Superstar bassist tells FBPO about his early influences, the Berklee experience, gigs, gear and current projects!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 28, 2009
Stuart Hamm is a world-renowned bass virtuoso. His resume includes performing and touring with guitar greats Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Frank Gambale. Stu has released several CDs as a leader, including Radio Free Albemuth, Kings of Sleep and The Urge, as well as instructional DVDs for Hot Licks publications. He performs bass clinics throughout the world and is involved in major recording projects.
FBPO: Tell me a little about your upbringing. Do you come from a musical family? How did you end up playing the bass?
SH: I come from a very musical family. My father, Charles Hamm, was president of the American Musicology Association and he’s written a number of books on the history of popular music in America, which have become textbooks for many universities. My mother, Helen Hamm, was a voice teacher and an opera singer and my oldest brother, Bruce, played guitar when I was growing up. He now plays the sarod, which is a kind of fretless sitar, and he runs the Ali Akbar Khan School of Indian Music.
So, growing up, I was exposed to lots of different kinds of music. When my father was teaching at the University of Illinois, there was a bunch of modern music going on. In fact, one of his friends was John Cage. I remember taking my little plastic army men and putting them between the strings of the piano before his prepared piano pieces. I was exposed to all this weird modern music and operas my mom was in, my brother taking me to see Mahavishnu Orchestra before I knew who they were. So, I was definitely always around lots of different kinds of music.
There are a bunch of stories about why I play the bass. One is that I was a big Danny Bonaduce fan because I was a pudgy red-haired geek, as he was. I was living, at the time, in Champagne, IL, and there wasn’t much else for a kid to do there.
FBPO: Was that where you were born?
SH: Actually, I was born in New Orleans when my dad was teaching at Tulane. We moved to Champagne when I was about four. In the Midwest, band programs are huge. In Illinois, there were a lot of stage bands, even in the junior high schools. The local high school had a great stage band and were state champions year after year. I actually started playing bass because I wanted to be in that band. I got my first bass in 1973 for Christmas, along with Mel Bay’s “Easy Bass Method.” Around that time I started playing upright a little bit in school, just reading charts, walking through changes and stuff like that. It was quite a while before I actually started playing rock and roll. With those bands it was all pretty much formal big band arrangement stuff when I was beginning.
FBPO: Which bass players influenced you the most when you first started learning the bass?
SH: Back then, I was listening to Maynard Ferguson and big band stuff. I really came from that background. One of my first real bass heroes was Chris Squire. I remember the day I heard the long version of “Roundabout” on the radio. After that, I really got into Yes and I just wanted to wear a cape on stage and play a Rickenbacker with a quarter as a pick! Then there was John Entwistle from the Who. My father got the gig as head of the music department at Dartmouth College, so we moved to the Vermont/New Hampshire area when I was fifteen. At that time, I went to a much smaller school and started playing in more bands. I was playing in jazz bands and rock bands, top-40 bands, frat bands and stuff like that.
And then someone played me a Stanley Clarke record, which, needless to say, certainly got my attention. When I went to Berklee College of Music, Jeff Berlin was there and I used to go see him every night. In November 1978 I saw Jaco at the Orpheum Theatre and seeing him just changed my life forever.
FBPO: What kind of experience did you have at Berklee and what do you think of the opportunities available today to up and coming wanna-be bass players, compared to the time that you attended?
SH: I think Berklee’s the place to go. I had a great experience there. Being around people who are as committed and into music as you are 24/7 is fantastic. There was a club, Pooh’s Club, where we used to go see Mike Stern and Tim Landers and Wayne Pedzwater and Tommy Campbell and Jeff Berlin and Randy Roos – so many amazing players. I met Steve Vai there and lots of other great people.
Of course, when I went there, back in the dark ages, you could get an engineering degree on a four-track! Now I go back and see all the new facilities they have and, man, it’s unbelievable. They’ve always had really great teachers, too, like Rich Appleman and Bruce Gertz, both of whom are still there. I think it’s the only really serious place to go and obviously they have so much more in the way of resources now compared to when I was there. You just go there and you play latin music one night with these guys, fusion with these guys… just going and playing the music and meeting the people.
