Adam Nitti

Post-fusion bass powerhouse discusses his incomparable technique, CD releases and lots more!

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
October 12, 2009

Adam Nitti has been establishing himself as both a bass-wielding frontman and recording artist for well over a decade. Having performed and recorded with a diverse collection of artists, including The Dave Weckl Band, Mike Stern, Steven Curtis Chapman, Peter Erskine, Jeff Coffin Mu’tet, Phil Keaggy, Scott Henderson, Casting Crowns, Avalon, Heather Headley, Chris Tomlin and Susan Tedeschi, he has likewise earned his reputation as a distinguished studio bassist and sideman based in Nashville, TN. A passion to inspire excellence in musicianship led Adam into co-founding, the first-ever interactive online music school.

Adam is a tireless educator and touring clinician and is also a regular columnist for both Bass Player magazine and Bass Musician magazine. He has been featured in hundreds of music publications and on stages around the world and continues to bring his unique voice and perspective to the bass playing community. He currently celebrates the recent release of his fourth album, Liminal.

FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. How did you end up playing the bass?

AN: My earliest musical influence was my grandfather, who was a very accomplished pianist, violinist, and arranger. As a child visiting my grandparents’ house, he would sit me down with him at his baby grand piano and play for me. I can remember him showing me simple things and trying to get me to play them back.

Several members of my mother’s side of the family were musical, and they were always a source of encouragement. The first instrument I ever had was a beginner’s acoustic guitar that I got from my uncle when I was five. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I would get a lot of enjoyment from just strumming rhythms on the open strings. Not long after that, my parents bought me a toy drum kit for Christmas. I really loved playing the drums and eventually got an inexpensive three-piece “real” drum kit that my parents found at a garage sale.

When I was eight, my parents started me on classical piano lessons. I had a fantastic teacher and before long I was performing at recitals. I continued taking lessons for the next five years or so, but started losing interest in classical piano as I became more interested in rock and roll. As a last ditch effort to try and keep me involved in piano, my parents gave into my grumblings and agreed to buy me a used Korg Poly 61 synthesizer, which I immediately started programming and learning keyboard parts on from my favorite rock bands. I then started playing keys in a band with some of my best friends from school. I didn’t have a proper amplifier, so I carried around my home stereo receiver and speakers to our rehearsals. At the time, our band was really into progressive rock, and we learned lots of Rush, Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Genesis cover tunes.

Eventually our bass player decided he wanted to switch to rhythm guitar, and that left us with an empty bass chair. Curious about what it would be like to play a stringed instrument, I volunteered to give the bass a shot. Our former bass player let me borrow his bass for a while, and I started to experiment with it. It was a Gibson SG bass copy. After only a couple of days, I fell in love with the instrument, and never turned back. The first bass line I ever learned was “Carry On Wayward Son,” by Kansas. But once I started learning bass lines from Rush, Geddy Lee quickly became my idol. I decided I wanted to follow in his footsteps and cover both the keyboard and bass roles, simultaneously.

I doubled on both instruments for a couple of years, but eventually dropped the keyboards and made bass my primary performance instrument. Thanks to the Internet, last year I regained contact with Joey Antrim, the original bass player from my very first band who was also responsible for lending me his bass to get me started. Amazingly, he still had that first bass guitar stored away in his attic. In an act of extraordinary kindness and generosity, he decided to give me that exact bass that I started playing on. I can’t tell you how excited I was when he sent it to me! I’ve decided I’m going to use it to record something on my next record, just for fun and nostalgic satisfaction!

FBPO: How did you develop your intricate tapping technique? I don’t imagine you learned it from a book!

AN: When I first started to work on it many years ago, I was in more of an emulative stage than anything else. I first heard tapping used by guitar players in some of the rock music I was listening to, but at the time I wasn’t really familiar with any bass players who were doing it. In an effort to try and do something more flashy and unique on the bass, I started learning some of the guitar solos I loved that included tapping, like Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption,” and Randy Rhodes’ solo on “Crazy Train.” However, my attention was immediately diverted the first time I discovered Billy Sheehan‘s “NV43345” solo from his early performances with Talas. I was completely mesmerized by his solo-guitar-like prowess over the bass and I set out to learn “NV43345” note for note. I can still remember going to sleep every night to that solo, which I had looped over and over again on my tape recorder in an effort to internalize and “subliminal-ize” every note to make it easier to learn. Once I had it down, I started performing it live with my band at the time. It was my first-ever venture into the world of “solo bass” and carrying the entire weight of a solo performance on my shoulders. I can still remember how nervous I was, but the experience really paid off in the long run because it eventually taught me how to feel more confident in the spotlight and actually relax and trust myself more.

FBPO: How about your trademark “sweeping” technique?

