The handwritten label on the recording was simple: BASS MONSTERS – Stu Hamm, etc.
I had only started to learn the daunting 1-3-5-6-b7 blues pattern (with proper fingering, mind you) a week prior. The names of the open strings were memorized, but anything more complicated was still foreign to me. I was an eager novice, just beginning my musical journey.
I am unsure if my instructor felt that I would experience exponential growth after destabilizing my basic understanding of bass or if he was just bored and wanted to be amused by my reaction, but I do know that our exchange went something like this:
“Here. Listen to this.”
“Who is Stu Hamm? What kind of music is it?”
“Just listen to it. Track 1. It’s just him, live, playing bass.”
I took the recording home, popped it in, and was greeted with a ridiculous two-handed tapping, slap filled bass-fest that covered Beethoven to Earl Scruggs. “The Moonlight Sonata” was played in full polyphonic, piano-like form; another two-handed piece raced into a tapping frenzy; then the final crescendo: a banjo inspired slap and tap hoedown.
Immediate re-evaluation of my instrument choice was inevitable. This “Stu Hamm” had single-handedly destroyed my concept of what was capable of being created on the bass. I slowly recovered from the ear-thrashing and used the incident as a right angle turn in my young bass career.
A Bass Monster, indeed.
Flash-forward to modern day and Mr. Hamm continues to have the “monster” moniker reverently attached to him. Stu has blazed a trail through uncharted bass territory over the course of seven solo albums, which have showcased his lead and solo playing over rock, jazz, fusion, and classical compositions. Innovative solo arrangements of “Linus and Lucy”, “The Star Spangled Banner”, and “Going Back To California”, to name only a few of Stu’s solo highlights, have amazed and delighted bassists worldwide. Though Stu refuses any claim to inventing the techniques he uses to design his solo masterpieces, it is well recognized that his skilled work with these mechanics have taken solo bass playing to levels never before known.
In his most recent release, The Book of Lies, Stu again pushes the solo bass catalog forward. The album opens and closes with full band pieces, including the excellent cover of the Beatle’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. Between the bookends that the full ensemble pieces create on the album, Stu offers a bass suite: solo bass pieces, each built on a specific playing technique. Slapping, harmonics, chords, and tapping are all covered in songs that, as Stu reveals in this interview, are designed for both enjoyment and study.
Such investments in the shared knowledge pool of the bass community are a hallmark of Stu’s. He is one of the most active and sought after bass clinicians and is constantly sharing his vast knowledge with bassists of all levels. At an event, Stu can be seen carefully sharing the basics of the major and minor triad, after which he may rip into a dazzling solo to stretch the minds and imaginations of attendees.
Along with his solo and lead bass work, Stu’s contributions as a sideman should not be overlooked. In fact, Stu will attest to being a bass player first and a soloist second. Stu is well known for accompanying guitarists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, both separately and during the G3 guitar series. Stu has also joined guitarist Frank Gambale and drummer Steve Smith for 3 recordings as a group known as GHS. In addition, Stu maintains a steady workload of recording for a wide range of artists.
As if these roles weren’t enough, Stu collaborates with Warwick to design innovative instruments that meet his playing demands. A self-described “bass geek”, Stu has worked alongside Warwick’s designers to develop instruments from the ground up. The attention given to wood, pickups, and strings is of the same intensity that is put into Stu’s playing.
Looking back at the aforementioned introduction to Mr. Hamm as a monster, the label still holds true. His playing abilities, viewed years after my first introduction, are absolutely scary. However, applying the “monster” status as a thin identification, based only on technical ability, does not do justice in this case. He is absolutely a great player, but is also a monster composer, bandleader, clinician, accompanist, soloist, and more. The impact of his pioneering playing and the contribution of those ideas to the bass community have truly altered the course and history of our instrument.
Stu Hamm, much more than a monster.
What is the story that you are telling through “The Book of Lies”?
As you become a more mature bass player, you care less about the reception of your music and I certainly continue to evolve as a bass player and as a composer. Especially earlier in my career the records were, in some way, an attempt to appeal to markets like the Satriani- and Vai-heads to sell some records. But now, it’s a recording – it’s a recording of the music that I was writing at the end of 2014 and a reflection of what I was going through in my life and the experiences I was having.
The majority of it was recorded up in the Bay area, the East Bay, with a bunch of my friends up there. I’ve found that the best way to be a good composer is to hire some really good guys and give them a lot of room to do their thing. I love to hire cats that hear something in music that I wrote that I didn’t hear! Then, I just let them do their thing.
