In-demand bassist talks about life as the “Fretless Monster,” signature model bass guitars and touring with Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
February 27, 2012
Tony Franklin, known affectionately as the “Fretless Monster,” has played bass with The Firm (Jimmy Page & Paul Rodgers), Blue Murder (John Sykes & Carmine Appice), David Gilmour, Kate Bush, Whitesnake, Donna Lewis (“I Love You Always Forever”) and many others. An in-demand session player, Tony has appeared on more than 150 albums and released two solo albums, Tomorrow and Wonderland.
Franklin’s bass playing has been heard on dozens of television shows, including the Late Show with David Letterman, Beverly Hills 90210, the Rosie O’Donnell Show, Good Morning America and Top of the Pops (U.K.), as well as MTV, VH-1 and numerous Japanese programs.
Tony spent many years doing artist relations work for Fender musical instruments, as well as serving as a long-time clinician for Fender and SWR. In 2006, Fender introduced the Tony Franklin Signature Model Fretless Precision Bass Guitar, Tony having played a hands-on role in its inception and development. A Tony Franklin fretted bass was subsequently released by Fender in 2008. In mid-2011, Tony joined Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s band for the tour supporting the guitarist’s latest release, How I Go.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing? You got your musical start pretty early, didn’t you?
TF: I grew up in a large musical family, so music was a way of life for me. I was exposed to a wide cross-section of music, including classical, pop, ’50s and ’60s rock & roll, standards, big band and musicals. I started playing gigs with my parents’ band when I was 5 years old and I could read music by the time I was 7. It was great fun. It never felt like a chore to play music.
FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player?
TF: When I was 12 years old, my parents were doing a band rehearsal that I was not part of. I was incredibly bored and wanted to play. My Mum pulled out a bass guitar, an old red Futurama bass that she used to play, and gave it to me to keep me occupied. I can still picture that moment, saying to myself, “This is the instrument I’ve been waiting for.” Everything about the bass and its role made sense to me. It was instant. I was playing gigs on it three days later!
FBPO: Was there a defining moment when you realized your aspirations for becoming a professional musician were going to be realized? Maybe when you got the gig with the Firm?
TF: I actually became a full-time musician when I was 18, when I joined a 10-piece dance band called “Pete’s People.” They played in the old Mecca Dance Hall circuit in England, initially in Coventry, before relocating to Birmingham (England). Music was the only thing I wanted to do. I just kept playing and doing the best I could and various opportunities seemed to open up. There were some up and down times for sure, but taking that initial step, becoming a professional musician at 18 – and leaving a “steady job” at Rolls Royce Aero Engines in Derby, England, to do it – was very empowering and exciting.
FBPO: How did you manage to break in to the studio scene, given the competitive nature of the beast?
TF: Just by plugging away and doing the best job I could. There really was no magic formula. I am fortunate with my broad musical background that I can be an articulate and creative session guy. I also have my own “personality” as an artist and live performer. A lot of great live players don’t necessarily make good studio session players, and vice versa. I love both environments.
FBPO: What was it about the fretless bass you found so alluring?
TF: Its express-ability, the depth of tone, and its subtle nuances. I liken it to the human voice, which of course does not have frets! I don’t think of the fretless bass as a novelty instrument. It still has its role to play, holding down the low end and maintaining the groove. Even with the simplest bass lines, though, the fretless bass makes it magical!
FBPO: How has your reputation as the “Fretless Monster” affected your career? I imagine it might have cost you some gigs, but gained you some others. Is that about right?