AN: Over time, as I worked more on my tapping, I started incorporating sweep-style arpeggios and phrases into my playing. These techniques started out as nothing more than me copying what a lot of the “shredder” guitar players were doing at the time. However, I worked hard to refine the approach on the bass and eventually got to the point that I was able to make it a more prevalent part of my voice in my solos. I probably get more questions about sweeping at my bass clinics than any other technique that I do. It’s based on the concept that you use your thumb in the way a guitar player would use a pick when sweeping in an ascending direction, and you use your index finger like a pick when sweeping in a descending direction. The challenge is to play every individual note with complete clarity and fluidity, while still maintaining control over muting tasks across the strings. Once I was able to refine it, I used this technique a good bit in a lot of my solos. It can be heard in context on my last three CDs.

FBPO: How did these techniques become such an integral part of your playing?

AN: Over the years, my approach to tapping became much more influenced by my compositional efforts than my efforts at trying to master the techniques in the practice shed. In other words, I eventually came to a place where I never practiced or exercised the technique on its own. Instead, I would strive to compose something first, then work out how it would sit on the fingerboard using a tapping approach. For example, in the case of my “Broken, part 1” bass solo on my Evidence album, that entire piece was built around the melody that I heard in my head. I worked to create a two-handed tapping part that voiced both the melody and the harmony together in a way that would still capture the gravity and the dynamic of the composition. The end result was that I had to practice the parts on the bass specifically as they were written, as opposed to first working on exercises that would develop my two-handed independence in a more methodical, but less-musical manner. The same compositionally-led approach is what I used for the “Vivere l’Aperitivo” bass solo on my new Liminal CD, as well.

FBPO: Nashville has got quite a rich musical heritage. How are things there now? What kinds of opportunities are there for musicians? What’s the scene like?

AN: From my observations, the music scene here is more diverse than a lot of people realize. Sure, if you take a stroll down Broadway downtown, you’ll certainly be inundated with live country music coming from the windows of many a bar or restaurant. However, there are truly some great rock, blues, and jazz players based out of here, as well. There are also a handful of music venues there that pride themselves in offering many different genres of artists. Like any other music city right now, Nashville is feeling the effects of a slow economy, which has certainly influenced studio and tour budgets. But if you stay eager and open-minded while involving yourself in as many types of projects as possible, you can enjoy a solid living and maybe even get some musical fulfillment along the way.

One mistake that some players make when they move here is assuming that they will be able to immediately “hit the ground running” by jumping immediately onto a tour or into the studio scene. It takes time to build relationships and work your way into musical circles that are already established and pretty tight-knit. You have to exhibit a lot of patience and not be pretentious when you meet new people. It’s important to cultivate sincere friendships and not just have an opportunistic attitude towards people that you are hoping to work for.

FBPO: How did you become established as an in-demand bassist in today’s contemporary jazz environment? When I think of Dave Weckl, Scott Henderson, Peter Erskine and Mike Stern, I don’t (necessarily!) think of Nashville.

AN: I think the process of releasing my own albums ended up helping me to establish some viability over time. It gave me a canvas to showcase my voice both as a bass player and as a writer.  I think the synergy of the two roles helped me gain momentum, especially in acquiring more word-of-mouth referrals. Also, my attempts to establish myself as a recording artist, as opposed to just working on becoming hired as a sideman, contributed greatly to my being able to work more closely with other established musicians on my own recordings. It also allowed me to book my own performances as a bandleader, which, in many cases, put me and the band on bills opening for a handful of artists I ended up getting to work with later.

I also was fortunate enough to have gotten to play with many of my musician heroes during my time at the Atlanta Institute of Music when they visited for their clinics and Master Classes. Regardless of whatever musical context with which I have been involved, I have tried my best to leave a positive impression on those that I have gotten to work with on stage or in the studio. It is vitally important to build lasting relationships with people and earn their trust and respect. In the scope of building your career, that becomes even more important than the skills you possess on your instrument.

FBPO: Tell me about your releases as a leader, especially the new one, Liminal.

AN: My first album, Liquid Blue, was my first musical venture as a bandleader. It was also a record that featured my Atlanta-based live band on every tune. Admittedly, many of the arrangements carried the signature of being a bass player-led effort, but I tried to write compositions that would appeal to fans of electric jazz, in general. I learned a lot about arranging, as well as the entire production process, through the creation of that record. Being that it was my first release, I had a lot to learn, so the process from start to finish was a little more daunting compared to some of my later recordings.  One of the tunes, “Song Of The City,” actually achieved some airplay on a handful of jazz stations and it was exciting to put my efforts into marketing on a grassroots level and see some progress. That CD is currently out of print, but will be re-mastered and re-released in digital format at the beginning of next year.

My second album, Balance, was more of a straight jazz/fusion release, featuring more intricate compositions and pyrotechnic performances from an incredible group of musicians. Although it still featured some of my most challenging bass work to date, there was a bit more focus on ensemble arrangements. I feel like the end result was a collection of tunes that more successfully showcased the individual voice of each player. My most downloaded song to date, “Skitzo,” was the opening track on that album. Balance was re-mastered last year, which improved the sonic quality of the recording overall.

