Michael Manring - June 2005
Expanding upon the concepts firmly established by his former instructor, the late bass icon Jaco Pastorius, in the 1970's, solo bassist Michael Manring has pioneered a non-traditional approach to unaccompanied electric bass performance that incorporates unconventional tunings, astoundingly virtuoso technical innovations, and ground-breaking methodologies. By seamlessly merging all of the modern bass techniques including traditional fingerstyle playing, slapping, plucking, chord strumming, and contrapuntal two-handed tapping techniques on fretted and fretless instruments with his amazing and unparalleled work with the EBow, explorations with harmonics, and his extensive use of altered tunings, Manring has completely redefined the role of the electric bass as a legitimate solo instrument and opened the ears of bassists worldwide to all the previously undiscovered textural possibilities accessible on electric bass.
For the past two decades, Manring has honed the proficient command of his instruments on hundreds of recordings as a session artist and collaborator along with thousands of live performances throughout the Americas, Europe, and Japan. His six recordings as a solo artist, Unusual Weather, Toward The Center Of The Night, Drastic Measures, Thonk, The Book Of Flame, and Soliloquy, have earned him international critical acclaim as a visionary from music critics and listeners alike. Although solo projects released by bassists have been traditionally regarded as music strictly targeted for bass fanatics, Manring's solo projects have consistently captivated audiences with their compositional depth and beauty.
Manring grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. where his fascination of the sound produced by the electric bass began at age 9. While attending high school, Manring played both electric and acoustic upright basses in chamber groups, orchestra, and local top 40 bands. Upon graduating, he relocated to Boston in order to attend and further his musical studies at the renowned Berklee College of Music. After completing his freshman year at Berklee, Manring left school to tour the United States with fellow Berklee classmates for the next six months, playing Top 40 radio hits every night at the height of the disco-era.
Still a teenager, Manring returned to the D.C. area where he forged a truly extraordinary chemistry and long-term friendship through a mutual musical vision with the late acoustic guitar genius Michael Hedges, a rewarding collaboration that would continue until the guitarist's unforeseen death in 1997. Upon witnessing one of Manring's inventive solo bass performances, Hedges instantly enlisted his services, and they recorded Hedges' debut solo album on Windham Hill Records. In the early 80's, Manring headed to New York where he studied privately with fretless bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius. After a short time in New York, Manring moved back to D.C. to start work on what would later become Unusual Weather.
After securing his own contract with Windham Hill and debuting Unusual Weather in 1986, the first of several forward-thinking solo recordings, Manring moved to northern California where he continues to reside today. Through the mid to late 80's, Manring served as the house bassist for Windham Hill and appeared on several releases by various Windham Hill artists.
Toward The Center Of The Night, Manring's second solo effort, was issued in 1989. While Manring's first two projects as a solo artist were somewhat conservative and fall directly into the traditional Windham Hill vibe of new age instrumental music, both recordings documented Manring's solo bass proficiency at an early stage of his career.
Released by Manring as his third album in 1991, Drastic Measures was a landmark recording comprised of seven ensemble pieces and four mind-boggling compositions for solo bass that standardized a new level of attainment in the evolution of the electric bass as a solo instrument.
In an artistic departure from the new age sound of his previous discs, Manring unveiled Thonk in 1994. Even though Thonk was similar, at least organizationally, to his previous recordings in that it featured an assortment of ensemble and solo pieces, it was completely different from a stylistic standpoint. For many of the rock-based tunes, Manring plugged his signature-model Zon Hyperbass into an overdriven stack of Marshall amps in an effort to generate feedback-laden tonalities for the most aggressive, in-your-face tracks he had ever composed.
Unfortunately for the latest generation of up-and-coming bass players, four of Manring's six solo releases including the aforementioned Unusual Weather, Toward The Center Of The Night, Drastic Measures, and Thonk have been out-of-print for a number of years.
Four years after Thonk premiered, Manring added another dimension to his growing repertoire of solo work with The Book Of Flame. Not only did this self-produced project showcase Manring's encyclopedia of skills as an eclectic solo bassist who composes music using the electric bass as the medium, but it delved deeper into uncharted territory by fusing elements of electronica with exotic tonalities and rhythms.
Since the mid-90's, Manring has collaborated in a number of diverse duo and trio configurations. Most notably, Manring has thus far contributed to two discs as a member of the improv-oriented, metal-jazz trio Attention Deficit, alongside world-class guitarist Alex Skolnick and Primus drummer Tim Alexander. Manring joined forces with Scott McGill and Vic Stevens to release two sessions as McGill/Manring/Stevens, and he also became one-third of the Seattle-based punk-jazz threesome, Sadhappy. Additionally, Manring teamed up with acoustic guitarist David Cullen to record an expressive outing of intimate duets.
