Diana Rey… San Francisco Bay Area Bassist Plays the Music of Queen by Carl J. Mancuso
- Twitter: @dianareymusic
- The Killer Queens – www.thekillerqueensrock.com
- Twitter: @kqrocks
Bands I play with:
- The Killer Queens
- Shotgun Suitor
- Strings: D’Addario Flatwounds; Rotosound Roundwounds
- Bass Guitars: Ibanez SR700-CBE; Fender American Standard Precision; Carvin B4(Active)
- Bass Amplifier: MarkBass
- Upright Bass: Cremona
- Straps: Gruvgear
A self-described geek about all things related to bass, Diana and I hit it off immediately. Within minutes, her voice conveyed her vast knowledge of bass techniques, songs, and gear. At the same time, seeing her perform on stage revealed a perpetual smile and joyful happiness, splendid musicianship, and a love for her bandmates in The Killer Queens, the world’s only all- female Queen tribute band. Founded in 2011 by lead vocalist Nina Noir and guitarist Joyce Kuo, the current lineup of the band features Noir on lead vocals; Diana on bass/vocals; Nichole Boaz, keyboards/vocals; Lindy Day, guitars/vocals; and Karla Downey, drums, percussion, and vocals.
CJM: A lot of folks probably don’t realize that you are also a very talented keyboardist. Given that you started out on piano first, how long have you been playing bass and what beckoned you to embrace it so much?
DR: I’ll start out with the story my mom tells everyone about when she realized she had a little musician on her hands. When I was four, she put on a Sesame Street album and went into the next room. A bit later, she returned to find me on the piano, jamming along in key as if I was part of the band on the recording. One of my favorite things to do at that age was to sing, play the piano, and put on silly shows for my family where I forced everyone and anyone to sit down and watch me be a ham. I did costume changes, choreography, the works! In response to all this, my parents started me in piano lessons when I turned 5, so I continued to train classically until the age of 12. I’m kicking myself for quitting piano then, of course. At that time, I began playing flute for a year and switched to clarinet the following year, performing in my middle school’s band. A few years later, I discovered my spirit animal, the bass guitar. It’s a bit odd that I read music and tabs but I definitely prefer to learn music by ear. For me, playing by ear is nearly instantaneous and definitely instinctual, whereas sheet music takes me some time to absorb and translate back onto the instrument.
My personal musical development and experiences showed me that I prefer jamming and that I learn music best by working it out sonically, versus sheet music based playing. So one of the reasons I gravitated towards the bass was that I found it easy to pick up and play on my own without an instructor or sheet music. Also, all my favorite bands and songs were very bass heavy so I already appreciated the role a melodic, active, and complex bass line has in taking a song and elevating the sound to the next level. A genius bassline can turn a song played with any standard chord progression into something unique and memorable.
CJM: How and where did you learn how to play bass?
DR: Three places. In my room with the radio on, I’d figure out the chord progression and jam along with any song that aired. For 7 years, I played bass every week in my church band during mass. In my friend Liz’s garage for something like 10 years with a band that consisted of me, Liz, her brother, and her cousin. I took a lesson one time and found it to be a waste of time, but I know now he was just the wrong teacher for me. Technically I’m self-taught, but really my teachers were a regular practice routine, the experience of being in a garage band, and the bassists who played on the recordings I studied.
I read Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code about how it takes time, passion, and lots of focused rehearsal hours to master a skill. I definitely put in my time jamming and performing in front of people.
CJM: Who are some of the musicians who have inspired you and have had the greatest impact on your approach to bass?
DR: John Deacon, Flea, Nik West, Tony Kanal of No Doubt, Geddy Lee, Paul McCartney, Cliff Burton, Jaco Pastorius, Lee Rocker, Esperanza Spalding, Victor Wooten, and Tal Wilkenfeld. This isn’t in any particular order, just random as they came to my head. Don’t ask me to rank these players! When you’re talking about the greatest of the great players, they’re so unique and talented that it’s hard to compare skill level. I think at the top levels, it’s more a matter of musical taste. But what sets these guys apart from the rest, is how unique and groundbreaking their playing and performing style is.
CJM: Was there any particular song or performance of a song that moved you when you were growing up as a teenager in California that lit up the proverbial “lightbulb in your head” to let you know you wanted to pursue music professionally?
