In this month’s issue of Bass Musician Magazine, I’m interviewing Stu Hamm, a man who is a real icon in the world of Bass. There is no genre of music that this fabulously talented Bass “Monster” has not covered. He has played together with some of the best musicians in the world on their various projects and still manages to keep up his own amazing solo career as well. So let’s get down to business and introduce you all to this month’s Artist in the spotlight……. Mr. Stu Hamm.
BISCUIT… Hi Stu, how are you my friend? I hear that you are very busy again as usual.
STU… Pretty good, Yeah… It’s that old joke about how do you get a musician to complain…give him a gig.
BISCUIT… We did manage to meet up last year at the London International music show at the Excel building in the docklands, not sure if you remember that though, with all the guys you meet around the world.
STU… Yeah, sure! You and the family were having a wander around the show and we had a chat for a while, and we have managed to keep in touch ever since then through all the electronic social mediums that we have these days eh.
BISCUIT… Absolutely. I almost feel we are neighbors these days, so it’s going to be nice to have this chat with you on behalf of Bass Musician Magazine. So you are touring the U.K. as we speak and you are in Bath at the moment, if I’m saying that right.
STU… Yeah. You know I was teaching all of last week at the international guitar festival in Bath, and Hartke has a new distributor here too, which are the Korg guys, so it’s a great chance to meet them too while I am here. I am off to Bristol today and I think I could almost walk it from here. Then I am off to Exeter and Colchester and then I get to go home for a couple of weeks.
BISCUIT… How are you enjoying your stay here in the U.K. overall Stu?
STU… I really love the U.K. and while I am here this time I am going to get a chance to watch Chelsea football club too. It’s a lot better watching the game in the afternoon over a beer with other people than watching on the T.V. in the early hours of the morning at home by myself, as you get all the atmosphere. So it’s all kind of fun while I am over here.
BISCUIT… Good to hear that you’re enjoying yourself as well as working hard Stu and it’s great to hear that you have a soft spot for Chelsea as well, as they are my team from birth… I have blue blood you know, ha ha. I would like to move on now to the clinics that you are doing over here at the moment my friend. You have been doing clinics worldwide for quite a few years now and I wanted to ask you how a bass player would get into that area in the first place.
STU… It helps to have a high profile gig with a well known guitar player, and also early on when I had that first fender signature bass, that kind of really helped promote me as well. And also, I feel what I do is different to what other people do in a lot of ways. For example, I often get asked if I am going to have backing tracks of other musicians for the clinics, and I say… Well no, it’s just me and a bass; four strings, a cord, an amplifier and a cab. They reply to that by saying… How can that be interesting for an hour and a half, and my response is simple… It has worked for me this long so I must be doing something right eh, and I do have quite a large repertoire of stuff which I change around a lot, so it just works for me. I do enjoy doing the clinics, and in fact about a month ago I got the chance to do one at the Glenn Gould studio’s up in Canada and it turned out to be a really good performance. I would like to edit that and put it out and then do something else for a while. Maybe I will put a serious funk band together, that would be a real challenge.
BISCUIT… So all you have to do now Stu is find the time to fit that into your hectic schedule, eh my friend. When you are working the clinics and gigs, I know that you have various basses at you disposal, so which ones do you use mainly, and what else can you tell me about the basses that you use and have used in the past. You have an old one called Mel if I’m correct…do you still use that one at all.
STU… Mel is kind of retired now and does not really leave the house anymore. The original fender urge basses were a short scale 32″ and that bass had more of a tenor sound rather than a low end, and the neck on Mel is much thinner than the others and also the truss rod is coming through the back of the neck as well. Although I really love to play Mel so much, I just can’t risk either loosing it or having it broken on the road. I have another called Obi 1, and it’s the orange sparkle one, and that one is playing really well now. I have Todd at Fender in the process of trying to clone Mel for me and make one that plays exactly like Mel did. By the way, on the subject of the basses…I have donated the very first Fender urge prototype bass to Larry Hartke at Sam Ash for his Bass lounge in New York to hang up on the wall there, although it is a little different to the ones we ended up with at the end.
BISCUIT… You also have a fretless called Fred… Is that right?
STU… Yeah… Fred is a fretless that I have and is the unlined one that I keep round wound strings on, and I do have another fretless that I am using a lot too right now, which is lined and has tape wound nylon strings for that flat acoustic kind of thing. I have been experimenting a lot with sliding, harmonic chords and stuff with that one.
BISCUIT… On the subject of strings, which is your particular string of choice Stu?
STU… I am just a real nut for strings and I always have been. I have a great deal with GHS and use the boomer strings, and I have always loved them. Also fresh strings for me just make me real happy…. It’s like that feeling you get when you get a brand new pair of sneakers as a kid, you know. And the way that I play too, with all the slapping and popping stuff going on, those fresh GHS strings just bring out that fresh tone I want and need every time. I remember years back when I used to boil my strings to get the life back into them, but now I am fortunate enough to have the endorsement with GHS and I have been using them for a million years now. I know how they are going to react when I put them on and what they are going to sound like. The way it sounds when you are playing really affects the way you play. If it does not sound the way you want it to, you are not going to be able to play what you want.
