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Interview with Bassist Mitch Friedman

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Interview with Bassist Mitch Friedman

Mitch Friedman has been a Bergantino Artist for a few years now. 

Holly Bergantino is excited and proud to offer you a glimpse into how Mitch Friedman got to where he is today.

Holly Bergantino: Where were you born and raised, and how did you end up in Brooklyn, NY?

Mitch Friedman: I was born in New Hyde Park, NY on Feb 2, 1987, and after living in Fresh Meadows, Queens, with my parents as a baby, we eventually settled in a house in Smithtown, Long Island. In 1996, when I was 9 years old, my family relocated to Coral Springs, in South Florida, which is where I really began my musical journey. In high school, we relocated to Tamarac, the next town over, but my dream was to always return to New York to “make it” as a musician. South Florida was always a very music-heavy place, with tons of great players, but I couldn’t really envision a career for myself there. Symphony orchestras were folding, I didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t grow up playing Latin music, so that scene seemed like an impossibility for me, and with the exception of the hardcore/punk/rock local scene, which I wasn’t into, it felt like the beach-bar scene was all that awaited me, and I wanted more. I also envisioned myself as a studio musician, and it didn’t appear like there was a lot of that kind of work happening down there. Or if there was, I didn’t know how to find it. 

I auditioned at several out-of-state universities and conservatories for classical double bass performance with the hopes of getting into NYU, and they not only accepted me but gave me the largest music scholarship in the history of the school, which was crazy. So in 2005, I moved back to NYC, and lived in Greenwich Village, which was incredible. After living in a bunch of different spots around Manhattan for the next few years, I eventually moved to Brooklyn, and I’ve been there ever since! I love Brooklyn. Every neighborhood is vastly different, and all the great food and culture you can imagine is here. I now get why some people never even think of leaving!

What makes the bass so special to you particularly, and how did you gravitate to it?

My dad was an amateur guitarist, and I grew up with him playing around the house all the time. He gave me one of his guitars after we moved to Florida, and I dove into music head-first. The following year, I heard the album “Traveling Without Moving” by Jamiroquai, and I had the realization that bass was one of the driving forces of all those great songs and my ears just seemed to be tuned to those bass lines. When I got to middle school, I joined the orchestra, and both the sheer size of the double bass and the fact that nobody else wanted to play it drew me in. Trying to get good at it felt like a game. It quickly seemed like I had found my “thing.” Before I knew it, I won the spot of principal bass in the all-state orchestra. Around the same time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers had released their album “Californication,” and I became obsessed with the idea of playing bass guitar. I bought a cheap fretless Carlo Robelli, assuming it would be similar to the upright, which it kinda was, and between the two instruments, I was hooked. Bass became the main focus in my life, and becoming a rock star like Flea was all I could think about. As I got deeper into different kinds of music, I realized how bass was really the foundation of everything. Tying rhythm together with roots and harmonies, I realized that pretty much every band needed a great bassist to be “good.” Eventually discovering guys like Jaco and Victor Wooten, it was clear that bass could even be its own thing, and the creative possibilities seemed almost endless. Still, it’s that locked in groove and pocket, which makes the song dance, that made me fall in love with music, and controlling it from the bass perspective just seemed like the perfect spot to be in.

How did you learn to play?

After maybe a year or so of teaching myself double bass, I was invited to audition for the Florida Youth Orchestra, which was a collection of some of the best young classical musicians in south Florida. When I got the audition music, I couldn’t even read it! I had never seen eighth rests or half rests before, and they looked like ancient hieroglyphics to me. My parents found me a private teacher, an incredible Juilliard grad named Jackie De Los Santos, and I began having weekly lessons with her. I continued to study with her until I left for college. Bass guitar was my secret passion, and I pretty much taught myself how to play, learning songs from my favorite bands by ear and applying what I was learning on double bass, since the electric felt like a toy in comparison. Every morning before school, I would sit on the couch with my fretless and play along with every music video that would come on TV. It didn’t matter the genre or the artist; I would just play along until I figured out the song. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was probably the best training I could have done on my own. 

I was extremely fortunate to meet an insanely talented bass player in high school named Adam Lucas, who introduced me to Jaco, Wooten, and Herbie Hancock. Adam taught me a lot of the more intricate techniques that I probably wouldn’t have figured out easily on my own. He played guitar in a band called Way of the Groove, which featured Jaco’s sons, Felix and Julius Pastorius on bass and drums, and I got to jam with them a number of times and had Felix show me note for note how Jaco played a lot of his tunes. It was awesome, and looking back on it, I didn’t even realize how fortunate I was at the time. Sight reading was always one of my best “things,” as I always made it like a game, and that also prepared me for future work as a session player. My mantra was always “never turn down an opportunity,” which led me to all different kinds of musical experiences, and it still does to this day. I didn’t ever want to find myself in a position where I felt like I couldn’t “cut it” in any musical situation, and that thought process has allowed me to be prepared for anything with confidence.

Are there any other instruments you play?

So like I said, I started on guitar, but I’m not really that great. I can play chords and solo well enough for recording, but I would never feel confident playing guitar live. I can also play cello decently well, but again, I’m not that great. Bass has really been my main thing, and I never strayed too far from it. I always wanted to be great at piano, but I’m so bad, it’s not even funny. At NYU, I was required to do four semesters of it, but it was beyond embarrassing, and I even flunked two of those semesters. It was bad. But my rule is, if it has strings, I can probably figure it out! I also sang a lot of backup vocals over the years for different acts, but it’s been quite a while now since I’ve crossed into that territory.

You have quite the career that began at a very young age. Can you share some of the highlights you are most proud of?

When I was 13, I got to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Florida Youth Orchestra, which was an incredible experience. That same year, a violinist friend’s mom approached my dad at a Florida Youth Orchestra rehearsal and asked him if he was interested in a gig that her son wasn’t available to play. It was a trio gig playing light classical background music for Donald Trump, at his dinner table at his famous Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach. We decided to do it, and with the help of my teacher Jackie, I was able to put together a folder of about three hours’ worth of music. I played the cello parts on bass. I hired two great violinists who were in high school, and we performed under the name The Palm Trio. We got to meet Donald, who was nothing like the man we see today on TV, and at one point, he even got up from his table of guests and asked us if we were hungry. He personally went into the kitchen and came out a moment later, awkwardly carrying a huge tray of cheese and veggies. He told us to let him know if we wanted anything else. At the end of the night, we were each handed checks for $750. I had never seen so much money at one time, and my dad and I decided to keep going with it. 

The Palm Trio continued to gig around south Florida for the next five years, with my dad as our manager, performing at senior living facilities, wedding ceremonies, cocktail hours, and coffee shops. We were sort of a novelty act because of our ages, myself being the youngest and playing this huge bass, and we must have done close to 500 gigs before we disbanded when I left for college. We even got a record deal at one point for a Christmas album and sold thousands of copies. When I was 15, I became principal bass of the Florida Atlantic University orchestra, and was the only musician there still in high school. That same year, I also joined my teacher Jackie as co-principal of the Boca Ballet, doing a whole season of the Nutcracker, becoming the youngest musician ever employed by the company. I was technically too young to work at the time, since you have to be 16 to work in Florida, so they paid Jackie for me, and she gave me the money. 

The following year, my high school symphony orchestra won a Grammy for a recording we did of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.” A Grammy showed up at school a while later, and we were told that we could get individual Grammy’s with our names on them for $2800 each. Some kids got them, but my family was way too broke to afford that, and I just forgot about it. Years later, I met a woman who worked for the Grammy’s, and I asked her if that was a real Grammy or just a scam by the Grammys to make money. She told me it was absolutely real, and even if I didn’t buy one, I was still an official Grammy winner! It was a weird way to win a Grammy, but I’ll take it! 

