SA Bassists With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Shaun Johannes

For this month’s interview it’s back down to Cape Town – the home of some the finest musicians in this Country, Shaun Johannes. This is what he told me in February this year.

What inspired you to become a bassist?

I was a relatively late bloomer and started noodling around on a very old but reliable Casio keyboard my Aunt had sent to me. I mostly played gibberish or played whatever I heard on radio, TV, church, etc. I taught myself to read music and formulate some idea of theory when my Mother bought me a play-along book of ‘The Sound of Music’. It had a ROM pack (old Casio!), chord symbols and notated melodies with the letter name written into the note. She then proceeded to put stickers on every key on the keyboard and I literally played what was written. I listened to the songs and realized that certain note-shapes had certain lengths and then that was it. I WAS HOOKED!!!!

This was as of 1995/1996. I mostly played sports and played outside…

I took music as a subject in grade 8 & 9 in high school and while I excelled at playing music, knew nothing about theory, harmony, etc. I played piano primarily but started messing around on guitar at braais, parties, etc. Whatever I knew about music I learned aurally or from talking to other students. In 1998 I was introduced to the ‘Jazz Workshop’ in Cape Town by the legendary organist Roy Benjamin. The Jazz Workshop is owned and run by Cynthia and Merton Barrow. I went to my first lesson with Merton and was mesmerized by it all. After that I went for piano lessons and general music instruction by George Werner. To this day George is still a great inspiration and teacher in music and the industry in general. He allowed me to tag along to gigs that he was doing so I could learn about gigging and the industry…mostly I carried his huge gear!! Eventually I started to play one or two songs in some of Cape Town’s most notorious clubs at 2am on the weekends. Gradually I started gigging over the weekends as I had to attend school during the week.

Towards the end of 1998 I started taking an interest in the bass guitar. After annoying my parents for several months they eventually caved in and bought me my first bass and amp. It didn’t have a cable to plug into the amp with so I just played hard and gave myself massive blisters the next day…it was SO worth it! Under the tutelage of the late sax legend Ezra Ncgukana and George Werner I went on to be a founder member of the cape flats-based band the ‘Little Giants’. It was an outfit commissioned by the local jazz festival the ‘Jazzathon’ by festival owners JCQ. As every other story goes…we didn’t have a bassist so after only two months of playing I was appointed as the bassist and after four weeks of rehearsal I went on to go play my first HUGE gig on bass in January 1999. My fresh blisters decided to bleed midway through the gig…

That was the start of a very long and eventful road of being a bassist in South Africa. Do you come from a musical family?

Sadly, no…

My mom has a deep-desire to play music but spent her time raising me and my brother so didn’t get that much time to shed! My father sang in church and the closest thing to a musician was my grandfather and uncle who played Violin and Baritone sax in one of Cape Town’s many big bands/Christmas bands.

Let’s talk about gear…List all the gear you’ve owned. What is your current gear setup?

My first bass was an Academy, black, 5-string and my first amp was a 15-watt Vantage…I have never seen or heard of these brands ever again!! My first decent bass was one that my Father had bought me and one that I still own which I will probably never sell. It’s the Cort Artisan b5fl fretless, 5-string bass. At about the same time I started checking out Jaco Pastorius so it couldn’t have been more perfect!

I’ve owned a Fender Squire (Japan) 4-string, Cort C5P 5-string which was accompanied by a Peavey Minx 110 amp and a Peavey MicroBass.

My first foray into high-end gear is when I sold my Fender and other amps and managed to pay the deposit for my SWR Workingman’s 15…150-watts of warm SWR love! As the years progressed I have been blessed with many pieces of kit and along the way the Paul Bothner store has always been behind me 100%. I’d like to use this opportunity to thank them for my retail endorsement, more specifically Carel Van Heerden, Digby, Peter, Bill and Roy.

My current gear list (non-endorsed) includes:

  1. Cort B5FL Fretless Bass (5-string)
  2. MusicMan StingRay5 Fretless Bass (5-string)
  3. Warwick Streamer Stage I (5-string). Customized with Bartolini pickups and Aguilar Preamp (Courtesy of Brian Ristolla at BestBassGear.com)
  4. Fender USA Jazz Bass c1993 (5-string). Customized with Bartolini pickups and Audere Preamp (Courtesy of Brian Ristolla at BestBassGear.com)
  5. ¾ Upright Bass, Ply-wood (Chinese). Fitted with Fishman BP100 pickup and/or ’The Realist’ pickup
  6. ¾ Upright Bass, Solid-wood (Chinese). Fitted with Fishman Full ‘Circle Pickup’ and/or DPA 4099B Microphone
  7. SWR Workingman’s 15 (150-watt Combo Amp)
  8. Hartke Transporter 4×10 (Cab)
  9. Hartke A70 (70-watt Combo Amp)
  10. RADIAL Bass ToneBone (Courtesy of Akbar Khan at Eastern Acoustics Pro Audio)
  11. BOSS GT6B Bass Effects Processor
  12. Fishman ‘Pocket Blender’ Preamp
  13. Fishman Pro-EQ II Platinum Preamp

In 2009 I approached Michael Tobias of MTD (Michael Tobias Designs) to make me a bass guitar. He agreed and more than that endorsed me with his brand…I was close to tears when I got the email to say I’ll make you the bass and would you please endorse my guitars in Africa. I’m truly blessed to be associated with such a great man and an even greater brand.

