Despite losing his right hand in an industrial accident, Bill found a way to resume his bass-playing career. Remarkable interview – and video!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
May 14, 2012
Michigan native Bill Clements had a promising career as a bass player until he lost his right arm in an industrial accident in 1989. In a tremendous display of determination and sheer guts, Bill developed his own unique one-handed style of bass playing and, remarkably, was able to resume his career. His fiery virtuoso chops have evoked comparisons to bass heroes Jaco Pastorius and Rocco Prestia, among others. Clements continues to astound audiences worldwide.
FBPO: Let’s start with the early days. What kind of musical upbringing did you have?
BC: I always liked music and got a violin in the 4th grade. Even then, it seems that I always had ideas that weren’t “standard” and the monotony of what they had me play made my time with the violin short. I picked up a bass at the age of 13 and never set it back down.
FBPO: What inspired you pick up a bass?
BC: The songs that I liked on the radio had a big bass sound: Rush, Yes, The Who, Zep, The Police. In my adolescence, the bass just seemed more exotic. Also, there were fewer bass players than guitar players.
FBPO: What kind of career did you have before the accident? What kind of stuff were you doing?
BC: I played in cover bands until 1988, when I joined Catharsis, an original power trio. It was while in this band that my accident happened.
FBPO: What happened on that fateful day back in 1989?
BC: The accident happened while I was working a day job at a factory. On December 18, 1989, I put my hand into a slow moving mixer, not realizing that it was on. I didn’t lose consciousness until I was put under at the hospital. I have total recall of the events leading up to the surgery, including telling the nurse to get me a different doctor because the first one pissed me off!
FBPO: I can only try to imagine what must have been going through your mind at the time. After the initial shock, how quickly did your musical career surface as one of the challenges of this life-changing occurrence?
BC: Well, I guess pretty quickly. Initially, I thought I was all done. By the time I got to the emergency room, I was starting to get a grip. I lay there a while with a janitor holding my tourniquet. I started thinking about a(n Emmett) Chapman stick. Before they put me out, I was thinking, “I’m not gonna quit.”
FBPO: You must remember the first time you picked up the bass after that. Tell me about that experience.
BC: The first time I tried to play after the accident was about ten days later. My brother’s guitar just happened to be nearby. Not being a guitarist, it didn’t work out too well. I was despondent, to say the least. A few days later, I got the nerve to try it again, but on my own bass. It seemed like there was a chance, but it wasn’t until I got the idea to tie something around the first fret that it came together. Six weeks after the accident, I was back at rehearsal.
FBPO: How would you describe your playing style?
BC: I was always into players who made their instrument their own. Not necessarily the busiest, though I dig that, but players of impact, guys who just played cool shit. Tony Levin, Percy Jones, Alphonso Johnson, George Porter, Paul Jackson… I could go on: Sting, Geddy, Jaco, Stanley, Rocco. Bottom line, it’s down to your personality. You play – or don’t – as you are personally compelled.
FBPO: How did you go about getting back in the groove as a bass player? How long did it take?
BC: I’ll let you know when that happens!
FBPO: What else would you like to accomplish in your career – and your life?
BC: There’s a long list of places I would like to play and definitely people I would love to play alongside. In the end, I just want to continue playing as much as possible and take music to the people who appreciate it most.
FBPO: Your story speaks volumes, all by itself. Still, can you offer any words of hope and inspiration for the rest of us?
BC: I don’t know what I can say that would be helpful. My relationship with my instrument is really my most enduring. Devoting myself to it as I have has cost me in other areas. Stability has not been a hallmark of my existence. Problems stemming from the accident, complicated by a good twenty-year affair with alcohol that I only recently have come to terms with, led me down a path of economic woes and, sadly, a failed marriage.
What I do know is that I am very fortunate for the people that have stuck with me and believe in what I do, not just because I play a mean bass. The mysteries of the universe are encoded on the fretboard and that study of the instrument eventually becomes the study of one’s self. I know that one or all of the many demons in my life would have overtaken me long ago if not for the bass guitar. Its gifts continue to sustain me. May it do so for you as well.
FBPO: You are a testament to the power of will and resolve and it’s obvious you can do anything you set your mind to. What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
BC: I have to say that I can’t imagine not playing bass, but if it came to it, I’d come up with some way to distinguish myself…but you know, I’d do it my way!
Watch Bill’s impromptu jam at the 2012 NAMM show!