Elton John bassist shares his thoughts on learning bass in the 21st century
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 20, 2021
Matt Bissonette’s journey is a fascinating one that’s certainly not lacking in well-known names. A graduate of the North Texas State University jazz program, he spent his early years playing in trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band. In 1987, Bissonette joined the David Lee Roth band, taking Billy Sheehan’s place. Since that time, he’s played with Joe Satriani, Ringo Starr, Jeff Lynne of ELO, Boz Scaggs, and Rick Springfield, and collaborated with the likes of Brian Wilson, Don Henley, Sheena Easton, Joe Perry, Gino Vannelli, and Julian Lennon. The well-traveled bassist has also been involved in a number of his own projects over the years, under names like Spot, and the Mustard Seeds. Several of these efforts feature his brother and frequent collaborator, Gregg Bissonette, on drums. Matt currently plays bass with Elton John.
FBPO: So, what have you been up to? Anything new?
MB: [Laughs] Well, I’ve been writing and producing a lot. I have my own band called The Reddcoats. Do you know Andy Timmons, the guitar player?
FBPO: Yeah, I know Andy. We went to school together at the University of Miami. Great player!
MB: One of the best guitar players I’ve ever heard. He and I and my brother and a couple of guys from Texas did an album. We just did our first gig in Dallas last month. And I’ve just been writing a lot, you know? I mean, probably everybody has, from this crazy situation, but still touring with Elton.
FBPO: You told me once that you were convinced you never would have gotten the Elton John gig had you not been able to sing those falsetto harmonies.
MB: Absolutely. Absolutely. As with most gigs, I mean, unfortunately now the window’s closing on the whole thing and you kind of have to do everything. You have to play a bunch of different instruments, guitar and piano, and just be ready to do anything. Kind of a crazy world. Sometimes I teach young kids bass, and pretty much in the first lesson I’m going, “So, you are writing and playing other instruments, right?” I mean, in this new world, you can’t just play bass. You got to have a studio, you got to use every gift you have to survive. Kind of crazy.
FBPO: Talk to me about that. It’s certainly not the way it was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s.
MB: If I could do anything again in my life, I would go back 40 years and talk to the young version of me. I would have said, “Be the best bass player you can and just practice every day and just listen to every style and really hone in bass. Get that down. But then jump the level of writing and singing and producing and just learning other instruments.” Unfortunately for young people now, in the music industry, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot so much that royalties are down, writing for film and TV… The circle has closed so much that there’s only a few doing it and for less money. You and I lived in the perfect time because music in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s seemed to be just different than it is now. Not that it’s any worse or better now, but it’s a different world to survive in as a musician. I’m very fortunate. I just turned 60 years old, and I still have this gig with Elton. And it’s going to be a couple more years, and then at that point, who knows? I might do something else, or who knows what’s going to happen. But a gig like this probably isn’t going to be around anymore.
FBPO: Why is that?
MB: I don’t know, the landscape has changed so much. You’re not going to have young musicians making this kind of money to survive on being musicians. You’re going to have to adapt to what’s going on. So when I teach and when I talk to kids, we do the bass lesson and we do all that and then I just say, “Well, I have to be honest with you, and as your elder spokesman here, I tell you to prepare for what’s coming because this world of music has changed so much.” You have to have your business chops together too. If you’re going to be a writer and put out your record, there’s new ways of making money through YouTube and all this other stuff, which I don’t have a clue to. But I’m telling these people, “If you’re going to make this a living, you got to be smart.” And you have to be able to play bass, you have to sing, you have to write, you have to learn piano, you have to learn guitar, you have to learn the basic ranges. Going back to the old school, writing charts out and knowing the ranges of instruments…
FBPO: There are so many new things to know.
MB: Right. Getting a computer with a solid program like Pro Tools or Cubase, or whatever it is. You’ve just got to be a step ahead and know everything now. And if you don’t do that, I don’t know what the world is going to be like for a bass player in 2025, 2030. I mean, my original intention of playing bass was to be the next Jaco, like everybody else. And to be the next Eddie Gomez and to be the next Gary Willis and everybody else. But I learned early that I could never be a Jaco or that I could never be an Eddie Gomez or Gary Willis, but I knew I could be proficient enough to work and to feed my family, and most of all, because I enjoyed learning all these different styles. If I had just learned and focused on upright jazz bass, I mean, you’ve just got such a narrow door unless you’re that good. And I knew early that I wasn’t that good.
