By Chyrisse Tabone, Tampa Correspondent
Rock At Night was able to catch up with Stu Hamm while he was on tour in Germany with Ove Bosch and Divinity Roxx. He will be presenting an instructional workshop in San Diego (June 21st-26th, 2015) with Rhonda Smith and will then embark on his “East Coast Tour” (July 6th-26th) which travels up the eastern coast of the U.S. as far north as Canada and later returns south to play a final gig in Puerto Rico. It is a dizzying schedule of not only bass workshops but also concert engagements with the Stu Hamm Band.
You can read our interview with Stu Hamm below in which he discusses his interest in the bass, the history of the instrument, and tips on how an aspiring musician may gear-up for playing.
ROCKATNIGHT: I looked at your schedule and I got tired just looking at it. How can you physically travel like this?
Stu Hamm: I guess it’s my second greatest talent. My first is playing bass. It’s a long story but I’m on a goal to travel for about 16 months and then figure out where I want to end up. That’s all I’ll say about that.
There’s tricks to it and I’ve got to say about getting older, you don’t have to do all the stupid shit that you did when you were younger. You just have to know where to pick your spots. I carry a yoga mat and I do breathing exercises. I don’t smoke anymore and keep the drinking to a way minimum. I don’t eat crappy foods.
The role of the bass through the years
ROCKATNIGHT: About you personally, I understand you went to Berklee and Lord knows, I’ve seen your videos online. There’s one called “The Greatest Solo Bass Line Ever” or something like that. It has like 5 million + views. I also saw some videos where you play the bass with a melody line like a guitar, which is really unique.
Stu Hamm: The bass is the anchor instrument that unites the harmony and the rhythm. The personality of people that play bass is like a “neighbor.” The people stand in the back and hold it together subliminally. People with those kinds of personalities are usually drawn to the bass. I’m traveling around right now with two other bass players and there’s no competition. We listen to each other. Whereas if you have three guitar players or three drum players, there’s a lot of one-upmanship just due to the nature and ego of those that play those kinds of instruments—or the instruments chooses them. [chuckle]
So that is kind of the fundamental role of the bass player. And then I come from a whole family of musicians. I like to listen to people play their instrument solo, like my favorite musicians—Glenn Gould (Canadian piano player), Rostropovich, or Yoyo Ma.
I never really thought of a bass as a solo instrument even though when I was growing up Paul McCartney or Chris Squire had a more prominent role as a bass [player], but they were still in the band setting. And then on February 1978, I went to see Weather Report at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. I saw Jaco Pastorius for the first time—another Floridian. He did this unaccompanied bass solo where he played bass lines and melodies at the same time. He did for bass what Hendrix did for the guitar. He destroyed all preconceived notions about what he could do on the instrument. So I took some of my piano repertoire and tried to work out those pieces to play as a solo bass piece—but it’s so completely different –the idea of solo bass and 99% of what a real bass player does. And to play these classical pieces I had to come up with kinds of harmonics and chords (I didn’t invent these or anything).
Last year in January I played the Largo Cultural Center with Victor Wooten—and we were talking about the electric bass. It’s about 65 years old. That’s how long ago it was when Leo Fender invented the first electric bass. And I’ve been playing bass for 42 years.—that’s a pretty significant part.
When I was 15 I listened to people like Paul McCartney and Stanley Clarke, but really there was no YouTube. There was no such thing as solo bass lines. I remember seeing Larry Graham pop for the first time and tapping. Now kids that are 15 are exposed to this whole tapping, slap thing, harmonics—this whole vocabulary that did not exist since decades and decades when I was young. Based on this, things have changes so exponentially in my lifetime. It’s curious to see how far it can go. Just saying that I hope people won’t forget the purity of playing “Dock On the Bay” or “Stir It Up,” a real simple bass line.
ROCKATNIGHT: I guess before we had the stand-up bass and before everything became electrified in the 50s, I guess that’s when it was invented?
Leo Fender had the first bass made. It was just an electrified version of a guitar with four strings. The upright bass had no frets and was harder to keep in tune so he created what was essentially a bass/guitar. Some people say that since he invented that beautiful shape of a Fender P & J bass that it’s something that cannot be improved upon.