My third album, Evidence, was a step forward for me, compositionally. My primary concern was having a cohesive vision for the album that bound all the songs together. I placed an even greater emphasis on melody and arrangement than before. That album reflected more of my growth and maturity as a musician and writer.  Looking back, I feel like it had a greater depth to it than my first two albums. Sonically, it was also on a level above my prior releases. It was the second album of mine that I had mixed entirely by myself — the first was Balance — and though the process was incredibly time-consuming, I learned so much from it. Although Evidence still contained its fair share of featured bass moments, it was, from beginning to end, a true ensemble recording effort in which I really relied on the personality of each musician to help shape each composition.

Liminal, my latest album, was just released this year. Those who are familiar with my earlier works will notice an even deeper emphasis on composition and groove, reflecting my growth and influences as a writer and player over the last seven years. There is a good bit of compositional variety, yet at the same time there is a cohesiveness to the theme of the album. There are a few “barnburner” tunes on it, but for the most part listeners will hear that this is much more of a groove-centered record, compared to my past releases. As with my last album, Evidence, I didn’t want Liminal to come across as a “bass player’s record.” The songs are more centered around ensemble performances, as opposed to just a landscape to feature my bass playing. What I love about the final result is that, to me, it comes across like a band record through and through, with room for all of the musicians to shine and bring the music to life. As the writer and producer, I provided the framework for each composition, but I depended on the players to dynamically interpret and shape the music. I really wanted Liminal to be a record that music lovers and musicians alike would listen to for enjoyment and inspiration, not just for a generous helping of riffs and licks. Liminal is also sonically my best album to date. We made every effort not to cut any corners during the recording process and it really paid off once we reached the mixing and mastering stages of production.

FBPO: What’s “MusicDojo” all about?

AN: I co-founded MusicDojo with Len Sitnick, another bass player I had met while teaching at a Victor Wooten bass camp. We’ve been up and running for just over five years, and our curricula and instructing staff continue to grow. MusicDojo is an interactive, online music school that offers specialized coursework for guitar players and bass players, covering topics like harmony & theory, sightreading, technique, ear training and musical styles.

The most significant thing about MusicDojo is that it is not just a site of archived information that you can view or download. Rather, it is an actual Internet-based music school in which you actually study with the author of each course in an interactive manner. Students log into their “virtual classrooms” on a daily basis whenever they like and work on their daily lessons and assignments. They interact directly with their instructors, using easy to navigate message board environments. They can also upload their assignments to obtain critique and feedback from the instructor. The instructors likewise log in each day and answer any questions posted and assist with the material.

The school also features live chatrooms in which students dialogue directly with their instructors during “office hours.”  We also offer a free five-day course, which integrates material from several of our courses currently being offered on the site.

FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days? You’re still a pretty young guy. What kinds of things do you look forward to tackling in the future? What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?

AN: I am involved with a lot of projects these days. Since I have a new album out, I am still working to promote it through reviews, interviews, clinics and live performances. It is a task that I am always working on in the background of whatever other project I am working on.

I am also currently doing pre-production work for a brand new instructional DVD series I am going to release next year. In the series, I will be covering such topics as the mastery of technique, improvisational concepts, practice tips and strategies and even tips for how to get a great tone, both live and in the studio. I’m really excited about sharing this information with the bass-playing community.

Right now I’m also involved with a joint venture that will offer bass players a unique educational product online that will be centered around the idea of building a unique identity as a player. I can’t reveal too much about it right now, but I can tell you it will be completely interactive and offer students unique opportunities not found in any other educational product through the web or in stores.

All of these endeavors get balanced between recording sessions, gigging and clinics for my sponsors. Remote recording for artists is taking up more and more of my time nowadays, now that the advent of home-based technology has made the process that much more viable and convenient. Once I moved to Nashville, I started getting into producing independent artists and I’ve worked with both instrumental artists and singer/songwriters on several different projects. The last two album projects I produced were also led by bass players: Enrico Galetta from Italy and Bernhard Lackner from Austria. They are both fantastic players who are now starting to get more exposure. Currently I’m finishing up an EP project for Chris Chesbro, an incredible pop singer/songwriter based in Nashville.

As far as the future goes, as a bassist I would really love to continue working with a diverse collection of artists. I really enjoy the variety of being able to switch roles between different genres. Starting with this upcoming DVD series, I also want to continue to build a collection of educational products. More than anything else, I really want these products to inspire players and push them to pursue excellence in all they do.

Of course, I also plan to continue releasing CDs of my own. I’d love for my next release to be a live record, as I think it would capture the unique spirit and energy from the compositions. Finally, I would really love to be able to grow my production career, as I really love working with artists and helping them find their own voice and identity.

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