I’m endorsed by MTD Basses and play the custom made MTD USA Series 635-24:

–                6-string bass, Bolt-On

–                Custom made for MTD Bartolini pickups and preamp system

–                Buzz Feiten tuning system

–                Buckeye Burl and Ash Woods with Birdseye Maple Fingerboard

In 2010, after several years of constant pestering, I managed to get the MarkBass amp brand into South Africa with the brand being administered and distributed by Music Connection in Johannesburg. Through constant dealing with Anton at this great store I’m now an endorsee of MarkBass amplification in South Africa. I can honestly say that these amps and cabinets are the best I have ever played locally and abroad. I own the F500 (500-watt) amp head and use the Standard 104HF (4×10” Cab) and the Standard 102HF (2×10” Cab).

The next guitar I’d like to buy is a Sadowsky Vintage J (4-string) to replace my Fender and if the budget allows a nice Martin Acoustic Bass (4-string). The next amp I’d like is the MarkBass Tube800 and a MarkBass CMD 121H Combo Amp.

How did you learn to play the bass guitar? Have you had teachers, lessons, etc?

I’m mostly a self-taught musician but sadly this also applies to my studies at the University of Cape Town…

I learned to play bass watching the prominent Cape Town-based musicians when my mother took me to gigs (I was still in school!). I played along to CDs that I had and learned all the basslines and piano parts…a hobby that I still enjoy today. I tried to read as much as possible and when sitting in the company of musicians took mental notes of what they were talking about although I didn’t know what anything meant.

Up until I entered UCT, I had no formal music training. I had no theory lessons, my ‘harmony and counterpoint’ knowledge was non-existent and my ‘general music knowledge’ was limited to what I read and what people told me. Hence, when I started at UCT I knew nothing! All I had to use was my playing knowledge so often in exams you would see me mimic how I would play on the piano so I could visualize the exam question.

UCT employed Gary Deacon as my teacher but he only ever attended 8 lessons for the four years that I was a student there! I learned how to play by belonging to every available ensemble at UCT and from jamming in the practice rooms. I gained the bulk of my ‘jazz feel’ from playing in the UCT Big Band under the guidance of Mike Campbell. Mr Campbell is himself a ferocious bassist (which I didn’t know!) but soon realized as he crapped on me at every rehearsal for playing badly. At that point my sight-reading was incredibly poor and while the conductor wasn’t looking I’d ask one of the horn players to sing my part to me.

While at UCT I played in the ‘guitar ensemble’ and the UCT Latin Tentet (aka the DA Band led by Darryl Andrews). I learned a great deal about afro-Cuban music in this band which would serve me well in later years. Mike Horne (drummer), David Cousins (pianist) and myself would become the UCT performance trio as we played with every possible singer and instrumentalist at every possible ‘performers class’, exam and concert.

To ultimately answer the question: No, I have had no ‘official’ teachers and several lessons.

What methods do you employ in your bass playing technique? Do you emulate, create, etc?

I use the classics: ‘one finger per fret’ and ‘the claw’. This is mostly due to watching many people employ this technique so I figured it was ‘the standard’. My biggest influence as musician, tone and technique is Jaco Pastorius. The only thing I’ve developed differently is a ‘pivot’ method for people with a short reach. I’ve been trying to learn how to ‘slap’ more efficiently and musically as well as trying to incorporate a ‘palm down’ three/four-finger technique.

I generally ‘emulate’ other bassists/musicians depending on the kind of work I’m doing to ‘get into character’. When I do theatre productions, concerts and shows I generally take this approach. What I mean is that I try to get into the same frame of mind in terms of tone, rhythm, mindsets of the quintessential bassist(s) from the genre that I am playing. Taking this approach requires that I spend a great deal of time immersing myself in a genre and finding out quintessential recordings and transcribing the basslines and making notes on how the notes are played in terms of attack, sustain, intensity, etc.

When I play original compositions in the genres jazz, fusion and world music I generally try to ‘create’. This is a significantly more expressive way of playing but according to me requires a fair amount of musicality, taste and awareness to really excel at whatever I’m playing. The only unhappiness I’ve experienced is when you’re playing in a band where you’re not the regular and everything you do seems to be the wrong thing! The older I’ve become, the more I take the attitude of ‘then you should book the other guy if you want that sound’! I know it sounds harsh and I generally don’t like this attitude and I’m not generally ‘precious’ but it is insulting and disheartening when you’re in constant comparison and continuously fall short…

Who have you performed with? Who would you like to perform with?

