Igor Saavedra

Chilean virtuoso and pioneer of the 8-string bass tells FBPO about his Vectorial Synthesis Technique, “Mike Ramp” invention and lots more!

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 10, 2012

For more than 20 years, Igor Saavedra has been considered one of the most influential and respected bassists in South America. He is particularly known for his mastery of the 8-string bass. Among his achievements is his signature Vectorial Synthesis Technique, which he developed for the bass. Igor is also credited as the inventor of the exclusive “Mic Ramp” pickup system.

Saavedra has performed and/or recorded with a wide array of artists, including Bob Sheppard, David Garfield and Fareed Haque, as well as bassists Jonas Hellborg, Steve Bailey, Janek Gwizdala, Phil Chen and many others. Igor has been a featured artist at hundreds of concerts and festivals throughout the world and is frequently profiled in many music magazines and periodicals.

FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.

IS: First of all, Jon, let me thank you for considering me for this interview. I have a high respect for you and for your bass site, so for me it’s quite an honor and I hope this interview can help some of my fellow South American bassists to be considered in the future for something like this. We’ve great bassists over here!

FBPO: Thanks, Igor!

IS: Getting to the point, I’m a fully self-taught musician because nobody in my family wanted to help me on this. Even though there were – and still are – some very good musicians in my family, for some strange reasons, that issue was never discussed at any of our numerous family meetings. I guess the real reason was to protect me from having to suffer economic or solvency problems for having chosen to be a musician, but who knows?

When I was 22 years old, I realized I was really old to start a solo career, but from the first day I started playing, I knew that this was my goal. For the first two or three years, I studied more than fourteen hours a day on average. Some days I remember studying more than seventeen hours to make up for lost time. Every second not dedicated to music was spent recuperating!

Before the end of my first year of studying music and bass, I was playing and touring with some of the most important artists in my country, including a singer named Óscar Andrade, who was the Chilean equivalent to John Denver in the USA. After that great experience, I was playing in a very famous funk/R&B band named De Kiruza, which was one of the most popular bands in Chile back in those days. In 1991, I was hired by the most prestigious jazz school in Chile, where I became the bass teacher for about six months before I had to go on tour again.

I played with many other local artists until 1995, when I moved to Los Angeles. I played with many great musicians and taught bass in a music school there for more than four years. I moved back to Chile in 1999 and continued my career in my country and began traveling more frequently. And here I am, still traveling, studying and learning to get a little less imperfect each day!

FBPO: What made you decide to become a bass player?

IS: As I said, I didn’t know anything about music till I was 22. Up to that point, my life was all about sports and martial arts. In fact, I was at the fifth level at the university to become a physical education teacher and I was preparing to move to China to get my higher degrees in Kung-Fu.

Suddenly a jazz/fusion concert on campus changed my whole paradigm. It was the first time in my life I had attended a live concert and I fell in love with music, especially the bass. I remember myself literally crying on that corner where I was listening to those magic sounds.

Ten minutes after that concert, I was standing in front of the main entrance of the campus saying goodbye to all I had been up till that moment. I will never forget it. I did it with a military-style salute, which was a symbolic way to say that I was fully convinced of what I was doing. Obviously, I never graduated nor attained the career I had begun pursuing. When you are in love, you are in love.

FBPO: Who were your influences when you first started studying the bass?

IS: My main influences were Gary Willis, Jimmy Johnson, Alain Caron, Kai Eckhardt, John Patitucci, Jeff Berlin, Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller, Mark King, Jaco Pastorius, Gary Grainger and a few others. I remember very clearly destroying thousands of audio and videotapes with that inevitable pause/play/pause/play, etc., we all used to put into practice back in those days. That was the only way for me to get closer to all the great bass masters and learn what they were playing on their instruments.

FBPO: Tell me about VST, your signature Vectorial Synthesis Technique.

IS: Having studied to become a physical education teacher, I’d grown fascinated by biomechanics, ergonomics, biometry, technique, etc. In 1992, I started an endless and beautiful trip, attempting to understand the immensely complex “fabric” produced by the movements of our hands and our fingers when they are surfing across the strings of our instrument.

