Inside track on recording process, touring with the Neal Morse Band and mastering all the “right” bass techniques
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
May 15, 2017
Photos by Robert Smith
Born and raised in Denver, CO, Randy George is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer, specializing in bass guitar. He’s best known as co-founder of the prog-rock band Ajalon and for his long tenure with the Neal Morse band, with drummer Mike Portnoy, keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette.
Randy has also performed and/or recorded with a long list of music notables, covering a wide array of genres. The list includes Rick Wakeman (Yes), Michael Manring, Phil Keaggy, David Ragsdale (Kansas), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Steve Hackett (Genesis), Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X), Adrian Belew (King Crimson), Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and many others, in addition to fronting his own band.
Our conversation with Randy took place amidst Neal Morse Band’s current worldwide tour, promoting their latest record, The Similitude of A Dream, released in November 2016.
FBPO: You’re generally described as a “prog rock” musician. Would you say that’s pretty accurate?
RG: Well, sure, I speak “Prog Rock” fluently! [laughs]. However, I’m not, by any means, limited to that. It just happens to be what I’m most known for because that’s what the Neal Morse band plays.
FBPO: Your association with Rick Wakeman and all the “Yes DNA” has got to factor in too.
FBPO: The Similitude of A Dream is quite a comprehensive collection, with a lot of songs. Is that what’s comprising most of the set list on the current tour, or are you playing some of Neal’s older stuff too?
RG: The main body of the show is just the album presented the way it is on the two CDs, in two parts, with an intermission. The encore is a few older songs.
FBPO: That also sounds like it’s right out of the Yes playbook.
RG: I suppose that’s true because, to my knowledge, they played all of Tales From Topographic Oceans when they first toured. They had recently been doing that with classic albums. With the Neal Morse Band album and different kinds of concept albums, this is not the first tour we’ve done where we’ve just presented the album in its entirety. With Similitude being a double CD, it made for a really nice first/second set kind of presentation. This will probably be the only time we ever actually do that. It seemed to be the best way to go about it and it’s gone really well. The show flows very nicely and the audiences are really enjoying it a lot.
FBPO: The album sounds like a big production, not just a bunch of guys jamming in the studio. What was the recording process like?
RG: The recording process is really just about searching out the music. We had gotten together a couple months before we tracked the drums and we wrote some music, probably a good thirty-five minutes’ worth. Between that and March, Neal sat down and scratched out some ideas on the keyboard, just like some piano melodies and themes. We basically just came into the studio with some real basic sketches, a few things that we sort of produced in a more complete manner, but we really didn’t have a solid plan for how the whole album should flow.
Neal had an idea of the parts of the story that he wanted to cover in the scope of the album, so we kind of went from that standpoint, lyrically. He had picked out various characters and various scenes from the book to represent and we scratched it out a little at a time and played through ideas. As soon as we liked an idea, we went ahead and recorded it. We just sort of did it in order and went from near the beginning, probably after the overture. I think the overture was a thing we came back and said, “We need an overture” to open the album, but we started with “The Dream,” I think, which appears right after the opening overture, and worked our way through and scratched out all the songs.
Once we had a pretty solid form for the album, Mike (Portnoy) went back through and then we tracked drums to everything. Then everyone went home and worked on their individual parts and it started to take shape over the next few months. Once we had a pretty solid album, Rich (Mouser) was mixing right up to the last minute. There were vocal changes and things right up until the last minute [laughs], as he was mixing it and it just came together in the end. We really didn’t have a true sense of what it was going to sound like until after all the pieces had been put in place.
FBPO: How do you avoid losing some of the spontaneity with that kind of approach?
RG: I don’t know. I suppose that would be possible if, to begin with, it wasn’t an inspired thing to work off of. But I think that the material itself was inspired enough that it inspired what happened, It wasn’t so much contrived as much as inspired. It’s one of those things; you just put the pieces together and hope in the end that it does come together and tells the story that you want to tell. That’s not always a guarantee, but that’s just how we’ve always done albums. Some of the older albums, like Sola Scriptura is a good example, where Neal had already had pretty much the whole thing demoed up, as it should be, so it wasn’t a big stretch to get it to the end. This (Similitude) was so written on the spot. I think everybody was really anxious to work off the scratch tracks and get the parts they really wanted to happen. But we had scratched it all out, so we had a pretty good idea of what was going to work in the song. It was just a matter of actually doing it and making it sound really good. So, it’s an assembly process. It’s like assembling an airplane. You know it’s going to fly in the end; you just gotta put the pieces together right.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
RG: Well, I started playing the piano when I was around 6. I was taking lessons and doing the usual kid thing. From about 6 on, I had a lot of musical influences around me, with older siblings: Beatles, Moody Blues, Monkees. I guess it came about because when I was 11 or 12, I had seen the back of a Moody Blues album that had a picture of John Lodge playing his P bass and I guess I was always enamored with the fact that there were these big, gigantic tuning keys right in a row, across the headstock at the top. “That’s cool. I gotta have that.” So I said I want a bass; give me a bass. I didn’t really know that much about it. I just sort of fell into it and stuck with it.
