If you’re a bassist and you don’t know the name Stu Hamm, you have some serious homework to do. Hamm rose to fame playing with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and has continued his career with 7 solo albums, the latest of which is The Book Of Lies (2015). He has his own line of basses with Warwick and most importantly for fans in Korea, he will be performing in Seoul on April 15th and 16th with Marty Friedman and Kim SeHwang. Stu called from Hawaii and here’s what he had to say.
I know that your first bass hero was Danny Bonaduce from the Partridge Family, but who were your real bass influences?
Well, you know, as I got older, I realized how much Paul McCartney influenced me. Just growing up listening to The Beatles and his lines are so subversively melodic. I don’t think you realize, until the maturity gene kicks in at about 30 years old, what a fine bass player he was, without having to be flashy.
And for me, I literally heard the opening line of Roundabout on the radio one day and I went and I stole some of my lawn mowing money and drove my Stingray to K-Mart and bought Fragile and saw how cool Chris Squire looked with long hair and his Rickenbacker and his cape and I was pretty much done. That was it.
I’d also listen to a lot of John Entwistle (The Who). Probably the first bass solo in the rock setting I heard was My Generation. His work on albums like Quadrophenia really influenced me as a rock player. And then, I come from a whole family of classical and avant-garde and creative musicians, so, man, I was exposed to everything from Wagner to Sun rock. One of my dad’s poker playing buddies was John Cage, so a lot of atonal, 20th century music. A lot of jazz. My brother dragged me to see Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra when I was just 7 or 8years old. He was playing (Miles Davis’) Bitches Brew and turning me on to experimental Pink Floyd records. So, those were my main rock influences.
Then someone played me a Stanley Clarke record and I wanted to be the fastest bass player forever. I had a big period of stalking Jeff Berlin in Boston just so he could give me lessons. And obviously on November 8th, 1978, when I saw Weather Report at the Orpheum Theater in Boston and I saw Jaco (Pastorius) for the first time, it changed everything.
I just recently saw the Jaco documentary. Fantastic film.
Oh, you saw it. It’s sad. You know it’s not gonna end well, but it’s great. I went to the opening. You know, Robert (Trujillo, Metallica)) had a bunch of openings around the country and when it was in LA, me and every other bass player in the world went. It was awesome. It was awesome cuz I went with Rhonda Smith (bassist for Prince).
Do you remember your first bass?
Very well. When I decided I wanted to play bass, I played flute and violin and oboe and piano my whole life. I started playing upright bass and when I was growing up in Illinois, the jazz band was a huge thing, it was called Stage Band. Even my junior high school had the A and B level. My high school had three levels and there were state championships. Really challenging. So I actually learned upright and walking through changes before I ever played an electric.
For Christmas in 1973, I asked for a bass. It was the only time I went in my parents room looking for my present. I remember reaching into my parents’ closet and feeling the strings of the bass. It was a pawn shop special. It was an Alvarez and it was kind of a double cut-away, dark cherry red, SG-Les Paul kind of vibe. I quickly put a Spiderman sticker on the head stock, pre-dating my Surfing With The Alien days.
And after a year, I took to it pretty quickly. I liked it and made really good progress and a lot of people noticed that I had a natural talent for it, so my parents bought me a ’75 white (Fender) Jazz bass.
And now you have your own line of basses?
I do. I was the first person to ever have a Fender Signature bass. I was with Fender for a number of years and then I designed this great acoustic bass with Washburn, then I’ve been with Warwick for three and a half-four years. They’re a great company to be with. Marcus Spangler, who’s the designer, is a really creative guy. We’re on version 2. Hopefully the next one is going to be the final version of this bass we’re designing.
I’ve learned a lot, you know. I’m designing basses and hopefully I can make something that will help promote Warwick to non traditional Warwick players. It’s a little more balanced than some of the neck-heavy rock Warwicks. And it’s just a fun challenge, man. Working with other bass geeks and trying new ideas. Some work and some are spectacular failures, but we just keep trying it.
