines showcase no identity or musicianship, and could have been written by any other punk bass player. Thus, there is nothing memorable about those bass lines and the bass player behind them.

Of course, this is just my opinion on the matter, and I barely brushed the two sides of the question. Please share and comment, guys. Take care of yourselves, and play some more music.

44 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Dude are we listening to the same Mike Dirnt? Because he has a lot of fantastic basslines and it one of the bassists I would like to emulate. He did tone down his expressivity some time between Dookie and American Idiot, though.
    I don't know. I never denied his qualities as a musician. I just feel like one with such abilities should be able to create himself a true musical identity, and not sound like your everyday punk bass player - that's the whole "paradox" thing. You say you'd like to emulate his style, what aspect of it are you looking up to for example ?
    His playing on early albums, especially 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and Dookie, really stands out as something special, as does his consistency, his fills and his tone. Tracks like Welcome To Paradise, When I Come Around and, more recently, Peacemaker, are particularly good examples. I just don't get how you say he doesn't have his own musical identity when I believe he is one of the few punk/pop-punk bassists who really do.
    Thanks for the references, I'll take the time to check them up.
    Actually, Insomniac is probably the album with Mikes best bass playing (check the sole on "Stuck With Me")
    I've actually never considered Mike one of the ones who just sits back and jams on root notes. His bass parts are more difficult than the guitar part in a lot of Green Day songs.
    Mike dirnt hasn't done that much more than a good job in green day but dookie has some brililant bass lines, basket case, longview, when I come around. Tre contains a song called Dirty Rotten Bastards, apart from the weird intro and first parts (it's kind of a rock opera) it's a cool punk song with a very cool bass solo at 3:15, in my opinion it has billies best solo too (about 1 minute later).
    The video mentioned in article -
    Well, thanks I guess I deliberately avoided adding it in case UG might reproach me for doing some indirect Fender advertising through the article, but hey. I assume it's not such a big deal.
    I already said that in the article. Sure, he surely did some good stuff that stands out from what he's usually known for doing, in terms of musicality. But he didn't maintain such creativity over his career, far from it. He happens to be a famous bassist because he's a part of a famous band, but if it weren't the case, nobody would quote him as a "favourite bass player", and rightfully so.
    Because he's not a "lead bass player", and as you get older (gulp) your tastes do change, what you would've played when you were younger you might not find tasteful as you get older and so what you play changes. Also there's billies song writing to contend with as well, his style has changed from the early days of "Smoothed out slappy hours" and "Kerplunk" (if you want to hear some of Mike's good stuff check out those albums, i also like his bass tone a bit more on those albums) and so as the musical dynamic changes so will the rest of the bands' playing. There's no doubt in my mind Mike is a great melodic and very tasteful bassist, I always like his style.
    It is simple, he can't add more bass parts because he doesn't write the songs in Green Day, plus he's in a band where he can't just do anything more complex due to the style of the music but after playing 20 years bass of course you master it, who doesn't? And as for your question, what makes you a good musician are your abilities with your instrument, but this is very different from being a good composer, composition needs creativity, playing only need skills. Or I'll say it this way, what you can create makes you a good composer, what you can play makes you a good musician and there's a huge difference between these two, example, the beatles were amazing composer yet they sucked as musicians, as playing their instruments, modern metal bands can't write anything good or new, they just repeat the same things over and over yet they are extraordinary musicians with lots of skills but that's it. See the difference?
    Well then, let me ask you that one question : whenever you practice anything new on the guitar (be it scales, chords, fancy techniques, shredding...), what's the point of struggling to master these new aspects of playing and incorporate them into what you do if that doesn't make you an overall better composer ? If you're aiming at being a professional musician, like a guitar teacher or a session man, technique and theory are goals in themselves, because they are required for what you do, and the better you get the more contracts you sign. These are the only cases when "playing only needs skill" as you say. The rest of the time, why do we all practice our respective instruments, if not to get better at composing and be able to put more input in the creative process ? Plus, even if you can look at creativity and technicality separately, one does generally breed the other : if you're not that good of a musician (just like the Beatles as you said) but spend your time coming up with creative turnarounds, odd chord progressions, different nuances and such, inch by inch you're going to be a better "technical player" too. And vice-versa.
    I do agree with your points, a GOOD musician can find the balance between showing its technical abilities and theory knowledge while connecting with its listeners. I appreciate a musician that knows its place in a song, sometimes it's good to be in the background supporting the overall sound (even if it means to be quiet) and there are times to be in the spotlight. To me that's also part of being a great musician: Knowing there is a time and place for everything. Of course, in the end it's a matter of taste.
