ERB Legend Melvin Lee Davis
You can find Melvin playing his amazing grooves for people like The Pointer Sisters, Lee Ritenour, Patti Austin, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Tina Turner, George Benson and many more. Melvin also co-wrote that famous Soul Train theme song. In the mid 90’s he had an idea for a 7-String bass and asked Luthier Ken Smith to build it; this ERB has been on his side for 22 years. Let’s see what the pioneer of the 7-string ERB has to share with us…
Please tell us about your musical background and that crucial moment when you decided to move into the ERB field.
My introduction to music came at an early age. My parents put a radio in my bedroom when I was a child. I was surrounded by the music of the 60’s. Once I began school, I started learning how to play an instrument in our music class, and given a choice of instruments to learn, I chose the saxophone. That instrument of choice would be with me for the next 9 years. I became good enough to occupy the 1st and 2nd chair in our high school big band and our marching band, until my junior year of high school. From there I began to take an interest in the bass guitar.
There was a strong R&B presence during that time. Funk had begun to take hold, and the bass players of that period were laying down some serious grooves that made you want to move and dance. That’s when I switched from saxophone to electric bass; I knew this was the instrument for me. I decided to move from the standard electric 4-string bass to an ERB, because I was a huge fan of legendary bassist Anthony Jackson’s work at the time. His groove on “For The Love Of Money” by the vocal group “The Ojays” was legendary in our community.
The maker and creator of his basses Ken Smith, was such an innovator of the ERB. Once I saw and heard Anthony’s bass, I knew I had to have a Ken Smith ERB. When I began working for guitarist Lee Ritenour in the early 90’s, there were a few songs that were blessed with Anthony Jackson’s performance. The ERB was a crucial component for performing Lee’s music at the time. The rest is history for me.
What would you say to all those ERB haters around?
I wouldn’t say anything to the haters, they are entitled to their opinion. That being said, I am not defined by their opinions. The ERB is no different then a keyboard with 76 keys versus a keyboard with 88 keys. They both play the same notes, the difference is the 88 keyboard has an extended range. That’s how I view the ERB, a bass with extended range. I understand what my role is as the supporter of the music. If you close your eyes and listen to my playing in a band situation, you can’t tell If I am playing an ERB, because I play in the range that matters to the music.
In your opinion, what are the benefits and downsides of playing with an ERB?
The benefit is having the extended range. The downside is not knowing when to use it.
How do you take care of the string-muting and string-spacing issues?
I have big hands (laughing). My outer palm covers the bridge area on my bass quite comfortably. As for spacing, my Ken Smith MD7 String has the normal spacing of a 4-string jazz bass. I prefer it that way because of the size of my hands. The wider neck allows me to extend my fingers for comfortable playing.
Please tell us how your extended range bass has evolved through the years.
It hasn’t really evolved for me, well with the exception of wood choices. I’ve been a loyal supporter of Ken Smith’s work. I gave him an idea in the early 90’s and he ran with it and produced an instrument that I’ve been playing for 22 years, and continue to play to this day.
Please tell us about the evolution your ERB playing technique has experienced through the years.
My playing technique always evolves according to the musical situation. From gospel to jazz and every genre in between. It requires a certain technique and understanding of the musical language. I consider myself to be a musician first! The instrument I choose to make music with is the electric bass.
I see my instrument as a “bass with extended range”. You will hardly ever hear the “C” or “F” string on my bass unless there are musical lines that require the range, or I am called to play a solo. I consider my technique to be one of ‘call and response’. Once I hear the chord being played, I respond with informed note choices. As a former saxophonist, I tend to hear melodies in the higher register. The ERB provides that range.
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 when I picked up the bass guitar for the first time and fell in love with its power to drive the music. To engage the spirit of the listener and cause a positive reaction to dance was powerful to me.
As for legacy… I am well recorded in my professional career. I can’t count the Artists or the amount of recordings I have been blessed to contribute to. I don’t really know what my legacy will be. I am still alive and working (smile). The comments and reviews have been favorable, so the legacy building process continues. I just want to continue to do good work, and bring smiles to the faces of those people out there listening. In the end my legacy will take care of itself.
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?
Enjoy exploring the possibilities the ERB has to offer, but never forget the importance of your roll as bassist. The position you play is very important to the music. It matters what you say and how you say it when interacting with other musicians in a group situation.
Please let us know about the specific elements of your gear.
My current setup is TC Electronic “Blacksmith amp” with 2 x “RS112 cabinets”, a pedalboard with various effects. My pedalboard configuration changes often.
Finally, what do you see as the possible evolution of our instrument?
I am not really sure what the future holds for the ERB. Some of my colleagues have left the 5-string world and switched back to playing 4-string basses, and more 5-string players have decided that 5-strings is their limit. As for me, I tour with a 5 & 7-string bass, because one size/sound doesn’t fit all situations for me.
That being said, technology has a way of finding new opportunities to innovate when it comes to the world of ERB’s. There are many Luthiers out there looking for ways to improve the ERB.
Visit online at www.melvinleedavis.com