DR: I saw Gwen Stefani perform ‘Just a Girl’ along with the entire Tragic Kingdom album at one of those all day, multi-stage music festivals when I was in high school. Before I saw her kick butt and rock the audience, every band I had seen was all male. Suddenly, I could see myself in her shoes because I connected so strongly with No Doubt’s music and Gwen looked a lot like me: a blonde, sporty, mix of girly tomboy. For the first time, I saw a role model who spoke to me and showed me what I might be able to do someday.
CJM: What specific challenges do you face as a female bassist and what are some advantages?
The music industry has historically been very male dominated, and so I long to see more women filling roles both onstage and behind the scenes. There’s more of that going on now than before, so that’s really exciting. I have two kids and I can see first hand why women may take time out of pursuing a music career to take care of the home front. The nomadic and nocturnal lifestyle of a musician is at odds with my hours with the kids, so I get exhausted trying to everything and do it well. But it’s so worth it because my music and my family both are what keep me going.
Other female musicians can be really challenging. We can be each other’s best supporters and each other’s worst critics. I’ve worked with both kinds and some that are in between. It’s pretty deflating to feel like one of my musical sisters is trying to bring me or anyone else down, because that is so not what I’m about. I want to see other women killing it onstage and support them. In the past year and a half especially, I’ve learned to grow a thick skin and be careful who I take criticism from.
It’s rad to surprise people when I get on a stage and they see I’m the bass player and singer, instead of just the lead singer. The stereotypes are changing as more and more women are playing instruments in addition to singing.
Another advantage to being a she-bassist is connecting to other women in the audience. I look out into the crowd and I see the ladies looking at me and loving that I play a guitar and play it well. I can tell they feel empowered by it because they come up right in front of my spot on the stage and rock out with me, giving me lots of love. If the rest of my bandmates are males, the ladies will find us more approachable and danceable when I’m stage too. I also hope that I’m showing other chicks (including little girls at my all ages shows) how to rock like a girl. When young girls come up to me after a show to chat, I always ask if they play any instruments and if the answer is no, I encourage them to pick up an instrument and play!
CJM: There seems to be a growing number of female bassists in music today. Who are some of your favorite female bass players?
- Nik West
- Catherine Popper
- Esperanza Spalding
- Angeline Saris
- Ariane Cap
- Anna Sentina
CJM: What tips/advice would you give to aspiring bassists on how to navigate through the music business and promote harmony in a band? This is a good question for you to answer, especially since you are a musician with two young children and have to manage your time between being a mother and attending gigs, practice, and doing extensive traveling.
DR: I am a huge believer in the team mentality. In a harmonious group, each member feels like they add value and bring their skills, experience, and wisdom to the table. I’ve seen time and time again that bands succeed when they work together as equals for a shared goal. Bands fall apart when any one or all members act as individuals only looking out for themselves, and acting like they alone are the reason for a band’s success. If we uplift and appreciate each other, we can fly higher. Together, we either fall or fly high. Sounds hokey, but this is the truth
Balance is the other crucial element. My love for music and my love for family and friends are the two most important parts of me. Don’t ask me to choose between them. If I get too immersed in one side or the other, I start to lose myself. So for me personally, I need both and that’s what keeps my fire burning. I draw inspiration for my music from my personal life, and the music helps me blow off steam and process what’s going on offstage. Without one, I couldn’t do the other. It’s a tough balancing act, but I navigate it as I go along and really listen to my heart as well as the people I trust most to let me know if I’m drifting too far off my center. It helps that my family and friends completely support all the colorfulness and insanity of my life as musician. I think they find me entertaining, so they keep me around. 😛 If it weren’t for my family, I’d be a workaholic musician and I wouldn’t have a life outside of that. I’ve seen so many times how important it is to have something going on in your life outside of your music because it can be easy to get completely consumed with the passion and drama of life in a band. My family helps me let go, focus on other things, and not take everything that happens in my bands and music career so seriously.
CJM: As a musician, is there anything you have learned in the last year that you wish you had known when you first started playing bass?
DR: I definitely had a tough lesson to learn this past year about believing in myself and recognizing that I have to carefully evaluate what a person’s motivation is in giving an artist negative feedback. So often when people criticize you, it has nothing to do you with you and everything to do with them being uncomfortable with themselves. Since they won’t accept and then work on their inner demons, they lash outward in the hopes that it will distance them from their fears and insecurities. This lesson applies to all aspects of life, not just music. So if I could hop into a time machine, I’d tell my 16 year old self that I have every right to believe in myself and ignore the critics. I’d tell teenage Diana that someday my dream of being musician would come true because of pure love, passion, and a lot of hard work. I got the message growing up that music was a fun hobby, but was not a lucrative career option. If I’d known back then where I’d be today, I would have chosen a different path during my college years and gone to Berklee to study, perform, and write music. I’m still doing it with my college degree in Philosophy, but I often wonder where I’d be now if I’d majored in music.