FBPO: Have you pretty much always been a rocker at heart, or did that become your destiny after getting to know guys like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani?
SH: I’m in a funny spot there because when I moved to LA and was playing with Steve, I was still into the jazz/fusion stuff. Then when I got some rock gigs, like the David & David stuff, some of the fusion guys thumbed their noses at me and said, “Oh, he’s a rock player.” And then when I’d hang out with the real bonehead rock guys, they’d say, “Oh, that’s Stu Hamm, he can actually play, he’s like a jazzer guy.” So I’m kind of caught in the middle there.
FBPO: When you and I were working together on your bass transcriptions project back in the early ‘90s, I sensed at the time you had some jazz blood in you, as well.
SH: Yeah, well, that’s where I was coming from. I also studied classical piano for years and that’s part of my background, as well. I love the energy of rock and I certainly love the more complex harmonies of fusion. What I listen to is mostly piano music, like Debussy and Satie, and there’s a modern Russian composer named Alfred Schnittke and I listen to quite a bit of him, just to keep challenging myself. But I love to rock! In fact I spent this weekend playing with Michael Lee Firkins and Chris Duarte at a “Guitar Player Live” event here in Northern California. There’s nothing like gettin’ up there and poundin’ out the eighth notes with sweat pouring down your face when you’ve got tons of people out there. That’s a great vibe.
I love doing different things. If I go out and do two weeks of solo clinics, by the end of the two weeks, I’m sick of hearing my own jokes and stories and my own solo bass playing. I’m ready to just come home, maybe do a little jazz gig and play through some standards. So I really try to keep my career varied and interesting.
FBPO: Funny you should mention Debussy because on your first album, Radio Free Albemuth, you include homages to Beethoven and Debussy. I didn’t know you had studied classical piano. Obviously, you’ve got some appreciation for classical music. You also mentioned that you played some upright bass. How far did you go with it?
SH: I didn’t go very far with the upright bass. When I was in the stage bands, I played it because some of the pieces really neeeded it. I think I stayed with it till the point when my parents had to listen to me work on my bowing technique and that was the end of that. I played it pretty much in junior high and in high school jazz band, till I moved to Vermont. At that point I went to straight electric.
But as far as classical music, that’s how this whole thing started. I love to listen to one person playing an instrument. I can listen to Glenn Gould play Bach all day. Or Rostropovich. I just love that. One guy, one instrument. Live. It’s great! And, I’d never really thought of the bass that way till I saw Jaco. So I started trying to work out pieces from my piano repertoire, like the Moonlight Sonata, or the Gershwin Prelude #2, but I quickly ran out of fingers and ways to get the notes to come out. Playing with Steve Vai and those guys, I’d seen people do hammer-ons and push the strings down the neck to get the sounds to come out, so I tried to use that technique to work out these solo pieces I used to play on the piano. And that’s how my tapping technique came about. It’s not just to play fast pentatonic runs; it’s to make music come out. And the cool thing about it is that if you play piano, harmony is pretty easy to see. By tapping it out on the neck of a bass, it became easier for me to visualize the music in a harmonic sense on the bass.
FBPO: How did you come up with the idea or “Country Music: A Night In Hell?” Was that somewhat autobiographical?
SH: I’d have to say yeah. I’ve done so many stupid gigs where people are yelling at the band. There are times where you can be trying to play some really intense, creative, cutting-edge music and the audience just doesn’t care. The whole way that song is played is by popping the open G and then hammering on the F# to G on the D string. I think I stole that technique from a bass player in Boston named Tim Archibald. All my songs have to be about something. I’ve got a ton of chord progressions and changes and grooves, but it’s not a song or a piece of music until I can name it and know what it’s about. So I came up with that technique and then that morphed into the humor thing. It was probably inspired from the double-time banjo playing on The Beverly Hillbillies that used to make me do somersaults around the room when I was a kid. I always try to put a little humor into my music.