I was writing an intro for a book on bass guitars and I had to write about my own basses. I’m just a bass geek! I love basses. I’ve got a bunch of them I’ve designed. I was the first person to have a signature bass.
ROCKATNIGHT: Oh, wow!
Stu Hamm: Yeah, that’s something to stick a feather in your hat when it’s a little gloomy. I’m just such a fan and bass geek.
Again, about traveling. I’m 55 years old. I’m getting better. I’m getting the hang of it. I really enjoy playing and I enjoy the challenge of continually learning. I’m always open to new things.
One of the bass players I’m with now is Divinity Roxx. She’s a rapping bass player.
ROCKATNIGHT: Yeah, I’ve seen videos of her.
Stu Hamm: Yeah, she’s so cool! She approaches the bass from a different perspective. She slaps. She raps. She’s way cool and I can learn a lot from her. She has a great energy.
Man, it’s still awesome. I’m motivated to get better.
ROCKATNIGHT: I just saw you are doing a workshop with Rhonda Smith. I just saw her with Jeff Beck recently.
Stu Hamm: Yeah, she’s great!
During one of my incarnations I was running a music school in L.A. I got to hire a bunch of bass players and give seminars. She was the best I had. She’s a smart lady. She graduated from the McGill University in Montreal. She’s a great person and really knows her stuff harmonically and theoretically. I’m really looking forward to that in San Diego.
The life of a professional bass musician
ROCKATNIGHT: So where is your home base?
Stu Hamm: I can’t answer that. (laughter) I’ll say California.
I was born in New Orleans. My father was teaching at Tulane University and then for most of my formative years I was in Champaign, Illinois where my dad was teaching at the University of Illinois. Then, in ’68 and ’69, we lived in Italy. We moved to Vermont in ’75 when my dad got the gig up in Dartmouth. We lived up in the woods. I went down to Berklee in ’78 and then went down to Southern California in the mid-1980s. I lived in L.A. in part of the 1980s. I’ve been shuttling back and forth between L.A. and San Francisco—and that’s what I’m doing now.
ROCKATNIGHT: You were obviously destined to be a musician since music runs in your family. How did you choose the bass?
I’m the youngest of three so by the time they got to me (there was no pressure on me). Now that I’m a parent myself, you can’t’ make somebody love something.
The stock story is when I was in 1972, I was kind of a long-haired pudgy geek that had red hair and I played the flute. My hair was like Danny Bonaduce’s from “The Partridge Family.”
One day there was a rock band set up near the tennis courts in a park in Illinois. The bass player had this green sparkly bass with a chrome white chord and a custom amp. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. In the Midwest the high school stage bands were a big deal and not the marching band. Champaign Central was the perennial state winner. They were really competitive. I started playing the upright bass and the electric so I could be in the school-sponsored jazz band.
When we moved to Vermont I was in a school that was very small. That’s when I started playing clubs and ski bands and garbage frat bands…that kind of stuff.
Teaching, DVDs, and all that good stuff…
ROCKATNIGHT: When did you get involved in teaching and producing the DVD lessons?
Stu Hamm: I went to Berklee in ’78 and then I went on the road with an Elvis Presley impersonator. I went back to Boston and I started subbing/teaching a few classes. My father was the president of the American Music Culture Association and he’s written a number of books on the history of popular music in America. My mother was an opera singer. Both of my brothers are big brains. They went to Princeton and stuff. I’m sort of the black sheep.
So I guess if you believe in creativity and stuff, music and education were certainly in the blood.
And then as I got older, I didn’t invent tapping on the bass but I certainly was one of the first people (when this was happening) to incorporate it into my playing. The first time people saw it on the bass was when I was touring with Satriani and “Flying in a Blue Dream.” There was a song where I incorporated the bass line.
Remember back when they used to have the 1-800 numbers? Then, Arlen Roth approached me and I started to do the “Hot Licks” videos. I started doing that. If you are trying to make a living as a musician you’ve got to wear a lot of hats and diversify. It’s certainly a way to get your message out to your fans and make some bucks. It’s just part of the scheme.
The big interest lately in the bass…
ROCKATNIGHT: It seems to me more people want to play the bass. I don’t know if it’s because of the song ‘All About the Bass” or what?