CJM: You played keyboards in The Killer Queens before you moved to bass. Now you’re up front with guitarist Lindy Day and lead vocalist Nina Noir. You interact with the crowd. How has the move been beneficial to you and the band so far, and how has your knowledge of the keyboard parts in the band’s arrangements helped you in your transition to bass?
DR: As bassist for TKQ, I’m able to go wireless and move all over the stage and rock out. It’s easier for me to dance and jump around, while also feeling like a badass because I have a guitar. As TKQ’s keyboardist, I felt so tethered to my keyboard and struggled with how to rock out on the keys when it looks to the audience like I may as well be typing on my computer. Also in Queen’s music, the keyboard isn’t present on every song, so for those songs that I would just add harmony vocals and dance in the background, I felt a little awkward. On bass, I’m so busy for the entire set, thanks to John Deacon’s elaborate basslines. I may not be the lead singer in any bands (yet), but as a singing bass player I have a frontwoman gravity to my performances. I enjoy being up in front of people and performing, so I’m stoked that I get to be back on bass.
CJM: Obviously, you have studied the bass playing style of John Deacon, Queen’s very reclusive and quiet bass player. He is retired from the music business, but he gradually became more of a songwriting force after the release of “A Night at the Opera,” even penning the band’s highest charting hit in the US to that point, “You’re My Best Friend.” Can you explain a little bit of his technical genius on that track, as well as “Another One Bites The Dust,” “39” (on upright bass), and “Dragon Attack”?
DR: I hear a few themes in John Deacon’s playing style that echo throughout Queen’s repertoire. These themes reveal a lot about Deacon.
- Deacon was close with Freddie Mercury because on bass he often parallels, mirrors, and echos Mercury’s melody lines, even down to the cadence of them. I believe Deacon and Mercury were very close both musically and personally. Deacon retired from music entirely after Freddie’s death, which is very telling. Such a loss to the bass community. Come back John Deacon…we miss you!
- He was the quietest member of Queen, rarely singing onstage, but his voice is loudly and clearly heard through his bass. His bass lines are intricate, active, and range all over the fret board. Deacon could take a pretty simple chord progression and write a bass line that elevated the song to an incredibly artistic and iconic level. He had a lot to say and his musical choices allowed this introverted, deep thinker to express himself in a way that allowed him to shine and set him apart as a bassist. I think a lot of bass players can relate to this.
- Deacon was well-versed in many genres and playing styles. He could do it all and do it well, just like the rest of his bandmates. In “You’re My Best Friend” he used elements of jazz and the aforementioned technique: paralleling of and dancing around Mercury’s melody line. This is possibly Deacon’s most complex bass line that I’ve learn yet. I nearly hyperventilated when I first started to learn this song, and then I psyched myself up and just tackled it. Now it’s one of my favorite songs to play.
“Another One Bites the Dust” is possibly one of the most iconic songs out there today, and that’s all due to the partnership of Deacon’s predominant disco-funk bass line and Mercury’s vocals. This is actually one of the easiest Queen songs to play, and yet at KQ shows, it’s one of the songs that always gets the crowd cheering and dancing as soon as I start to play. This is what I mean when I say that Deacon’s playing style elevates even the simplest of songs to the point where they become legendary.
“39” is such a fun song to play because it’s quite a different sound for Queen, yet still maintains classic Queen elements. This is their bluegrass song but with a futuristic twist, because this song is about traveling through time and space. Deacon’s bass playing traveled into new territory for him because he played an upright bass in the recording studio in response to a joking request from Brian May to take it up. The next day, Deacon was ready to go on an upright and played a classic bluegrass root to 5th pattern throughout, adding in some runs here and there for variation and effect.
“Dragon Attack” shows off a really funky-bluesy bass line. This is the song that I imagine playing for a huge crowd, and suddenly I can see the beach balls being thrown around while the crowd bobs and sashays in time to the beat. It’s a really chill jammer, but also musically intense for the players. I call this my “hand cramp” song, and it’s a love-hate thing to some extent. Seriously if you need a solid drill to exercise the strength of your left hnd and the agility of your fret-playing fingers, jam this song out for as long as you can and alternate the fingers used. You’ll be crying at first, but it will make you stronger and faster, guaranteed!
