Stuart Clayton Interview by Rhayn Jooste… Stuart Clayton is one of the UK’s most respected and industrious bass players. An endorsee of Zon basses he has worked on everything from cruise liners, Cirkus Arena to the Carl Palmer band, has written for Bass Magazine and has is own publishing company, Bassline Publishing, which produces transcriptions (especially Mark King), technique books and now Ipad apps. He has just finished working on Rockschool’s new exam syllabus and is currently teaching at BIMM (Brighton Institute of Modern Music) in Bristol.
We sat down for a digital chat over Skype to ruminate on his career so far, why he is able to pop, slap and tap his way out of hell if he wishes, what he is doing to educate and promote the cause of the bass and what it really takes to make it as a pro bass player.
What are your earliest musical recollections or reflections?
I always liked music, I guess. My parents did not play instruments. Music was always on in the house. We would travel 200 miles 3 times a year to see my Dad’s parents, so we would have these long car journeys with music on all the time. A lot of the music we listened to back then I still really like. So that was where I first heard Mark King of Level 42. I did play keyboards as a kid. I didn’t get very far with it.
Was your early musical education really your first band, were you were all self taught?
Yeah, my three best friends, still my three best friends really. One of them sort of announced one day that he wanted to get a guitar, and I thought while I’m thinking about it I would like to get a bass and the other guy was going to get some drums. We all bought them together from the same company.
I presume you helped each other out?
Yeah absolutely. Although I kind of got into it, I was really enthusiastic, it really bit me and really interested in it from the start. I was pretty much obsessed with it. My friends did not really pursue it with the same enthusiasm. After a year of playing I sort of got together the slap technique, a few of Mark King’s basic songs and I was starting to listen to Billy Sheenan and Stu Hamm and checking out that stuff as well.
How did Mark King become such an influence on you?
Well really it was just seeing that video (Stuart walked into the lounge one day whilst his Dad was watching a Level 42 video) and thinking it was cool that slap bass style. I really liked the sound he made on the bass. All these years later, I think, what I actually like is percussive 16th note bass slap technique. I still really like that sort of thing. It was so different to what my friends were listening to. The bass was so upfront, so important to the music, It wasn’t just in the background chugging away on root notes. I really like that. Even though I have no aspirations to being a front man, when I am playing in with the band I kind of like the bass to have a fairly important role rather than just being boring.
I get the impression you were self taught in the beginning until you got to college and got the other side of music, music theory and being able to read and take it off a page, as opposed to using your ear. Do you feel it’s important to become a well rounded bass player? Especially as a teacher now.
Yeah, I think its essential. If you want to have a life long career in music there is not really any other way around it. You need to learn how to do it. You see a lot of people looking up to various bass players who have got where they are with out reading music. A lot of students look up to, and like, Flea. Flea is one in a million that managed to get there just by being unique, being him. The rest of us, if we want careers in this, you need to be able to do everything, you need to be able to offer a potential employer everything you possibly can. That’s why when I am teaching, I put a huge importance on learning to read music as well as possible, learning scales and arpeggios and learning walking bass and things like that.
You have quite a wide genre that you are able to play in. You are not only able to play the slap stuff but jazz as well. Do you feel its important to be able to do a whole range of things?
Yeah, but that is no different to any pro bass player. I know tons of pro bass players, they all do the same. Every one can slap well, play finger style well, you know, use a pick, play in all genres. Read music. Travel. Have a car. Be punctual. It’s the things you have to do.
Your career has been varied, it struck me as unusual that you had taken time out as a graphic designer. Do you feel that helped you?
That came about because I was in my early twenties at the time and I was doing this work on the cruise ships and it was very jazz orientated. And I didn’t like playing Jazz, really. I found after doing 6 months to year on the cruise ships I had really had enough. I was just wondering if it was the right thing for me. So I did something else for awhile. What the graphic design thing did for me was enable me to pursue publishing in such a way I can do everything my self. So [now] I can write a book, I’ve got the musical skills to transcribe lines and write them down. I’ve got the software to do it. I was an early enthusiast of Sibelius. With the graphic design stuff I have got the ability to create a book layout and front cover artwork and actually get a book ready for a printer. Which I think is the thing that most people forget when they say I will publish a book and sit and write a book in Microsoft Word and then think: “Right, now..?” Of course there is a whole chunk there. You need a graphic designer to get it ready in Indesign and what ever; and that’s why I do books now.
Was it difficult to set up your own publishing company? You are unusual in that respect. Generally as a musician you’re really good on the music side and not so good on the business side or really good at the business side and not so great musically. You seem to have got the two together.
Well it’s something I learnt over time. Initially it was difficult. I was able to create nice looking book, but getting them on sale, getting bar codes on and the ISBN numbers, that’s a learning curve for sure, but once you have learnt how to do it you know how to do it. I did reach a point where I was thinking I always used to design my own websites. Then a few years back I realised if I was going to get into proper e-commerce and start doing the book thing really properly I would need to get someone else to do a site that could handle credit card transactions and all that sort of stuff. At that point I employed a web design team to actually put together a professional site.
Obviously your published work is transcriptions. Are there any other books in the pipeline currently?