I think there’s always been [an interest] back to Paul McCartney and the next generation with Les Claypool and Flea hit a whole generation of kids on the slapping bass. Having done this my whole life (I’ve played with pop bands from Italy to Mexico) and certainly there’s an attitude bass players have and an attitude that drummers have and guitar players have that transcends cultures. Guitar players are out front and “all about me” and bass players are just the guys who subliminally are holding it all together. There’s always work for bass players. A lot of them are very versatile musicians who don’t feel the need to hog the limelight.
ROCKATNIGHT: There seems to be a shortage (at least in Florida) for people who play the stand-up bass. Does it use the same technique as the electric bass?
No, it’s not the same technique but one of the things I did when I was in music school was insist that anyone who graduates take a year of stand-up bass. If you want to work, it’s very useful to be versatile.
Advice for beginners or those who aspire to play the bass…
ROCKATNIGHT: If somebody wanted to start to play the bass…what kind of equipment do you recommend for a beginner? What are some suggestions on how to get started?
If you are an absolute beginner, I don’t think there’s a need to spend a lot of money until you figure out what you like. I was in a music store yesterday…and now they have all sorts of beginner bass packages with a bass and an amp. Then, once you figure out if this is what you want to do—and then you make the next step to a professional grade instrument—then I think you need to go into a store and pick up a lot of basses and play them because every bass is two pieces of wood put together by somebody in a shop….and a machine. All pieces of wood reaction differently. Even when they come off the production line, consecutive models can be completely different because of the way the woods match or the machines are run. It’s easy to get tapped into a brand name but play something that looks good….or you think looks cool. That’s a legitimate criterion, isn’t it? (laugh)
ROCKATNIGHT: So if you like the color or the shape?
Stu Hamm: Yes, absolutely! That’s a big part of it!
ROCKATNIGHT: So screw comfort? (laugh)
Stu Hamm: No, I’m just saying don’t let somebody tell you what you are supposed to like. Go play a bunch. First off, you are going to be drawn by the ones your heroes play. If you grew up liking Vic Wooten, you’ll want to play a Fodera. If you like Chris Squire, you’ll wanna’ check out a Rickenbacker. Of course, man, I did the same thing. Eventually you’ll find something that feels good for you.
ROCKATNIGHT: What are the different options for strings and what should somebody buy (who is a beginner)?
Stu Hamm: I would use the industry standard which is GHS strings. There are round wound strings that have a bright tone but are harder on your fingers. There are half-wound strings which are a little duller sounding but are smoother on your fingers. There are flat wound strings which are not wound but are single coils. They have a more muted or dull tone and are perfect for some kinds of music—and are certainly easier on the fingers.
Man, when it comes to slapping, every book will teach you a different way. You can take little bits here and there. You’ve got to come up with your own style.
ROCKATNIGHT: I had calluses when I played the guitar and now the ukulele. Tell me about calluses from playing the bass. Do you get them?
Stu Hamm: Even much more so because the strings are so much larger and if you are using the round wound strings. There’s a whole lot of patience involved. You can’t do it overnight. I’m still learning. That’s not just a line of bullshit. I’m still learning everyday practicing. It’s an on-going process.
So you’ve got to practice a lot and not do it 12 hours a day when you are a beginner. You’ve got to work those calluses.
Even with the bass, if you don’t have a lot of technical ability, you can actually play. In this era of YouTube, you’ll see all kinds of kids who can play fast things in their bedroom. They are missing the whole point which is to play a song and playing it with people or for other people. You need to apply the knowledge. Even if you know just a few songs, get together with your friends and start a band and find a place to play. Don’t just be a YouTuber because that’s the fun—performing! And giving energy to a crowd and getting the energy back…that’s certainly what it’s all about.
ROCKATNIGHT: To me it’s collaboration. Just sitting there by yourself is “bedroom bass” or “bedroom guitar.”
Stu Hamm: One of my most popular things I put on Facebook. You never know what people will be drawn to and somebody sent this to me. There was a Volvo full of drums and it said, “Like most musicians, you are following the bass player.”
ROCKATNIGHT: If you are learning, do you play tabulature, scales, what?