Your playing style is really one of a kind with the mix of slapping, popping and tapping. Where did it come from?
Well, it’s funny. I talk about this a lot in my clinics. The bass is only 66 years old. I’ve been playing bass for 43 years now. It’s a big percentage. But when I was a kid, no one played like that. I didn’t sort of invent that but I was certainly one of the guys to help popularize it. I used to have to get up off my couch and walk to the TV to turn the dial to get one of the 2 or maybe 3 channels we would got. And there was this artsy black and white channel and they had James Brown on and the bass player was doing this thing where, I don’t know what he was doing. It seemed like he was pulling the strings or hitting it or something. I had seen guys do that on upright, but not on electric. So, I went to Keene, New Hampsire which was the closest music store and I took a bass off the wall and I tried to pull the strings and the guy in the store almost had me arrested and wanted me kicked out of the store.
And then Larry Graham came out and Stanley and Lopsy Lu was sort of funkin’. Like everyone else, I just stole everything that came before me. And then Chris Squire was playing harmonics. And The Fish and Percy Jones, sliding harmonics on a fretless. Jeff Berlin playing chords. And the tapping, you know, I was playing with Steve Vai and everyone was doing the hammer-on’s like Eruption. So, when I slowed it down, I could see that, instead of fretting the note with one hand and picking it with the other, if you just press down on it, the other hand is free to do something else. So, coming from piano, I can play different notes at a time. I took a bunch of my piano music that I had, because see, when I grew up, there was no such thing as solo bass, right? I mean bass was just holding down the bottom and it still is. But then I saw Jaco put on the Echo-plex and play Third Stone From The Sun. It was like, OK, I never thought that the bass could be a solo instrument.
So I tried to work on some of my piano material on bass and playing that style of tapping allowed me to get more parts out of it. The point is, maybe I didn’t invent it, but I sure got a lot of stuff on vinyl before a lot of other people and I was a driving force in that. Sometimes I think I don’t get enough credit as far as a lot of people who you could either say I’ve influenced or directly stolen shit from me. I could show you people directly stealing stuff from my live solo and they made songs out of it. But now, everyone plays that way.
25 or 30 years ago, when I was just learning how to play bass, no one played that way. Now, if you’re a 12 year old bass player, you’ve gotta know how to play harmonics, how to slap, hot to tap, play chords. I mean the shit has changed that dramatically, which is why, on my last record, The Book Of Lies, I have this 7 piece suite for solo electric bass because now that there is this thing called solo electric bass, there’s not a lot of music for it. So each piece uses a different technique. One’s slapping, one’s tapping, one’s chords. It’s a performance piece and also, subliminally, a teaching piece to show you how to use these different techniques to create music that’s interesting, because a lot of bass solos are really boring. It’s just look how fast I can play E minor funk, you know. That’s just a very boring story.
You definitely get the credit from me. I saw you on Satriani’s Flying in a Blue Dream tour and my jaw was on the floor.
Well, for a lot of people, it just worked out well that that bass line for Always With Me, Always With You where it turned out I could play the bottom note and do the tapping on top of that. I think for a lot of people, that’s the first time they saw it. And then I got a lot of guys looking me up
Steve Vai. When did you meet him??
1978. We were freshmen at the Berklee College Of Music. I think it was right around Christmas time of that first year. I went to some party where he was playing. We started talking. He had a band with, I think Randy Coven at the time. And Randy left, so Steve and I started playing. I ended up playing on his audition tape for Frank Zappa. Then he moved to California and I went out on the road with an Elvis Presley impersonator for about a year and a half. Eventually, like a lot of loose ends, I ended up in Southern California and moved in with Steve when he left Zappa’s band to record Flex-able.
I just saw Steve a few months ago. It’s coming up on the 25th anniversary of Passion and Warfare so we got the original band back in the studio to record 3 or 4 tracks that never got released on the first record, so there’s a whole extra disc of songs that we used to play live back then that never made it. And it’s amazing. Me and Chris Frazier and Tommy Mars and Steve. It’s just bad-ass.