    Mark Hoppus (blink 182) is a boring bass player, he play roots notes and that all... and the worst is that he simplifies his riffs when he plays live. Some of his early stuff were okay but now... Not Mike. thrust me, i'm a blink fan but I can't sant Mark's basslines
    Mike Dirnt is a fantastic bassist. The thing is, with Green Day songs it wouldn't really suit him to throw crazy lines down. His work pre-Nimrod was all absolutely excellent, but the evolving style of the band just didn't suit those kinds of basslines anymore. Being a good musician is as much about knowing when to hold back as to let rip.
    great article. felt like a philosophy lecture (not a bad thing)
    Thanks man, I didn't expect such a compliment. I really did my best to detail the reasoning I usually go through when I'm wondering about such topics, that might be what is giving the article that "philosophy" feel you mentioned.
    The basslines on Dookie were genius and he played stupid on every release after that. He is a fine example of a bass player going backwards in "skill".
    I feel like Insomniac was Mikes pinnacle for playing. After that his basslines were okay, then American Idiot and 21st century breakdown were just basically just the roots of the guitar. Although I can't stand most of Uno, Dos and Tre, I feel like he pick his skills back up.
    Mike Dirnt is actually a pretty good bass player. If you listen to the first Green Day albums you can hear lots of awesome fills and everything like that. His bass lines shine the most on 1,039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours & Kerplunk, but by the time Dookie came around he already started just playing mainly roots with little fills. He's a talented bass player, even if he doesn't necessarily show it as often as he could.
    Just listen to No One Knows, it features one of the best bass lines I've ever heard. Hugely unterrated song.
    considering he wrote one of the best basslines in history, Mike Dirnt is doing well (even if he was on acid).
    Dirnt has had a long career playing bass to learn how to be a technically proficient player. He puts that towards what works best for the Green Day songs and often some cracking and memorable basslines. Imagine John 5 Playing for Marilyn Manson. Manson doesn't need EVH level complexity for his songs, but he does need a professional player to perform it. And as a fist in the air for punk rock, listen to 1 minute in for prime bass attack.Rancid - Maxwell Murder Live
    Matt Freeman is one of the best punk rock bassists and bassists in general of all time, to me at least.
    Matt Freeman is one of the best punk rock bassists and bassists in general of all time, to me at least.
    Not to be a hater, but what's the point of this article? Mike Dirnt makes music that he loves, and he's lucky enough that millions of people love it too. He's not competing for the "Bassist of the Year" award. The dude's just having fun. Is he a good musician? Good performer? Good composer? I don't care, I have video games to play and lawns to mow. I'll probably do it all while listening to Green Day.
    Well, I just wanted to provide some food for thought.I didn't use Mike Dirnt as an example just because I wanted people to agree on him being a bad musician. He seems to be a fun guy and he's dedicated to his fans, and I remember how passionate and intense he would be when performing live. I respect the guy. I could have as well titled that "The Orianthi Paradox", for example. The artist mentioned was just responsible for triggering that reflection, it wasn't much of an article on the artist per se. I talked about Mike's playing in my introduction, but I built the reflection around general ideas and other examples. I didn't focus on Mike's playing. I guess the mistake I made was concluding the article on my personal thoughts about his musicianship. This is why a lot of people thought this was just a hater's article and defended Mike's playing instead of sharing their foughts on the the article's theme. I'm still glad I did this article, and I'm pretty satisfied about the way I wrote it, but that conclusion makes it a semi-failure, I guess.
    The thing with Mike is, he's in Green Day, the sole purpose of Green Day is basically to cash out via entertaining kids just getting into punk, without really fully comprehending it. The mark of a good musician, in my opinion is that they are able to achieve their goals, serve to entertain, and are able to keep up with the expectations of their particular audience. John Cage - 4'33, it is hailed as a work of genius, but the song consists of three movements: 1. sitting at the piano bench, 2. lifting the key-cover, and 3. closing the key-cover. He sought out his audience, adhered to their expectation for the avant-garde, and entertained.
    Say what you want, but I didn't find any punk band to be more creative or versatile than Green Day except for The Clash. As for the raw ability to play, Mike is very good. Most of the time, he doesn't show all of his ability because he's in a band that mostly plays very stripped-down music. But he has some awesome bass lines.