Yeah definitely. I am currently working on A Bass Players Guide to Sight Reading (Bassline publishing out soon). I wrote this book a few years ago calledThe Bass Players Guide to Scales and Modes (see next months review of the brand new Ipad version of this book which Stuart has developed himself) and I really just wrote it for use when I am teaching at BIMM and places like that. Its great! I thought you could break it down into hand outs and the rest of it. I put it on sale and could not believe the response. I went to the first Bass Guitar show back in 2011. I only had 2 copies with me, because that’s all the printer was able to send and they were both gone within the first 5 minutes. Then all day everyone was just asking for that book. They sold really well, and still do. They are going to be part of series, The Bass Essential Series. Covering all the sort of things I think are essential. The things I mentioned earlier about being a professional. The first one seemed logical, good knowledge of scales and modes and then the second one is the sight reading book. I really wanted it to come out last year but between BIMM and Rockschool and everything else it’s really hard to find time to write but it’s coming along really well.
Following on from that I presume you juggle a lot; where you do one thing and then put that down to do something else, part and parcel of being a professional I guess. Do you find it difficult?
It [is], because at the moment I am really into a writing mode. I’m starting to get my teeth into this sight reading book but in the next two days I have to go to Bristol and do exams at BIMM. I have some Rockschool work to be doing as well. So it’s looking like next week before I can come back to the book. And of course you have to find time to practise, I still like to play almost every day. Fitting it all in is difficult, like you say it’s frustrating jumping from one thing to another.
You helped out on the Rockschool syllabus. What did you do and how did the syllabus significantly change from the 2006 one?
First of all I didn’t have much involvement with the previous syllabus. I never really taught it. I had a copy of version 3 because I reviewed it for Bass magazine a few years back. No one really asked me to teach any thing from it. So I did not really know it. James Uings (who worked at BIMM), when he left he went to Rockschool. He called me up last year and asked me to write a grade 7 Mark King style piece, he said “You seem like the guy to ask for something like that”. Then after that he asked me to write some copy for the books, which quickly spiralled into writing all the copy for the books, which I was very glad to do. It was a nice job over the summer last year. Really enjoyed doing it. At some point, I don’t really know how it happened, I became the bass specialist.
You also did quite a lot of playing on the audio for the new syllabus, is that right?
Yeah I did the the bass on Thumb King and one other piece on the main tracks. I also did all of the supporting tests, the ear test, QSP and sight reading.
You obviously teach at BIMM and have a lot of videos out on Youtube. Do you enjoy teaching and sharing knowledge?
Yeah absolutely, it’s brilliant. As you teach something you learn a little more about it yourself. You’re always trying to think of ways to explain something in a better way because there will be that student that doesn’t get it the way you talk about it. You end up thinking about it. That’s really how my Scales and Modes book came about. I realised I was think about things in a different way and I wanted to write that down. It seemed that way really worked with my students. I really enjoy teaching. It is one of the most rewarding things when you get a really good group of students. It’s really fantastic.
You actually have a Post Graduate Cert. in Teaching; do you think it’s important being qualified as a teacher?
Yeah I think it is. It’s one of those things where, I did not have one prior to BIMM, as they tend to employ people based on their CV. It’s such an industry thing, they want people with industry experience. So they offered me the opportunity to do the P.G. Cert whilst I was there. So I did it over two years in the evening, and while it was a massive pain in the arse, it’s pretty boring learning about the theory of teaching. I would rather just be teaching. It’s great to have it.
What are you currently working on from a live music point of view?
At the moment I’m trying to get back to practising. I bought a bass at the Bass Show back in March. It’s a Bogart Bass, a German thing, and it’s the best 5 string bass I have ever played. So it’s made me do a lot of playing. I am also working on 5 or 6 solo pieces that were in a book I did a few years ago to performable video-able standard, so I can get some more videos on Youtube. So have been working on those recently.
What motivated you to endorse Zon Basses?
Well, I have been using GB bass for the last seven years and I love them but I was kind of getting a bit tired of the sort of zingy sound. They are good for that high end slap tone and they sound fantastic for that but I was starting to find in band work I really just wanted a Fender Jazz tone. That sort of single coil sound. Joe Zon approached me at one of the shows and said he would like to work with me on an instrument. We sat down and talked about it and it turned out what I really wanted was the bass I had been messing about with, which was this Zon Sonus. So I ended up buying that.
As someone who has put the work in and is a role model for young bass players, what do you feel is important to have as a modern bass player, who is aspiring to reach your level, in your bag of tricks?
Well I don’t know if it’s the best thing to say but…there are a lot of guys out there that are great bass players but they don’t really do anything particularly showy. I think one of the things that has really helped me along the way is I can play jazz bass, I can read and all the rest of it, but I am also a pretty decent slap player and I am quite good at the tapping stuff. I have a few of those sorts of things that I quite like to do and to be honest it’s that sort of playing that got me gigs. The Carl Palmer gig that I did for 4 years. That’s really a job that you are only going to get if you’re good at slapping and tapping. Whilst I don’t want to say that’s the most important thing, I think having a few little fancy tricks up your sleeve sometimes does help.
Stuart can be heard on the Thumb King piece at the bottom of the Rockschool syllabus review in this month’s magazine, as well as this video of a solo arrangement of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters below.