FBPO: Was John Lodge one of your influences, or did you just like his picture?
RJ: Well, the Moody Blues were one of my favorite bands at that time, so they are a foundational musical influence for me. I would say that, subconsciously, more of his playing imprinted on me than I would have necessarily set out to do for any particular reason. Things have happened that way. What you take in is ultimately what comes back out. I think that for more of when it comes to playing bass – that’s what I want, right there! – that would be Yes and Chris Squire for me.
FBPO: Who were some of your other bass influences?
RJ: Well, McCartney was one of my first. Once I became a bass player, I became a lot more keenly aware of bass parts in a song. For a long time I guess I was pretty solely focused on Chris Squire and Yes. It probably wasn’t till the mid to late ‘70s that I really started appreciating more in the bass, with bands like Kansas or Queen and invariably Genesis and Steve Hackett, Bill Bruford band, you know. And I discovered the Dixie Dregs and suddenly there were all these players everywhere that just had amazing stuff. So the Dixie Dregs became a really big influence for me, mostly Steve Morse’s writing, of course. It’s very challenging to play and it pushed me to play more extremes. Other guys like Abe Laboriel or Anthony Jackson, Stanley Clarke, you know, all of these guys were out there and I was discovering all of them.
FBPO: Let’s talk about your bass technique. You often look so laid back when you play, but so much of what comes out of your instrument is anything but. Anybody ever tell you that?
RG: Oh, all the time! I watch myself a lot on video. I have for years and I never understood how, no matter how much I move around, it just doesn’t look like I’m doing anything. I thought I was, like, really crazy. I’d be doing all these moves, thinking, “this has gotta look cool!” [laughs]. Then I’d watch back and to me it just looks insane. I’m just standing there and I’m like, “I’m not understanding this.” I decided I would just be myself and not try to be somebody else jumpin’ around on the stage when it doesn’t come natural to me. Neal does that. I don’t really need to be doing that at the same time, ‘cause he’s doing it. You only need one guy doing that, so it makes more sense.
I think the other side of it is that you can’t really do a ton, otherwise you lose focus. It takes a while to get to a point where the show comes under your fingers so naturally that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing and you can kind of concentrate on your movements and where you’re going to move. That probably improved a lot on Similitude because we found little spots where I always do this and Neal always does that and we always meet at certain spots on this album and do our thing, so some of it’s a little bit of choreographing. But the key is that you gotta be really careful ‘cause it’s easy to go off the tracks if you start doing something else and you get your attention divided. That’s another reason why it’s a lot of concentration. So if it looks like I’m kinda just standing there being real laid back, it’s like it’s intense concentration to keep track because you’ve always gotta be thinking a couple steps ahead of where you’re at.
FBPO: You seem to enjoy doing a lot of two-handed tapping. When did you incorporate that into your technique?
RG: I would say right around ’89-90. Throughout the ‘80s, people had played me tapes of Billy Sheehan playing in Talas and doing a bass solo and he was tapping and doing stuff and it was really amazing. I had never really heard much of that before. And Michael Manring started doing his Windham Hill albums and he had some tapping. Stu Hamm put out some stuff where he did a bunch of tapping. So I heard a few guys doing it. I sort of discovered my own version of it and, like any good bass player, I sought out a teacher who could help me learn some new techniques and styles ‘cause by the end of the ‘80s, playing with a pick was sort of really out of fashion and not really cool. So it was like, okay, you gotta adapt, you gotta change, and that’s why I learned all the other techniques that are pretty common to most bass players. I sort of assimilated all of those skills through my own filters, which is why they came out the way they did.