Are you going to tour for this?
Steve is going to tour on it. Whether or not he asks me to be on the tour is another question that we don’t need to speak about at this time because we’re all happy, wonderful, friendly people.
I consider Passion and Warfare the greatest instrumental rock album of all time. Did you know at the time how special it was?
You never know. It was just in the moment. Shit, I was like, who knows, maybe I had a date that night or had plans to go swimming in the desert that day. We were all in our mid-twenties. But listening back to it…some of it’s really good, you know? I’ve always liked Steve’s adventurous nature even though he’s really coming from that sort of Zappa place as opposed to jazz-blues place that most other people are coming from. That’s what makes it so interesting.
Recently, we listened to it. Yeah, it’s a great record. He’s just a phenomenal talent and a crazy guy to work with in the studio. And, obviously, through him, I met Satriani and that worked out pretty well, as well.
Now, pardon my ignorance, but I always thought you had played on Surfing With The Alien. My research, however, tells me you didn’t.
I didn’t. I was in LA doing some solo gigs. Flex-able was released independently and then it got picked up by Cliff Cultreri, who was the A&R guy for Relativity Records. So, Relativity released Flex-able. I invited Cliff to come and see some of my shows and he liked it. They gave me 2500 bucks to do an album. So, I quickly ran out of money and I needed someone to play a solo on a couple songs. They told me they’d just signed this new guy, a friend of Vai’s, named Joe Satriani. They flew me up to San Francisco, I was in LA at the time. I flew up there and he was in the middle of recording Surfing. He played on three solos and I brought my fretless bass. I was intended to play a fretless bass part on Always With You, Always With Me, but by the end of the day, we just got him finished playing on my record and they had to fly me back to LA that night because they didn’t have the budget to put me up in a hotel overnight. It ended up being Joe (playing on Always With Me).
But you know what, a lot Joe’s music, especially that one…it’s drum machine and Jeff Campitelli playing the part of a drum machine. The way that Joe writes music, very often, I’m gonna try and word this correctly, the bass just doubles the eighth note rhythm of the rhythm guitar and not a whole lot is asked of it. He seems very happy with the sound of him playing on his bass with a pick on his records
So then you look at the times since then that he’s called me was on Dreaming #11, Flying in a Blue Dream, when he wanted someone to do a little funk or something that was different. But the way he writes, it’s almost like playing with a pop singer because, it’s not like jazz music, where we’re interacting, We’re just playing the parts so he can solo all over it.
Aside from Satriani, I’ve made a list of other great guitarists you’ve played with. Frank Gambale, Steve Vai, Michael Schenker, Richie Kotzen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Adrian Legg, George Lynch, Eric Johnson. Holy shit, man.
A whole bunch of guys, yeah. Alex Skolnick.
Oh yeah. And in two weeks you’re playing with Marty Friedman.
Any stories from any of these guys?
You know, I get typecast as Stu Hamm, this tapping bass player guy. But not many people know that I play upright and I sing my ass off or that I can read music, you know, not as good as the top guys in LA, but I can read anything you throw at me, bass clef or treble clef. I did this show for a couple months in San Francisco and I got this audition and the musical director said it was the best audition he’d ever had. I sight read, I sang.
Hopefully, you’d think these guys would call me for my versatility, I’m a pretty easy going guy. It’s certainly a different thing when you’re leaving your own band and you’re hired to work for someone else. I pay attention. I’m always quiet in the background and paying attention to everything and knowing when to play the part. You know, they’re hiring me because they think I can do a better bass line than they could do and something that will unify the song. Make it happen. Make it groove. If they want a little something extra, it’s there. But also, I understand the role of the bass player where there are so many times where you don’t need all that crap, where a big fat whole note is the thing to do. I’m more than happy to play a simple part.
