SA Bassists With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Garth de Meillon
For this month’s interview, we travel further North to the Capital City of South Africa – Pretoria – and speak to another bass instructor. Garth de Meillon runs a very successful music school. This is what he told me in earlier this year.
How did it all Begin for you Garth?
I took some piano lessons in primary school but quit when I got to high school. In 1998, after I had completed high school, I began carrying equipment and helping out with sound checks for a local band called “Flying Circus”. I really enjoyed the experience because I thought starting a band was too difficult and that learning an instrument would take too long. One day at a sound-check I was captivated by a song that the vocalist had written by himself for the band. Until then I had only seen bands write and practice music together…so, the seed was planted then. I soon started getting the itch and got some guitar lesson from a great teacher (Antonio Oricco) and started putting together my first rock band (Deep Water). Seeing a band go from peaceful and lazy at a sound-check or rehearsal to rocking out with energy and emotion, totally free and expressive at a gig, had a huge impact on me. I didn’t know to what extent music could do that to a musician, band or audience.
Why Bass Guitar?
Within a few months I chose to switch over to the Bass Guitar due to the fact that I auditioned around 40 bassists without results for the position. The band had three guitarists and it actually made sense that one of us should make the move. I guess the instrument chose me! My drummer’s dad had an old beat up 70’s Ibanez funk bass, which I had fixed up and soon started working my chops out on. I was into the Red Hot Chili Peppers and just started imitating Flea’s style over our Led-Zeppelinesque rock vibes.
What other Instruments do you play?
I am totally comfortable on both Bass & Guitar. My main bass is a Yamaha TRB 6 string , but I also love my fret-less Ibanez BTB 6 string (converted from fretted bass). My guitars are a Takamine G-series acoustic and an Epiphone Les Paul electric. I use a Hartke 5150 head and 4×10 explorer cab for bass gigs, while the acoustic guitar normally goes through a DI box to the Engineer. My Marshall Amp has been in the repair shop for about a year now, so I have given up ever using it again! HAHA! I also have a bunch of practice and teaching amps for daily use. I have 2 upright acoustic pianos at the studio (I started playing performance exams on piano last year, just to get my hand’s to work together. I enjoy African drumming and have a very playable djembe made in West Africa (Ivory Coast I think). I also recently purchased a Con-Selmer Tenor Sax and have started blowing a little bit.
What is your Teaching Philosophy?
As a professional Teacher it’s important to keep on learning and challenging yourself, so it’s very crucial to keep up your studies and examinations. I’ve also tried to formalize my teaching experience, methodology and syllabi. It’s an on-going process that never seems to be as complete as you wish it to be, but as long as you keep balancing your craft with new experiences and knowledge, you will continue to grow and have new things to say and feel.
The concept of an “Interactive and Continuous Counting Method” is fundamental to my teaching style, especially with the bass students, as they will form the heart of the rhythm section along with the drummer. Once you can count consistently and understand different subdivisions, you can begin to feel a groove within different contexts and genre. This leads to freedom within any time signature and feel and results in “unique and musical phrasing”.
Other concepts that are important to learn and teach are as follows:
1) As much Theory as you can stomach! Learn to read, write and understand your language!
2) Reading while you practice….this is an important skill for working musicians and will help you to get through vast amounts of work sooner and more efficiently
3) Interaction with other musicians to express and try out all you are learning i.e. rehearsals and live performances equal live experience and will help you to find your “Voice and Tone”
What are your Strengths?
-Rhythmic understanding and independence.
-Working towards technical mastery of my instrument.
-Creativity, phrasing and composition on various instruments.
-Song writing experience in many contexts, genres and bands.
-Chord knowledge and application.
What are your Weakness’?
-The strict Jazz Walking Bass approach – it requires a lot of patience and maturity.
-Exotic scales and modes as used in Improvisation is always something that keeps growing.
What has been the most challenging music for you to practice?
-Learning to count and breath while playing.
-Learning to look up and interact with band and crowd while playing.
-Learning to play less in melodies and solo’s.
-Learning to compromise, be more sensitive and also not to take music and/or musicians too seriously
-Learning to use textures, dynamics and emotional content as serious tools.
-Learning to solo and be free in odd time signatures (5/4 was my first great challenge)
Three songs/artists that have really put the burn on me:
–Jaco Pastorius’ – Donna Lee:
It’s 7 pages of finger tip destroying phrasings. You really have to earn the muscle memory bar for bar and there are new left and right hand techniques to fine-tune the whole time. I have spent over 5 years on this tune and still relearn sections over and over again. I even used to practice it on the fret-less in the dark to fine tune my intonation and muscle memory. There’s a triplet run about halfway through Donna Lee that’s just ridiculous!
