By David C. Gross and Tom Semioli
Interview with David Swift…
A SWIFT KICK! TALKING BASS (AND LIFE) WITH THE UK’s REIGNING PLAYER: DAVID SWIFT!
In the United Kingdom, the name “Swift” typically conjures images of Taylor (singer), Connor (British cyclist), Jeremy (actor), or perhaps Stephanie (‘90s adult actress).
However, the image of David Swift – bassist – is indelibly ingrained in the psyche of scores Brits who view Later…with Jools Holland. Swifty has anchored the top-rated BBC program since its 1992 inception. Safe to say, it’s much easier to note whom the Wolverhampton native has NOT played with rather than list his inexhaustible credits.
Akin to many bassists, Dave commenced his musical journey on another instrument – his being the trombone. Swift took up the bass as a matter of necessity – his band needed a bass player! His sight-reading skills, attention to detail, open mind, love of a challenge, and unbridled ambition led him to London where he excelled in the recording studio, theater pits, live performances, and anywhere his services were needed. He nailed a gig with Jools’ Rhythm and Blues Orchestra previous to Holland’s tenure on the telly as host of Later…. taking over the bass chair from some cat named Pino. And the rest, as they say, is history – which Swift continues to make every time he appears on Jools’ iconic program.
A voracious instrument collector, educator, clinician, sideman to his jazz singer wife Lucy Merrilyn, and devoted father to Oscar (enjoy that hair while you’ve got it kid!) – the towering bassist is indeed larger than life. His humor and deep knowledge of all things bass – spanning jazz, classical, pop, rhythm and blues, funk, and permutations thereof is rather astounding. A self-effacing wisecracker – when you interview Dave Swift (and we’ve done a few of them) you block out your schedule for the day.
Herein is just a sample of our enjoyable, informative blather.
TS: Did you know that Dave Swift is the most recognized bassist in all of England!
DG: I thought it was Sid Vicious! (laughter)
DS: I’m not even the most recognized bassist in my household! (Note that there are no other bass players in the Swift residence!)
TS: We’ve been talking to many of your peers in lockdown, including Carmine Rojas (David Bowie, Joe Bonamassa, Rod Stewart, Labelle), Larry Grenadier, Michael Manring, Rick Wills (Peter Frampton, Foreigner, Small Faces, Roxy Music), and Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello & The Attractions)…
David and Tom relate a Bruce Thomas tale to Mr. Swift wherein the rather suspicious yet erudite former Attraction researched Messrs. Gross and Semioli, both of whom host bass-centric websites, to verify their journalistic legitimacy. Upon Thomas’ discovery of David’s www.TheBassGuitarChannelCom, Bruce was critical of Gross’ extended-range, boutique Ken Bebensee six-string bass, remarking that it “looked like a coffee table!” Semioli’s bass brethren, including Mike Visceglia (Suzanne Vega, Jorma Kaukonen), Paul Page (Ian Hunter, John Cale, Mott The Hoople), Jeff Ganz (Johnny Winter, Broadway), Tony Senatore (Genya Ravan), and Amy Madden (Jon Paris, John Lee Hooker), among others, responded by posting photographs of themselves dining on their respective instruments! To which the good-natured Thomas admitted defeat and sent Gross a photo of a coffee table. Swift howls with laughter!
DS: Well it’s good to see that the stigma of the extended range, particularly the six-string and boutique basses, is not like it used to be. When I first came to London (early 80s) with a six-string Ken Smith with all sorts of gold hardware, I didn’t get many gigs on electric. I got loads of gigs on acoustic bass, people just didn’t want to see those kinds of instruments.
TS: Why is there a stigma associated with that instrument in the first place? The electric bass was a groundbreaking instrument. It was the vanguard of innovation in its day which changed the entire spectrum of popular music, jazz, rock, blues, and permutations thereof. Why wouldn’t bass players, especially of the electric variety, be the first to embrace change?