The summer before I left for NYU, I was invited to live in Vaison La Romaigne, France, for a couple of months, at an inn for traveling musicians. I got to tour around the south of France playing chamber music at 6th and 7th century cathedrals, and it was a mind-blowing experience, having never left the country before. I realized that touring was an incredible way to see the world, and it became one of my main focuses after I got to NYC.

How has your playing evolved over the years and have you made changes from the start until now? Can you tell us about those changes?

My playing has absolutely evolved over the years. In the beginning, it was about playing as hard and as raw as possible, a la Flea. As I got more into Jaco and Wooten, my focus became more on technique and solo playing. There was even a time when I felt more comfortable slapping than I did using my fingers, which seems crazy now. When I got to NYC, I learned VERY quickly that nobody wanted to hear that. Bass was all about supporting the song or the band, and it took me several years to really bang that way of thought into my head. 

As I started to gig in NYC’s downtown hip-hop scene several years later, I discovered “Voodoo” by D’Angelo, and my whole world got turned upside down. I traded in my active jazz basses with round wounds for vintage P-basses with flat wounds, and I never looked back. I would never say technique isn’t important, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to record over a reference track a random producer played bass on and I felt like their reference track was infinitely more tasteful for the song than anything I would have instinctively come up with. So, as I’ve gotten older, the whole “less is more” thing, which I used to roll my eyes at, has really become my mantra. Finding that perfect medium between what’s tasteful for the song, while still implementing my little flavor and making it unique, is the ultimate goal. Guys like Anthony Jackson really do that unbelievably well, and it’s absolutely an art form. To serve the song perfectly, yet as soon as you hear the bass part, you go, “Oh, that’s for sure AJ.” It’s so easy to overplay, and I often listen back to recordings I’ve done from years ago and just put my head in my hands. So I guess evolution-wise, that’s always my goal: to be ever more mature in my playing, while still being able to be me.

What are you working on now?

Years ago, I was doing a lot of touring, but suddenly, my main band at the time, Soulfarm, began to significantly slow down for some reason, and my main touring act, Crystal Bowersox, an American Idol runner-up whom I served as musical director for a couple of years, no longer had the label support to continue taking a band on the road. I had recently purchased a condo in Brooklyn, and now I was sitting at home all day wondering how I was going to eat and pay this mortgage. I was even flying back to Florida for months at a time in between gigs just to save some money, mooching off my mom. It sucked. You don’t realize that when you start touring all the time, people sort of forget about you in NYC, and they either assume you’re still out on the road, or other guys steal your gigs, but it’s not like most of them paid that well to begin with, anyway. 

The thought of returning to the club scene, playing multiple nights a week with all different artists for $100-150, for two rehearsals and a gig, just seemed daunting, and I’d be busting my ass for not enough money. Sure, there’d be some great music, but I had bills to pay! I didn’t know what to do, and for a minute, I really thought this was the end of my music career, at least doing it full time as I had been for years. Just as I was preparing to rent out my condo and move back to Florida to go into real-estate or something of the like, I got a random phone call from a Hasidic Jewish guy in Brooklyn. He told me he had seen a video of me on YouTube, and he wanted me to join his wedding band. I had done a handful of Jewish wedding gigs back in the day, but they were pretty brutal. I’d have to lug my amp, my bass guitar, and my upright for the cocktail hour, and a stand, where I’d be given a giant book of songs and have to flip through them at random via numbers being thrown up by hand. They were insanely loud, and I often couldn’t really hear anything I needed to, and I’d go home exhausted with my ears ringing. But I needed the money, and I told him I’d be there. It seemed times had changed, as I no longer needed an amp, my upright, or a stand, and everyone was now on in-ear monitors and given iPads, which were controlled by the band leader. All I needed was a bass and a good preamp/DI. I could now hear everything, and the quality of the music had gone up exponentially. I loved it. Not to mention, it paid incredibly well. Within a week or two, my phone was ringing off the hook with all kinds of contract and gig offers, and before I knew it, I was the main bassist in the scene, working five nights a week, playing with at least ten different bands. Then came the big concert gigs, as well as the studio work, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been featured on several platinum-selling Jewish records. I had become THE guy. 

It’s been almost seven years now, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve met some of the best people I know, there’s virtually no egos on stage whatsoever, and everybody just wants to have a good time, sound great, and get paid. What more can a working musician ask for? Over the years, the business has gone through a bunch of changes, and the freelance thing has sort of shifted into set bands, but I’ve still maintained just about the same schedule while playing with one main band, and popping in with three or four other bands whenever my main band isn’t working. Concerts have slowed down a bit, but there’s still a decent amount of recording work, and I’ve never been busier. It’s really been a blessing, and it has allowed me to not only stay in NYC, but carve out a nice little career niche for myself. 

My passion project for the last few years has been a vintage video game music big band called ConSoul with a bunch of my friends who are all incredible musicians. We don’t really make a lot of money, but we’ve done some great gigs at comic-cons and video game music festivals, as well as some incredible live-stream concerts during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have a ton of great content on both Spotify and YouTube. I’m also attempting to design the ultimate tube/class D hybrid bass amp that doubles as a preamp/DI with a friend of mine who’s a brilliant amp tech, but it’s been extremely challenging and is going to cost me a lot of money. It’s definitely worth it, but this whole pandemic/quarantine thing definitely set me back a bit. I’m hoping 2021 will be a kinder year, and I’ll be able to make some more headway on that front. 

I’m also writing a book! Definitely uncharted territory for me, but it’s shaping up to be sort of a “do’s and don’ts” of being a pro sideman in the 21st century, as well as my story of all my failures and accomplishments over the years. I’m really doing it just because I wish I had read something like it before I made the decision to be a musician professionally, not necessarily to discourage anyone, but maybe help clarify certain things, and help others avoid some mistakes I’ve made and get a better sense of what the music business is like these days.

How’d you find Bergantino, and can you share your thoughts on our bass gear?

I first discovered Bergantino in maybe 2002-2003 at a local south Florida music store called MAE. I had recently learned about higher-end boutique gear from reading Bass Player magazine, and I had my eye on both the Bergantino HT322 as well as the Epifani UL-310. MAE had them both, and I spent a whole day A/B-ing the two. I was blown away by both the massive low end as well as the clarity of the HT322, but ultimately, I chose to go with the Epifani, as it was much lighter in weight, and I thought it would be the better choice for gigging without a car in NYC when I eventually moved there. After arriving in NYC, I started hanging out at Rudy’s Music on 48th Street, and fell in love with the Bergantino HT115. It’s maybe the nicest-sounding single 15? cab I’ve ever heard to this day. When the Bergantino NV series came out, it felt like the NV215 with that 6? mid-driver rather than a tweeter was made for me. I still have mine, and it’s an incredible cab, especially with a big, fat tube amp, like my old Trace Elliot V6. 