Deacon’s quiet nature and early retirement from music has caused him to be undeservedly underrated, but I believe he should be ranked somewhere in the top 5 greatest bassists of all time. I know I sound like a fan girl now, but let’s start Deaky Day to celebrate him. 🙂 I highly recommend studying his bass lines if you want to significantly step up your bass game. Thanks to my role in TKQ, the call for me to study and perform his work definitely made me a better bass player today.
CJM: John Deacon and Paul McCartney are known as very melodic bass players. I think perhaps this is due to the fact that both of them are multi-instrumentalists. Both of them began playing guitar first and moved on to bass and keyboards as well. Through my own research of McCartney’s bass playing during the early years of the Beatles, he played with a pick and was a very treblely (sic) bass player. Can you point out some distinctions between Deacon and McCartney as far as tone and style?
DR: Paul McCartney goes for some really interesting note choices sometimes. It’s not something you’d think would fit with the music, but it sounds incredible. He’s a busy bassist just like Deacon, ever-present and busy, but not overwhelmingly so. He also makes a song unique and writes basslines that do more than just hold down the bottom end. His basslines add to what make the songs go down in history as some of the most well-loved songs of all time. His playing style does sound like he’s playing with a pick, but it’s hard to tell from the videos since they’re so grainy. I watched a recent video where he’s actually playing a bassline with his right thumb.
CJM: Let’s get back to your playing. You play with your fingers. Do you use the two finger method with your right hand and the first four fingers on your fretting hand?
DR: That’s right. I usually use my two fingers but sometimes I’ll throw my right thumb into the mix while picking with the two right fingers so that I can get more notes in per beat. There are a couple times in TKQ set that I use this trick playing octaves for rhythmic effect. I don’t usually play with a pick, but I’ve just started practicing this skill since John Deacon used a pick for “Under Pressure” and “Stone Cold Crazy”. I play the set as authentically to Deacon’s style and recordings as possible. My goal is for the audience to close their eyes while hearing me and the rest of the girls with TKQ perform and to feel transported back in time to a Queen concert. If we are playing with that amount of passion for Queen’s intricate and yet seemingly effortless style, then we’re doing our job as a tribute band.
CJM: “39” is one of the songs in your set. You bring your upright bass up to the stage. You seem to be able to transition seamlessly between electric bass and upright. Did you start out on upright bass in high school? Can you explain why Brian May joked about using an upright bass on the song? Explain what you like most about playing the upright bass on stage?
DR: Upright bass on stage adds so much to the look of the band. It’s like having another band member up there! The Cremona is bigger than me for sure. I like to do upright bass tricks because it also adds a fun visual effect to a show. During “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” I lean the upright bass over a bit and kneel down to brace it with my knee so that Nina Noir (our Frederica Mercury) sits on the side of the bass while singing to the crowd. It’s always fun to show off like that. Definitely a photo op moment, and the bass trick is fitting for this song because it’s Queen’s rockabilly song. I started playing upright bass back in 2012 because I joined an all-girl rockabilly band, so it’s fun to throw that vibe into our set for a song. I had always wanted to play upright, but finally when I joined the rockabilly group (Pedals & Pistols), I had an excuse to buy one and perform with it. Queen was very showy and theatrical, so I think they’d approve of the upright bass making an appearance and giving me and Noir the opportunity to do some upright bass tricks on stage.
CJM: Bay Area guitarist Gretchen Menn told me that she practices a minimum of 4-5 hours per day. On average, how much time do you practice each week, excluding band rehearsals?
DR: On average right now, I practice 5 hours a week minimum on bass. I try to get at least an hour in every day, whether it’s to work on scales, right hand techniques, or Queen songs. I’m focusing currently on my bass soloing and slapping. I also work daily on guitar, piano, and singing. Guitar because I want to hone my songwriting and chord playing skills. I love when bassists play chords or arpeggios, so my guitar work translates back and improves my bass playing. Bonus! I probably spend another 1-3 hours per day working on my singing, piano, guitar, and song writing. I also take days off to have adventures and focus on other things. I’ve found that music percolates in the back of my mind if I take breaks now and then and give my brain a breather. Then I come back to my music work feeling fresh and better than the last time I played.
However, when I get contacted to sub or join a new project on short notice, I will spend up to 6 hours a day practicing to learn the new material. These situations are always a really intense challenge and can sometimes scares me, which then motivates me to work harder to meet my deadline. I’ve always come through on the other side as a better and stronger player. So it’s stressful, but absolutely pays off. I’ve gotten good at figuring out a timeline and song hierarchy, and sticking to it so that I’m stage ready and solid on the set in time.