As an educator, Manring has documented his philosophy and cutting-edge style in a number of videos devised to aid both beginners and advanced bassists with material spanning from the fundamental elements of bass playing such as string crossing to pushing the outer boundaries of bass playing potential through the utilization of altered tunings. Videos exhibiting his rudimentary exercises and technical prowess include Bass Essentials, The Michael Manring Performance Study, Michael Manring/Thonk, and The Artist's Profile: Michael Manring. Manring also meticulously notated a book of transcriptions that outlines his playing on Thonk in impressive detail. In addition to these tremendous educational resources, Manring has shared his unique perspectives with students in bass clinics held around the world including annual events such as BassQuake and Gerald Veasley's Bass Bootcamp.
In April, 2005, Manring released his latest solo endeavor, Soliloquy. On Soliloquy, Manring explores the enormously expansive palette of sonorities available on unaccompanied bass guitar and proves it to be a profoundly communicative instrument capable of conveying the entire gamut of human emotion.
Today, Manring is widely-revered as one of the most refreshingly-innovative and original thinkers to come along since his mentor, Jaco Pastorius. To date, Manring has been awarded two gold records, multiple Grammy and Bammie nominations, a Berklee College of Music Distinguished Alumni Award, and numerous readers' poll awards including Bass Player magazine's "1994 Bassist Of The Year." Currently, Manring maintains a hectic schedule as a clinician along with recording sessions and live performances as a sideman and soloist.
In the interview that follows, Manring discusses his latest production as a solo bassist, composing with altered tunings, playing fretless bass, using the EBow, practicing, designing basses with Joe Zon, and much more!
Although Soliloquy is your first all-solo bass release, you've always maintained a nice balance of solo and ensemble pieces on your 5 previous projects as a solo artist. How did Soliloquy come together, and how long did it take to complete?
This is a project that I've always wanted to do. I've always been fascinated by solo bass music and the possibilities the bass has as a solo instrument. I've goofed around with composing solo pieces for bass my entire life. It has always been a real passion for me. I love playing bass in conventional ways because that is a lot of fun too, but solo bass playing has always been very special to me. For one reason or another, I have never had a chance to release a project of this kind. Some of the record companies that I've worked with previously just didn't feel it would work well within what they were trying to accomplish. They always encouraged me to work on other projects which was fine because I like working within the parameters of an ensemble configuration. In a way, I'm actually glad this project was put on the back burner for so long because I've done a lot of maturing as a solo artist over the past few years. It feels really good to release this material at this point in my career.
The main problem encountered with doing an all-solo bass project like this is that I'm in charge of doing all of the composing, recording, mixing, engineering, and everything else so I could always put the entire recording process on hold when other recording projects and tours were presented to me. It just kept getting pushed back further and further, and it ended up taking a really long time to complete. I wrote "Selene" back in 1991, and my latest composition, "Come With Me, My Love," was completed about a year ago so it took a fairly extensive period of about 13 years just to finish arranging all of the compositions. Some of the pieces really evolved within that span of time. A couple of pieces I wrote a long time ago, but I felt like I could never get them to where I wanted them to be. A few of the tunes I considered placing on some of my previous recordings, but they just didn't seem to fit. Looking back now, this gave me time to think about the compositions and really allow them an opportunity to evolve. In particular, "The Orffyreus Wheel" is a track that has been around for a very long time. I had a pretty good version of it recorded, but for some reason, I just never felt like it was quite done so I added some new things to the arrangement that was recorded for Soliloquy.
Although I had recorded renditions of some of these pieces years ago, I always felt that if I practiced the tune a little harder, I could capture a better performance than what I had done previously. In the end, it took approximately six months to record all of the final versions of these tracks that appear on Soliloquy.
Since the underlying theme of this project is solitude, how has this concept shaped your approach to bass playing and music?
When I was working on this recording, I was thinking about a lot of different things including why I was doing it and what it all meant to me, and I came to the conclusion that the entire project was really all about solitude. I composed all the pieces alone. I recorded all of the pieces alone. If I'm composing a piece of music just for myself, I don't have to take the strengths or weaknesses of other musicians into account.
I've been fortunate to lead a very interesting lifestyle. I'll do a gig where I'll be able to meet a couple hundred people in the space of a half hour, and then I'll go off and be alone for 24 hours or even longer. That gives me time to reflect on all that interaction and feedback. Touring is always an experience because I'll spend three to four weeks at a time just traveling non-stop using every means of transportation available, and then I'll be home for a period of time before heading out again. Many of the pieces on Soliloquy are a result of these experiences.