–Victor Wooten’s – You can’t hold no Groove:
What a great Slap and pop technical workout…and so much fun to play!
–John Coltrane’s – Giant Steps:
The chord progression and Harmony concepts are just so intricate and demanding…something to keep on learning from…not to even mention trying to play coltrane’s solo’s
Tell us about your Practice Ethic?
I believe that every musician needs to go through a phase of dedicated learning and practice, so that you jump-start your confidence, broader knowledge and experience on your instrument. You should always have your metronome on and count out loud along with it. Cycle the piece of music you are trying to master and then attempt to reinterpret it in different Time Signatures…this is my favourite way to learn a challenging piece.
Playing along with your favourite songs off an I-pod is a great way to “Have a Jam” in your practice routine.
Rather try to practice 30 minutes every day religiously than once a week for 6 hours. A short but consistent practice routine is worth more than an irregular long practice. Whatever amount of transcribing you can do is some of the best exercise you can get as a musician, it will teach you more about phrasing in 10 minutes, than an hour lesson can ever give you. Take the time to score out in music notation and rhythm, any idea that you may have. These days I’m too busy to practice every day, but I do practice every chance I get.
Remember, Band Practice doesn’t count as individual practice time, but is necessary for your development as an interactive and responsive musician!
Why a Professional Teaching career versus Professional Performing career?
I played in numerous professional and successful bands, but there was always the problem of different visions and multiple perceptions for those projects. I feel that the industry is of such a limited nature in South Africa, that you need to play commercial music to be able to survive as a professional performing musician. The lifestyle can also be very destructive on your personal life and passion for music. With all these issues in mind, I made the decision to rather teach professionally and then only invest my energy and experience in my own musical vision. In this way, I have been able to be self supporting as a musician and have been able to focus on the music that I really want to play..I don’t have to compromise on the type of music I want to write and play, just to make ends meet.
What are your favorite Time Signatures?
5/4, 9/8 and 6/8.
What are you Currently Listening to?
Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Duke Ellington: Money Jungle,
Jack Johnson: To The Sea,
John Butler Trio: April Uprising,
Medeski, Martin and Wood: Combustication.
How was your 1st ever Gig?
In front of a 350 capacity crowd with my first rock band “Deep Water”. Nerve Racking Stuff! It was such a huge experience; from dragging all the equipment there, to setting up, to sound-checking and finally playing our first 45 minute set.
What was your Easiest Gig?
Calling Kingston @ J.S. Moroka District Music Festival. The festival was running so late that all the bands could only play 3 songs each, but the 15 000 strong crowd was so stoked! That 15 minute set will live on in my mind forever…plus we still got paid the full festival fee! I remember the show was on a soccer field and the 4 big spray-lights attracted a huge swarm of locusts from the wilderness areas in the vicinity…the stage, musicians and crowd was just absolutely crawling with locusts!
What was your Hardest Gig?
The first gig I did with Scicoustic. I had to learn an enormous set of tunes because the live performances were always so epic. After the sound-check I still went home to hit the woodshed and practice my parts a last few times, to make sure that I was capable of pulling them off that night. I was still reading charts on the night and there was almost no light to see with, the stage was super cramped and the crowd was just going wild. When we hit the stage the opening band’s bassist had blown my amp’s speaker cone for me. But the sound engineer just stuck me through the P.A. and we were off. It turned out to be a great gig from then onwards and nothing else went wrong!
What was the Last Gig you played?
April of 2010…we did the Dave Matthews Tribute show @ Tings an Times in Hatfield Pretoria! This was a once off show and the crowd loved it, as did the band! The musicians were all awesome, well rehearsed and on the top of their game. The sound and lighting was done by some of the best crew available. This was my Debut Live Performance as a Guitarist!
What are your newest challenges?
1) Mastering new programs for audio and video editing (Logic Pro and Final Cut).
2) Nurturing my Fusion-Jazz Project, Rendezvous. This includes everything from:
Writing and composing the songs sections and structure,
Creating the song’s identity for musicians and audience.
Working out drum backing with a Boss DR-880,
Composing basic melodies so that a session sax player has simple ideas and harmonies to be able to work from, quick and easy,
Basic Recording, production, editing, and cover design and layout for demos,
Gig booking and planning, all logistics for rehearsals (sheet-music and song charts for muso’s, as well as set-lists,
promotion, travel logistics, financing, sound and lighting and possibly A/V recording.
