One of the things I most enjoy as a writer for Bass Musician Magazine is the opportunity to ask in-depth questions from some of the best working bassists today. As the reader, you get to come along for the ride. I am always fascinated by bass players who are doing great work. I believe that they deserve to be widely known for the work they do.
Among the bassists that I admire and respect is my good friend Jon von Boehm. Jon is a very progressive bassist with a deep reservoir of knowledge and experience. I think that after you’ve read this interview, you’ll agree that Jon von Boehm is a bass player whose career deserves to be followed.
Bass Musician Magazine (BMM): Thanks Jon for taking the time to sit and talk with us about your music career and background. I’m especially excited to be interviewing you because I have known you and admired your musicianship for some time. You are one of the more visible bassists in the Nashville scene – and that’s saying a lot, considering how well that scene is stacked with talented and experienced bass players.
I know that you are from the Erie, Pennsylvania area. Is that where you got introduced to music? Can you tell us about your early formative years and how you were introduced to music?
Jon von Boehm (JvB): Yeah, Pennsylvania is where it all started for me. My grandfather was a guitar player and a banjo player. I remember sitting downstairs in the basement where he would practice when I was a kid and I would listen to him play. That had a pretty big influence on me.
Then, when I was about 10 or 11 years old my dad just walked into my room and said “hey, you want to go look at the bass guitars at the local music store?” By that time I was already pretty obsessed with music. I remember listening to it for hours and hours with the big headphones on…you know the kind with the spirally cables back in the day. But I never once said I wanted to be a bass player or anything but for some reason he just wanted me to have a bass. That was my first instrument and I stuck with it ever sense.
BMM: Although it may not have been clear to you early on that music would be a major part of your life, who would you say were your influences at that time?
JvB: I really started noticing other players and getting influenced by them when I was around 15 or 16. I was big into Punk rock and metal. I actually still love that stuff even though I’ve studied jazz for years.
My earliest influences were guys like Cliff Burton, Jason Newstead and David Ellefson. As time went on, my ability got better than what that style of music called for. Then I started getting heavy into guys like Billy Sheehan, Jonas Hellborg, Stu Hamm, etc.
But to be honest with you music always held this sense of wonder for me as a whole. I think that’s why I started really listening to a lot of other instrumentalists and not just bass players as time went on.
BMM: Oh yeah! I remember those big headphones with the spiral cable from back in the day! They were a luxury back then! You seem to have figured out the importance of listening at a much younger age than most players. It seems like you managed to gravitate to listening to some quality players early on. It is no wonder you’ve developed to become a great player yourself.
You mentioned that you studied jazz for many years. How did you get introduced to jazz, and how did you get started with your jazz studies? Was it through private instruction or did you go to a formal music school?
JvB: I was always looking for something more for my playing. I don’t remember where I saw it but I saw this concert on TV, it was John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg playing together. Jonas had this shaved head with Converse sneakers on and a leather jacket. He was playing all this amazing stuff, and I was just like “oh my gosh, you can be cool and play jazz!” Haha! That’s what made me realize that yeah I need to dive into this stuff and really see what they’re doing.
I got this book called the jazz solos of Chick Corea by Peter Sprauge, and I learned a lot of those solos. I remember the first one I learned was the intro solo that chick played to “Got a Match”. I really didn’t know that bass players were not supposed to do that but I did it anyway. I learned it verbatim. That’s also when I started to really see the value of being able to read music and actually know about harmony and so on.
I studied on my own for the longest time as much as I could. Then I met a gentleman named Charles Kennedy who became a mentor of mine. I guess he saw something in my playing when I was playing at church one time, and took me under his wing. It was right after I graduated high school, and he had me start playing jazz standards with him in his Trio. That was a huge learning experience and great for me.
He also would put me in uncomfortable situations where I had to grow right then and there….like walking offstage with the rest of the band and telling the audience that Jon is going to play a solo for you now. That was sheer terror but so good for me! I appreciate him for that.