Did you have any personal goals set for yourself in making this recording?
Yes. I definitely had some personal goals that I wanted to accomplish. I had a really specific vision for Soliloquy. I wanted it to be varied in sound and contain a lot of different colors. I wanted to present the listener the widely expressive palette that was available on the instrument. I had a very clear sound in my own mind for what I wanted this recording to sound like. I always have a clear picture in mind for what I want the performances to be like, and I try to get as close to that as possible.
Recording is always a learning experience. You work really hard at playing something, you record it, listen to it, and you can really learn a lot just going through this process. You start hearing things that you didn't know were there. It's an interesting experience.
How did you record your parts?
In recording bass as a solo instrument, I'm a very big advocate of using several different signal sources. If you are playing bass within the context of a band setting, you only need a single signal source, but if you are recording as a soloist, you have a lot of the sonic spectrum to work within. All of the electric bass pieces on Soliloquy were captured on multiple tracks direct to digital recorders through my SWR Baby Blue amp using the magnetic pickups within the instrument, microphones to acquire additional spatial noise, and for some tunes I mounted Dean Markley acoustic guitar piezos on the bass to capture upper transients.
The trick with the microphone placement was to get them as close to the bass as possible without hitting them while playing. I placed ceramic pickups on the bass near the bridge. I like having these pickups attached to the body because they provide an additional amount of presence, and they capture a sound that is similar to what you'd hear if you placed your ear right up against the body. If you are processing effects through the primary magnetic pickups on your bass, you can capture a dry, direct signal using these ceramic pickups. They are available at practically any music store, and they'll stick to almost anything. It's another tool to work with in shaping the overall sound of the music. You can place ceramic pickups anywhere on the bass, but for this project, I often liked attaching them to the bridge because of the direct string vibration. You'll hear more of the string and less of the body. I usually attached a ceramic pickup on either side of the bridge and then recorded each of those pickups to a separate track, splitting them left and right to achieve a stereo image.
One of the greatest challenges in recording these tracks was that it took me a couple hours just to get everything set up to record a single pass. If I had ten minutes of free time on my hands, I could never just sit down and have a couple takes of "Helios" recorded due to the setup time required. It was a real commitment.
Was Soliloquy the most difficult recording you've ever completed? Did it present any unique challenges that you didn't have to contend with on your previous projects as a leader?
Actually, my previous project as a solo artist, The Book Of Flame, was much more difficult to finalize. The recording process was really elaborate. With Soliloquy, I could set up, record a piece, and be pretty much done with it. The Book Of Flame was recorded in a lot of little pieces, and then I would experiment with processing those parts in many different ways. It was a very complex and time-consuming process. Plus, at that time I only had an 8-track recorder so I had to record parts, bounce them down, and figure out how I was going to organize everything. I mixed The Book Of Flame using a 32-track recorder, but I had to record every part using only 8 tracks. Soliloquy was only difficult in that it kept getting pushed back. I probably should have just pretended I had booked some studio time and completed it.
I didn't want to do any edits on Soliloquy. The average listener would never know where an edit has been done, but you as the person doing the edit will always know exactly where it occurred. I really wanted to capture live performances. Early on, I decided I was going to do several different takes of each piece and then pick the one that I felt was the best. You want your performance to be perfect, but I like a motto of my friend, John Gorka, which says avoid perfection at all costs.
Much of this music is an attempt to compose in a way that allows a balance between composition and improvisation along with experimenting with different ways of improvising. For example, the concept behind "Insomnia Lessons" was to set up a small set of parameters that included improvising on a single note using multiple rhythms and discovering how many variations I could generate within those limitations.
Are there any tracks that are particularly challenging to recreate in a live performance?
Almost all of the tunes I could perform live without much of a problem. "When We Were Asleep In The Earth" would require a lot of gear. I haven't discovered a way of amplifying my acoustic bass guitar yet so "I Left America" would be difficult to play just due to amplification. So those are two tracks in particular that would be hard to recreate live right now. I love playing "Dabuda's Memory," but that is the track which I use the Glider Capo. This capo is covered with a rubber cylinder that allows you to roll it over the frets from position to position very quickly. It's really tricky to use because it has a tendency to slide diagonally off the strings.
Each track on Soliloquy was composed using a different tuning. Was there a conscious effort made to not record any two pieces in the same tuning?