Stu Hamm: There’s certain musicians that play only by ear and that’s certainly valuable (if you have that in your back pocket) but you know, just coming from an educational background it would be disingenuous to say ‘Man, you’ve got to read music if you are serious about music.’
I’m just a freak. I can read scales all day long. I love it! It’s the most wonderful relaxing zen good thing of the world. I’d say get a good teacher so you are interacting with someone and learn how to play songs. With just a couple of notes, like “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” you can play the whole song with two strings and two fingers. Just after one or two lessons, you can play a song.
ROCKATNIGHT: Do you put your hand in a chord formation and hit single notes? For example, the E and G?
Stu Hamm: My hand is naturally in the chord formation. The thing you want to do is play the root, like an “A,” “B,” “C,” or a “G.” From there, you usually are gonna’ play the fifth, which is usually in the same position. The next thing you have to figure out is if the chord is major or minor. Some people will say as a bass player that ‘s all you really need to know—t he root, third, and fifth. If you put your hand in the right position, you can easily move it up and down the neck.
ROCKATNIGHT: With a guitar, you usually strum. Do you pluck individual strings with a bass?
Stu Hamm: There really is no answer to that. When I’m doing solo gigs I’m doing strumming all sorts of things. Basically, with your right hand, you are plucking with your finger or hitting with your thumb or using a pick.
ROCKATNIGHT: People use a pick too?
Stu Hamm: Sure. For certain styles. If you are playing speed metal you need a pick. There’s a certain sound to using a pick. In the studio, I’ll use a pick on a couple of songs.
ROCKATNIGHT: I notice some basses have frets and others don’t. If there’s no frets you have to be really experience to know where you are at?
Stu Hamm: With a fretless bass there’s a softer sound. If you want to emulate the sound of an upright bass or do a jazz gig [you can use fretless.] Certainly you can be a lot more expressive concerning vibrato like how Jaco did. It’s hard to learn initially.
ROCKATNIGHT: I have another question for a beginner regarding buying an amp. Some kids might actually try to use a guitar amp.
ROCKATNIGHT: Explain why you are not supposed to do that.
Stu Hamm: Just in short, the sine wave is really big (he motions like a roller coaster with his hands). A guitar speaker with generally have a five or eight inch speaker. It’s going to push that higher pitch sound. So for a bass, with a low frequency, you need a larger speaker. You need a 10 inch at the very least and some people eights. But generally a 10, 12 or 15 inch. If you try to play a bass with a guitar amp it’s not gonna’ get the low end and in fact that low end could very well blow the speaker. They aren’t made to hold those low frequencies.
A lot of companies make really good small practice amps. Initially you don’t want anything that is too loud. And then, I think the main thing you have to think about is tube or solid state. Whereas, for a warmer sound, like an Ampeg, they have tubes that warm up and they have a very large sound. Companies like Hartke, Trace Elliot, or Gallien-Krueger have the electronic solid state sound. It’s much more clear and distinct. Some companies make amps that have both of them in it. The style of music intend to play will determine if you are going to use a tube or solid-state amp.
ROCKATNIGHT: Let’s say I’m a beginner. How many watts should I buy?
Stu Hamm: If you were going to actually play with a drummer, I’d say you would need at least 100 watts.
Technology is getting better and better as far as smaller, compact and portable transistors. You just need to be loud enough to be heard over a drummer.
ROCKATNIGHT: I actually am into the ukulele and there are a lot of people that play the ukulele bass. People think I’m kidding when I say there is a ukulele bass. They are expecting [to see] a small soprano ukulele.
Stu Hamm: I actually have a couple of them. The brand is Kala. “More bass, less space.”
As far as a bass goes [a ukulele bass versus a standard electric bass] what’s the difference other than size?
The little basses have those silicon strings . The one I have actually has small round wound strings. They have a particular kind of sound. It’s a neat instrument. It’s kind of cool but a bit of a novelty. I don’t know anyone who would actually do a whole gig on one. It truly gets the job done but it’s not as in tune as a real bass . You can’t really do as much as you can [with one]. Sometimes if you close your eyes you can’t tell [the difference].