Erie PA is not exactly the best place to try to cultivate a music career. Fed up, I moved to Florida to study at the Player School of Music. I had already been playing for about 20 years maybe a little bit longer. I had no formal training by that time. It was pretty cool because it helped me understand on a deeper level everything that I was already doing, plus it was fun to have Jeff Berlin kick my butt every day.
BMM: You launched into Chick Corea solo early on? That’s pretty incredible! Clearly you had to have developed your note reading pretty well by the time you took on the Chick Corea material. Notation reading is a commonly discussed challenge among bassists. How did you develop your music reading?
JvB: Reading music is just one of those things that you have to do over and over again and it gets easier and easier. There are no shortcuts. I think it’s hard for a lot of bass players because they just don’t do it. I hear a lot of guys ask as if there’s some kind of trick to it but there isn’t. You just have to do it.
In most bands generally the bass player is only playing root notes. So you really have to kind of go out of your way to have your reading chops to a certain level let alone playing chops. I was really hungry for knowledge early on and I think that’s what helped me get my reading together. I just read through things every day in hopes to glean something from it. It’s funny because I read treble clef much better than bass clef. I write everything in treble clef and then just transpose it to bass clef later haha. I know some monster site readers though and I admire them.
BMM: Yes! Good note readers are universally admired. You also make a great point. With consistent daily practice, music reading can be mastered. It is especially encouraging to hear from a player like you who managed to do it on his own.
So, you eventually attended the Player’s School. What was the transition like for you, as a player with no formal training when you got to the Player’s School? How long did you study with Jeff Berlin and the Players’ School?
JvB: Going to music school was one of the best things I ever did but it was also one of the hardest things I ever had to do musically. I had been playing for so long and so much that when I went to school I had to strip a lot of stuff away and it was incredibly painful. Not to mention that by that time Jeff Berlin was already one of my biggest influences so there was that added pressure. All I ever wanted to do was impressed him.
The harmony classes, the ear training classes and ensemble classes were all very valuable but I think the thing that I took away that still impacts me today was how to practice correctly. Back then, like today, I practiced about four hours a day. Watching Jeff practice every day had a pretty big influence on me.
I went there for about a year but I played every day from nine in the morning till nine at night. That was 10 years ago and I still feel the effect of what I learned. I would recommend to any musician to go there. It’s a wonderful place to learn. And the faculty is incredible.
BMM: A great point you touched on is learning and knowing how to practice. So many players, and this includes veteran professionals, have never figured out how to practice efficiently and effectively. What is your approach to practicing, aside from maintaining a consistent daily practice schedule?
JvB: You’re right, a lot of us haven’t learned how to practice. Everyone seems to have different views on this. My approach is to try to practice as specifically as I can, and leave art out of it. I always have a piece of music in front of me that has chord changes on it. I have exercises that I work on for the first hour to keep me viewing my instrument as a whole and not just seeing it in sections and fall into finger patterns and positions, not that there’s anything wrong with that. That’s just the way our instrument is set up.
I’ll do things like play everything on one string doing scales, arpeggios, and tensions based on the music that I have in front of me, all starting in different scale degrees and inversions. And again when I do that I try to be very specific. If I make a mistake I fix it. If I’m trying to be an artist I can’t fix it. It’s not that I’m going to play that way on a gig I just try to do things that help me see my instrument in a more complete way.
Then after that I will spend another hour or two learning something like a horn solo. Sometimes I may transcribe it or if I already have some sheet music for the solo I will just read through it. Not necessarily to play it exactly how they did it and make another nice YouTube video, but more or less to read through it and see what avenues and approaches that particular player took. Then I’ll try do it in all 12 keys. Or I’ll play a particular lick I stole from them and do that in all 12 keys.
