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Seth Horan: Singer, Songwriter & Solo Bassist by John Kuhlman

The problem with plugging in to someone else’s system is that most house engineers have no idea what I’m looking for sound-wise. One way I dealt with that was by bringing my EQ pedal along to get everything tweaked and to work around the sound guy. So when I got into the trade end of things, working for a company like Warwick, I had to get educated on how to use amp really fast. And now that I’m used to working with amps I’m sort of spoiled, because it never sounds better than when you have that sort of control. It’s nice to have; like owning a sports car, but I can still walk when I need to.

As of January this year, I am now using and endorsing Phil Jones Bass Amplification. Phil is a great guy who makes a fantastic amp.

As far as other gear goes, I just upgraded my loop pedal to the Boss RC-50. That’s a relatively recent development. With the making of “Clang & Chime” I wanted to have more flexibility with what I could arrange. Until the new album, I’d been using the RC-20 which has only one set of loops. As long as I don’t over use looping, I find it’s a great way to keep interest in a solo bass show. It lets you kind of bring the energy up and down… as well as be your drummer. It’s also great to come up with a cool arrangement while recording and not have to say, “Well, I guess people will never hear that live.”

BMM: Listening to your CD and then seeing you perform that music live, I was struck by how close the two sound. Where I figured you had laid down the bass track and then come back to sing over it, in the live show you did both…something I thought was near impossible to do: Singing a counter melody to what you’re playing on the bass. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time.

Horan: (Laughing) I get that a lot. The reason it’s easier to play the guitar and sing at the same time is because most people in the singer role are playing rhythm guitar. But it is just as uncommon for a lead guitar player to sing as it is for a bass player. When you’re keeping a constant rhythm going you can go on autopilot…after all, most of us can talk and clap at the same time. It’s when you have to exercise control over what you’re doing, like when you’re singing a counter melody…that’s where the trouble comes in. Any time you do two things at once, you have to devote more attention to the one thing you don’t do as well.

For example, when you’re first starting to ride a bike, it’s all you can do to just keep upright. It takes all of your concentration to keep the rubber on the road. It’s a complicated process. It’s a craft. You can spend tons of time learning to do that one thing. But eventually, you get to the point where you no longer need to devote all of your attention to doing that act and now you can think about something else. After a while, you can ride your bike and talk. You can ride your bike and enjoy the scenery around you.

Pretty much the same thing goes when you’re playing a musical instrument. But what makes it more challenging is that beyond the mere technical aspect of playing the instrument, you now have to deal with rhythm and pitch.

With a bicycle, no one cares if you’re out of time. If you pedal slower, then speed up, no one is going to stop the rehearsal. But if you slow down on the bass while you’re trying to concentrate on your vocals, it’s a train wreck. You are under a microscope and the consequences of your inattention are so much bigger. To get a handle on it really just boils down to repetition and muscle memory.

BMM: How would you suggest aspiring solo bassists start trying to incorporate vocals into their repertoire?

Horan: It’s simple: You have to learn to play bass first.

BMM: That’s it?

Horan: Pretty much. Look… (pause) people, especially students, are always disappointed when I answer this question. They expect me to give them a secret formula that will make them accomplish this in 90 days or less. There is no secret. The secret is to learn to play.

A monkey can be trained to play solo bass. Why? Because you can train a monkey to do something by muscle memory. You can take a monkey and train him to play a riff from one of my songs and dance around and people would be amazed. That doesn’t mean the monkey knows what it’s doing. If you told the monkey to modulate or to go to the IV chord and do something cool there, it’s just not going to happen.

I see a lot of beginners trying to do the solo bass thing that same way. I get a lot of them telling me they want to do what I do. I tell them a large part of it is songwriting. Then they tell me they don’t want to be a songwriter; they want to do what I do. They don’t get it: if you don’t know anything about chord progressions and harmony, how are you going to “do what I do?”

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