TF: Great question! And yes, that is about right. The thing is, I do a lot of sessions on the fretted bass. I try to play whatever the music needs. But I think some people may consider me a live player first – and a fretless player at that! Sometimes I’ve talked people into letting me try the part on the fretless first, reassuring them that I’ll do it on the fretted bass if they don’t like it. They usually like it on the fretless! And sometimes they’ll insist that I use the fretless, even though my first instinct may have been to do it on the fretted. At the end of the day, it’s nice to have my own voice on the bass guitar. People tell me I have my own recognizable style, which means a lot to me. The “Fretless Monster” is more of a fun nickname, one that some “serious” fans have grilled me over. “How can you call yourself the Fretless Monster? The title belongs to Jaco and Gary Willis!” Believe me, I have the utmost respect for those guys! Jaco is the reason I started playing fretless bass. They both do things that I could never do. But I love the double meaning of the word “fretless,” as in “worry-free.” A worry-free monster conjures up all sorts of fun imagery to me, especially when it comes to playing music. It’s a fun nickname, which I happen to love!
FBPO: Tell me about the Tony Franklin signature model bass guitars.
TF: Both my fretless and fretted signature models are based upon my original instruments, my black ’77 Fretless P-Bass and my Gold Amber ’76 fretted P-Bass. The fretted bass was originally Olympic White, but I stripped the finish off a couple of years later and slapped on a few coats of varnish, hence the Gold Amber. The only difference with the Fretless is the addition of the ebony fingerboard, which I favor over the original rosewood for its durability. In 2000, the Fender Custom Shop made me a replica of my ’77 Fretless in sunburst with an ebony board. We based the Signature Fretless on both my original Fretless and the Custom Shop Fretless. Both signature models are true representations of the basses I have used in my career. Fender did a great job. In fact I use one of my production signature basses as my main live bass. One of the nicest compliments I receive about the basses is that they are great instruments in their own right, not because they are “signature” instruments. I love them because they are essentially simple in their design, yet extremely versatile. I added the extra Jazz Bass bridge pick-up in the early ’80s, as I wanted to have the growl and the harmonics like Jaco. I put in a Strat 3-way selector switch, as it seemed like the easiest way to switch sounds. I bought a pair of DiMarzio Jazz Bass pick-ups, as those were the loudest pickups available at the time. One pickup went in the fretless, the other in the fretted! The cool thing was that the volume of the P-Bass and J-Bass pickups matched perfectly, so there was no drop in volume when switching between the two. It was a happy accident!
FBPO: How’s the Kenny Wayne Shepherd tour going?
TF: Really well. I thoroughly enjoy working and playing with Kenny and the band. He’s the real deal. He’s hard working, passionate and focused. There’s no partying on this tour, which is a real pleasure. We work hard and put on a consistently good show. I love the level of musicianship in the band. It pushes me, but also allows me to be myself. I do it all on the fretless, which Kenny has always been fine with. We toured in the U.S. and Europe in 2011 and will do more of the same in 2012, as well as shows in Australia. And how cool that there are two Fender signature artists in the band! (Kenny has his own signature model Strat). Chris Layton from Double Trouble plays drums, so it’s a groovy and tight rhythm section! It’s a very balanced and “healthy” situation too. We maintain a busy schedule, but we also take breaks every three, four or five weeks. Most of the band members have children, so we don’t like to be away from home for too long.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
TF: I have family members both in the U.S. and the U.K., so that keeps me busy! I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle: I eat a vegan diet, with no meat, fish or dairy. I also exercise and meditate daily. I’m always writing and recording new material. I do various recording sessions for other artists, both at my home facility and at outside recording studios. I practice piano when I can. I love the piano! Chopin is my favorite, but I have a long way to go! I’m taking vocal lessons to strengthen my voice, primarily for writing and recording songs. At this point I maintain my own website and social media, as well as managing and directing my music career. I write, I read, I’m a dedicated husband and a goofy Dad! In short, I’m keeping creative and busy!
FBPO: What’s next? What lies ahead for you and your career?
TF: As well as continuing to play with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I’m recording my first bass album and I may put a band together to support that and play some shows. I’m actively pursuing licensing and publishing opportunities for my original music, both instrumental and vocal. I see myself doing a lot more writing and recording in the coming years, though I do love to play live. I have a number of books I want to write, one of them being my life story, with some interesting anecdotes along the way, though the time is not right yet.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
TF: It’s hard for me to imagine, but if I had to choose, I’d probably be a writer. I love to write. I’ll be doing more of that in the years to come.