I play in a lot of ukulele groups where we’ll have 50 people playing the ukulele and singing and there will be one bass. I have thought about getting one but then I thought I play so many instruments already, I’ll have to learn different chord configurations and tuning.
The bass is tuned like the four bottom strings of a guitar so if you are playing a real simple bass line it’s pretty easy to learn.
ROCKATNIGHT: What can people expect to hear at the workshop?
Stu Hamm: The workshop can go in many different directions. Since I’ll be playing Monday night with my band in Largo I’ll probably do a kind of shtick, which is kind of a one-man-show. I play the bass and I accompany myself and I kind of talk about my history in music (about how I started playing). I talk about Steve Vai and his music and Joe Satriani. I’ll play some of Joe’s tunes. I’ve got a big bag of tricks and a lot of it [the show] depends on the crowd. Sometimes it turns into a teaching thing or a performance thing—and other times it turns into a Q&A session. Sometimes people just want to hang out, rub shoulders, and take pictures. Once you get me started, I just want to play. I just it’s really an overview of my life (42 years playing base) and it’s pretty entertaining. I tell stories.
I’ve got a new song I’m working on and I’m sort of singing. I usually don ‘t do songs with lyrics. Since I’m over here in Germany and 60% of the people don’t understand what I’m singing, they just think it’s cool that I’m singing stuff in English. So I can kind of work it out…
ROCKATNIGHT: So people that are beginners or advanced—all different levels—can enjoy your workshop?
Stu Hamm: I’ve been doing this a long time and I can certainly say it is entertaining. If you are a Vai or Satriani fan, a good time will be had by all.
ROCKATNIGHT: I see in your website “The Book of Lies” 2015 U.S. World Tour. What is this?
Stu Hamm: The album is called “The Book of Lies” and the “Book of Lies” is what we pros on tours call an “intinerary.” Somebody will give you a book that says ‘O.K., today, we’ll be in Largo. We’ll check into the hotel at 3 p.m.. We’ll do the sound check at 4 p.m. and dinner will be at 8 p.m. and then we’ll be done by 10 p.m.’ Of course, this is a “Book of Lies” because none of this ever happens. You get there and the hotel is on the other side of town and there’s nobody there. It’s the “Book of Lies.” So that booklet that we had was kind of like a fake tour book to perpetuate the joke of “The Book of Lies.”
After this, I’ll do a couple of gigs with my L.A. band. I’ll do the East Coast one and then I’m taking the band to Europe after the NAMM show in late January/February of next year to promote the album.
ROCKATNIGHT: So the “Book of Lies” is most recent album and that’s what we’ll be hearing in Largo?
Stu Hamm: Yeah! There and in the workshop. I wrote a seven piece suite for solo bass and each of the pieces uses a different technique on the bass to create an interesting solo bass piece.
For the Largo gig I’ve got Alex Skolnick on guitar and Joel Taylor on drums. He’s a great, great drummer who plays with Al Dimeola. I know so many great musicians I can kind of mix and match. It will be great because we actually have never done a gig together. But I know in my heart it is going to be great! We’ll be rehearsing a couple of days before we start. I can’t wait!
ROCKATNIGHT: So the Stu Hamm Band differs on every tour?
Stu Hamm: Absolutely!
ROCKATNIGHT: So Alex Sknolnick has been with you for awhile?
Stu Hamm: Yes, he’s been around since about 1991. I kind of had a hit with a song I wrote for Eric Johnson called “Lone Star.” That was kind of the height of long-hair poser wanker rock & roll.
ROCKATNIGHT: What’s the best thing about being a musician and what’s the worst thing?
Stu Hamm: The best thing is that I get to travel the world, see new places, and meet new people solely based on what I’ve accomplished. The bad…it’s cost me two marriages so far.
I enjoy the life. I enjoy the challenge. I like being on stage. I’m very motivated to learn and get better. I’m pretty good at packing my suitcases and not leaving the hotel without my cell phone charger.
I’m really looking forward to the tour. I enjoy the interaction of playing with Alex and Joel. It’s going to be great!
Radio Free Albemuth (1988)
Kings of Sleep (1989)
The Urge (1991)
Live Stu X2 (2010)
Just Outside of Normal (2013)
The Book of Lies (2015)