DS: Well let’s go back even farther. I am a huge fan of Anthony Jackson. He is a huge hero of mine in so many ways. Of course, he is known as the inventor of the modern-day six-string bass. The contrabass. And he has said in many interviews ‘why wasn’t the bass guitar six strings in the first place?” There is this thought that “it’s a bass, not a guitar.” But actually, it is a guitar! It’s the lowest-pitched guitar of the guitar family. I have been playing double bass all my adult life. If you put a double bass, a guitar, and bass guitar side by side by side; which does the electric bass resemble more?! So why didn’t it have six strings to begin with? I guess from a marketing point of view, Leo Fender was more used to dealing with guitars, and also he saw an opportunity to make bass players’ lives easier with a portable instrument, one that did not feedback and could be easily amplified. So, of course, he was the one that put the four strings on it. And attracted upright bass players and sold a lot of instruments. But I think Anthony has a great point! It’s still technically more part of the guitar family.
DG: The thing about Anthony Jackson: he’s always right!
DS: I have an Anthony Jackson Fodera, his signature model…
DG: But you don’t own a car!
DS: Oh no, but I have an Anthony Jackson bass! Cars are too expensive, awkward, and annoying! And I haven’t got a coffee table either. (laughter) I went to the Fodera shop and met him there. For years I have been following him and transcribing his parts. Initially, I was so intimidated by him. I had this feeling that he was a “guru” living on top of some Himalayan mountains. And you can only ask him three questions! And they could only be queries with real gravitas! But he was very down to earth….very sincere.
TS: So then the six-string bass is the true electric bass. Are you prepared to say that in a court of law?
DS: (laughter) Yes! I own a couple of seven-string basses as well. It’s a six-string with a low B and a high F. Some people have six-string basses that begin with a low E. Some people have them tuned like a guitar. For me, it’s gotta be all fourths. Interestingly enough, I’ve been playing guitar a lot recently. And over the years that instrument has always thwarted me. My brothers played guitar and it’s probably the first instrument I ever played at home. But after I became a bassist, I could never get over that third tuning. And I put it off for years. Then I thought ‘no, I can do this!’ So I tuned the two top strings up a semi-tone. So B goes to C, and E goes to F. But then I thought this is going to affect the stuff I want to do. So then I Googled “guitar in fourths” and it’s quite a common thing! A lot more players do it than I thought. In fact, Stanley Jordan has always done it. Alan Holdsworth said if he could start over again that he would tune in fourths. It makes everything even, whatever shape you use, it’s the same. Though there are things you cannot do as well, for example, it’s not going to be very helpful around the campfire.
TS: Getting back to stigma – slap-style bass still exudes howls of displeasure and revulsion! Your thoughts?
DS: I’ve been with Jools for thirty years now, and this is my fortieth anniversary as a professional working bass player. When I started out in the late 1970s, you had loads of slap stuff. It was what was expected, it was what was called for. By the time I got to London that was on the wane. And I was playing jazz on upright, so the slap thing to me was ‘I can live without it!’ I love certain players doing it. But I can see the times are changing. What’s the point on spending a lot of time on a technique that I’m never going to get called for? And that’s what it seemed like in this industry. Then I got called for this TV show for Barry White, and we were the house band. This was not Jools’ show. We had Chaka Khan, Roger Daltrey, Cher as guests. Then Barry came on! We did two songs, and one of them had a tiny bit of slap on it. Though I hadn’t done it in a few years I thought ‘I can do this!’ I’ve got some chops left! The song is called “Sho’ You Right” and I think it’s on YouTube somewhere. It’s the only footage you’ll see of me playing slap. And it’s the only time I’ve been called to do it in forty years!
DG: You mean Mark King hasn’t called you for technique lessons! (laughter)
DS: It’s not that I’m against it at all, but it’s interesting when you consider that I play in the more commercial spectrum of the industry – with pop artists such as Adele, Amy Winehouse, Ed Sheeran, and so forth – and no one ever requested any slap stuff!
TS: You know, the slap passages that sound best to my ears are the simple ones: think David Hungate on Boz Scaggs’ “Lowdown” which I played on many a Top 40 bandstand in my college years.