FBPO: The BX3 concept band you formed with Jeff Berlin and Billy Sheehan was a bass player’s dream! [Stu laughs] Were you surprised at how many bass enthusiasts there are in the world and how long you were able to sustain a tour like that? I mean, it’s kind of a novelty act, isn’t it?
SH: I learned a lot on that tour. I learned that I’m not a manager. I certainly reached and surpassed my level of organizational skills. It was a great idea and it was very rewarding to see it come to fruition. It was a lot of hard work. There are certainly bass enthusiasts out there. We had good weeks and bad weeks, as far as attendance goes. But the music and the hang and what I got to steal from Jeff and Billy was great. We had some stellar gigs and it was a lot of fun.
FBPO: Tell me a little about the books, DVDs and other educational resources you’ve created.
SH: The Hot Licks stuff has finally been re-released on DVD. I’m also talking with some music schools about writing curricula. I’m working on a really in-depth series of CD-ROMS for TrueFire. The first one was called “Bass Basics” and it covers the most basic fundamentals. The second is called “Fretboard Fitness,” which is my approach to getting to know the neck, how to visualize it harmonically and how to get your hands trained to be in the right position. I believe there is a big difference between practice and performance and there’s a certain amount of grunt work one must go through before being able to express oneself freely. That’s the point I hope to get across in this volume, which should be out by the end of the year. The third one’s going to cover slap and pop exercises and the last one will cover harmonics and tapping.
I’ve been approached by a lot of people through MySpace and Facebook, asking me to play on their projects. So my friends at Six String Media have created a website called tracksbystu.com. People can send me their tracks on a stereo mix, I download them, put them on my machine, do some tracks and send it back to them. Actually, it’s been pretty steady and it’s a lot of fun.
FBPO: What kind of instruments are you playing now? Which basses do you take on the road? And, while we’re at it, what about strings and amplification?
SH: I’ve been using GHS Boomers forever, 45s-105s. I just love them. I know exactly what they’re going to do for me. I’m still playing my Fenders. I finally retired my main one, my red, sparkly Urge II bass named “Mel.” The original Fender Urge was the first Fender signature bass and I’m proud to have been the first guy ever to have a Fender signature bass. I have some other wonderful basses that were built for me, including one built by Todd Krause at the Custom Shop and a B.C. Rich 8-string that I’m playing and loving. I’ve been designing an acoustic bass for Washburn, with an adjustable and intonatable bridge. I love the Hartke stuff. I’m out there promoting the High Drives and the combos that I helped design. I’m a real solid state guy, but in the studio, I’ll use a little more of a tube sound, depending on what the track requires.
FBPO: What else have you been doing?
SH: I went to Italy with Frank Gambale over the summer, in addition to playing several festivals and doing my teaching things and thinking about what my next record’s going to be. I like the idea of doing a rock record, though I’ve also been doing a lot recording in my home studio, including a bunch of overdub bass choir stuff that’s really cool. I taught at the International Guitar Festival over in the UK and stuck around to do some clinics. I actually took my daughter to London with me last weekend. I had a recording session there and took Charlotte along. We saw a couple shows and it was just awesome. I was in Asia earlier this year, working in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, doing different things that came up. It’s all good.
FBPO: So, what’s next for Stuart Hamm?
SH: I’ll be down at Bass Player Live! in October, premiering the Washburn bass. I’ve also got a few tours that will inevitably come up. I’ve got a few clinics here and there and some local gigs. I did a really nice solo bass show at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto and I’ll probably release that. I never released a CD of my clinics with all the solo bass stuff, so I might get that out, too. I’m looking forward to finishing this record, whatever it turns out to be. I’ve got the instructional videos coming out. I have a lot of video from clinics I’ve done around the world. I’d like to compile the best performances from those clinics and release it as a DVD, which would have bonus tracks where I would talk about what every song means, why I wrote it, the performance that night and the different techniques involved in playing each tune. All I need is some time. And now that football season is here, my weekends are shot!