I had an endorsement with Euphonic Audio for several years when I was doing the most touring, but after getting into the Jewish wedding scene, I stopped using amps completely and sold off all of my gear. My main rig now is a collection of super high-end tube preamps/DIs. I wanted to play at home and have a rig just in case a gig came up that I’d need an actual amp, and I discovered the perfect solution. The now discontinued Bergantino IP112/EX112. With a 1000-watt power amp built into the cab, I could go XLR in from whichever preamp I wanted, and get the exact sound I was hearing in my in-ears but live through speakers. For smaller gigs, I could just bring a pre and the Bergantino IP112, and for bigger gigs, I could bring the Bergantino EX112 as well. The clarity and low end from just two Bergantino 112s was mind-blowing, and they’re my favorite cabs ever. I even almost bought a second rig just in case something happens to them! I’ve been incredibly impressed with both the new Bergantino forté and forté HP heads, and the whole upgradable features via USB is incredible. I know a lot of guys who swear by their Bergantino B|amps, but I’m honestly the worst with technology, and I just need simple stuff that I can plug and play, but I really can’t wait for some kind of Bergantino DI pedal eventually that I can use on my in-ear gigs! So, get to work, Jim! Just kidding! But seriously….

Tell us about your favorite bass or basses.

I’ve had so many basses over the years, it’s insane. I even started a little business when I was 19, buying and selling vintage Fenders around the world. That enabled me to own and play some of the most incredible basses on the planet. My first unforgettable bass that I loved for years was an all-original ’69 Fender P-bass that I toured around the world with. It was just perfect. Not even sure why I sold that one. For a few years I was an Alleva-Coppolo artist, and had some incredible basses, including one made for Jerry Barnes of Chic. Eventually, I became a Fodera artist, and went through maybe six or seven incredible Foderas. The holy grail was Anthony Jackson’s personal Presentation 6 #9. I had never even played a 6 before, let alone a 36” scale bass, but it just felt and sounded so incredible, I knew I had to make it my main axe. I toured with it for several years before it had an untimely accident, and I had to sell it, broken, to a collector. Still a tough one to think about. I went through an incredible Hofner phase and had some really rare ones, but eventually, I got back into the vintage Fender world, and have owned some of the most incredible pre-CBS P-basses ever made. I’ve sold most of them now, with the exception of Shoshana, my prized all-original ’61, which is one of the greatest basses I’ve ever put my hands on, and I still do most of my recording with. I also got to own an incredible ’52 P-bass (serial #0038) for a couple years, with that infamous Tadeo Gomez neck, and just owning a piece of history like that was incredibly cool. These days, I mostly play my Olinto basses, which are handmade in Brooklyn by my good friends, Mas Hino, Isaac Baird, and Jimmy Carbonetti under the La Bella strings brand name, and they’re the closest feeling and sounding boutique P-basses to pre-CBS basses I’ve ever experienced. They’ve made me a ’55 copy, a ’59 copy (which is my main gigging bass), a 5-string copy of THAT bass, and a copy of Shoshana, my ’61, that’s about to be finished. About a year ago, Jimmy made me a “signature model” bass under his Carbonetti brand name that we call the Constantine. It’s a 30” scale hollow body 4 string featuring a roasted alder body, mahogany back, roasted ash heel block, flamed maple top, roasted maple neck, and a roasted Birdseye maple fingerboard that morphs into a floating pickguard design, which I’ve never seen before. Three custom wound humbuckers, a 5-way switch, giant turquoise inlays, and a super unique, never-before-seen string-through method, where the strings come up through an open hole on the top of the body, allowing the use of standard length strings despite it’s short scale size, really make the Constantine a one-a-kind instrument. The coolest part was right after it was finished, we were visited by the one and only, Willie Weeks, who fell in love with the bass and asked to have one made for him! I couldn’t think of a better way to validate it!  To know that a legend like Willie Weeks, one of my all-time bass heroes, will be using MY signature bass is just mind blowing!

Who are your influences?

Originally, I was obsessed with Flea, but I can’t say Stu Zender from Jamiroquai and Rocco Prestia from Tower of Power weren’t also tremendous influences. My dad was a huge TOP fan, and I was raised listening to cassettes of them in his car. They were even my first live concert at 3 years old! By high school, it was Jaco and Wooten, as I fell in love with both Weather Report and the Flecktones. I still think Jaco’s work with Joni Mitchell might be his best, especially the album “Mingus.” Stanley Clarke soon followed with Return to Forever as did Paul Jackson with Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. I even wrote two music theory papers in college dissecting RTF’s record, “Musicmagic” and Herbie’s record, “Sunlight.” The Headhunters’ records WITHOUT Herbie are incredible as well. Nathaniel Phillips from the band Pleasure was also a tremendous influence on me throughout college, but after I dropped out and got more into hip-hop and neo-soul, I became obsessed with players like Pino Palladino and Meshell Ndegeocello, and I eventually fell in love with James Jamerson, who I consider the greatest bass player of all time. 

The busier I became as a working bassist, I admit that I kind of stopped listening to music like I had done in the past, which I sometimes regret. I really stopped caring about what other famous bass players were doing, and trying to come up with my own stuff and style became more fun to me. Several years ago, I got really into Steely Dan and their songwriting, and after hearing Anthony Jackson on “Glamour Profession,” I went down the AJ rabbit hole. I never quite understood his soloing, to be honest, but his groove work and bass line writing on all those Chaka records is holy ground, in my opinion. Most recently, I discovered an old defunct band from the late 70’s/early 80’s called Pages, and both the bass playing and songwriting of Richard Paige really blew my mind, not to mention his singing! At this point, I’m really open to what anybody is doing. After a certain point in skill, pretty much anybody can get the job done. It really becomes a matter of taste and personal style, so I feel like I can always learn something new from watching and listening to others! Sometimes, I’m so sick of hearing myself and my “bag of tricks” that it’s super refreshing to hear somebody else’s take on something, even if they’re not super famous.

I know you also work with La Bella Strings as director of Artist Relations for their Olinto basses. Can you tell us more about that?

About 12 years ago, I got my first string endorsement with Black Diamond strings, a small mom-and-pop string company out of my home state of Florida. They make GREAT stuff and gave me basically a 50% off deal on whatever I wanted. A couple years later, my good friend Tim came to visit from Hong Kong, and he brought me a set of La Bella’s new Rx nickel rounds to try. I fell in love with them. When I started playing my 36” scale 6 string Fodera, I needed custom length strings, and Tim told me to reach out to La Bella to see if I could get the Rx nickels in 38? winding. That’s how I met Eric Cocco, who is the VP of La Bella strings. He not only offered to make me custom sets of strings, but he offered me an incredible endorsement deal. I signed the contract and went to go meet him at the Guitar Shop NYC, which was on Orchard Street at the time. I had met Mas Hino once before at a party, but I didn’t realize he was the head luthier at Eric’s shop. We all hung out and instantly hit it off. 

A few years later, I had a really scary incident while flying with my beloved ’61 P-bass, and I decided it was time to find another bass for my fly dates. I remembered that La Bella was making these Olinto basses, but I had never played one before. I asked Eric if Mas could make an exact copy of my bass, and he told me he could, but I should come down to the shop, which was now located in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and try out this red Olinto bass they had just finished. It was so incredible, I bought it on the spot, and it quickly replaced my ’61 as my main bass. It sounded just as great, and the neck was unreal. After buying another few used Olintos, I decided to put in an order for a custom one, and it was the first one they had made with roasted body and neck woods as well as Brazilian rosewood for the fingerboard. To this day, it’s maybe the nicest Olinto I think they’ve made, and it’s been my main bass for 4 years now and counting. Eventually, I pushed Mas to make me their first 5-string, and now it’s a production model. 