BISCUIT… When you first started playing the bass, which model did you start off with initially, and what other ones did you have in the early days.
STU… I have had a ton of different basses over the years, but I got my first bass for Christmas when I was thirteen years old in 1973. It was a red Alvarez and a kind of SG copy… I wish I still had it now. My first “Real” bass was a Fender Jazz, when I was around fifteen years old, then I had a Pedulla for a while and an Alembic for a minute when my fender got stolen and I also had a Kubicki.
BISCUIT… So how do you know when you get the right bass for you, the one that fits just right and will become that extension of your arm, so to speak?
STU… I think the best way to choose a bass that is right for you is to adopt the “sock test”. This is where you go to the bass store and take a dozen basses and put a sock over each head stock. Then just play them one by one and see which one feels and sounds good to you, purely by playing the instrument and not just because of the name of the company that makes it….That’s the way it should be for me.
BISCUIT…Sounds like a great way to do it Stu, and maybe more budding bass players out there should adopt that approach when considering buying a bass eh… especially their first one, money permitting of course. Now, if I may, I would like to move back to your earlier years, where you were born in New Orleans and growing up in Champaign Illinois, and where you studied bass and piano at the outset. So at what age were you when you first took a shine to music and why particularly those two instruments?
STU… You know, I come from a real musical family. My father is a musicologist and he has written a number of books on the history of popular music in America and around the world too. My mum was a singer and my brother played guitar as well, so I was just exposed to music all the time. I was also in a choir and also musicals at school as well, so music was everywhere for me. My first gig was at Kindergarten and I played drums for my brother, then I went on to play piano because it was the thing to do at that time. When I was living in Illinois, the music in the schools was really big there, specifically the high school I went to. They had a really good Jazz band which entered competitions and things, and I really wanted to be a part of that band.
BISCUIT… After high school, you went on to Berklee College of music in Boston if I am correct, and I believe that is where you met Steve Vai.
STU… Yeah. I went there when I was eighteen after graduating from high school and I met Steve around the second week I was there. I went to a party where he was playing and we met there and just hit it off. Eventually I moved to California to play with Steve and do the flexible record and stuff. Then later Steve joined a band called Alcatraz in which he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen who had moved on to other ventures.
BISCUIT… Having contributed your fabulous individual bass technique on projects with Steve Vai, and of course later on Joe Satriani, your bass playing has now been heard world wide for many years with the recordings and tours that you did with those guys, and that has quite justifiably gained you award winning recognition for your bass playing prowess over those years, together with your very own solo pursuits as well of course. Hard work, but that must be very satisfying to be recognized for your own individual talent, and especially as a bass player in a world full of guitarist’s.
STU… Yeah, they were very exiting times, and to be involved with Steve and Joe who both made a big name for themselves, like nothing, to this huge over night thing was amazing. To think, I knew those guys when they were humble, poor, starving musicians eh, ha ha. That period also opened a lot of doors for me to be able to play with other great guitarists such as Eric Johnson, and recently I just finished an Italian tour with Frank Gambale which was great and a totally different style of music. I really have been lucky enough to play with lots of very good guitarist’s, that’s for sure.
BISCUIT… You have been voted many times as best Jazz bassist and also best rock bassist too, that is quite a span Stu and it must be a great feeling to be recognized for your playing abilities in such extreme genre’s of music.
STU… Well I try my best, but you know the funny thing is, that for all of that, I am still just a bass player and I gig for a living… It’s what I do. I love to do all those different things and despite the “Solo” thing, I still just love to get out there and gig when and wherever I can. I can get home from a Joe Satriani tour and the very next week I will be playing a Jazz gig for a hundred bucks and dinner, just because it’s a gig and I can get to play. Some gigs just pay more and are in front of more people, you know. My name is Stuart and I did kind of create this “Stu Hamm” persona and to be this “Solo” bass player guy, but that’s my career thing and I am still just a bass player, and a great deal of my time spent playing is also holding it down for the guys in the band. I can also read pretty well and play swing, rock, and country and funk and all that stuff quite convincingly, so luckily I am not one of those guys who just have to just riff all of the time. I just like to work as much as I can and do some different things along the way as well.
BISCUIT… Another venture of yours that stands out for me is BX3, when you teamed up with Billy Sheehan and Jeff Berlin of course. That must have been a great experience and even better to watch and listen to, from an audience perspective. What are your memories of that collaboration?
STU… Yeah, we had some successful tours in Europe and the States and stuff, but at the end of the day, it ended up being a very heavy workload. It was very rewarding though and the fact that I came up with this idea, and it worked out really well was great, but the shear work load just got too much in the end, but it was great fun though for sure.
BISCUIT… Your style of playing, with the polyphonic slapping and two handed tapping and popping techniques, together with all the other stuff has really put you at the fore front of the new generation of bass players and fans alike, and you are a real inspiration to so many around the world. What really made you want to explore those more complicated area’s of playing?