3) Finishing off the last Grade 8 Classical Theory Level.
4) Piano and Sax graded Levels and exams.
5) Completing and Polishing my 4 levels of bass and 2 levels of guitar Syllabi.
What are the most important things you’ve learnt from your drummers?
I have learnt more as a bassist from working with drummers over the last few years than I did from all the other types of musicians put together. Gideon Meintjies has been my greatest resource as a growing musician. He is such a mature and musical drummer, that he just has a lasting impact and effect on all those that he works with and for.
the main aspects that he has left me wiser about are the following:
-Use of dynamics as a “super power” in composition and performance.
-The Flexibility and fragility of the Groove. As a rhythm section we can push or pull a groove ever so slightly without altering the actual time of the band. this is subtle, yet powerful.
-Grooving and then Soloing in a 5/4 meter.
-The impact and effect of Intro’s and Outro’s on the audience.
What is the future of music and what has changed for the better in the last ten years?
-Loads of teachers and institutions and younger students and bands:
Music tuition and performance is growing at a staggering rate and the average age for students to be exposed to music (learning or playing) is much younger than it was 10 years ago.
-Instructional DVD’s and Internet resources:
The Internet has revolutionized the abundance of information and exposure. Information, tabs, courses and tutorial DVD’s are readily available to the musician who wishes to improve his level and standard. There is definitely an awareness of a higher standard set by musicians and audiences for performance and the product that musicians have to offer.
-Music Videos vs Albums:
Band’s have realized that music videos are having much more of a visual impact than just audio used to have.
-Exposure: There are more methods and forums available for exposure of new bands (e.g.Youtube and the internet)
-There are more collaborations in music across genres and age groups.
-The birth of the “Home Studio”: It’s way easier for most musicians to be able to at least use and grow comfortable with recording programs and equipment, than it was a couple of years ago. The technology is so much more accessible and intuitive.
-Interaction and acceptance at schools of music as a viable educational direction.
-The explosion of professional soundproof and well-equipped practice spaces.
What hasn’t changes in the last ten years?
-Musicians still set and demand poor standards of musicianship and professionalism from themselves and their management,
-Lack of ambition amongst professional musicians and no idea of longevity,
-No work ethic and/or vision among young musicians,
-Greedy club owners and festival administrators and/or promoters,
-Bad sound and bad sound engineers.
What has been your biggest personal discoveries/growth?
1) Working with a “Counting System” I count all subdivisions all the time while playing, in time and following a metronome, so that if you make a mistake you can recover or improvise and link up with the groove in a musical way that other musicians will recognize and respond to.
2) Setting goals and continually challenging yourself and your creativity.
3) Exams, recitals and live performance are high intensity and taxing practice. A 45-minute gig is the equivalent of 3 hours band practice. An hour of band practice is the equivalent of 4-6 hours of individual practice.
4) Having a routine practice regiment ensures steady and cumulative growth: Cycling an idea, following a metronome and counting the subdivisions (so you can feel the pulse versus every possible placement of that note) are hard but fantastic ways to practice.
5) Technique must find expression in emotion.
6) Creativity must become part of your writing process.
7) Playing through mistakes during live performance and searching for perfection during recordings, helps with confidence and fluidity of musicianship.
8) Developing a sense of phrasing: Listening to people soloing while being able to count the subdivisions along with the music, allows you to see when people start their lines, end their line, when they use rests, different lengths of notes and rests (silence) and when they use durations (lengths of notes ringing) in their phrases.
9) Dynamics in music.
10) Sing your phrasing, even if you can’t pitch.
11) Understanding harmony better to write deeper and richer textures into your music.
12) Singing backing vocals.
Give us a few of your Guilty Pleasures for the future?
If I am blessed with the time and energy, I would love to re-assemble Rendezvous for a few rehearsals, record a few new tracks and then to play the songs live again. I have my aim set on completing between 17-20 tracks, before I release a debut album.
I am aiming at putting together a Jamiroquai Tribute show called “5 Mile Smile”, as well as putting together a
Ben Harper Tribute show during 2011-2012
I would also love to sit some French language exams…it’s such an intricate and expressive language. Furthermore, I would be stoked about engaging in tracking and game ranging courses, to really get out deep into the “Real Africa”.
I would Love to tour France and Hawaii, even just as a bona fide Tourist!