By the 2ks, I discovered that playing with a pick, especially speed picking on a bass and doing that kind of stuff, (there) really wasn’t anybody doing it and a lot of the younger generation and the younger cats, they kind of missed out on the era where that was popular. All of the sudden now, it’s kind of cool again because it’s different, it’s unique and nobody else is doing it. It just became a thing unto itself. It works in Neal’s music. Neal wants everything picked. I had not really played with a pick that much throughout the ‘90s, so when I met up with Neal, I was trying to do stuff with my fingers and he was like, “Oh, can you pick it? It sounds better picked,” and I said, “Sure!”
FBPO: Your guitar background probably helped you there.
RG: Yeah, but you know, I learned guitar later than bass. I just sort of learned guitar along the way. I did a lot of guitar in the ‘90s because with Ajalon I played all the guitar stuff. It was something new for me, a new area to break and I was enjoying that.
FBPO: Tell me about your equipment.
RG: My main bass has been a Spector 5-string. It’s an NSJH-5. It was made in 1999, when Stuart (Spector) first got the company back. It’s a very unique bass; it’s got a very unique sound. The tone works in Neal’s music real well because in the Neal Morse Band, it’s a very thick sound. There’s not a lot of air moving through the music. It’s dense. So this bass fits in the mix really nicely because it gives you all the slam and stuff without being too grunty and too honky in the mix.
FBPO: What about amps?
RG: Usually I use an Ampeg SVT-4PRO or an SVT Classic, in some rare cases. But in rare cases also, I use other amps. Like in Finland, there’s this Orange AD200 that I’ve always used and it just rips your head off at 1, let alone any higher. During the last tour in Europe, the backline company had an Ashdown rig in their storehouse, so I plugged it up and we started playing around with it and I decided to take that head with me because it just sounded amazing. I thought I’d go for something different. The amp to me is secondary because my sound is pretty much all together before it gets to an amp. The amp just has to support the tone.
FBPO: What about strings?
RG: I use DR High-Beams, medium gage, 45 to 125. It’s the only string that seems to synergize with this bass because every time I’ve ever had to try another pair, the tone just goes right out the window.
FBPO: Any effects or pedals?
RG: Sure. I have a big pedal board. The effects pedals vary, depending on the show that I’m doing. For The Similitude of A Dream, I have a couple of Tech 21 Red Rippers distortion pedals, a TC Electronic tremolo and a TC Vortex flanger, as well as the preamps I use, which are the SansAmp bass driver DI, which is my primary sound. And then I have a Boss FPM-1 for a more clean, transparent type tone, like what I use with the fretless. Then basically it’s all integrated through a Boss ES-8, which is a switching system, and it allows me to program any number of events in any order on each preset button. And the whole thing terminates at the Cry Baby, which I can kick on or off, regardless of which sound I’m using. And then off to the amp from there.
FBPO: Tell me more about your Tech 21 gear.
RG: I use a lot of their stuff. They’ve been real good to me and I have a whole bunch of their stuff. I have some of their guitar stuff. It’s a sound that has worked really well for me. Their stuff has been really excellent quality and I’ve loved most everything that I’ve ever used from them. They’ve been a real solid company and really great to work with. If there’s more I can do for them, if they want to ask me to do more, I’m happy to do anything they’d like if there’s something that would be of benefit.
FBPO: This tour is going be keeping you plenty busy for much of the year, at least up to Morsefest in September. What do you plan to do after that? Anything in the works with your solo career or with Ajalon?
RG: I’d really like to do another solo album. I’m thinking about it and toying around with some other band ideas, as far as trying to do some original stuff with a group of guys. I have a Steve Hackett tribute, focused on the Charisma Years, which are like the first six albums that he did, from about ’76 to ’81. And that’s been really great. It’s been very well received. So, I’ve got a few things in the works. I’ve got an eye to it at this point because, you’re right, the Neal Morse Band has been pretty all-consuming for the last year or so, building and working up to this tour and stuff. Now that the tour dates are a little more spread out through the rest of this year, yeah, I’ve got a lot more time. So I’m in the process of exploring a couple different options. Something’s gonna come out of it, I just can’t really say for sure right now what it is going to be, but it’s definitely gonna be something.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player? Something outside of music.
RG: When I was younger, I was toying with going into the Air Force after high school. I wanted to get into the astronaut program, but I had eyesight issues. I was wearing glasses and they said it would never happen, so that pretty much put a quick end to that. But something like that, something extreme. In hindsight, maybe the Marines of something like that. That would have been cool to go into the military.