The album opens and closes with band pieces and then what is perhaps best described is a “bass suite” is performed in between?
It is. What I wanted to do, especially with “The Book of Lies” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, was to capture a live performance. “Lucy in Sky With Diamonds”, with Carl Verheyen on guitar and Jason Harrison Smith [on drums] – we had been on the road, Jason and I, with Carl, playing in his band, for about 10 weeks in Europe and we played that song every night. As soon as we got off the road I got into the studio – we were actually at Sweetwater in Fort Worth, Indiana – and that’s just one take!
The solo suite…you know it’s funny. The electric bass was invented 66 years ago and it’s still an instrument very much in its infancy. When I was growing up, it was such a different world. I remember my first time seeing Larry Graham pop a string on the bass. I went to a music store and picked up a bass off of the wall and was trying to figure out what the hell he was doing! I didn’t invent solo bass playing or tapping, but I was around when those techniques were introduced and I believe that I helped to shape them.
Now you have bass players that are 12 years old and they’re exposed to me and other players on YouTube. This whole new chapter on technique is being written and that’s how much bass playing has occurred, just in my lifetime. Now that solo bass is a bit of a thing, I realized that there’s not a whole lot of actual written music for the instrument. I wrote these pieces that are each stand-alone, formative pieces that anyone can learn to play. The subliminal aspect is that each piece is written with a different technique to use as a strategy to make a piece of solo bass playing interesting. One piece is all chords, “Harmoni-Cali” is all harmonics, “Te Extraño” is all tapping, “Slap Happy” is all slapping, “Just a Blues” has a lot of guitar techniques, and so everyone can use these techniques to learn solo bass.
What we try to do is tell a story, but if that story is just “Look how fast I can play E minor”, that story gets boring.
Could you talk about your path of finding the way to incorporate these techniques into your playing?
Growing up, I was surrounded by an academic, musical family in the collegiate environment. I studied piano, as well as popular music and jazz, but I was always attracted to people who could really play their instruments. My favorite musician is Glenn Gould; I listen to a little bit of Glenn every day. I was always amazed how one guy and one instrument could make you feel so much emotion.
I played the traditional role of the bass, outlining the harmony and the melody, holding it together and driving it on. Then on November 8, 1978 I saw Jaco with Weather Report do his solo thing – you know, I had heard bass players play solos, sort of like Chris Squire’s version of “The Fish” live off of Yes Songs, where it’s kind of a solo, there’s drums and guitars there and he’s playing in time – but Jaco sort of blew the lid off of what could be possible on electric bass. Then I just tried to see how much of my classical piano repertoire I could translate into electric bass and quickly ran out of digits and ways to get all of the notes to come out. At that time there was Van Halen and Steve Vai and tapping was starting, but not outside of that style of music. So I just saw there was a way to, instead of fretting the note with one finger and making it sound by plucking with the other hand, hammer straight down on the string and let your other hand be free to play something else. That made the bass a much more polyphonic instrument. Then, listening to guys like Percy Jones, who was sliding harmonics in Brand X and the chordal stuff that Jeff Berlin was doing and all of the open string notes that Stanley [Clarke] uses, it just sort of blurred all together. I just tried to figure out ways to bridge them together to make a solo bass piece interesting.
How do you see yourself – as a solo bass player or as a bass player who has advanced solo bass playing?
I feel the latter. Most of my work is just playing bass…and I’m pretty good at it! A couple of off-handed compliments I’ve gotten: every year at the NAMM show on Saturday night the acoustic guitarist Muriel Anderson hosts a show called the All-Star Guitar Night, sponsored by TrueFire, the company that did my instructional videos. For the last 4, 5, 6 years, Danny Gotlieb and I have been the house musicians and were called to play with acoustic harp players, straight ahead blues players, rock shredders, country dudes, surf dudes… We get to the show and there’s no tapping or any of that nonsense or solo bass crap, I just play bass and groove with Danny. And Brad Wendkos, the owner of TrueFire says, “You know what? You’re a good bass player!” Well, yeah, duh!
When I was in San Francisco, I auditioned for this show called Teatro Zinzanni that was sort of like Cirque de Soleil, theater with great actors and performers with a live band. I ended up getting the gig and writing a bunch of music for it. When I went into the audition I sight read, I read charts, and I followed the moves. The M.D., a great, great musician named Norman Durkee, said, “Man, that was the best audition that I’ve ever seen in my years of doing things!” The fact of the matter was, if he had any sort of popular rock, instrumental, or jazz view of music, because I was Stu Hamm, I probably wouldn’t have even gotten the audition. He would’ve said, “Oh man, that’s the guy that plays ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ on the bass” you don’t want him to play these songs with a French singer!”