The Yngwie thing was great. I’ve done a whole bunch of those tribute records and some of them are just OK, but the Aerosmith tribute record, I heard it just yesterday. It’s a version of dream on (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7KTRpmeTdM) with me and Yngwie and Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Colaiuta. It just sounds awesome.It’s just such a good piece of recording, a good piece of music.
My brother owns a School of Rock in Ottawa, Canada. He’s basically teaching little kids how to perform in a band context. What are the three most important things a young bass player should know?
Ah man, just listen. Keep your ears open to the tone of your bass, to what everyone else is playing. Be aware of your band mates and the song, because you’re really directing traffic behind it. You know, the whole song is not just you, you’re there to support and embellish the other musicians.
The kids are never to young to tell them to show up on time and be sober and responsible because that’s what people want from a bass player. If they send you some tunes, they expect you to show up and know them. Know that it goes to the bridge after 8 bars after the second verse and then it modulates to B flat after the third verse. You’re that anchor.
And I would say, listen to all kinds of music and play all different kinds of music. Don’t get pigeonholed into becoming just a melodic death metal player, playing black death metal.
And the main thing, which is what I really like about the School of Rock, is to get out and be in a million bands and play. Don’t just sit in your living room and play scales. Get out and join a top 40 band and a wedding band and a, I don’t know, lesbian militant punk band . Just get out and play with everybody. Don’t just talk about, get out and play music with other people for other people.
Now let’s take the opposite approach. What advice would you give young guitarists on how to work well with bassists.
Man, I can’t comment on guitarists. Guitar players are some whole other thing, dude. I don’t know what they’re about, but they’re usually about themselves. You know, I do all these summer camps, and I did a camp from one of the famous guitar players and they put me in charge of a jam room.
When you go to a bass camp, you’ve got a bunch of bass players and it’s totally cool. We just swap stories, and everyone’s real mellow and friendly and there’s no competition. But if you get that many guitar players or drummers together, it’s like an ego competition and trying to steal gigs. So these guitar players would come in and they didn’t want to work together to play a song. They just wanted to, like, solo. They didn’t want to learn changes and if the solo they were playing didn’t really fit the song that we were trying to play, it didn’t matter. They’d just play it anyway.
The really, really, really good guitar players are the ones that are musical, that are aware that a world exists outside of their guitar solos.
Too much, for lack of a better term, whanking?
Yeah, Steve and Joe sort of re-invented that idiom. I’ve played with too many clones of those guys. I mean, I love Jaco and he’s a big part of my playing, but at a certain point I took what I could from Jaco and sort of moved on, you know what I’m saying? There are great guitar players. Frank (Gambale) is great. I played with this guy named Carl Verheyen, who’s an LA session guy. Fantastic player, great rhythm player. Vernon Black is a great rhythm player. You know, there are guys out there. Dean Brown. Fantastic musicians who are interested in more than just non-stop shredding solos, cuz that for me gets pretty old pretty quick.
Let’s talk about Seoul. You’re coming here on April 15th and 16th. Is this your first time in Korea?
No, I was there last year. I met SeHwang (Kim), I guess when I was running the bass department at Musicians Institute in LA, and he came through. Then I did some clinics for Hartke over in Asia and he was part of the band that was put together to play my music. We became friends and he knows some cats who work in the film industry and I’m a big Asian horror freak. So I had the great pleasure of writing a couple songs together (with Kim) for a couple movies. Then I wrote a couple songs for him. We stayed in touch. I’m trying to get him over here to do a real heavy rock tour in the States. He’s a talented, younger, different guy. Since he’s Korean, he’s got some different influences, besides the usual Vai, Satriani and shredding stuff. So, he’s a very interesting player and just a good guy, a good friend of mine.
I spent about 2 weeks in Seoul and I loved it. People were great. Crowds were great. Everyone was wonderful. I’m looking forward to the concerts. We’re doing some light tunes. Some of the songs that Kim SeHwang and I wrote together. I look forward to playing with Marty (Friedman) and it’s gonna ROCK, man!
How will the show work, with the three guitar players?