CJM: You also play in another band called “Shotgun Suitor.” Can you tell us a bit about your role in that band, the musical style of the group, and how you co-write songs with other members?
DR: I play upright and electric bass as well as sing harmonies in Shotgun Suitor, which is both an original and cover song project. We perform all the time and we have a team of incredibly talented pro musicians. We’ve been called “Swamp Rock” before because our band’s lead singer, Chas Crowder, is from Alabama and he has an awesome accent and we at times play some country and blues in addition to rock and alternative rock. I also hear a beachy vibe to our music, since the band is based in Santa Cruz, CA, a beautiful little beach town about an hour south of San Francisco.
When we write music, I’ll write the bassline and my harmony parts. I want to sit down with Chas and write lots of music, so hopefully in the near future we’ll crank out more songs. We have an album out, and if you’re interested in getting a copy, message us at our Shotgun Suitor Band page on Facebook.
CJM: The Killer Queens have been really busy in the last three years, playing at NAMM, at Giants Stadium prior to a major league baseball game for the San Francisco Giants, and playing in various venues in Northern California and Nevada. Nina mentioned that you were also invited to play in Detroit for a Queen convention. What is on tap in the immediate future for The Killer Queens as far as touring is concerned?
DR: We’re hoping to play for more audiences and venues in the US and eventually around the world. Currently we’ve been playing more in the wine country area of Northern California, but we also hope to play soon in the northern west coast. We’ll keep you updated on www.thekillerqueensrock.com as well as our Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.
CJM: Not long ago you told me that you were working on a solo album. How far along are you in the process of getting that material recorded and released? More importantly, how would you describe the texture and feel of the songs you have written for the project?
DR: This is definitely a work in progress!! Right now I’m listening to and inspired by tons and tons of Queen, Sara Bareilles, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Alabama Shakes, No Doubt, Imelda May, Miranda Lambert, Amanda Palmer, The Beatles, Etta James, Meghan Trainor, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Florence + The Machine, Muse, and The Pretty Reckless. I love so many genres such as blues, classic rock, rockabilly, soul, country, and alternative. I also sing barbershop with Bay Area Showcase Chorus, a chapter of Sweet Adelines International, and I adore the use of harmony in songs. So I wouldn’t at all mind if my work sounds like some kind of mashup of these artists and genres. We’ll see. It’s really in the infant writing stages right now and I have no sense for how long it’s going to take. I have lyrics for days already written down, and so now it’s just a matter of putting it to music. I need a producer, so if anyone wants to work with me, give me a call.
CJM: Ok, one last question for you. There are a lot of bassists out there that struggle with singing and playing bass simultaneously. However, I have found that Paul McCartney and Timothy B. Schmit (Eagles, Poco) have really mastered it. How do you get to the point where it becomes second nature along with the bass? I’m guessing that one way is to learn how to speak in sentences while playing bass slowly and eventually playing faster, perhaps with a metronome. True?
DR: This is a great issue to bring up because playing bass and singing is NOT easy! For the longest time, I thought it was just not going to happen for me and that I was the only one who struggled with this. Now I know it’s a common issue for a bassist. Much more so than for any other instrument such as piano or guitar. On bass, you’re thinking of two different note sequences and rhythms, not to mention voicing with finesse through both instruments. I think the talking while playing to a metronome exercise you mentioned is a great idea! I’m going to try that. I tend to practice my singing and bass parts together slowly until it seems weird to play the part without singing as well. Depending on the song (ie not Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend”), singing backup vocals is very doable for me, but I hope to someday be able to sing lead and play bass. As with anything, putting in hours of practice will result in progress. So keep working on it and don’t give up!
CJM: Diana, it has been a pleasure talking with you today. I have known about The Killer Queens for a long time, and I was very pleased to hang out with you and the band in San Francisco. Keep on rocking the low end.
DR: Thanks Carl! I always dig talking with you – you’re a dear friend to me and the rest of The Killer Queens. Let’s hang out again soon and you keep rocking the low end, too.
Carl J. Mancuso is a graduate of Louisiana State University (Journalism) and the University of Central Florida. He has published music articles on Blogcritics.org featuring Cheap Trick, Foreigner, Girl in a Coma, The Dollyrots, and others. He is a strong advocate for promoting Women in Music via Upswing PR and his concert series, “Ladies Rise Up and Rock,” which has donated funds for music education in Northern California and Oregon through The Grammy Organization and Rock Camp for Girls. He resides in Birmingham, Alabama.