Absolutely. Right from the beginning, one of my biggest concerns in playing solo bass has been in presenting the listener with different textures and not the very monotonous E-A-D-G type of sound. Not another tune in E minor! I remember saying that I wanted to play solo bass concerts when I was a little kid, maybe ten or eleven years old, and one of the first things someone said to me was that no one will want to attend a solo bass concert because everything will sound the same. Since then, the concern that everything will sound alike has always stuck with me. The instrument is capable of such an extraordinary variety of sounds and colors. I really want to share as much as I can with listeners.
Besides the highly-emotive playing contained throughout its production, Soliloquy is also an Enhanced CD. What additional features will people find on the new recording?
When I was thinking about what to include along with this recording, I decided to write some very extensive notes on the project in PDF format to answer a lot of the questions that might be asked about it regarding the instruments, tunings, recording equipment, and techniques used in the making of Soliloquy along with track notes outlining the stories behind each piece. The cd also includes two live performances captured on video. One video clip is a live performance of "A Morning Star" which can also be heard within the storyline of the audio tracks. The other video clip, "Diagonal Head Trauma," was included because that piece has never appeared on any of my previous releases, and I thought it would be nice to make an additional "15th" track available to listeners. The biggest thing that I didn't want to do within the extended notes is have a lot of pictures, especially of me. Even though Soliloquy is entirely solo bass, I wanted to keep this project from being just about me. I wanted to keep it about the subject matter that I'm working with including solitude and the bass. As you'll notice in the extended notes, I took lots of unusual pictures of just my bass to visually symbolize the different perspectives of music on the recording. I really wanted to offer people as much as possible with this recording.
Now that Soliloquy is available, where can viewers purchase it?
At the present, people can purchase Soliloquy through CDBaby.com. It will also be available at a number of other online retailers in the coming months. I keep a number of the cds with me when I'm on the road so you should be able to pick up a copy at any of my solo shows.
Given that Soliloquy is your first release as a leader since The Book Of Flame in 1998, what have you been up to for the past 7 years?
After The Book Of Flame was completed, I had the opportunity to do a lot of really fun collaborative recordings with some extremely talented musicians, and I focused on that for a number of years. As time passed, people started approaching me and inquiring about a new solo project so I decided to move the solo material back to the front burner. To tell you the absolute truth, I really feel most at home in the solo context because I think that is where I have the most to offer.
What first inspired your exploration into the usage of altered tunings?
When I was about 11 years old, I was just goofing around with the instrument and realized how easy it was to change the tuning of an electric bass. I was really amazed at all of the sounds that I was hearing. Many people actually discouraged me from using altered tunings because the concept was kind of far out for a bass player. They thought I needed to focus on becoming a solid bassist first so I took their advice and worked on the fundamentals required to become a good bass player.
I was 18 when I first met Michael Hedges. He was really into using unusual tunings on guitar, and that really inspired me to pursue altered tunings on bass. I distinctly remember thinking that everyone must be experimenting with different tunings because there were so many possibilities. I was just so absolutely convinced of this. It was at this time that I started trying different kinds of strings. I figured that everyone would be using regular-gauged bass strings so I thought that in order to have anything unique to say, I'd better try something else to really push the envelope. Little did I realize that in 2005 we would still be talking about altered tunings as some unusually bizarre concept!
My journey into the world of altered tunings really just started by goofing around with tunings other than E-A-D-G and discovering so many wonderful sounds and possibilities. On most instruments, acoustic instruments especially, there is only so far that you can go in terms of the tuning range. Even with steel string guitar which has a rich history of being used for altered tunings, it's still pretty limited. It is much more limited than what you can do on bass with altered tunings. Even if you tune the strings up to the point where they start breaking, the instrument can generally withstand the tension, and that's pretty extreme.
Many of the tracks on Soliloquy make use of multiple tunings within the context of a single piece. What influenced this unique approach to composition?
There are a few people that started working on this approach at about the same time. Adrian Legg uses this concept on guitar very beautifully. As a matter of fact, we didn't realize that both of us changed tunings on-the-fly until we played a concert together. To me, it seems really bizarre that other players don't experiment more with this concept. I realized that there were literally thousands of different tunings possible so I figured why not employ new timbres through multiple tunings into a single piece of music. By re-tuning your bass within a single composition, you can move from section A to section B and also modulate keys in the process.
I feel so lucky to have found Joe Zon who was willing to take on the project that eventually became the Hyperbass. Being able to change the tuning of that instrument in such an easy fashion is a compositional tool within itself. That bass is such an amazing compositional device.
Do you find yourself often reverting to particular tonalities or do you prefer to write a piece in an altered tuning and then move on to a different one?