The main word here is efficiency and, in my opinion, when it comes to technique, this wonderful concept is the key to being able to fully enjoy performing on a musical instrument. Frank Gambale’s sweep picking technique is a perfect example. In fact I “stole” some concepts from Frank, who is a musician that I respect enormously.

VST is much more complex than “sweeping with the fingers,” though. It goes way beyond that. In fact, when it comes to the right hand, we bass players have a great advantage compared to picking techniques because we have five fingers and the potential efficiency that can be achieved with them is much greater than that of a pick. The best way I can sum it up is with this personal quote:

“Technique has to serve the musical discourse; it must facilitate it and not obstruct it or affect it in any form. Technique can not be an end in itself. It must be always a mean.”

FBPO: How did you happen to gravitate to the 8-string bass?

IS: That happened back in 1999, right before I returned to Chile for personal and family reasons. In relation with the VST concept, I was always looking for the best instrument possible for my specific needs in terms of technique. I started with a 4-string bass, like everybody else. Then in 1990, I switched to 5-strings. By 1991, I was just playing my 6-string bass, which was my only friend till 1999, when I realized I wanted to be able to play more complex lines and chords on my instrument. During that year, my first 8-string bass was made as an endorsement by Alfonso Iturra. Then in 2006, the wonderful Chilean luthier, Claudio González, endorsed me and made my actual “Octavius” bass.

Even though I stand 6’2” tall, my hands are really small. I came to the conclusion that I needed to regroup my ideas and bring them even closer on my fingerboard. The solution? Two more strings! A high F and a low F# that allowed me to move “vertically” on my fingerboard, avoiding extended “horizontal” movements, which were really hard to achieve with my small hands.

I went even further. My 8-string bass has a 33.5” scale and the string separation is 15.5 mm. Those are the real reasons for turning to an 8-string bass. It’s important to mention that, for me, it is completely irrelevant to play in the ultra-high register like a guitar. I rarely go beyond the 18th fret on the F string, which is a B, the equivalent to the 23rd fret on a the C string of a 6-string bass. I mostly stay in the same register that any regular 6-string bassist usually manages.

I also did a profound analysis on string tensions and gauges. It took me almost a year to come up with just the right gauge set. I love really light strings on the lower register because they give me tons of expressiveness, lots of sustain and lots of natural volume. On the lower register, quite opposite to what most people think, a lighter string has much more low frequency content and “sweeter” lows, even though it has less transient energy and less punch. With proper technique, you can compensate for it, though.

FBPO: The 8-string bass is quite a novelty. I’m guessing it had a lot to do with catapulting your career.

IS: Sure. In fact, as far as I know, there were no 8-string bassists in South America in 1999, so for many years I was the only one. The 8-string bass was obviously a plus for my career. Having designed every detail of it myself, I have to say that the headstock is the part I like the most. That headstock ended up being a sort of an “icon” or symbol that everybody relates to immediately with my personality, mostly because it’s completely different from any other headstock.

“Octavius” also helped my career because many people wanted to see it and to hear it. At first, it let me set a newer path for bassists who live in this region and, ultimately, for bassists overseas. I’m still working hard on improving as a musician. You never stop learning new things. It has been and still is a wonderful learning experience.

I think there’s a very specific characteristic in my playing that I’d like to mention here. Even being an “erb” (extended range bass) player, I consider myself, first of all, a groove player. I really dislike trebly-sounding basses and tapping and acrobatic excesses. When I play with my trio, you’ll see a guy playing the way a bassist is supposed to play in a band. Obviously, when it comes time for my solo, I try to address the possibilities that my 8-string bass offers and go deep into tapping, complex slapping techniques and chordal playing, but I never do that when I’m setting the groove for the band.

I also perform concerts just by myself, completely alone with not even a drum machine on my side. In those situations, I mostly use the chord-melody technique, which I really enjoy a lot. The 8-string bass is a fantastic tool in that scenario.

FBPO: What’s the “Mic Ramp” all about?

IS: The Mic ramp is an invention I created about 18 years ago, which is now being used and applied by many great players and manufacturers. I’m really happy that every time I turn my head, I’m able to see more and more Mic Ramps everywhere.