    I get your point. It's pretty solid per se, and I sort of mentioned it in the article too (even if I didn't phrase it that way). Personally, I'd argue that even if you're part of one of those bands that are all about the entertainment, that doesn't prevent you from being able to add a bit of creative input into what you do. I remember watching a French puppet TV show as a kid, that was very popular with everybody from my generation. On that show they had several songs sung by the puppets. Musically speaking, it was very simple and bland, as you can imagine, and most of the topics covered were very childish too. But still, here and there, they were able to put actually quite clever lyrics on more adult stuff, such as smoking, family issues, racial tolerance, etc... The fact that you're aiming at something simple for a simple-minded audience (children or young teenagers, in Green Day's case) doesn't mean you can't do something surprising and think outside of your box. If you limit yourself entirely on what your target audience likes, and don't try to open this audience's taste with what you're doing, you're more into marketing than actual artistic creation I think.
    You should play what the song needs. Playing technical stuff doesn't make you a good musician. It makes you a good instrumentalist. A good musician knows when to play and, more importantly, when not to play. A great example of a good bassline is Runnin' with the Devil by Van Halen. Without the really simplistic bassline the song would lack balls. It is the perfect bassline for that song. Same with Another One Bites the Dust by Queen. The bassline is not complex but it is really effective. It doesn't really show any technical skills but it is a great bassline. IMO music doesn't have to be technical. It's a good sign of a good musician if you have a really good technique but can play simple stuff too. Yes, sometimes it's cool to play fills and stuff like that. But as I said, it is also really important to know when not to play. Why would Mike not play the stuff he plays? If the music just doesn't need more complex parts, why play them? A band isn't a bunch of solo musicians playing together. It is a team that works together. You don't need to stand out to be a good musician. For example in AC/DC the rhythm section just focuses on a tight groove. Their parts are really simplistic but that's what makes them sound great. The musicians don't really stand out. But you could notice a difference if somebody else played their parts. Don't get me wrong. I really like some tasty bass fills. But not every song needs them all the time. As I said, you need to play what the song needs. Maybe Green Day songs just don't need any more complex bass parts. They would add nothing to the songs. The main point in especially Green Day's music is not the individual instrument parts. It is the energy, melody, lyrics, the song as a whole and that kind of stuff.
    So according to you, Jimi Hendrix, TM Stevens, and the guys from Deep Purple, are good instrumentalists but not good musicians ? I already admitted in the article that sometimes, it is indeed better to step back and not show off to much if you're playing a simple song or a simple style of music. Mike has been doing so for years of career as a very solid bassist, and I respect him for that. Then, just because the style is more fitted with "limited" musicianship doesn't mean you have to limit yourself all of the time, or even just generally speaking, for that matter. The examples I quoted for my concluding point of the article (Hendrix and pals) all started playing quite simplistic styles (barely more "complex" than what Green Day does), and yet the real musicianship is there and serves the songs delightfully. Sure, as you said, bands like Green Day and AC/DC are still pretty efficient and enjoyable by keeping their formula straightforward, but I have a hard time believing their music wouldn't get better and even more enjoyable to even more audiences if they had better bass and drum parts.
    Here's my opinion. There is a difference between being a good musician and a tight band member, and that's one thing know one see's in green day. Mike could obviously slap every bass line to every green day song but it's punk rock not jazz fusion. The comes a point, and I've experienced it first hand, when you either play what suit the song, which in green day's case is simple, or you play overly complicated bass lines which don't fit. Keeping it simple cant be the difference between being successful or not. Green day have released more albums than I have fingers and thumbs, and they didn't do it by having majorly extensive songs with a 9 chord progression in a minor that used multiple time signatures. The way to look at playing bass is, there are Victor wootton's and there are mike dirnt's. you could go full out and play some crazy arse solo composition (This isn't a bad thing) or you could focus on being a solid bass player in a band. its only when you are good at both of these and know when they are suitable in certain situations that you become a great bass player, and to me that is what mike dirnt is. he knows when he needs to go crazy and he knows that he can sit back and relax to and that works sonically with the rest of the band. What im saying is, you just need to have an understanding of what suits the song the best and in green days case its simplicity. As bass players and musicians we should all be trying to get to a point where we are knowledgeable enough to get into any band situation and be comfortable enough to know what that specific genre requires and how to approach it, also music theory is sooo important and I cant stress that more. To be able to write decent music with catchy melodies you must be able to understand music theory because songs aren't magic things that just appear after jamming for an hour or two. everybody who plays music in a band, they just want to be heard and bring happiness to others but the only way to be heard is to create catchy music and that relies on theory to create musical hooks. whether you choose to believe it or not , every song has a hook, its that annoying part that gets stuck in your head for days. That is the sound of success. That is the reason right there why green day are so popular and why impressive bass solos and drum parts don't appeal, to the average music consumer.