Usually, I prefer to compose a piece of music in a particular tuning and then move on. Although, there are a couple of tunings that I consciously tried to write a couple of pieces in just to see if I could do it. I've lost track of all the tunings I've used over the years. There are so many possibilities available that I generally try to pick a new tuning for each new piece.
Do you tend to favor certain intervals within an altered tuning more so than others?
Although I've been using altered tunings my entire career, I'm still learning so much about them because there are so many choices to make. On Soliloquy, there are a lot of different tunings, the kind of tunings that I've never used before. As I was going through the process of composing in altered tunings early in my career, I thought it would make sense to have the tonic of the piece be the lowest open string. Then, I started getting into different tonalities and into the idea of using tunings that weren't diatonic all of the time to generate new sonorities. I don't think there is an interval that I haven't used yet between strings! There are no real rules so you can go wherever you want. The thing that is especially interesting in writing music for a solo fretless instrument is that you can get into tonalities that you wouldn't write for piano, orchestra, string quartet, or jazz trio because the resonances sound different. Some intervals can also sound different depending on how they are tuned. When I started composing pieces for Soliloquy, I would start with typical intervals like roots, fifths, and octaves, and then I'd experiment with flipping a tuning key to something else like a b9.
The tuning that you choose to use for a piece of music can help suggest some tonal areas that you'll have to work with such as the overall key. I've also found that it's an interesting challenge to write against a particular tuning as well because you can generate some interesting ideas that way. The intervals within a tuning really become a part of the composition, and there is so much more to be done that it's really overwhelming to think about.
Do the ideas you generate dictate the tuning you'll choose for a piece, or will a certain sound you hear while experimenting in an altered tuning ignite new ideas? In other words, which tends to come first, the idea or the tuning?
It's actually a little of both. Sometimes I'll just be goofing around on the instrument in an altered tuning, and I'll start to hear little things that will generate ideas. At other times, I may be on a plane or somewhere that I don't have access to my bass, and I'll hear a melody. I'll try to think about which tuning would best fit that motif. Either way, it's definitely fair game.
One of the really inspiring things about composing music is that there are so many different ways to approach it. Composing isn't like architecture where you always have to start with the basement and build up. With composition, you can approach it from so many different angles because there are so many parameters to consider. It's great being a composer in this day and age because we don't really have the kinds of harmonic restraints that people often had in the past. If you want to compose something diatonic to C Major, no one is going to tell you that you can't do that. At the same time, if you want to compose something that is completely atonal, people are generally accepting of that sound too.
Today, we have so many tools available to us, and we have so much music to draw from our history that there are almost too many variables to think about. You can think of creativity as being unlimited in nature, which it is, but it's also a fun challenge to sometimes set up parameters and see what you can do within that framework like I did on "Insomnia Lessons." While it can be frustrating to have limitations imposed upon us, sometimes it's a good thing in order to tweak our creativity. If I had been able to afford a 9-string bass when I was twenty-one years old, I might not have ever discovered all of this other stuff. There's always something new to uncover within the limitations that are presented to you.
When composing for solo bass, do you ever find yourself altering your thinking depending on the tuning? Would you treat a closed tone differently if you could tune it to an open string?
That would actually be a really good, thought-provoking exercise. This has never really occurred to me before, but yes it could. You could treat a note as an open string differently than you would that same note if it was needed to be played as a closed tone. If you are playing in standard tuning and playing a solo piece in Ab where the tuning doesn't necessarily benefit the key of the composition, it will force you to think differently because you are somewhat limited in your choices due to how the key of the composition is related to the tuning. Your harmonic options would definitely be very limited if you were playing a piece in Ab on a bass in standard tuning. If you were playing a solo piece that was in Ab where the open low string was tuned to the tonic, then you have more possibilities and different places to go. Say you have a piece to play in the key of Ab and your bass is tuned E-A-D-G, how are you going to approach playing that piece if you were to tune the open A string to Ab? What additional options are you going to have as a result of modifying the tuning to fit that piece of music? Anytime you want to play the tonic, you can use the open string, and that will free you up to play a lot of other things including double stops on the higher strings over the top of that tonic note.
How do you familiarize yourself with a new altered tuning? Do you have a process you'll follow when working with a new altered tuning such trying to play a major scale or set of harmonics?
