Stu Hamm Talks Bass Mastery and Evolution of the Instrument
With its meager range in the muddy low-end, the bass has often been seen as a supporting cast member that lacks the dynamics to be the star of the show. However, where the bass has never struggled is in its ability to convey mood. What it lacks in range is compensated by its ability to vibrate the hairs on the back of your neck and tremble the ground beneath your feet.
In the right hands, a bass performance becomes a somber, emotionally driven display. The skill necessary to achieve this is nearly as rare as those who compose specifically for the instrument. At the intersection of these two talents is master bassist Stuart Hamm.
Hamm’s days at Berklee College of Music led to a fellowship with two virtuosi of their own craft, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Hamm backed up these and other prog-jazz-fusion shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen and Frank Gambale. But Hamm’s got more than just fast fingers up his sleeve.
He has cajoled every nuance of tone and expression out of the instrument by means of his composing prowess. Not only does Hamm write sections for horns and other instruments to accompany his bass dominant pieces, he composes soulful suites blatantly rich in influence from Bach and the Baroque era. The pieces are lamentations with depth and body that can only be translated by the bass’s powerful, low voice.
The Book of Lies, his latest solo album, showcases the breadth of the bass, featuring seven elegantly composed suites among other full-band numbers.
Rawckus: You are considered among the greatest technical bassists there are. What did it take to get you to that point?
Stuart Hamm: When I started playing bass it was a different world. I got my first bass in 1973 and was just lucky to be alive at the time when bass and how people played it exploded. I remember seeing Larry Graham for the first time and hearing Chris Squire play harmonics on "The Fish" for the first time, as well as Jeff Berlin play chords on the bass, I didn’t really invent tapping, but I was one of the first bass players to apply that to bass. So if I’m labelled that, it’s partly because of the zeitgeist at the time, with this whole new catalogue of bass technique that didn’t exist when I was a kid. I guess that’s how I got known at the time for expanding and promoting new techniques for the bass.
You’re definitely known for that kind of unconventional style, taking it to the next level with the tapping.
SH:It was unconventional at the time, no one played that way. That’s the funny thing. Now, if you’re a bass player, you’re sort of expected to have a working knowledge of slapping technique, harmonics, and tapping and chords.
Why the bass? Was there anything in particular or anyone that drew you to that instrument?
SH:When I was a kid, I went to a concert at the park by my house and the bass player had this cool green bass with a matching headstock. I just thought that was really cool. I was also sort of a geek when growing up, so my hero was Danny Bonaduce from the Partridge Family, because he looked kinda of like a geek and played bass. I played upright bass in the school jazz band and realized that this is the instrument that I felt good at.
When I started playing bass it was a different world. I got my first bass in 1973 and was just lucky to be alive at the time when bass and how people played it exploded. I remember seeing Larry Graham for the first time and hearing Chris Squire play harmonics on "The Fish" for the first time, as well as Jeff Berlin play chords on the bass...
You’ve definitely played with some of the greatest technical guitarists in history: Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen . What’s it like to play with these guys? Do you find it challenging?
SH:It’s funny because I first met Steve Vai when we were both 18-year-old freshmen at Berklee. So I knew him before he was a big famous rock star. I played on his audition tapes that helped him set up a gig, then, moved to California in about ’82 at his request to help with his next album. Through him I got signed by Relativity Records. Apparently there’s something that lead guitar players like that I’ve played bass with, and they keep calling me back.
You’re currently touring as a trio for the Stu Hamm Rock Experience. How is that different from your solo tour?
SH:I just played an 18-day solo tour where it’s just literally me and my bass. The trio is putting the band together. Last time I played with them was a more fusion project, kind of like a conversation. This time we definitely put a band together that is folk and punk rock. To reach out to the real Stu Hamm fans, we play all the favorites: “Black Ice,” “Flow My Tears,” “Radio Free Albemuth," and “Country Music (A Night in Hell).” It’s a real rocking band, with a few surprises in there. It’s a great show, and very different from my solo ones.
You had said that when you toured solo it’s just basically you and a bass. I know in your most recent album “The Book of Lies” you have a lot of solo bass, and with a lot more funk than your older albums. Is this the direction you are heading in?
SH:I write songs that feature the strength and positions of my art. That is just the vibe that record took. It is much different musically from what I’ve been playing on this rock tour. Like we talked about earlier, when I was kid, no one played bass like that, there wasn’t really this genre of music called solo bass, but now there is. It is also a teaching tool to introduce bass into specific techniques harmonics and tapping used to make a solo bass so interesting. It’s also enjoyable music to listen to.
On the recent album there were a lot of horns featured on it. Do you compose those parts or do you collaborate with the other musicians to create those?
SH:Well the melodies are all written, and then I hire the musicians that I think can add their own spin to that and in certain sections improvise.
Tell us about the bass education projects you have going on.
SH:I have about eight courses, starting with basics and going to pretty hardcore theory. Of course I’m slapping, tapping, solo bass and group playing. I have workshops as well. You film yourself playing the courses, send them to me, and then I review them. TrueFire.com has all sorts of courses and workshops.
That’s outstanding. Do you find it hard to balance all these projects with recording and touring?
SH:Absolutely. It’s super hard man. Right now I’m in the middle of this tour where I drive, and set up the equipment with the band, do the sound check, perform the gig, then sell the CDs. It’s challenging, but I love it. I like to keep busy; it is a test of my flexibility and multitasking skills.
That’s fantastic. Do you have any upcoming future projects or albums coming out that we should know about?
My next record is going to be called “The Diary of Patrick Xavier.” I’m writing a book of short stories to go along with it, explaining all of the songs and about my experiences of the past few years, traveling extensively and having as many gigs and adventures as possible. It’s sort of a catalogue of all that. I imagine it will be out early next year.