ERB Legend Al Caldwell
St. Louis native Al Caldwell has been playing the electric bass for almost 40 years. In his early days Al was a student and a big fan of Anthony Jackson’s career and the 6-string bass. In the beginning of the 80’s Al played in NYC with a young Dave Weckl and so many others, gaining a high reputation as a side man, finally becoming Vanessa William’s bassist for the last 20 years. Al has been playing ERBs for almost 15 years and this is what he shared with us.
Please tell us about your musical background and that crucial moment when you decided to move into the ERB field.
I started as a singer/dancer at age ten. My first instrument was clarinet in the 7th grade and trumpet in the 8th.
I wanted to be a great music teacher like Herman Morgan, my high school music teacher. He let me take all of the instruments home with me. I’d study each instrument for one month. I had the instruction book of fingerings and scales and songs. I learned that bassoon and oboe were the hardest instruments to get a good sound out of. Mr. Morgan allowed me to play at concerts, but he always put emphasis on reading music. He told me that if you can read music, then you can get to your goal five years ahead of the guy who is self-taught; that knowledge saved my musical life.
In 1976 I fell deeply in love with the bass. I was torn between Classical trumpet and Electric bass; the bass won.
In 1983, I moved to New York and had a custom 5-string bass made for me by Milan Kozak. I needed the low B-string to cover the synth bass boom. I was crashing with Dave Weckl for a few months while living in New York. We’re both from St. Louis. He played drums on my demo tape. We both would hang out at 7th Ave South and record cassettes of French Toast, which included Micheal Camillo and Anthony Jackson. I would study Anthony’s parts, and Dave and I would jam at his house on the grooves that we recorded of the band. Anthony and I became friends, and I was lucky enough to go to a few recording sessions, have lunch with him, and talk about bass and music.
Anthony is the father of the whole ERB movement. I would hear record producers tell him that he didn’t have the same control on the 6-string bass as he did with the 4-string, although his mastery of his 6-string was without peer. He would defend himself when confronted with the prejudice of his creation, but the concept made sense to me. Anthony also introduced me to Ken Smith.
A 6-string at that time was beyond my financial means, so Carl Barney and I made my first 6-string bass. I used a pedal steel pickup, a P-bass combination, and a 4-inch piece of hanger for my bridge until I was given a bridge at a music store in Cali. I think the guy who gave me the bridge was Mike Tobias.
What would you say to all those ERB haters around?
I’d tell them that Leo Fender had a horrible time trying to get anyone to play his basses. I still don’t know why Fender doesn’t have a tribute to the guys who put them on the map like Monk Montgomery, Chuck Rainey, James Jamerson, and Bob Babbit. Those were true pioneers of a brand-new instrument in a wide-open field of music. The 4-string bass doesn’t go low enough for my taste. I love low F#!!!! Sub Contra Bass for Life!!!! My favorite photo of Jaco is seeing him with a 5-string bass at the beach; it’s in his documentary.
In your opinion, what are the benefits and downsides of playing with an ERB?
The ERB experience for a composer is truly similar to that of writing for a string piano. I have mine modified for MIDI so that I can extend my tonal palette. I see no downsides to it. A horse and buggy are fun to ride every now and then, but when you have to get there and get it done, you drive the car.
How do you take care of the string-muting and string-spacing issues?
I use Fret Wraps by Gruv Gear! They are much better than stealing my daughters hair scrunchies. I play mostly finger style on the ERB. I can slap on it but I just don’t hear that style fitting in a lot of my music. 18mm is my preferred string spacing. I started on a 1970s Jazz Bass, so that spacing was perfect to me.
Please tell us how your extended range bass has evolved through the years.
I started with a 5-string in 1983, a 6-string in 1985. Parts were hard to come by back then. I bought my Conklin 7-string in 2002, a Conklin 9-string MIDI in 2003, two Conklin hollow body 9-string MIDI basses in 2004, and a Benavente 9-string MIDI and Benavente 11-string MIDI in 2005. I’m getting a Pete Skjold fretless 6-string very soon and Chris Benavente is making me the ultimate HYBRID instrument. I feel so blessed to have worked with some incredible Luthiers. I’ve come a long way since making my first Bootsy Star Bass in High School when I was 16 years old in 1976.