This may sound a little strange, but when I find a new tuning that really catches my ear, I try not to learn too much about it at first. One of the things that has always remained appealing to me is the sense of naivety created as a result of working with altered tunings on bass. I've played bass my entire life, and I've worked really hard on trying to understand the instrument in standard tuning. At this point, I feel like I understand standard tuning pretty well, and I can play practically anything without much of a problem. If I start working with an unusual tuning, I can't play anything. I won't even be able to play a major scale. What I like about this is that it reminds me of being a little kid and goofing around with the instrument, not having a clue on the kind of sound you'll produce when placing your finger in a particular position. This really turns off the analytical part of your brain. If you are composing a piece in standard tuning which you know very well, sometimes your brain will have a tendency to say that you can't do something because it isn't theoretically correct. Altered tunings will often suggest a different level of listening because there is something very innocent about just listening to sounds and not immediately analyzing them. Altered tunings can also force you to listen more deeply because to a certain extent you are starting from scratch every time you work with a new altered tuning. I like the mystery involved.
I've been working with altered tunings enough that I'm usually pretty comfortable with improvising in a new tuning fairly early on. Since I primarily play 4-string basses, I'm only working with three different intervals, one in between each set of strings. When I'm improvising in an altered tuning, I think intervallically. I don't necessarily think about the exact notes I'm playing, but I always know what the relationship of the note that I'm playing is relative to the tonic.
You'll always have the harmonics located on each string to use as a reference point as well. If you know the relationship of the natural harmonics to the open strings in standard tuning, you can use those intervals to find notes in any altered tuning since the intervallic relationship between the harmonics and fretted tones will always be the same.
What do you feel are the greatest benefits to be gained from using altered tunings?
Using altered tunings greatly expands the tonal palette available on bass. One of the variables that I like to bring to the attention of people who ask me about altered tunings is with regard to the tension of the string. If a string is very tight, generally the harmonics are very loud. Sometimes they are even louder than the fundamental note. People often perceive the sound produced by a tightly-tuned string to be tense or uptight. If a string is really lose and you strike it really hard, the pitch of the string will actually go a little sharp before settling into its natural pitch. Usually, you will hear a very solid fundamental note on a lose string and less harmonic content. Most people will associate this type of sound as wild or funky. Just the tension of the string alone will produce a very powerful emotional resonance. If you could imagine taking your high G-string and tuning it down to the pitch of the low open E-string, it would sound very different than the open low E-string due to the lack of tension resulting from the different string gauges. It would have a completely different feel to it, and at the same time, it would force you to play differently on that string. You can start by combining the different levels of tension between the strings and see what you can do with that expressively.
With altered tunings, you can generate completely new sets of harmonics that don't exist in standard tuning. You can tune your bass higher than standard tuning which will facilitate in playing things such as chords in the lower positions while still maintaining clarity between the notes within those chords. Chords tend to become muddied when played in the lowest registers in standard tuning, and intervals will sound different when played low on the fingerboard as compared to when they are played up higher. You can just tune every string higher to eliminate this problem. You can also tune your strings across a much wider spread which will allow you the opportunity to play much wider chord voicings than would ever be physically possible in standard tuning. Since you can tune each string to a different pitch, you can work with intervals other than the perfect fourths of standard tuning, and this will affect the sound of your phrasing. Through altered tunings, you can complement an already existing piece of music that was written in standard tuning by aligning the intervals contained within a phrase to make it much easier to play. It's always a good idea to practice hard so you can play things that are difficult, but sometimes it just makes more sense to tune the bass differently in order to facilitate playing something more beautifully that is extremely difficult to play in standard tuning.
Altered tunings are one of the most effective techniques I've ever discovered on bass. The instrument is so accepting of being placed in an altered tuning. Due to all the possibilities available, I'm really amazed that more bassists aren't experimenting with them. I think some people feel you are cheating by using an altered tuning to make certain things easier to play, but I think that's a really dangerous viewpoint because with creativity there is no such thing as cheating. There are no boundaries. By playing only in standard tuning, you are actually limiting your creative potential because there is so much potential in altered tunings that has yet to be discovered. If you are tired of hearing the same old E-A-D-G type of sound, I highly recommend at least trying something other than standard tuning, and if you don't like, it will take less than thirty seconds to tune the bass back to standard tuning.
Plus, unlike an effects processor or some other gadget you might purchase to alter the sound of your playing, altered tunings don't cost anything. So many bass players these days are buying amazing extended range basses including 10 and 11-string instruments that cost thousands of dollars. Not only is that a serious financial investment, but playing one of those instruments requires a major commitment of time in terms of learning technique. Using the extended range is definitely a great way to come up with new sounds and really push the envelope, but it's a really big obligation. I have a very deep respect for the bassists that play these instruments, and I love to listen to these guys play because I like to hear people being creative, but altered tunings can be a simple and free solution to unlocking new sounds on your bass.