I also try to sing everything I play – not as a trick or gimmick; I really dislike that unless George Benson is doing it. But it really does help you with your phrasing big time. You don’t even necessarily have to sing in tune, but it will help with that as well. It starts to become more automatic between what you hear and what you play. It makes your phrasing more human. You’ll start to be able to play melodies by hearing them as well. Bottom line, If you hear it you should be able to play it. What gets in our way is our instrument.
BMM: Your response is a master class all on its’ own! This is one of the most informative responses I’ve heard to this question in all my years as a musician! There are so many great tips on how each of us can further develop our understanding of our instrument! Thank you for giving us a very detailed look into how you practice. Your response is worth keeping for periodic reference.
You have a fantastic new self-titled CD that you released recently. Do you mind if we talk about that? Your record got a glowing review in this very publication. How did you come up with the concept of the CD? Had you been working on this for some time? Can you give us some background on how you put the mix of original and cover songs together? Who were your sidemen on this record?
JvB: Yeah, I’ve been pretty stoked on the response that it’s been getting. After trying to be Mr. Sideman and session musician for about 10 years I decided it would probably be a lot more satisfying to do the artist thing. It seemed to make a lot more sense to me. I’ve had a lot more fun doing it that’s for sure. Plus, it’s really nice to not have my career be at the mercy of another artist’s success. That last point is a really what inspired me to do this, along with having so much to say musically.
As far as concepts, I’m not sure if I really had one going into it. I was busy doing other projects and in the process I would write one song, record it, then I would move on to the next. That process actually took about two years to do.
I’m glad I waited when I did though to record this because I was able to write from a point where I really didn’t care what other bass players thought of it. I don’t mean that in a negative way, I just didn’t have any hang-ups on trying to impress them. I just wanted to write something that everybody could listen to, and dig.
Some of the melodies I wrote I could have easily played but they sounded so much better with a horn player or guitar player playing them. So why bother? Haha. But as you know, there are plenty of bass goodies in there for everyone.
I wrote all the songs, co-wrote two of them and one is the Brothers Johnson cover “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now”. I’m a big Louis Johnson fan and I’ve been playing that song forever so that had to be in there. The wonderful singer Lara Landon is the one lending her vocals to that track.
I could have had anyone play on this and taken the typical route but I decided in the end to use people that I believe in and who also believe in me. 11 people are on this altogether. All of them are stellar musicians.
Michael Green is the drummer on all tracks. He also mixed and mastered the record except for one song. He was my right-hand man and co-producer for this project. The other cats are Denny Jiosa, and Dann Glenn, two monster guitar players; Ben Badenhorst, who is an amazing guitar player from South Africa; there’s Walter Scott and Kenny Zarider who are piano players I love to play with; Jonathan Crone, who’s another sick guitar player. Also, I’ve got Chris West and Michael Gutierrez playing saxophone on two different tracks. Last but not least, there’s Scott Goudeau on guitar as well. I’ve played with all these people and love their playing and their friendship dearly, so having them on this project is wonderful for me!
BMM: I completely understand the desire to work with people that you respect and have close friendships with. I’m sure that made the process of recording that much more fun and easy for everyone. I know you are in the early stages of promoting your new CD, but what projects do you have on the horizon? I know you’ve mentioned to me something about putting a tour together in support of this CD.
JvB: It was great for everyone! And it was a lot of fun! It’s funny because I actually have ideas for a new record, haha! In the meantime I have some projects that I’m getting ready to release on to the world. It might freak some people out.
One is a trio with another bass player, and drummer. The cats I have in mind for this are pretty sick – it will be crazy. I will probably make those things Bandcamp exclusive releases or some other medium. Denny Jiosa and I have this kill Prog Rock project called Joisa on the Edge. It’s also has John Toomey on drums. You can get that on iTunes.
On top of all that I’m getting together some road dates to support this record. I just want to keep putting out great art and really build up my brand. So far things have been going pretty well.
BMM: It’s great to see that your music career is firing on all cylinders! We’ll definitely look out for new releases from you.