I was convincing so many friends and players to get Olintos, that it just seemed to make sense that I start working for the shop in some capacity. I now manage the Olinto Instagram account, as well as take and process orders, and deal with new customers as well as those on our artist roster. It was always a dream of mine to work with an incredible bass gear company who made stuff I truly believed in, and to work with such magical people like Mas, Eric, Jimmy, and Isaac is a dream come true. How many people get to say their co-workers are some of their best friends? We’re still an incredibly small company, and I think a lot of people don’t actually realize that, or even how small of a company La Bella strings is, but we’re constantly coming up with new ideas, new models, and I hope to continue with these guys to watch it grow. They’re really making the best pre-CBS spec P-basses on the planet, and if anybody would know by now, it’s me! What’s really special is just how much passion these guys have for what they do. It’s truly inspiring.

Favorite thing to do besides play bass and eat sushi?

Ha! Well, anyone who knows me knows how serious I am about sushi. I even jokingly told a friend recently that at this point, I really only play music to support my sushi habit! The quality of some of these omakase places we have here in NYC is staggering, and I’m kind of happy more people aren’t hip to it or don’t want to spend that kind of money so I can always make reservations! I even took a trip to Japan this past year and blew an ungodly amount of money just eating my way across some of Tokyo’s most famous spots to see how it compared. As incredible as it was, I was happy to learn that some of my favorite spots in NYC are right up there with the best! If you love sushi and you haven’t tried places like Omakase Room by Tatsu or Sushi Noz in the city, you’re really missing out! But great food of all kinds has always been a huge hobby of mine, and NYC is one of the greatest places to eat in the world, hands down. We have the best of everything! I’m also a tremendous nerd when it comes to gaming, anime, and comics, so whenever I’m not gigging somewhere or eating sushi, that’s most likely what I’m doing. Many people don’t know I was a sponsored long boarder at one time, but unfortunately, I gave it up in fear that I would injure myself and ruin my career playing bass. I still miss it sometimes. I’m also a classic Florida beach bum at heart, so anytime I’m not working during the summer, you can most definitely find me at the beach or in the water! 

Follow Mitch Friedman on Instagram @mitchthebassplayer. More on Bergantino available at bergantino.com

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Checking in with Bergantino Artist James Tobias

James Tobias, Bassist for psychedelic, Reggae-Rock titans Audic Empire shares his history as a musician and how he came to find Bergantino…

Interview by Holly Bergantino

James Tobias, a multi-talented musician and jack-of-all-trades shares his story of coming up as a musician in Texas, his journey with his band Audic Empire, and his approach to life and music. With a busy tour schedule each year, we were fortunate to catch up with him while he was out and about touring the US. 

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Dallas, Texas and lived in the Dallas area most of my life with the exception of 1 year in Colorado. I moved to the Austin area at age 18. 

What makes the bass so special to you particularly, and how did you gravitate to it?

I honestly started playing bass because we needed a bass player and I was the one with access to a bass amp and bass. I played rhythm guitar and sang up until I met Ronnie, who I would later start “Audic Empire” with. He also played rhythm guitar and sang and we didn’t know any bass players, so we had to figure something out. I still write most of my songs on guitar, but I’ve grown to love playing the bass. 

How did you learn to play, James?

I took guitar lessons growing up and spent a lot of time just learning tabs or playing by ear and kicked around as a frontman in a handful of bands playing at the local coffee shops or rec centers. Once I transitioned to bass, I really just tried to apply what I knew about guitar and stumbled through it till it sounded right. I’m still learning every time I pick it up, honestly. 

You are also a songwriter, recording engineer, and a fantastic singer, did you get formal training for this? 

Thank you, that means a lot!  I had a couple of voice lessons when I was in my early teens, but didn’t really like the instructor. I did however take a few lessons recently through ACC that I enjoyed and think really helped my technique (Shout out to Adam Roberts!) I was not a naturally gifted singer, which is a nice way of saying I was pretty awful, but I just kept at it. 

As far as recording and producing, I just watched a lot of YouTube videos and asked people who know more than me when I had a question. Whenever I feel like I’m not progressing, I just pull up tracks from a couple of years ago, cringe, and feel better about where I’m at but I’ve got a long way to go. Fortunately, we’ve got some amazing producers I can pass everything over to once I get the songs as close to finalized as I can. 

Describe your playing style(s), tone, strengths and/or areas that can be improved on the bass.

I honestly don’t know what my style would be considered. We’ve got so many styles that we play and fuse together that I just try to do what works song by song.  I don’t have too many tricks in the bag and just keep it simple and focus on what’s going to sound good in the overall mix. I think my strength lies in thinking about the song as a whole and what each instrument is doing, so I can compliment everything else that’s going on. What could be improved is absolutely everything, but that’s the great thing about music (and kind of anything really). 

Who were your influencers in terms of other musicians earlier on or now that have made a difference and inspired you?

My dad exposed me to a lot of music early. I was playing a toy guitar while watching a VHS of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble live at SXSW on repeat at 4 years old saying I wanted to “do that” when I grew up. I was the only kid in daycare that had his own CDs that weren’t kid’s songs. I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and The Doors when I could barely talk. I would make up songs and sing them into my Panasonic slimline tape recorder and take it to my preschool to show my friends. As I got older went through a bunch of music phases. Metal, grunge, rock, punk, hip hop, reggae, ska, etc. Whatever I heard that I connected to I’d dive in and learn as much as I could about it. I was always in bands and I think I kept picking up different styles along the way and kept combining my different elements and I think that’s evident in Audic’s diverse sound. 

Tell me about Audic Empire and your new release Take Over! Can you share some of the highlights you and the band are most proud of?

Takeover was an interesting one. I basically built that song on keyboard and drum loops and wrote and tracked all my vocals in one long session in my bedroom studio kind of in a stream-of-consciousness type of approach. I kind of thought nothing would come of it and I’d toss it out, but we slowly went back and tracked over everything with instruments and made it our own sound. I got it as far as I could with production and handed it off to Chad Wrong to work his magic and really bring it to life. Once I got Snow Owl Media involved and we started brainstorming about a music video, it quickly turned into a considerably larger production than anything we’ve done before and it was such a cool experience. I’m really excited about the final product, especially considering I initially thought it was a throwaway track.

Describe the music style of Audic Empire for us. 

It’s all over the place… we advertise it as “blues, rock, reggae.” Blues because of our lead guitarist, Travis Brown’s playing style, rock because I think at the heart we’re a rock band, and reggae because we flavor everything with a little (or a lot) of reggae or ska. 

How did you find Bergantino Audio Systems?

Well, my Ampeg SVT7 caught fire at a show… We were playing Stubbs in Austin and everyone kept saying they smelled something burning, and I looked back in time to see my head, perched on top of its 8×10 cab, begin billowing smoke. We had a tour coming up, so I started researching and pricing everything to try and find a new amp. I was also fronting a metal band at the time, and my bass player’s dad was a big-time country bass player and said he had this really high-end bass amp just sitting in a closet he’d sell me. I was apprehensive since I really didn’t know much about it and “just a little 4×10” probably wasn’t going to cut it compared to my previous setup. He said I could come over and give it a test drive, but he said he knew I was going to buy it. He was right. I immediately fell in love. I couldn’t believe the power it put out compared to this heavy head and cumbersome cab I had been breaking my back hauling all over the country and up countless staircases.  

Tell us about your experience with the forte D amp and the AE 410 Speaker cabinet. 

It’s been a game-changer in every sense. It’s lightweight and compact. Amazing tone. And LOUD. It’s just a fantastic amp. Not to mention the customer service being top-notch! You’ll be hard-pressed to find another product that, if you have an issue, you can get in touch with the owner, himself. How cool is that? 

Tell us about some of your favorite basses.