I’m not sure if we’re all using the same core rhythm section or not. But he (Kim)has arranged a guitar player, a keyboard player and a drummer to learn my material and I guess he’s got his own band. So, I think he goes out, then I come out and join him at the end of his set for a song that I wrote for him for this movie called The Technicians. Then I come out and do my set and then Marty comes out and does his set. And whether or not he’s bringing the band with him from Japan or using some local Koreans, I’m not sure. And then at the end, we come out for 3 or 4 songs, all three of us for encores, including one that I just wrote and was in the studio recording with Simon Philips just a week ago. So one new tune and one version of a traditional Korean folk song that those two guys will be shredding on and I’ll be holding it together.
When you play a show with someone Like Marty Friedman, where the music is a little heavier than something like your last album, The Book Of Lies, do you have ten to heavy up your set.
You know, I play all kinds of music and they’re all just gigs. Some just pay more and have far more people. I’ve played at Royal Albert Hall, I’ve played in front of 130,000 people with a Mexican pop band. I’ve put on a tuxedo and played Christmas songs at Nordstrom’s. Tonight (March 30, 2016) I’m headlining the Hawaiian Bass Bash doing an hour solo set. And before that from 6-9, I’m gonna be at a very ritzy hotel here playing jazz tunes with a jacket and tie on. Cuz it’s just music.
Certainly, when I listen to music, at this point in my career, I like something a little more cerebral and mellow, but I love to rock. You know, when you get the sweat in your eyes and you’re jumping around, there’s nothing like Rock and Roll. It would be horrible to be just a metal bass player, I think. I would get bored pretty quick. Or to be just a new age bass player. So, I’ve tried to work my career where I can do all different sorts of music to stay engaged and enthused.
So what style can we expect here?
Well, for my set, I think we’re gonna do the song The Book Of Lies, we’re gonna do Going To California, Lone Star, Outbound and I’m gonna do Terminal Beach with a drummer. I think Terminal Beach. Dude, that’s like weeks away. I’ve got so many million gigs between now and then. I’ll start thinking about that when I get on the plane for the 14 hour flight over to Korea.
Very cool. I’m gonna put you on the spot now. What’s the greatest bass song of all time, that you didn’t play on?
Wow, I’m gonna have to go with Flash Light by Parliament Funkadelic, even though it’s a keyboard bass. School Days by Stanley Clarke has got to be up there. Teen Town by Jaco. Can’t you See The Real Me by John Entwistle is a great rock bass track. Roundabout. Those are the ones that jump out off the top of my head.
What’s your typical pre-show routine, to get you ready for a show?
Man, I’m pretty vigilant about warming up both my fingers and my body. When I do clinics, I do a whole thing about the physical postures of playing. Maybe you wanted to hear that I do a couple lines of blow and a couple shots. (laughs)
That was the furthest thing from my mind. I was thinking more about how you warm up your fingers.
I have a whole series of stuff, and I’ve published them a number of times. Obviously, as I get a little older, it takes a little longer to get to the place where I’m comfortable. But, you know, I take it supremely seriously, man. Every time I play, I’m trying to play with intelligence and wit and humor and nail everything. I just can’t walk on stage cold so, warming up my fingers and stretching and breathing, you know yoga stuff to relax myself and get myself in a good space. Touch base with the other musicians and talk down what we’re gonna do and then when I hit the stage I can think about nothing and just react to the music and live in the moment.
Well, I’m looking forward to the show. I heard it was almost sold out which is a good thing to hear.
Yeah man. You know as much as I like playing sort of the esoteric music, I love rockin’ out. It’s gonna be super fun and also I’ll put in a few quiet things because between Marty and Kim SeHwang there’s gonna be some widdly, 16th note stuff so if I can come out and do something a little bit different, man, I’m totally up for that.
Thank you so much for your time. Have a great time in Korea.
Great. I’m looking forward to it. Thanks so much for your time, Ken.
Official Website: http://www.stuarthamm.net/