STU… What happened was this…coming from piano; I love to listen to instrumental soloists, i.e., that one person and their chosen instrument. And when I saw Jaco Pastorius on November 8th 1978 and I saw his bass soloing, it really kind of opened my eyes to how you could destroy the boundaries on the electric bass. So from that point I figured that I could use the bass also as a solo instrument in its own right. From that point, I took a bunch of piano music that I had and tried to translate it onto the bass, even running out of fingers sometimes. The techniques that I adapted kind of invented themselves and it just evolved as a way to get the notes to come out on the bass for me. As a “Solo” bass player, what I try and do is actually play songs… pieces of music that are supposed to be about something. I wanted to play songs on the bass and not just funk riffs over and over and over again. So by having different harmonics played in different ways, they became almost like different colors and ways to make the story more interesting….just add color.
BISCUIT… I wanted to mention your own solo albums of course Stu, so all the readers can run out and get their hands on your earlier material and get up to date with all of your stuff. The first was… “On the radio free Albemuth” (1988) “Kings of Sleep” (1989) “The Urge” (1991) and of course “Outbound”(2000) and you also released “Live Stu X 2 in (2007), combining classic tracks recorded by your good self with BX3 and previously unrecorded tracks as well that were captured in San Francisco before a live audience in 2004. You really do indeed cover all of the aforementioned genres of music on these records, and I am sure that the fans out there are looking forward to hearing some fresh tunes from “Stu Hamm” soon. So I wondered what your plans are to release new material in the near future my friend?
STU…I think the next project (if played fairly well) will be to get down onto DVD a version of my live concert at Toronto in Canada, because I have never really released a video of all my live solo pieces. So that would be great thing to complete. I am also working on new stuff at home in the studio right now too, which is a bunch of bass choir kind of things. The record started out being a lot more rock than it has ended up being, but there is some really nice stuff going on, so I am working on that at the moment. Hopefully I will be working with Frank Gambale again pretty soon and I have also been getting a lot of work through the internet with people contacting me and asking if I can play on their records and stuff like that. I actually created a website called, tracksbystu.com and so the works been steady via that route also. This is all great because I get to play so many kinds of music and meets lot’s of different people too. I am also doing a new series of videos for “TrueFire”. The first one was “Bass basics” which is a two CD rom which takes things from the very beginning. And I am in the process of editing the second in the series at the moment called “Fretboard Fitness”, which is a really different way of getting to know the neck of the bass. There will also be a third and a fourth as well showing various different techniques, and that’s an ongoing series with “TrueFire”. And the “Hot licks” stuff has to be re-released on DVD too.
BISCUIT… Fantastic stuff Stu. Now, just to round up and let you get back to the workload my friend, I would just like to ask you if there are any bass players out there at the moment that have caught your attention, and any stars for the future?
STU… People are always going to keep on coming up with more and more different styles and techniques but Hadrien Feraud plays really nice and there is of course Victor Wooten and Tal Wilkenfeld as well. And someone is just going to come out with something really new and amazing one day, and I can’t wait to hear that too.
BISCUIT… Just a couple more questions I would like to ask you. If you were not a musician, where do you think your career path would have taken you, and what would have been your chosen route other than bass and music?
STU…I certainly would have always loved to have been a professional baseball player, but I threw my arm out in my senior year at high school, and also I was never really good enough. Failing that, I would have liked to have been a writer, as I read a lot and enjoy writing very much, so maybe something in literature.
BISCUIT… Any preference on your reading material?
STU… Ah, I read so much stuff, and a lot of my earlier work was based on a guy called Phil k Dick and William Gibson , both science fiction writers, and I also got hooked on this guy named Gene Wolfe, which is pretty dense and complicated stuff. Really, it’ll just destroy your life if you get into it, ha ha. I also picked up a new Danny Wallace book just because I am here in England and it seemed like a U.K. kind of book. And I love Bill Bryson’s “Made in America” too… I just like to keep my brain active, you know.
BISCUIT… O.K. Stu, Just one last question for you, and it’s one I like to ask everybody that I talk to here on behalf of Bass Musician Magazine and it’s readers my friend, and it is simply this… If you had to spend two weeks on a dessert island, what would you take with you and why?
STU… I would take my father and my daughter certainly, and I would also take some garlic and olive oil and also some peppers for what ever you’re going to cook. Those things make pretty much anything taste good. I would also take the whole new Sun series set of books by Gene Wolfe, that’s like twelve books. I could re-read those books for the next 400 years and still find new stuff in them. But at the very top of my list would be my Dad and my daughter for sure. So there you have it my friend.
BISCUIT… Fabulous Stu. It’s been wonderful talking with you my friend, you are a true gentleman and I thank you very much on behalf of all the readers at Bass Musician Magazine…. You are a Star Indeed.
STU… Well, Cheers buddy, thank you so much, it’s been fantastic my friend…. All the best Biscuit – Cheers again!
Visit online at stuarthamm.net