I certainly love to be challenged and interested in what I’m doing. If I do too much of one or the other, I get bored. It’s fun to play solo; it gives me a lot of freedom, but then there’s interacting with other guys. The subliminal power that you have as a bass player; it sort of directs what’s going on behind the scenes on a certain level.
We’re in a time where anyone can learn licks through a number of means. What’s the appropriate way to bridge the tradition of bass with the evolution of bass?
There’s no way. While I certainly have my opinions, I think the whole world gets in trouble when we confuse opinion with fact. Everyone has their own journey in life as a person and their own journey musically. I certainly have my opinions, which are that I’m glad that I approached music the way I did, having a real sound background from playing piano, violin, and drums from an early age, and choral music, and just learning to speak that language. The first time that I had to learn a rock song by ear, it was “Whipping Post”, it was a very different experience for me. A lot of people come to popular music from the other direction.
Part of me would have to take the tack of, if you are going to be a traditional musician or really care about being good, why wouldn’t you want to understand the way that people have exchanged these ideas for hundreds of years? Why wouldn’t you want to learn to read treble clef, bass clef, and sight read and learn that way of the language and learning ideas? Not taking anything away from cats that just play by ear. I know cats that are just so fast at learning that way and whatever cultural traditions came form that style of learning music – it’s all very valid. Whatever you do is going to work for you. I would certainly like to always err on the side of knowledge. Why wouldn’t you want to learn that?
It’s like TAB – I’m not anti-TAB, because there are books of my transcriptions. TAB is a great way of saying “Hey, I play this note on the 15th fret of the A string”, where someone may look at it and say, “I’m going to play it on the 10th fret of the D string” It can be used as a tool for fingering and it’s wonderful. As far as people that are learning by just looking where to put your fingers, well, that’s great if you’re a first or second grader! And too, if that works for you, that’s great, because yesterday, at a guitar workshop in San Diego and I had bass players of all different levels. In fact Sinbad, the comedian, was there and he had only played bass for three days. He had rhythm, and I showed him how to play a major and minor triad, then he could play. You don’t have to be a master of all techniques to hold the groove down, hold the band together, and have a great time playing bass and that’s the wonderful thing about it.
You just mentioned clinics – you’ve had a long history as an educator, including your time as the bass chair at MI. Is being a music educator an important part of who you are and what you do?
To make a career in music these days, you certainly have to wear a lot of hats. It’s certainly always been a part of it and I enjoy it. I’ve had so many chapters in my life; MI was certainly one and that’s probably a chapter I’d like to think about, while right now I’m in a travel and play mode. Like anything, it’s a good feeling to do things that you do well.
Every clinic is different: sometimes they just want a performance, sometimes guys want to impress you with how cool they are, and some people are really sponges that want to learn. I want to give them the knowledge that, depending on whatever level they are, can point them in the right direction and light a light bulb over their head. Because you can’t teach anybody anything, you can just, through your experiences, guide them how you think they can learn.
Hopefully a percentage will enjoy putting in the hard work because make no mistake – getting better is hard work. It takes repetition, time, and patience. So you have to find that quickly if that’s something you enjoy doing and if you’re willing to put the hours into it.
I almost interrupted with a tongue-in-cheek, “Wait, you don’t have the 5 minute magic bass technique?”
I don’t have the 5-minute thing, but it’s like that line about “give a guy a fish and they can have dinner, but teach him how to fish and they can feed themselves the rest of their lives”. Like I said, it was cool yesterday when I showed a couple things about open strings and like when I was showing Sinbad the comedian, who had literally been playing bass for 3 days – I showed him if you hold your hand this way you can outline the major triad, this way the minor triad, then you can look at something where some of the chords are major and some of them are minor and create a bass line, outline the chords and connect those two things to make music and make a bass line. And that’s fine!
You spend a lot of time with other bass players, whether through clinics, or the BX3 project, or most recently, the Triple Bass Treat with Divinity Roxx and Ove Bosch. What are your thoughts on the bass community?
I think that certain people’s personalities lead them to what instruments they play. The people who gravitate toward bass are usually non-confrontational, not overtly egotistical, enablers. Like at the Warwick bass camp, where everyone is there, there’s no competition, there’s no, “I’m not going to do this, because you’re going to try steal my gig”, with very few exceptions. People are friendly and share licks – “Have you heard this?” and “Check this out” and it’s a cool thing.