Over the last ten years I’ve been blessed with playing with some of the world’s finest musicians and I honestly get more joy out of playing with local and African legends.

Here is a short list of the most notable people, gigs, festivals, etc (for a complete list go to my Website:

George Benson (USA)

Najee (USA)

Bruce Cassidy (USA) of ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’

Kat Dyson (USA) of ‘Prince’ and ‘Natalie Cole’

John Fedchock (USA) of ‘New York Big Band’

Anton Figg (USA) ‘The David Letterman Show’

Carl Allen (USA)

Harvey Mason (USA) of ‘Fourplay’

Marvin McQuitty (USA) of ‘The Commissioned’

Johnny Clegg

Vicky Sampson

Sonja Heroldt

Gloria Bosman

Barney Rachabane

Mike Makhalemele

Winston ‘Mankunku’ Ngozi

McCoy Mrubata

Moreira Chonguica (MOZ/RSA)

Paul Hanmer

Big gigs or things that I’d like to play in/attend:

Any 46664 concert

Any Idols show

NAMM trade show

Musikmesse trade show

North Sea Jazz Festival (The Hague)

I’d like to perform with anyone that could push me musically and/or professionally…

You have played on many records as well as produced and arranged songs on several records for other artists. Which part of the recording process do you prefer: playing, arranging or producing?

I like all of it!

Playing in the studio is an art form. The level of accuracy, integrity and thought that goes into tracking far supersedes anything you may have to play at gigs. Having the right sound and knowledge surrounding tone production is a big deal to me in the studio. In some of our South African studios there seems to be a lack of striving for greatness. What I mean is that our studios just about cope with space, gear, sound, etc. requirements but never really go the extra mile in the tracking process. I generally like to know a great deal of what is required in the studio in terms of audio engineering to really marry the two worlds of instrument/amp/player tone production and audio engineering/tracking techniques tone production.

My preferred tracking rig consists of:

  1. MTD 635-24, Fender US Jazz Bass and MusicMan Stingray5 (fretless) basses on hand.
  2. MarkBass F500 Amp and MarkBass 102HF (2×10”) Cab.
  3. AKG D112 and Shure SM57 microphones for bass cab.
  4. DPA small diaphragm (fingerboard), Royer large diaphragm (front) and AKG 414 (rear) microphones for tracking upright bass.
  5. A-Designs RedDI
  6. Avalon M5 Preamp or Millennia STT-1 Recording Preamp

Arranging is a true passion of mine. I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be and that’s mostly due to the fact that honing this craft is relative to the means. By that I mean is that to do arrangements is very time consuming and the arrangements can only truly be enjoyed/heard when being played by other people. A string arrangement requires string players which I don’t have regular access to! Software like Sibelius is amazing in making life easier in the studio and in general. It’s incredibly intuitive and integrates perfectly with my studio setup and DAW.

Producing music, personally, is in the early sense of the term. In today’s world, ‘producers’ are people who ‘make beats’ in the bedroom on their laptops! In studios of old, there were several people that fulfilled several jobs which are now under this unified title. There was the musical director and tracking engineer while the producer was the person concerned with the overall outcome, feel, look and shape of the record being created.

When I produce tracks for artists I mainly concern myself with the arrangement, musical integrity with regards to the genre we’re dealing with. I like to think of the genre in terms of the sound and production techniques during its periods of infancy and popularity.

What do you get up to when you’re having a (well deserved) break from music?

I love spending time with my fiancé who is also a musician Tracey Lee Appolis. I enjoy braaing with friends and family as well as going to the beach during the summer. I’ve been a TV game addict since I was six years old and thoroughly enjoy all things gadget related. I love going to check out coffee places, farmers’ markets, church bazaars and malls.

What’s on your iPod right now? How wide is your music listening interest? If you had to die tomorrow, what’s the last thing you’d like to hear?

iPod:

Bob Mintzer Big Band – Papa Lips

Garaj Mahal – Live Vol. III

Various Artists – A Handful of Namibians

Maxwell – Black Summer’s Night

Maceo Parker – Live on Planet Groove

Joe Zawinul – Faces and Places

I listen to anything and everything. I have been blessed with a very wide music appreciation palette. I’ve got Hillsongs and Fred Hammond, The Roots, 2Pac and Busta Rhymes, Rage Against The Machine and Incubus, Cassandra Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, Soul Brothers and Ringo Madlingozi, Whitney Houston and Teddy Pendergrass, etc.

I love it all!!

The last thing I’d want to listen to is any classic soul and R&B music. Anything from The Commodores, The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross and so forth.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you Martin and all the people at www.bassmusicianmagazine.com for allowing me this opportunity to ramble on about things! I hope to offer more to this mag as the years go by and I’m sure I’ll still enjoy reading the invaluable contributions by the writers and related staff.

Martin Simpson

About Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson was born in 1956 in London, England. He now lives in South Africa and runs The South African Bass Players Collective, which he founded with the help of his friends Kai Horsthemke, Concord Nkabinde and Graeme Currie.

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