I was always broke and usually working part-time delivering pizzas, so I just played what I could get my hands on. I went through a few pawn shop basses, swapped in new pickups, and fought with the action on them constantly. I played them through an Ampeg be115 combo amp. All the electronics in it had fried at some point, so I gutted it out and turned it into a cab that I powered with a rusted-up little head I bought off someone for a hundred bucks. My gear was often DIY’d and held together by electrical tape and usually had a few coats of spray paint to attempt to hide the wear and tear. I never really fell in love with any piece of gear I had till I had a supporter of our band give me an Ibanez Premium Series SDGR. I absolutely love that bass and still travel with it. I’ve since gotten another Ibanez Premium Series, but went with the 5-string BTB.  It’s a fantastic-sounding bass, my only complaint is it’s pretty heavy. 

Love your new video Take Over! Let us know what you’re currently working on (studio, tour, side projects, etc.)

Thank you!! We’ve got a LOT of stuff we’re working on right now actually. Having 2 writers in the band means we never have a shortage of material. It’s more about getting everything tracked and ready for release and all that goes into that. We just got through filming videos for 2 new unreleased tracks with Snow Owl Media, who did the videos for both Love Hate and Pain and Takeover. Both of these songs have surprise features which I’m really excited about since these will be the first singles since our last album we have other artists on. We’ve also got a lot of shows coming up and I’ve also just launched my solo project as well. The debut single, “Raisin’ Hell” is available now everywhere. You can go here to find all the links distrokid.com/hyperfollow/jamestobias/raisin-hell

What else do you do besides music?

For work, I own a handyman service here in Austin doing a lot of drywall, painting, etc. I have a lot of hobbies and side hustles as well. I make custom guitar straps and other leather work. I do a lot of artwork and have done most of our merch designs and a lot of our cover art. I’m really into (and borderline obsessed) with health, fitness, and sober living.  I have a hard time sitting still, but fortunately, there’s always a lot to do when you’re self-employed and running a band!

Follow James Tobias:

jamestobiasmusic.com
Facebook.com/james.tobias1
Instagram.com/ru4badfish2
TikTok.com/@jamestobiasmusic
audicempire.com 

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Bass Videos

Interview With Bassist Edmond Gilmore

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Interview With Bassist Edmond Gilmore

Interview With Bassist Edmond Gilmore…

I am always impressed by the few members of our bass family who are equally proficient on upright as well as electric bass… Edmond Gilmore is one of those special individuals.

While he compartmentalizes his upright playing for mostly classical music and his electric for all the rest, Edmond has a diverse musical background and life experiences that have given him a unique perspective.

Join me as we hear about Edmond’s musical journey, how he gets his sound and his plans for the future.

Photo, Sandrice Lee

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Features

Billy The Kid: Tapping Into Sheehan’s Eternal Youth!

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Bassist Billy Sheehan

By David C. Gross & Tom Semioli 

BS: Billy Sheehan
DCG: David C. Gross
TS: Tom Semioli 

“When you find one door, open it up! It leads to another world…” 

William Roland Sheehan needs no introduction to bassists, nor hard rock aficionados – however such perfunctory salutations are required for the uninitiated. 

A virtuoso (tap, shred, effects maestro – you name it) who plies his craft in genres loosely termed as metal, prog-rock, and heavy-prog, Sheehan is actually a musical polymath. Though he’s most commonly associated with the numerous high-profile voltage enhanced ensembles he’s been an integral part of – namely Sons of Apollo, Talas, Winery Dogs, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, Greg Howe, Niacin, and Tony MacAlpine to cite a very few – Billy digs everything from classical to jazz to synth-pop to electronic to flamenco to Tuvan throat singing – and then some. All of which is reflected in his work on stage and in the studio – which incidentally, has been going strong for six decades and counting.

With age comes wisdom. We caught Billy in the midst of Mr. Big’s farewell sojourn with his signature Yamaha Attitude bass in his lap. Note that while we were setting up the Zoom connection – Billy was working scales and warming up despite the reality that there was no show scheduled that evening! Sheehan explains why said collective is taking its final bow. Not to worry, the Buffalo-born bassist has much more work to do. In fact, you could say that Billy’s just getting started. 

TS: Someone once sang “I hope I die before I get old…” Yet when we take a look around us at a few of your peers and heroes such as Tony Levin and Ron Carter just to name two– they’re going stronger than ever. Reflect on the young Billy Sheehan and the 21st Century Billy Sheehan. What’s changed? What is the same? 

BS: As you grow you become more focused. I don’t want to say that I’m more mature, because that has other implications! 

As a musician – and I think this is true with all artists – we maintain our 16-year-old sensibilities for life! It’s healthy to maintain a youthful exuberance.  I’m thankful that I still have it. Somehow that was built into me. 

I’m still excited about getting up in the morning and working on my bass playing every day. I’ll be driving in my car and a musical idea will suddenly hit me and I have to get home to pick up my instrument.

Perhaps it’s because we can devote more time to things at this point in our lives. Hopefully, we’re not running around trying to get our lives together and we have more stability. That can lead to a new personal Renaissance for the over 50s players. It’s a great time to be alive at my age. 

DCG: Do you think the snow in Buffalo helped you develop into a virtuoso player?

BS: Absolutely! (laughter) I remember the Blizzard of ’77! I couldn’t leave my house. The snow was up to my chest. I think we went something like 60 to 90 days with the temperature not getting above freezing. I had my little apartment, my little bass, my little heater – so what else could I do? 

I learned the Brandenburg Concertos on bass…well, not all of it, just chunks here and there. However, the adversity you get from your environment can be an advantage, like it was for me – I was isolated. I was on my own with no interruptions. Back then I was free – no kids, no girlfriend. I froze but I think it paid off! 

DCG: There is one bass tip you gave me – not personally, it was in an interview – regarding strap length. The advice was to simply grab a piece of leather, sit down the way you practice, put the leather on you, stand up, and that is the optimum position for your bass!  

BS: Of all the fancy stuff I’ve tried to show people I’ve received more response from the strap length than anything else. 

But it’s really important. I’m sitting here with my bass practicing. When I stand up to play live, I need it to be in the same place. You need to maintain the angles of your hands, fingers, and arms. If you get up to play and the bass is lower nothing seems to work. 

DCG: That’s because you’re not using the muscles you’ve developed during practice. However you do want to look cool on stage, and the low-slung bass is the ultimate rock star aesthetic.

BS: Right, which is why we should invent a strap with a button on it to instantly lower and raise the bass! (laughter)

Note: Billy proceeds to model different bass lengths – chest level for progressive rock, and under his chin for what Sheehan terms as ‘the jazz bowtie.” 

TS: You came to prominence in a decade known as the 1980s which to my ears was a golden era for bassists. Our instrument was able to adapt to the new technologies. The improvements in recording and pro audio allowed bass notes to be heard rather than a low rumble lost somewhere in the mix. 

BS: It was a great decade. There is a constant evolution going on. It goes from artist to artist. One artist hears somebody – let’s say Oscar Peterson hears Art Tatum – and suddenly we have this amazing confluence of both styles together. I learned from many of the players that came before me – it’s a long list – everybody imaginable – and some not. Consequently, I stood on their shoulders. 

Today there are people who are standing on my shoulders! There is a whole generation of players who are doing what we thought was impossible – or couldn’t even imagine. And that’s a great thing. We see that happen in all the arts.

In music, more than anything, we notice a significant ascension in skills. Some other art forms go off into abstractions whereas in music, there is a real technical, definable and quantifiable ability to play a string of notes in time, in tune, and righteously. That has gone way, way up to me. 