FBPO: It’s almost as if your experience at North Texas was preparing you for an entirely different kind of career.
MB: When I got to North Texas, I went to a bar with my brother the first night I was there, at this club called Benny’s. So who’s playing? Gary Willis is playing. And I’m looking at him and I’m going, you’ve got to be kidding me, man. And I go to my brother, “Does everybody in this school play like this guy?” He goes, “No, no, no, no.” And I went home, packed my bags, I was gone. My brother talked me into staying. And I realized that day, the lightning rod strike struck me that everybody has their own window of what that is. Maybe who I’m talking to right now is the next Ron Carter, Eddie Gomez. And classical players are that good and you can endure to rise to the top of that. Or electric bass, or pop bass, slapping bass, or whatever it is. I just knew myself, that I wasn’t … And I didn’t have the determination to just want to be that guy. So I figured out early by being at North Texas and going out on the road with different bands that I just love the bass. I just love what it does.
FBPO: Outside all the other things you mentioned, there’s so much to learn just with the bass itself.
MB: I love the bass in a million different settings. I love it in upright jazz, but I only can love it to a certain point, and I want to do something else. The great thing about playing with Maynard was it was like: upright, electric, upright, electric. And it was just constantly changing. And even to this day, when I’m at home, if I’m doing sessions every day, I might as well jump in the lake and drown, because I can’t do that every day. I always talked to session guitar players and stuff in LA. I go, “What do you do when you’ve got all these young guys breathing down your neck, but you got to live your life?” He goes, “Well, I just don’t really live my life. I just take every gig I can. And I don’t want to miss a day because someone else will take my gig.” And I’m going, “Are you kidding me? I mean, when do you take your wife to France or something?” “I don’t really do that.” So I’m going, I need balance. I need music in pieces.
FBPO: So music is a big part of your life, but it’s not the only part?
MB: I can’t just do music. It has to be music and sports and go to a movie or go to the beach or whatever. So that’s the kind of guy that I am. It doesn’t work for everybody, and God bless the person that’s so dedicated that they become the pioneer of the bass. I respect that and I wish that could have been me. I think knowing your limitations is a healthy thing because it’s not like you’re putting yourself down, but you know what you can do. My big thing in life right now is I know exactly what I don’t want to do, but I still don’t know exactly what I want to do. And I think that’s kind of a healthy look because I’ve done enough bad gigs and casuals with guys, people that I didn’t know, that I’d step all over my toes and be embarrassed and just go, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” I was doing a jazz session with Peter Erskine, probably 15 years ago, and he’s just so good. And I’ve got my upright there and I’m trying to act like I play every day. And I know that he knows, and I know that I’m cutting through the gig, doing my time and everything like that. But it’s humility, I think, that’s my main thing. Music keeps me really humble because there’s always somebody that blows me out of the water. I mean, you just look at YouTube and you just go, here’s these kids in other countries that are just doing all this stuff and you just hope that they develop that gift to being smart, to being a good person, so that someday that kid goes on the road and gets along with his band.
FBPO: Outside of all the things a career-oriented bass player needs to do, what do you think is important for someone who just wants to learn to play the bass?
MB: I think I learned the main lesson on the first day I got my bass. My mom and dad surprised me with the bass. I went to pick up the groceries out of the car for my mom and dad and they had a bass in it. And I had no idea what it even did. But within 15 minutes, the bass was plugged into my little amp. And with my brother, who is a drummer, we played “Smoke on the Water” for five hours. That moment, the light went on from something I didn’t even know existed to “This is really, really fun!” and “This is really, really cool!” And everything that comes with it. People think you’re cool at school, girls like you, whatever the stuff that comes with it. But it’s the actual, physical playing of music. That’s that thrill that never goes away. I mean, it might get dampened later down on the road, through experience and stuff, but to this day, every time I pick up my bass, I still really love it.
FBPO: How would you advise other people who encounter that instant love of the bass?