Over what type of range can you typically tune the strings on your basses?
On my regular 4-string bass which I string with light-gauged D'Addario strings, I can easily tune all of the strings over a range of a perfect fifth. I can tune my standard low E-string anywhere between a low B, a fourth below E, and F#, a whole-step above E. The strings can handle that range without even breaking a sweat. With the Hyperbass, which was specifically designed to be used with altered tunings, I use very light-gauged strings. They are so light that I can tune all of them across the range of an entire octave. In general, lighter-gauged strings can be tuned over a much wider range without breaking due to tension.
For players interested in experimenting with altered tunings, what would you recommend to get started?
The first thing I always tell people is don't be afraid to just goof around. If you have an extra 10-15 minutes during a practice session, just twist the tuning keys and see what happens! I know that just seems way too obvious, but I spend an awful lot of time doing just that. You might begin by altering just one or two strings by a whole-step to get a feel for the new tuning. This will also allow you to use the other strings that are still in standard tuning as reference points. My brother really likes the tuning C-G-D-G (tuning your A-string down a whole-step and the E-string down two whole-steps) so much that he's left his bass in that tuning for years.
If you want to take more of an analytical approach, I recommend tuning your bass in fifths, C-G-D-A (cello tuning). It's a beautiful tuning and really easy to achieve on bass. The D-string will stay at the same pitch as in standard tuning, and you can use it as a point of reference in cello tuning. The standard G-string will be tuned up a whole-step to A. The standard A-string will be tuned down a whole-step to G, and the E-string will be tuned down two whole-steps to C. I really love all the triad voicings possible with that tuning. You can play these triad voicings on a bass in standard tuning, but they just resonate so much better when the strings are tuned in fifths.
If you want to play standard walking lines, tuning your bass in fifths will probably complicate things. No matter what you do, whether it be playing an extended range bass or just placing a 4-string bass in an unusual tuning, there will always be certain things you'll gain as well as other things that will have to be sacrificed. There will always be a certain amount of give and take so the trick is to find the approach that is going to work best for you in achieving what you are trying to accomplish.
Keep in mind that you shouldn't feel like you are locked into only replicating the things that I've done. Altered tunings aren't just for solo music. There are so many possibilities, and you can use them within any style. You can be more conservative than me or even more radical. String the bass upside down, use the same string gauge for each pitch, or tune your bass to the same pitch all the way across the fingerboard. The possibilities are limitless. I've only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the possibilities that are available through altered tunings.
Unlike most musicians who really dread the thought of practicing, you really enjoy it. How have your practice sessions evolved over the years?
I love practicing, but I don't get as much opportunity to practice these days as I did many years ago. I try to set aside at least 1-2 hours per day to practice. It's really frustrating because ideally, I'd like to have between 4-6 hours per day that I can dedicate to practicing. Rarely do I receive that kind of time, but if I'm on the road and have a day off between gigs, I'll sit in the hotel room and practice all day by myself.
In my early 20's, I went through a period where I'd wake up in the morning, pick up the bass, and 15 hours later I'd be putting the bass down to go to bed. Eventually, I realized that this approach really wasn't all that productive. I found that my practice sessions were more productive if I balanced my time by putting the bass down for awhile. A key aspect of maximizing the learning process is applying the information and then allowing some time for those ideas to sink in.
It's really difficult to describe the primitive nature of electric bass instruction when I began studying the instrument. There were a few books specifically written with electric bass in mind. Carol Kaye had a couple wonderful books in particular. Most bass books were just collections of transcriptions that demonstrated playing idiomatic bass lines which were being played on recordings. There was definitely no internet, and there were no instructional videos so you had to figure out everything on your own. I'd try to construct exercises that I thought would help me accomplish moving from point A to point B, and I ended up using these same exercises my whole life. Much of the approach I created for myself while I was in my late teens/early 20's was detailed within my Bass Essentials video that was released in 1991. I spent most of the time in that video addressing fundamental components including string crossing considerations because that is the one technique that really seems to cause people a lot of problems. I don't think I have ever had a student that didn't need to work on string crossing. If you don't have it together, it can cause you so many problems. I still spend a good deal of time practicing these basic exercises today. Someday, I'd like to put these concepts in a book.
There are many things that seem to come together after a period of time so you don't have to work on these things as hard once you reach a certain level. A good example to demonstrate this would be string crossing. If you work really hard on string crossing for a couple years, it will eventually become second nature, until you get a 9-string!