DS: Ah, you just reminded me, that’s the only other time I’ve had to slap! When Boz Scaggs was on the Jools show. I do often wonder that if I do get called to do a full-on slap bass on Jools’ show, I often wonder what I would do. I’d like to think that I would have a go at getting some chops back… There is a great quote from The Bass Player’s Handbook by Greg Mooter talking about different kinds of players: amateur, semi-pro, professional…and he says something to the effect that “even if pro players aren’t always ready for every eventuality, the sign of a true pro is that they will do everything in their power to prepare for it when the situation arises…they will do the research, they will do the practice, and they will apply themselves to it…” And that would be the same with me.
I had this bizarre gig once, it was for a friend of mine. The gig was for Chapman Stick and classical guitar. At the time, I’d owned a couple of Sticks – but I’d just fooled around with them. But I was not a proper stick player! And I had not been playing guitar much. And he said that he needed me dep/ sub for him. And I said, “are you kidding!” And he said ‘listen, I know there are other guys out there that play Stick better, but they cannot read as well as you…’ The charts were really heavy-duty; double stave piano parts. Now for me to turn down work and to turn down a challenge is very unusual. I am all for rising to the occasion! And I thought you’d might as well ask me to play the harp or a bassoon! Anyway, he kept on me… ‘You’re the only one that could read the parts!’ Against my better judgment, I said yes. I looked at the charts and they were terrifying. For two weeks, I started from scratch. I locked myself in a room. Ten hours a day. And I actually did the show. Some of the guys in the show said ‘you did a better job than the other guy!’ And that experience reflects what Mooter said – prepare! Put the effort in! Grit and tenacity are important for a musician – and I guess I have lots of that!
DG: I remember playing with Ian MacDonald after he left Foreigner. And he was getting back to his King Crimson roots. I went to Manny’s and bought a Stick. And then I had to buy a stool to sit and practice. I got one of the top Stick players to give me instruction. I’m not getting anywhere. So I walk down 48th Street to Alex Music and the number seven Fodera six-string bass was in the window. I sold the Stick and bought the bass and started doing the two-handed thing! So my question is, were you playing a six-string bass at that time and did you think that maybe you could adapt?
DS: The first time I ever got a Stick was when I was working on the cruise ships. I bought one from a shop in San Francisco. And I did actually visit Emmett Chapman years later – but yes, I was playing six-string at the time… the reason I played a stick was that I had never played a chordal instrument before – I started on trombone then moved to bass guitar, then acoustic bass – my knowledge of music was through those three instruments – just playing lines and melodies. By the time I moved to London, my knowledge of harmony was not great. I’ve tried the piano. One of my early double bass teachers as Michael Moore who played with Dave Brubeck.
When I first met him, he asked me if I played piano – to which I responded “not really!” Before we even touched a bass, he put me on the piano. And he started to give me piano lessons and told me “this will open things up, trust me.” That’s the reason I got a stick prior to that because I never bonded with piano – the stick was an instrument for me to learn harmony on. I never did the two-handed thing on bass – my job has always been to play songs – which is the fundamentals.
Some people have criticized me ‘Dave if I were you, I wouldn’t just stand there! I’d put my foot on the monitor, play something flash…’ To which I responded ‘and you’d be fired!’
DG: In Berklee, you had to take piano…even drummers were required to play the instrument!
DS: Especially drummers! (laughter)
TS: Same at the University of Miami, we were required to take two semesters of piano.
DS: And they have to be in tune! We’ve had Jamie Cullum on the show and when he first came on the scene his thing was to play percussion on the piano. He’d be drumming and standing on it…and I dread to think about the state of those instruments after he played them – though he did it affectionately.
DG: On that thread, think of all the jazz clubs in the ‘30s ‘40s ‘50s with out-of-tune pianos. That was very common.
DS: That drives me crazy! I don’t have perfect pitch, but I can hear an out-of-tune instrument. I have students come in and they immediately want to play for me and start without tuning! That’s the first thing you should do! And they play out of tune and that is going to mess your ear up down the line.
DG: Give them a fretless!
DS: For me, being a trombonist first and foremost and then taking up double bass, your ears have to be so spot on! Trombone and double-bass are the same: ears, muscle memory, and repetition. I don’t use any markers on upright, I just find them annoying. When I’ve used stick basses with markers it drives me nuts as well. They are more of a distraction than a help.