MB: What I would say to anybody starting bass is practice your stuff, practice your scales, learn how to read, practice everything with a metronome. Or have a computer so that you’re practicing with time. When I used to start playing, I’d practice all my scales while I was watching TV, just to get muscle memory, just to get the thing going. And double octave scales and upright using your thumb and doing different things. The physical thing like that is something that you always should be working on. I would say to anybody starting out, especially if they’re in their 50s, 60s, 70s, is to jam with people as much as you can. Get a drummer and just play and have fun. Get a gig at a local bar and play cover tunes and sing cover tunes. With this whole online thing, when I finally played the show with our band, the Reddcoats, in front of 500 people, I almost peed my pants because it was so fun. And that energy that you get back from people looking at you and clapping and whatever. And you’re talking to them and you’re doing the thing. That’s the joy of music to me. And I don’t care how good anybody plays or how proficient they are, you’ll get that feeling, and that’s what it’s all about. To me, that’s the joy of music, just playing songs that you love and playing in front of other people.
FBPO: What else has been keeping you busy?
MB: Being married keeps me busy. Trying to be a good man keeps me busy. Just trying to stay sane with all this stuff going on. Trying to stay motivated to write and to practice. I did an acoustic orchestra album that I just finished, with fretless bass, playing melodies and orchestration, with cellos and violins and stuff. And I’m playing the bow again. This thing’s been great for me, because I’m finally back into playing upright again. I felt like I was getting manhandled by it. It was just so difficult to play it. And then for the last year, I’ve just been practicing scales and doing stuff every day and getting my hands back, so it’s been good downtime for that.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
MB: Basically, right now, with Elton I’m playing all 5-strings, Music Man Stingrays. And at home in my studio, I have an old flatwound P bass that I use a lot. I have a regular P bass, a Lakland P bass. I have an old Ricky bass, I think Firebird. And I have a couple Hofner basses and I have an Epiphone copy, which I use a lot. That thing sounds great. It’s kind of like when you do a session for somebody and you’re kind of going for a McCartney thing, but the Hofner dies out so fast it wouldn’t survive a pop song, this bass has done it for me. It’s a great bass. It’s just a regular Epiphone $350 bass, but I use it on a lot of things. And I have a couple of fretlesses, I have Music Man fretless, and I have a couple Bongo basses, and a couple of different acoustics and a couple of electric acoustics. And I try and use everything I can.
FBPO: Isn’t it amazing how much the choice of a bass can impact the overall sound of the music?
MB: Absolutely. I mean, when I show up for a session, I’m usually bringing eight basses. I just carry them in. I was talking to the keyboard player, Kim from Elton’s band, and he was talking about being a producer, and we’re talking about how important an actual bass sound will dictate where the song is going. If somebody sends me a song, I’ll say, “So what kind of sound are you going for on this?” And they’ll go, “What do you mean? Just play whatever bass you want.” And I go, “No, I mean, the sound of this bass I’m about to put on here is going to dictate how fat it is or how thin it is or what it is. The sound that I’m about to put on there is going to change the dynamic of where the song is going.” It’s like when McCartney would record with the Beatles. He had his Hofner bass in the beginning, out of necessity, when they recorded the tracks. But then later on, he’d always put his bass on last. And then he would play a Ricky and he would really think it out. And my brain has figured out that that bass is going to really determine the sound of this track. And then you kind of go, “Well, you know what? Inthis song, the drums are kind of sounding like the ’60s, so why don’t I try playing this old P bass flatwound thing?” Totally changes everything. And a lot of people don’t think about that. They just kind of go, “Here, put your bass on,” and no, that’s a big misconception.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
MB: That’s the million dollar question for us all, right? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, actually. It goes back to the, “I don’t know what I want to do, but I know what I don’t want to do.” I don’t want to do a job that’s not meaningful. I mean, we’re so blessed to play in the sandbox like we do, with music. If I have to write and produce a song, which is my favorite thing to do, you sit there with nothing and then you start thinking about what you’re going to do. And then you start using your imagination and your brain. It’s like math. We’re constantly problem solving and thinking and working equations out with music. You start a groove on your drum machine, or whatever you’re doing, and you make this thing. And then at the end of the day, you listen to it and you go, “I created this thing.” Whether it’s good or not, that is the answer for a successful life. You’re doing something you love to do and you’re creating what your gifts are and you’re getting paid for it. And you are making a living doing that. I mean, what else would you want to do? I probably would be a lumber guy, carrying things from point A to point B. I mean, I have no clue. We’ve done this for so long and it’s been so purposeful, been such a blessing, that I can’t imagine doing anything else.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.