I have a huge collection of music. I often focus on one particular brand of music – for example: garage rock from the 1960s.  There is rarely a bass in tune! Not even close – sometimes a half step off! Why nobody noticed it, I’ll never know! 

As we progressed, it got much better – more in tune, in time. 

My first concert was Jimi Hendrix. I went to see him play and I got up close and took a few photos. That was as close as I ever got to him. Now on YouTube – you can see his fingerprints as he’s playing. You can see the iris in his eyes. You can watch and learn everything. I think that is a great advantage to a new generation of players. 

They are fortunate in ways that we never were in that there are amazing documents of the musicians that came before them. So now the shoulders are even wider to stand on! Before that the best we could do, as you guys know, is listen to a record and go ‘I think it’s this (Billy renders imaginary riff)! I’m not sure…’ We find out later that we were either right on the money or somewhere in between. 

TS: However, ‘getting it wrong’ sometimes develops your individual style. Even if I couldn’t get John Entwistle’s line perfectly, I came up with something else that is unique to me. 

BS: Very true! You had to improvise and try to figure out how they did it. As a result, we have the ability to play stylistically. And the mechanics can be wildly across the spectrum of innovation. 

I traveled to Japan years ago to participate in a huge bass clinic. There were 3000 people in the auditorium and about 10 players on stage. One bassist played this complicated piece that I had recorded. And he did it exactly, but his technique was nowhere near the way I played it. It was amazing and it taught me a lot. He took a left turn and still landed in the right place. Awesome! 

As you both know, there are a million factors that go into this.  There are many paths to express yourself, and to be the way you want to be. 

TS: Growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s – we heard pop music on the radio with such extraordinary players as James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Louis Johnson, to name a few. Aside from metal, alternative, country, and funk – there hasn’t been a bass on hit tunes – even with such contemporary R&B artists such as Rhianna, Cardi B, and Beyonce – how do we get our instrument back into the mainstream? 

BS: I think it is cyclical. That sub-sonic, sub-harmonic pre-programmed thing – you know where they pump the bass line, or make a midi-file of it – is very popular now. And sonically – it is bassier! It’s more precise, and right on. 

That is the style that people’s ears are used to right now. They are also acclimated to auto-tune vocals. When they hear a natural vocal, which 99% of the time is not in perfect pitch, it throws them! Nowadays every note lands perfectly on that ProTools grid. The vocals are tuned to perfection, there is not a slightly flat or slightly sharp note to be found. 

I think the pendulum will swing back at some point. People are going to want to hear more humanity. They gravitate to something slightly out of time or out of tune which gives the music authenticity. Like taking a breath – we all do not inhale and exhale at the same rate. Our hearts do not beat at the same rate! I believe that there is an analogy there for music as well.

At present, we are in the perfection stage. There is beauty to that too. I don’t put it down. There’s not much about music that I do not like. Millions of love this type of music, and I acknowledge it. Who am I to say? There are a lot of cool things to think about. Especially in electronic music that was coming out in the 80s and 90s – artists such as Prodigy, Fat Boy Slim.

DCG: Yes, it was very experimental. 

BS: I loved that right away. There was a Stacey Q song ‘Love of Hearts’ with the coolest synth bass part. I remember sitting down and my challenge to myself was to work that out on a bass guitar. I tried to play it as rock solid as the programmed track. Sometimes it’s good to go with ‘man vs. machine!’ and try to match up to that studio perfection. And that goes for any musician, not just a bass player. You have to push yourself in different directions. When you find one door, open it up! It leads to another world… 

DCG: The older we get the more we appreciate things, and even in new music -which may not speak to us per se – there is something to be learned. For example, Justin Timberlake commented that he commences the songwriting process with beats as opposed to traditional chord changes and melodies – which is how our generation hears music. 

BS: This is true. And when I was young, I remember the older generation saying ‘What is this Jimi Hendrix stuff you’re listening to, it’s not music!’ 

And now I see a lot of young folks at our shows – especially Winery Dogs and Sons of Apollo – so there is somewhat of a generational hand-off going on today. 

My mom was big into the standard singers of her era; Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin, and similar artists. I am big into Sinatra!

DCG: What is your favorite Sinatra record?

BS: That would be Live at The Sands! Of course!

DCG: Mine is Frank Sinatra Sings for Only The Lonely. 

BS: That’s a good one! Live at The Sands is a compilation of five shows. It is a collection of the best parts of five nights…

DCG: Quincy Jones did the arrangements! 

BS: Right! I found recordings of all the other shows! That’s the nature of my collection. I always search out the impossible. I also have the rehearsals for Jimi’s Band of Gypsys before they ever performed. It’s amazing to hear different versions of those songs. 

Getting back to your comment on the components of music from this generation to the previous ones– I think it’s harder to go from the standard verse-chorus-bridge to a flat beat and vocalizations without any real pitch. That is a big jump. 

Yesterday I was discussing the chord changes in Beatles songs with a colleague of mine. For me, the greatest song ever written is The Beatles ‘If I Fell.’ How elaborate they were. I remember learning Everly Brothers songs on guitar and then the Beatles came out and it changed everything. I recall thinking ‘How does this even work?’ That was a jump back then, now what is happening is an even bigger jump because there were still harmonic relations between new and older music. 

But that does not mean that the new way of doing things for some artists cannot be crossed over.  Again, I appreciated a lot of new stuff. The computer-generated stuff, I’m not crazy about it because many of my friends are musicians and I like to hear them playing instead of programming. Yet there is a real beauty to electronic music. 

I was way into Wendy Carlos (composer/recording artist who was a 1960s electronic music pioneer and worked with Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog Synthesizer) back in the day. There was a great record by Mark Hankinson entitled The Unusual Classical Synthesizer (1972). I love the work of Japanese synthesist (Isao) Tomita – he wasn’t doing rhythmic Bach and Beethoven – he was doing Debussy on synthesizer which was mind-blowing to me. His record of Debussy Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974) – is full of lilting, emotional pads and colors. Just incredible. 

I’m also a big fan of world music – though that is a title that is too often misused. Bulgarian choir music intrigues me.

DCG: How about the Tuvan throat singers…

BS: Oh yeah, that is not human! Unbelievable. And they’re all in a room singing… I am also a huge fan of Indian music especially violinist L. Shankar whom Frank Zappa referred to as the best musician he ever knew. 

And it’s all available now…

TS:  You bring up the topic of streaming music – and a question to all the artists David and I speak with. Given the nature of the platform, which is song-oriented, is the album format still relevant today? 

BS: To some of us, the format is still relevant. When I’m on tour we sell lots of vinyl. The 1985 Talas record came out on vinyl and we have a hard time keeping up with it. The pressing plants are backed up from six months to a year in some instances. 

I saw one columnist comment that he didn’t know if people were actually playing the records as much as they enjoyed holding them in their hands! 

Who knows, there may be a time when the grid goes down and everyone is going to have to get their bicycle out, or their generator and get a turntable going again! 

DCG: Tom, how do you make a musician complain? 

TS: Give him a gig!

(laughter) 

BS: That’s true! The internet has brought on the age of complaining…

TS: Musicians complained that the record labels were unfair gatekeepers. When MTV came along – a platform that gave massive exposure to scores of artists – yourself included; musicians once again complained that it favored only the visuals as opposed to the music. Now with digital technology, musicians can go directly to the consumer. 