Tell us about the evolution your ERB playing technique has experienced through the years.
Because of Anthony Jackson, the quarter note has been a major turn around for me. I used to play through music but now I section it all out and determine when I’m going to sit or drive the train. Playing with Vanessa Williams has given me a chance to play my 11-string and 9-string with a lot of symphonies. I approach my ERB as an orchestral instrument. Phrasing and timing are paramount when blending with the symphony. I’m working on the guitar register so that I can concentrate on chordal voicings. In terms of genres, Jazz, Blues and Be-Bop are my passion at the moment.
What do you think is the turning point in your career as a bassist and what do you consider your main contributions to the bass scene? In other words what do you consider your legacy?
The turning point for me was moving to New York in 1983, meeting Anthony Jackson, and understanding his concept of the expansion of tonality. The right tool is everything when it comes to creativity. This man spared no expense to have the instrument and amplifier live up to what he heard in his mind’s eye. He reminded me that Luthiers are the middlemen when it comes to fulfilling our wildest musical desires. With their help, we can obtain the unachievable. I pray to inspire bassist to play what they feel is missing from their list of great songs. My legacy will be based on my compositions. I love being a bass player. I hear melodies in my head all the time, but the Groove Rules!!!
What would you say to those young musicians who’re considering at this moment going into the ERB world but are still not quite sure about doing so?
I would tell them that all instruments are tools for tonal and rhythmic creativity. If you hear music in your head that is beyond the tool you have chosen, then dare to dream bigger. If your musical palette craves a hybrid blend of bass and synth, then please consider a MIDI addition to your setup.
Please let us know about the specific elements of your gear.
I only use Garry Goodman Strings, they are Incredible! He is a genius and an incredible ERB pioneer player himself!
11-string tuning is Low C#, F#, B, E, A, D, G, C, F, Bb, Eb
9-string tuning is Low F#, B, E, A, D, G, C, F, Bb
6-string tuning is Low B, E, A, D, G, C (Fretted and Fretless)
New Benavente HYBRID 7-string tuning is E, A, D, G, C, F, Bb
I really wanted MIDI but I had delay issues due to the thicker gauges of the strings. I had to move to 11-string so that I could have the higher six strings track with only a 2 millisecond delay as opposed to a 14 millisecond delay with the thicker bass strings. I wanted a bass that I could play Sub Contra Bass with. My 9-string has a separate pickup in the sweet spot so that I can only hear the top six strings that also are blended with the Roland MIDI pickup. I use the GR33 Roland module for MIDI. My Atelier Z Jino 6-string bass has been modified to give me a perfect finger style sound à la Music Man. It has incredible clarity.
My LowEnd Jazz Bass from Brian Barret is my slap bass and funk machine. Most of my songs were recorded with this instrument. I had Mike Adler do a pickup mod for me. It boosted the mids even more.
I still have my homemade 6-string that Carl Barney and I made in 1984. I used it on Greg Howe’s Introspection CD in 1993.
I have two basses on order. Pete Skjold is making a Fretless Chambered 6-string for me. He makes the best fretless that I have ever played in my LIFE! Chris Benavente, the Luthier of the 11- and 9-string, is making me a special HYBRID 7-string at a 33-inch scale. These tools should complete my ERB vision. I will dedicate my life to practice and recording the music of my mind.
Finally, what do you see as the possible evolution of our instrument?
I see the recognition of our ERB recordings propelling the demand of our instrument. I think the instrument itself is the evolution of the 4-string. No matter how many strings we choose to play, the melody and music always win in the end. I think we need to record as much music with these instruments as possible. They need to hear what we heard when we had these tools made for us. Some of our music can only be recreated on the instrument that we play.