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Steve Bernal, Mastering the Groove Between Bass and Cello – October 2018 Issue

Steve Bernal is not only an accomplished bassist and cellist, he is also an avid artist in the world of paintings!

His solo releases are astonishing and he has also performed and worked with such great bands as Arrows To Fire, The Texas Symphony Orchestra, and his latest endeavor with Philip Anselmo, along with being one of the top three solo artists in the Austin area…. and now, for the rest of the story…

Cover Photo, Brian Watkins
Opening Photo, Brian Watkins

What first influenced you to play bass to where you are today, career wise? 

I’m a natural drummer, but when I brought this to the attention of my parents, it was decided that they didn’t want drums in the house. I was nine years old, and by then I was completely certain about who and what I’d be when I grew up. So, I had to choose something else. I considered piano, but having that instrument in the house seemed equally improbable. Then I considered guitar, but there was something about it that didn’t move me; even as a kid I sought the physical sensation that drums or bass have.

On Friday and Saturday nights in Houston we had The Midnight Special, and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert on late night television. Once I learned this, I’d wait for my parents to fall asleep then sneak back into the living room and turn the TV on, to as low a volume as possible, and watched. I noticed one musician always standing next to the drummer. Asking an uncle, who was an amateur guitarist and the only musician in our family, who that player was, he answered, “He’s playin’ bass. You don’t want to play bass.” I immediately went to my parents and began what became the process of begging for my first bass. After some persistence, they gave in and after shopping through the catalog and lots of daydreaming, I got that first instrument from the Montgomery Ward department store, made by Global. It was summer 1975… I remember it clearly… wish I still had it.

Fast forward 43 years and I’ve learned, experienced, and played myriad styles and sounds at all types of venues and studios all over North America and Europe on electric bass and cello. The new projects with which I’m involved will hopefully expand and inform my experience even further.

Your solo releases are you performing both cello and bass… this may be the chicken or the egg question, but what came first, the cello or the bass, and since you are doing both, what is your writing and recording process?

Photo, Jim Chapin

I didn’t take up cello until 2000, at age 35. It came about during a recording session wherein we wanted strings on a couple of songs, but didn’t quite have the budget to hire pro players. So, I had an idea: I’d rent a cello and figure it out. I’m a fretless specialist, so presumably the scale and technique would be similar. Not quite, though. Of course, it proved to be more difficult than anticipated, but once I had it in my hands, I became determined. After one day playing scales and inventing simple parts to play on the recording, I went in and played. My second day playing cello can be heard on an eponymous record by the band Grand Street Cryers. I then decided to pursue studying cello seriously.

Lessons from local pros, attending an orchestral course at U.T. Austin, and a few years in the cello section at Temple, Texas Symphony Orchestra proved to be challenging and very rewarding towards my general musicianship. I was always a pretty good reader of bass clef notation, but playing in the more formal setting of orchestras focused that skill even more, including tenor and treble clef registers.

Playing a new instrument brought on a flood of new ideas and inspiration. I began writing and recording these ideas fairly soon after getting somewhat more comfortable and familiar with the instrument. Most of my composition ideas originate at the cello, and then my bass playing experience will fill-out the sound, which often leads to more ideas and themes to expand upon further.

Recording-wise, I always like to build tracks from low to high parts… like a good bassist!

I’m currently working on a new record featuring guest players including Hunt Sales, and Kirk Covington on drums, and Bobby Landgraf on guitar, among others. Produced and engineered by Stephen Belans. Lots of layered celli, and some fancy bass playing too!

You are currently with “Arrows to Fire”; can you tell us how this came about and a little bit about the project?

Photo, Alex Johnson

Arrows To Fire is an ongoing recording project put together by a couple of friends who began writing songs a couple years ago and needed a rhythm section. Very straightforward Rock. Fun stuff to play! Our second record “Here We Go” is available online, and we have a YouTube channel, too. I wrote and arranged strings on a song called “See You Around” on the album, performed by the Austin Symphony Orchestra with Maestro Peter Bay conducting. That was a fun session!

You are currently working with Phil Anselmo; can you elaborate on the project and possible touring?

This is a very interesting and exciting new project of Philip’s. Many of his fans may be very surprised at this new sound. He is an evolving and serious artist, and I’m glad to be a part of this recording. I’m playing cello in the band, which features members of a few of his other projects as well. I recorded on twelve songs thus far. The band is called En Minor. We’re anticipating releasing it before the end of this year, then touring next year.

What is your main gear setup?

I have several basses, and I love being able to utilize all the sounds they offer for different situations. The instruments that probably get played the most are a ’74 fretless Fender Precision that I love, a ’78 Rickenbacker 4001, which is my Rock machine, and a matching pair of Fender Precision and Jazz Basses made in 2000. Excellent recording instruments. My cello is a 1955 T.G. Pfretschner from Germany. I play through a variety of GK and/or Ampeg gear. Pedal-wise, I love the L.R. Baggs Stadium Bass D.I., MXR Octave, and Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb (the ‘verb for cello). I like to keep it simple when it comes to gear.

What advice can you give to any aspiring bassists and cellists?

I love this question. Study and practice are the only way to improve. There is no shortcut. Learn to read notation. It can be intimidating, but the effort to learn it always pays off. The way I did it as a child was to buy songbooks of my favorite records and try to read along as the record played. Eventually, I noticed the patterns. For example, the dotted quarter note rhythm always looks and sounds the same. Learn the Nashville chord chart system. I didn’t really even come into contact with that until about ten years ago. It makes sense, and transposing into different keys is made very easy, provided that you’ve already studied and learned theory and your fingerboard. And, try to absorb and learn as many different styles and genres as you can. Even stuff you might not be attracted to naturally. For example, as a child I noticed that some players use a pick, while others play with fingers. I decided to become equally adept at both. That has proven to be useful for all these years.

Making a living as a professional musician is demanding, complex, and can be hectic. It’s important to try and anticipate any adversity or sudden change in plans or schedules. Being flexible always makes things easier. For example, part of the advantage of having a diverse skill set is being able to play a wedding on cello in the morning, an orchestral rehearsal in the afternoon, a recording session on bass in the evening, and a Rock gig on bass in a club that night. That’s in one day! So, a musical life is rarely boring, and always interesting.

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