The Mic Ramp is a wooden ramp that can be height regulated. It looks like a giant pickup and includes actual pickups inside. The function is exactly the same as the Willis Ramp. That is, it provides a steady surface below the string that keeps you from digging in too deep with your fingers. It’s very good for facilitating right-hand technique and the achievement of a clean and steady sound. It’s designed so that you will always be playing over the pickups, which is something I prefer for many reasons. And the fact that the height can be adjusted gives you much more flexibility.

FBPO: Was it inspired by the Willis Ramp?

IS: Sort of. I met Gary Willis back in 1992, when Tribal Tech went to Chile to perform a great concert that I’ll never forget. I lent him my amp, so I had the opportunity and the privilege to meet him and talk with him. He explained to me how the Willis Ramp was built and how it works. Everything he said made a lot of sense to me because that idea of having a ramp below my strings was perfect for applying my VST technique. I mentioned to him that, rather than gluing the ramp to the bass, I thought it would be a great idea to add some screws in order to regulate the distance of the ramp from the strings. I also suggested that the ramp could include the pickups instead of being separated from them.

I didn’t do the first Mic Ramp immediately. In fact, I kept thinking about it for more than two years till I started to work on the first prototypes at home. When I moved to the US, the idea was frozen in my mind till I visited Chile back in 1998. I talked with the Chilean luthier, Alfonso Iturra, and asked him to build a newer 6-string bass with a finely handcrafted Mic Ramp with all the ideas from the previous prototypes I did. That 6-string bass was ready in about six months and it contained the first perfectly functional Mic Ramp.

One year after that, the second Mic Ramp was made and installed on my first 8-string bass. Three years after that, in 2002, Ibanez came out with a new Gary Willis model, which included four screws for adjusting the ramp’s height, but still had the ramp separated from the pickups. Those screws were adjusted from the front of the bass so you can see them. I prefer my original version, where you are not able to see the screws because they come from the back of the bass.

FBPO: What’s keeping your busy these days?

IS: Well, a lot of things! In 2012, I did some demos for MarkBass amps, La Bella Strings and Nordstrand pickups at the NAMM show in Ahameim. I also got to perform at the MarkBass booth at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt, along with Alain Caron and Jeff Berlin. From there I went to Spain, where I performed a master class at Todobajos in Madrid. I did a couple other concerts in Madrid, too.

Between all the traveling, I play in Chile and I teach private lessons, which is something I love to do. I’m actually finishing the last of a series of three bass books called Harmony and Improvisation Applied to the Electric Bass. My two previous books are Rhythm Applied to the Electric Bass and Technique Applied to the Electric Bass.

Most recently, I’ve been invited by Chris Jisi, for the second year in a row, to be a special guest at Bass Player Live! in Los Angeles. Chris is also coordinating a master class for me at the New York Bass Collective and I think I’ll be flying to New York right after BPL. Chris has been enormously supportive of my career as a professional bassist and I can’t thank him enough!

FBPO: How about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?

IS: Many things, indeed. The most important thing is that I always feel I still know nothing and that I have so much to learn. Certainly, one life won’t be enough for me, so if reincarnation exists and I come back in the form of a dog, I’ll surely be the first bassist dog in the world!

If there’s something I haven’t already accomplished, it is “perfection” and because of that wonderful circumstance provided by reality, where I’m certain I will never be able to achieve perfection, I know I have the rest of my life to dedicate to pursuing that huge carrot dangled in front of my nose.

I’d love also to be able to play with Chick Corea and Allan Holdsworth, my main musical heroes. I hope life might give me the opportunity to live that dream one day. I’m working hard to deserve it.

FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?

IS: That’s a really good question and the answer requires a huge sense of abstraction. I’m a huge fan of philosophy, quantum physics and sports. Despite these alternative activities in my life, the best answer I can give you is the following:

“I would be whatever that could make me happy that doesn’t have the potential of hurting anybody and that can humbly help making people feel at least a little better, no matter if it’s being a waste collector, a miner, a crab fisherman or a waiter.”

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