DG: Gary Willis was over at my house one day. And I am also a proponent of no lines on the neck – a totally clean fretboard. And to make my point, I said to him when you play in the upper-register there is no way any fret marker is near the actual note. It’s impossible.
TS: And take into consideration that over the life of the instrument, the neck expands and contracts – so it’s really a hindrance.
DS: Oh yeah…
DG Even a fretted bass is not always in perfect intonation.
DS: For me, it was the look of it as well. All my fretless basses are completely plain – no lines… Dots on the side are very useful. Because even when you look at an acoustic bass the actual neck before it hits the body is relatively short whereas obviously with the bass guitar it’s a lot longer so there is more room for error. And with upright you’ve got the heel, the shoulders…you have certain points that help you.
DG: I have a long scale upright and it’s still hard…
DS: Let’s be honest…upright basses are not for the faint-hearted! Here’s what makes me laugh – and I’m not being unsympathetic; the students and friends of mine who have never played upright before – lifelong bass guitarists – they get to a point where they realize they are missing out on a lot of work. Now I played them both from the time I was fifteen years old. It’s the ones that did it years later who think ‘yeah it’s just four strings…E A D G, it’s a bass…you play basslines on it. It’s almost like ‘that’s it, that’s the qualification.’ And then a month later their fingers are bloodied stumps, they can’t figure out why they can’t play in tune…the bridge is falling off… And I say ‘welcome to my world!’
DG: There’s something else that I think is important for all bassists to learn from the upright – open strings are your friends!
DS: Oh yeah!
DG: Now to the electric player it may be something they think about… but to an upright player, they really are such a helpful thing. I have a Czech bass made in 1936 and it has such a big sound. And because the fingerboard is longer, it’s a bugger!
TS: One of the words I often hear from you is “preparation.” When we spoke in London in 2019, you discussed the lengths to which you get ready for a performance. And part of “preparation” is “education” which is a topic David and I oft expound in our shows. Your thoughts on the power of getting a formal education in music, especially given the fact that through such platforms as YouTube, you can watch all varieties of tutorials. But many are inaccurate. David often bemoans the horrors of tablature.
To my eyes, ears, and brain – tablature is more difficult than reading music notation.
DS: I totally agree!
TS: We figure that because the electric bass was borne of the rock era – a genre wherein you can play three chords and start a band – that music education for bass was lacking for many years. It took a while before good electric bass books came into existence. People want to take the fast track to learning electric bass – but like any other instrument – it’s a lifetime journey.
DS: And as you mention, there are so many different avenues – not just one. When I started out I had classical trombone lessons, and interestingly enough, I found my old teacher via social media. And I discovered something I didn’t realize. I attempted to play saxophone as my first instrument and I wasn’t good. I wanted to play trombone but there wasn’t one available. So I forgot about it and got into sports. I was convinced that I was going to be an athlete. But I still loved music, I had sung in the choir. So I went to this teacher and told him I want to play the trombone. And he replied ‘you’re too old!’ He explained that I was too old for him to take on because I was going to be leaving school soon. He gave me the trombone anyway, I took it away for two weeks. And when I returned, he noted ‘ah you can do this!’ I took my exams – I was his best student. So when I spoke to him recently he remembered ‘you know, the school curriculum was telling me not to take you on… we never take on students older than 12 or 13. And he stuck his own neck out for me because he heard that I had talent. He could have just said ‘you’re too old…those are the rules…’ That would have been the end of my music career. My whole life would have changed.
Anyway, studying with him – you had to read music. It was the way it was done. And I found it quite easy. I was a terrible academic. I have no qualifications in any other subject! Other than music. By the time I switched to bass, I was reading four clefs. I was playing in dance bands, pop bands, funk, orchestras…everything. In brass bands, you have to play treble clef only. In orchestras, you have to play bass, tenor, and alto clefs because of the range of the instruments. By the time I started playing bass – there was nothing I could not read! I had already played the most complex music of every style.
DG: Did you study with a Simandl book?