BS: For lack of a better word, things are more ‘democratic’ now. You can accelerate your promotion. For example, I am on a laptop now and I can record an entire symphony orchestra and do the movie soundtrack along with it. Then I can go online and sell it. That has leveled the playing field quite a bit. Before, you could only do that if you had a big budget – you’d have to hire a studio, engineers – it was cost-prohibitive in many instances. You can even do it on an iPhone! 

So, to me, that’s a good thing. 

I’ve heard of this parallel with this, perhaps you will concur with me; when desktop publishing first came out the reaction was ‘Oh no, there will be so many amazing books we won’t know what to do anymore!’ However, the same number of books still made it to the top of the list – despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people writing via desktop publishing. 

And I think the same situation exists with music. Despite the population of the world making music, there is still going to be stuff that gravitates to the top. So, I don’t think it is so wildly different from when there were gatekeepers as you say. 

So that’s a good thing. You can be one click away from a billion listeners. That is amazing. The bad thing is, so are a million other people! 

DCG: As I said to Tom yesterday, in 100 years, I don’t think people will be reading. 

BS: I agree, and that it sad to see. Because similar to music, you can use your imagination. There is a fantastic book entitled This Is Your Brain on Music (written by neuroscientist Daniel Joseph Levitin, first published in 2006) – and I had a conversation by email with the author. 

The creativity that you must have in your mind when you’re reading a book – if a passage reads ‘snow is falling, smoke is coming from the chimneys…’ you can see it and smell it in your mind. You create a cinematic scenario. Whereas in a movie, it’s all spoon-fed to you. 

TS: The latest kerfuffle in the music business in 2024 is the use of artificial intelligence. What say you of AI?

BS: I am a purist in a lot of ways. When people ask me for advice about getting into the music business I tell them three things: 

1. Get in a band. 

2. Get in a band with songs… 

3. Get in a band with songs that you sing!

Run the numbers of every bass player, every guitar player and so forth and those three steps are the most successful. AI does not necessarily fit in with that. I have yet to wrap my head around AI to have a solid opinion about it.  In general, I am leaning towards humans, humanity, and people thinking up things. 

People thought up AI, it didn’t think up itself. And it’s all on a computer which is made by humans! I see the urge to create a robot world where everything is done by robots. But unless somebody programs it…it ain’t gonna happen. So there is that human element that is still essential.

Until we get robots that can program, then they’ll be some self-replicating, and then we’ll wind up with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator of some sort!  That could happen. Science fiction has predicted many things that came to be! 

I prefer the Everly Brothers to AI. If and when the whole world goes to hell, we can still sit around a campfire with a guitar and sing songs. 

TS: Let’s talk bass for a change. David and I have a credo that states ‘it’s not a real bass until you drill holes in it.’ David now favors custom instruments, though he still loves to tear up a perfectly good bass and rebuild it in his own image every now and then. I prefer to modify my Fender basses. What was your original inspiration to create the legendary ‘wife’ and other basses? 

BS: For me, the Fender Precision bass is the bass. Ninety-nine percent of everything has been done on that instrument or some variation thereof. 

This (Billy holds aloft his Yamaha Attitude bass) is very P bass-ish. When Yamaha contacted me to make a bass and endorse their instrument – Fender was at a low point. They were changing ownership, there were shifts going on in the company, and their instruments weren’t that great. I’m going to say that was the mid-1980s.

Yamaha came along with quality control second to none in my opinion. I am glad went with them and I will always be with them. 

The P bass is undeniable. Before my first P bass came into the store – that was Art Kubera’s Music Store on Fillmore Avenue in Buffalo, New York – they let me take home an Epiphone Rivoli bass – or the Gibson version of that, which had the big, fat chrome pick-up right here beneath the base of the neck.  It had a super deep low-end resonance. 

I played for a few days, and when my bass came in I played it and it sounded great but it was missing that sound from the Rivoli. It was a super deep low sound like I’d heard on ‘Rain’ by The Beatles – which may have been Paul’s Rickenbacker or Hofner. 

Notes From An Artist Notes: Paul’s aforementioned instruments both featured pick-ups beneath the base of the neck and body! 

Paul Samwell-Smith of The Yardbirds, who used an Epiphone Rivoli – was a big inspiration to me and he had that deep sound.  

I loved the P bass but I wanted those sounds so I figured ‘Hey, I’ve got all this space right here, why don’t I dig a hole and put a pick-up in there!’ I didn’t know how to wire it, so I made two outputs and ran it into two channels of my amplifier. We’re talking 1970…1971. When dinosaurs roamed the earth!

Then I got a second amp – one was for all the harmonics and high-end content and then the super low deep end on the other. That really helped me in a three-piece band. We didn’t have a keyboard or rhythm guitar, so I had something that sounded guitar-ish and keyboard-ish but there was always bass underneath it. I never lost that low end. And that is basically the formula I stuck with. 

Then I found out later on – of course, I did not invent it, I came up with it on my own – all the others did too, that all the early Alembic basses had duel outputs for each pickup. Rickenbacker’s Rick-O-Sound had both pickups going to two places. 

I’d read that John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin took his Fender Jazz bass and split the pick-ups into two amps. John Entwistle did stuff like that as well. Chuck Burghofer,  who played the iconic bass part to the Barney Miller show theme song had a Gibson EB-0 pick-up on his Precision bass! A lot of players used that for the same solution to the same problem. 

If you really want to extend the low end – that neck pick-up is really where it is at. And that’s how I got to where I am on my Attitude bass. The Attitude neck is modeled after a 1968 Fender Telecaster bass – it’s a big fat baseball bat! It’s meaty with a lot of sustain. And that’s my story sad but true! (laughter)

TS: The great Mel Schacher of Grand Funk Railroad modded out his Fender Jazz with an EB-1 pickup at the neck – that’s how he attained his signature tone. 

BS: One of my favorite players!

TS: Since our show commenced three years ago as The Bass Guitar Channel David and I have debated the merits of the extended-range bass. You’ve always been a four-string guy. I last saw you with Sons of Apollo with a double neck bass – with both in four-string configurations. 

David and I spoke with Jerry Jemmott, the legendary bassist who, as you know, was a great influence on Jaco Pastorius. He maintains that Jaco would have continued with the four-string had he lived to see the advancements in extended-range five and six-string instruments. He also stresses that it was the limitations of the four-string that were a major factor in Jaco’s style – it prompted him to be more creative within those so-called restrictions.  Your thoughts?  

BS: I’ve already got enough death threats from five and six-string players! (laughter) 

I refer to the five-string bass as a ‘flinch.’ You have a guy sitting at home playing a four-string, it’s not really working out for him. He’s not playing in a good band… he’s not happening. So he thinks ‘I’ll go to five-strings!’ 

DCG: Oh Jesus!!!! C’mon Billy…

BS: Well, that’s really not a true blanket statement… (laughter)

Really, if you want to play five-string, God bless you, go for it! Go for however many strings you want.

When I posted my double-neck on social media, there was a ton of vitriol! Hostility! Attacks! I got feedback such as ‘You should play a five-string, that’s just wasteful!’ 

Hold on, I played a double-neck for a lot of different reasons. First of all, they are tuned differently. On the Mr. Big tour, we had to lower the keys on many songs. We’re not like we used to be vocally. Some of our songs are a whole step lower – so I’d have to switch basses, which would interrupt the flow of the performance. With the double-neck, I have every tuning I need right here. 

It seems like nobody could figure that out, especially the five-string. The double-neck is a fantastic instrument, it feels good, and it’s perfectly balanced for me. Standard tuning on the top neck, BEAD on the bottom. All my notes are where I want them to be. 