I’ve been around the G3 things with guitar players and there’s just more competition there, because the nature of the instrument. The guitar is sort of out front, soloing, “look at me, look at me, look at me”, that kind of thing. And drummers – that’s a whole other thing! If you have to hit things to make noise to get attention, I don’t know what that says about you! In deference to all of my wonderful, great drummer friends! But it’s a different thing – it’s very physical kind of thing, where bass players are cerebral, fit for a tour director or musical director or someone to take charge. When it all falls apart, whom do they look to? It’s usually the bass player. I can’t tell you how many gigs I’ve been on where I wasn’t hired as the musical director, but I find out that if I don’t take over, this thing is going to fall apart, and I’m not willing to let that happen.
So, they’re all different. The first BX3 thing was great. You have to pick the right guys, because when Jeff and Billy and I play there’s three completely different tones for bass; there’s three completely different styles for bass. It was cool.
The triple bass treat: Ove is a German dude, so he has sort of a different space, culturally, where he’s coming form, which is nice. Divinity – she’s so happenin’! She didn’t start to play bass until she was like 18. She was a journalist student at Cal-Berkley and was doing some poetry reading and rapping when someone gave her a bass and she could just play this incredible groove and rap at the same time. I guess I had never worked with a rapper who knew what they were doing and that’s not really my purview. I got to see her work every night and the rhythms that she does, the rhymes she’s coming up with – she’s a great bass player and is just so open. She’s a smart woman, just a sponge to learn anything and pick up anything and plays completely different than I do with technique and approach. It’s great!
So overall, the bass community is really supportive of each other, with very few exceptions.
There’s a new collaboration for you with Warwick. How did that come about?
It’s hard to believe that I was the first bass player to ever have a Fender signature bass. It’s hard to believe because in my mind I’m still a kid riding his bike around Champagne, Illinois, but I’ve been playing bass for 42, 43 years now. I take it seriously and I’m a total bass geek! I love bass guitars. Every time I walk into a music store to do a clinic, I love to look around. I go right to the bass section and play – they’re just so cool looking!
So I learned a lot designing the bass with Fender, we had the short scale, strings through the body, we switched to a longer scale, and we changed the bridge. I learned a lot about wood. Then I was with Washburn for a while.
Then Steve Bailey and a bunch of guys had been telling me a bunch of stuff about what Hans-Peter Wilfer, the CEO, and Marcus Spangler, the instrument designer, at Warwick were doing. They were sort of after me, talking to me, then I was in Germany on tour and I planned to spend a day with Marcus. They have a really good thing going there. Hans-Peter is really passionate about working with the bass community. We built a couple of basses and we only had one spectacular failure, which was absolutely great. We were sitting around and came up with this idea, “Man, this is the greatest idea ever. I can’t believe no one has ever thought of this for bass guitars. We’re geniuses! It’s going to set the world on fire!” It turns out it was a really stupid idea that didn’t work and that’s why I guess no one had ever done it before. But dammit, we tried it! It was cool that we took a little bit of what we learned from that and inserted into version 2.0 of the bass and I’m thinking the next one is going to be the one that makes it to market.
Again, I’m wearing many different hats, but when you’re doing what I’m doing you have be aware of the market size thing, designing an instrument that it’s going to fit a small niche with a very small bass market. I’m trying to build a bass that’s lighter, with a more ergonomic design, maybe. Most of the stuff that Warwick has going will appeal to guys like me that take that stuff seriously or are older and have had playing injuries, just taking that into account. So I think I can help that way and that’s great.
Let’s close with what’s coming up for you in the near future.
I head back East to do a two-week tour with my band, Florida to Montreal. Alex Skolnick, who is in Testament on guitar and who did my first Stu Hamm Band tour back in the 90’s. Joel Taylor will be on drums – He’s my friend here in LA, he and I have toured a lot with Frank Gambale and he’s been out with Al Di Meola lately. It’s a great band – those two dudes have never met, but it’s so much fun to know so many great musicians to put together combinations of guys. It should be really interesting!
Then I’m back in LA for a few days in the studio, then I’m in Texas, and then I fly directly from there to Italy, to do a two week tour with Stef Burns, who plays guitar with Huey Lewis. So we’re doing just some rock and roll trio dates. I’ll tour around Europe, I’m going to spend some time in Italy, then it’s the Warwick bass camp, then a Warwick tour with Chuck Rainey, which I’m really, really looking forward to. Then there’s stuff I’m doing in London, then the Fall I’ll be again in Bologna, where I’ll be teaching at a school. Probably recording a record this summer – a completely solo bass record. I’m just moving and grooving and doing my thing!
On the web – stuhamm.com