DS: As a bass player I was self-taught. We had a school band and they wanted to play more jazzy stuff. They had everything but a bass. So because I fooled around on my brother’s guitar – I was the only one that had ever held a stringed instrument. I volunteered. Got a bass guitar which was a Kay Fender Precision copy. It weighed more than a black hole! An absolute boat anchor. And my trombone teacher, whom I was still taking lessons from, saw my progress. He was a fixer in my town and would book musicians for theater work, sessions, whatever. He thought ‘I could use this guy!’ He wanted the trombone gigs himself, so he was not going to give them to me. But when he heard me playing bass he knew he could book me. He gave me a great piece of advice ‘listen, if you want to do this for a living… and I think you’re good enough to do this…if you took on upright bass, you’ll get much more work. So this guy, Phil Johnson, changed everything for me. I literally owe him everything.
My reading was already in great shape, but it was a blessing and a curse. I was getting tons of work – pit work in shows – recording sessions where everything was written down… no chords, no improvisation at all. Life was good, I was thinking ‘this is fantastic.’ Then a friend of mine lent me the Weather Report album called Night Passage and advised ‘you need to listen to this guy Jaco…’ All the stuff I had been doing had been very basic, standard playing. I’d never realized that there was this whole new world of ‘that’ kind of playing. And I thought I was doing great!
DG: But when you were born, Cream was just happening, and to me, there is such a connection between Jack Bruce and Jaco.
DS: I never did meet Jaco, but I did play with Jack – on trombone!
DG: Going back to your original point – there were no bass guitar teachers! So for me, I learned through books like Carole Kaye’s Electric Basslines or watching Top of the Pops on television. And I also learned from watching one of Jools’ early TV shows with Paula Yates called The Tube. I would constantly watch the bass player’s hands and fingers.
The thing that I struggled with was my ears. Because at that time, everything I did was written down. And then I started to do stuff where they’d say to me ‘jam this one out!’ and I was like ‘wait, what do you mean by jam? Where is the chart?!’ I had to busk it and man alive I’d come crashing down because I’d never experienced that.
TS: “Busking” is a skill you have to develop as well as reading.
DS: Absolutely. For me, it was baptism by fire. I often say you that people learn the best lessons in life when they’re under excruciating circumstances.
When I started doing sessions, lots of producers and artists couldn’t be bothered to write out charts. You’d be lucky if you got a lead sheet. Then nothing! I’d turn up and have to listen to the track. I saw those changes happening quickly and I realized that I had to really develop my ears. And the only way that I could do that was deliberately. When I moved to London, I took gigs where I knew there was going to be no music. And to play with people I did not know. I needed to put myself in the ‘fire pit!’ Now I can do both, but if one was taken away, my career would definitely suffer!
I hope today kids are given opportunities to study by ear as well. If you just get started off with reading, you can fall down the rabbit hole which can be so detrimental to your creativity.
Take Pino (Palladino), his first gig when he moved to London was with Jools Holland. I’m not sure about today, but in those days Pino was a non-reader. But, man, what a monster player! One of the greatest of all time…and it makes you wonder – had he been put in that situation where he had to study music formally – would he be as creative and flamboyant? Does his style come from not doing that? That is, just listening and purely improvising all the time from day one, which took me years to do.
It’s difficult giving advice to younger players. I didn’t go to music college. I turned pro at 16. Part of me wishes that I could have gone to college. I would have quite enjoyed it, but then who knows? Maybe I would not have got the Jools gig… But I can’t say to people ‘do what I did’ and just play and get out there. In hindsight, that’s quite reckless. And it’s equally reckless to tell a student that they must go to music college. It might not be right for them. People have to make their own choices!
In my world, you have to be an excellent reader and able to busk. That’s the way I’ve maintained a forty-year career in this business!
You can also listen to this interview here
David C Gross has been the bassist for a lot of folks. He has written 14 bass books and 3 instructional videos, hosts “The Notes From An Artist Radio Show” on www.cygnusradio.com Monday nights 8 PM EDT, and the “Notes From An Artist” podcast available on iTunes, Spotify and all podcast platforms.
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You can contact David @ www.thebassguitarchannel.com/contact for more information regarding his online lessons and world-renown correspondence course.