I agree with Jerry, I think Jaco would have stuck with the four-string. Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen played four strings. Monk Montgomery… There really is no limitation on a four-string. 

I can bend my Attitude on the G string to a high G. I can go really low with my de-tuner. I can bend the low D to a low B! So I have almost the same range as a lot of extended ranges basses right here.

I remember being in a band with Steve Vai and I had one low B note in one song, so I simply hit the de-tuner! Where there is a will there is a way! 

If you want to play a 90-string bass, I’m with you! The insistence that we all have to play the same bass with the same tone with the same everything – and if you don’t – you’re out of the club! I can’t hang with that. 

TS: You’ve collaborated with so many virtuoso guitarists – Steve Vai, Tony MacAlpine, Ritchie Kotzen, Paul Gilbert, and Michael Schenker to select a scant few. Who are the players, past or present, whom you would like to work with the most? 

PS: Sadly we lost that guitar player, and I don’t think I am qualified either: Paco de Lucia! He was tops on my list. Also I have to add John McLaughlin to the list. I am a huge Mahavishnu Orchestra fan. I am a big Billy Cobham fan too.

You mention guitar players, but I am more of a ‘drummer’ guy! I got to see Cobham in Dreams before the Mahavishnu Orchestra with the Brecker Brothers on horns for $1.50 at the University of Buffalo. He blew my mind! 

I love Dennis Chambers. Playing with him changed my life. 

DCG: Tell us how you approach working with guitar heroes.

BS: I like to work ‘with’ guitarists. I do what they need to have done. In the past when I played with Steve Vai, I removed myself from the equation. My approach was ‘What does Steve want? What does he need?’ In some ways, it takes the burden off me to be continuously creative. I strive to play accurately and righteously and make him happy. I don’t want him to even think of the bass while he is doing his thing. 

He is free and I am providing that big foundation – think of it as 18 inches of steel-reinforced concrete! With Paul Gilbert in Mr. Big, I always make sure there are big fat notes underneath him while he is soloing and I get the heck out of his way! I want to hear him too!

Bass is primarily a supportive instrument. Most anybody will agree to that I believe. The instrument does its own things too; sometimes its really woven into improvisation, sometimes it’s the foundation.

The problem I have with some guitarists is that if I move harmonically – they get thrown off because they cannot play over changes. Even if I am in the key of E minor, if I do some movement in the key other than the root, they are completely lost. I tell them not to worry, we are still in the same key! 

If you listen to Bach, what he does in the left-hand affects the sound of the right hand. The moving notes create intriguing counterpoint which are essential components of music and harmony. 

Depending on the guitarist, I’ll move around all over the place. Within reason of course! I give them the option to go where they want to go, and not to work because I’ll follow you! I will instinctively get out of the way when you need me to. Lock in with the drummer and I’ll jump in when it’s time. This way we create an interchange – an improvisation. Again, think Bach with the left hand and the right hand. You hit one note, you hit another, and something changes! That is harmony. It creates a third tone in a way.

When you can do that as a bass player it leads to more harmonic complexity in a good way. 

That’s not to say that Cliff Williams in AC/DC isn’t a genius. He’s pounding that beautiful open E string while Angus is doing his thing and it is glorious. Amazing. Same thing with Ian Hill of Judas Priest – he holds the whole band together. 

TS: And on the topic of drummers, Michael Portnoy and you have two remarkable bands that are completely different: the prog-rock collective of Sons of Apollo, and the blues-based Winery Dogs. 

BS: Winery Dogs is straight-up rock with a lot of improvisational stuff. Sons of Apollo is more of a progressive arranged style – the parts are the same – they are written into the song, much like classical music. As you can hear, there is not as much free form moving in Sons of Apollo. 

Sometimes I have this ESP thing going on with drummers. I remember one time I was setting up in a little club to do a jam and drummer Ray Luzier of Korn – we are dear friends and have a production company together – I had my back to him and I was plugging in my little amp. The lights were down and while we were playing Ray just hit his bass drum – boom!  at the exact moment when I hit my E string – boom! We spun around and looked at each other and said to each other ‘how did you know!’ (laughter)

When a drummer goes chicka-ta-ba-ba-do-bop, I play chicka-ta-ba-ba-do-bop! You can really incorporate motion in the bass into a useable, uncluttered thing if you are really locked in with the drummer. That’s something I tell young players all the time. 

Start on the bass drum – when the drummer hits the kick – the bass player hits a note. Same with the accents. Then later on if you want to do it you can play lower and higher octaves with the bass and snare drum – ala The Knack on their hit ‘My Sharona.’ There are so many hits constructed on that way of doing things: ‘Gimmie Some Lovin’ by Spencer Davis – there are many examples.

If you want to get adventurous you play along with the tom-tom fills! That’s my thing. I build my basslines more on drums than guitars. 

TS: Moving from Sons of Apollo to Winery Dogs is just another day at the office for you…

BS: Fortunately, I grew up in a time where my bands’ setlists were wild. Like everyone else, I started off in copy bands. My groups played everything from The Tubes –‘White Punks on Dope,’ to King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ to Three Dog Night’s ‘Joy to the World,’ to Grand Funk Railroad…all this diverse stuff. A broad array of styles. 

When you’re playing in a bar band, you never know who is coming through the door. Some audiences like to hear complex music, other audiences want to sing along with ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog… was a good friend of mine!’ 

It was good training for me to get in a situation where I could jump from genre to genre – somewhat convincingly I hope – and still manage to stay on my feet.

TS: Playing Top-40 was a boot camp experience for me as well. We had our disco set, slow dance set, dinner standards set… how is Mr. Big doing on your 2024 farewell tour.

BS: We’re doing great, we’re selling out venues, the feedback has been fantastic. We’re having a ball. And it’s a real farewell tour too – not a fake farewell tour! (laughter)

We want to cross over the finish line standing up rather than crawl over it with a walker and an oxygen mask with backup singers and running tracks! We are still actually singing and playing! I’ll be 71 next month (March 2024) – I am the oldest in the band. Not everyone ages the same, it can be difficult to get up there for a two-hour show. 

DCG: Doesn’t it strike you as funny when you go from being the youngest member of the band to being the oldest?  (laughter) 

BS: My timeline has shifted! I feel great. I still feel like I’m 16. I recall that after the pandemic when I first went out with the Winery Dogs, I felt like an MMA fighter! Get me in the octagon, let’s go! I was dying to play, and we hit it hard. Then I went back to Mr. Big, then back to Winery Dogs again… twice to Japan…two or three times to South America… all within the span of a year. 

I’m still ready to go, it’s all good!   

Note: Our complete conversation with Billy Sheehan will be available in an upcoming book: Good Question! Notes From An Artist Interviews… by David C. Gross & Tom Semioli www.NotesFromAnArtist.com 

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Bass Videos

Interview With K3 Sisters Band

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Interview With K3 Sisters Band

K3 Sisters Band Interview…

It is very rare when I talk to a band where all the members play bass. The K3 Sisters Band is a perfect example of a group where Kaylen, Kelsey and Kristen Kassab are all multi-instrumentalists and take turns playing bass.

Hailing from Texas, these three sisters have been playing music since they were very young and have amassed an amazing amount of original music,  music videos, streaming concerts, podcasts, and content that has taken numerous social media platforms by storm. On TikTok alone, they have over 2.5 million followers and more than a billion views.

Join me as we hear the story of their musical journey, how they get their sound, and the fundamental principles behind these prolific musicians.

Here is the K3 Sisters Band!

Photo, Bruce Ray Productions

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