Today, I like to practice a lot of things related to rhythm. There are a couple things that I think are really difficult to master, and rhythm is one of them. For most of the students I've taught over the years, rhythm has seemed to be the biggest stumbling block. As Americans, we tend to think of our culture as being the most advanced, but in terms of rhythm we are light years behind what is being done in India, Indonesia, and Africa. We've written the book on harmony, but we are way behind on what can be done with rhythm. Many cultures understand complex melody much more deeply than we do, too. The tendency for most musicians is to focus on harmony which is very important, but rhythm is really significant as well. There are only twelve notes in Western-based harmony, but rhythm is much more complex because there are virtually limitless possibilities. Rhythm is an area of music that I don't think people work on as much as they should. Unfortunately, rhythm is a little more difficult to teach than harmony. Harmony is more easily organized because scales and chords have specific names whereas rhythm is a bit more abstract.
One of the things that has helped me greatly in practicing has been working with a looper. If for nothing else, the looper allows me to play something and then immediately evaluate it. I've developed several little exercises that I can incorporate with my looper. One of my favorite exercises is really simple in concept. First, I'll set up a very short loop with a single muted note. Then, I'll try to play along, exactly in time with that muted note. When you do this, you'll hear how truly accurate you are in your playing.
Most of the solo pieces on Soliloquy were recorded using one of your fretless electric basses. What inspired your pursuit of playing this instrument?
Like all bass players from my generation, I was just completely blown away when Jaco Pastorius burst onto the scene. His playing was incredibly inspiring because it sounded so beautiful and well thought out. He was doing things that had never been done before. One of the things that Jaco did which I found really appealing is that he fused the sounds of acoustic upright with electric bass. I thought this was so exciting because back in the 70's you played either upright or fretted electric bass or you switched back and forth between the two instruments. Jaco synthesized those sounds, and a lot of us bass players believed this was the future approach to playing jazz. There were so many advantages to playing fretless electric bass instead of an acoustic upright. Fretless bass didn't require so much physical effort to play, it was much easier to navigate, easier to transport, and it was also much easier to amplify. Unfortunately, fretless electric bass never gained widespread popularity as an instrument to be used within the context of a traditional jazz environment, for whatever reason.
Shortly after discovering Jaco, I began listening to other fretless players such as Percy Jones who is just amazing. Unfortunately, his playing was overshadowed a bit by what Jaco was doing. Alphonso Johnson was doing some really beautiful playing on fretless, too. Jaco was in the right place, at the right time, with the right ideas, and his playing inspired so many bass players from my generation.
Are there any exercises you've spent time practicing to attain such a high level of being able to play in tune on fretless bass?
I do have a set of exercises that I use for practicing intonation. However, most of them are really boring. If I'm practicing on a fretless bass, a tuner is always hooked up. I never vary from that, and the tuner goes everywhere the bass goes. It's a given. You always want to make sure the bass in perfectly in tune because you don't want to reinforce bad habits. You don't want to get use to playing notes where they are not supposed to be. You have to memorize an intonational map of the fingerboard. It's a difficult process, and you don't want to do anything that will disrupt that mission. I'll spend a lot of time just playing notes on the fingerboard while looking at the tuner to reinforce where the notes should be located.
A looper can prove to be extremely helpful for working on intonation. You can loop a single drone note and play different scales over the top of that note. Play the scales slowly and really listen to how the notes you are playing sound relative to the drone note. You can also loop entire scales and then practice harmonizing those scales in thirds, fourths, fifths, and so forth. These exercises may not seem extremely inventive, but they get the job done!
In addition to your utilization of advanced tapping, slapping, chordal, and harmonic techniques, you've delved deeply into the use of the EBow. Can you discuss the significant role the EBow has played in your music?
The EBow is such an amazing device. I really can't imagine not having one. The EBow gives you control over the dynamic shape of the sound that you produce on the instrument. It allows you the ability to swell into notes, increase the volume of a note, or sustain a note indefinitely, and that alone makes it worth its weight in gold. Normally, you just can't produce these types of sounds with pizzicato-based instruments because on a bass for example, you pluck a string and wait for it to decay. You can shorten the decay of a note, but you can't really extend it without plucking the note again. With the EBow, you have total control over the duration of the note. You can fade in and out of notes for as long as you like, similar to how a violinist would use a bow. It is a major expressive device because there are so many things you can do with it. It really expands the possibilities available on fretless bass. Like altered tunings, I've never understood why the EBow hasn't become more popular amongst bass players, especially for fretless bass. It's fairly inexpensive. The EBow is a little challenging to use on bass and may take some time before you are able to properly control it because several variables including how you hold it in relation to the string and the pickups have a direct influence on the timbral possibilities you'll be able to produce with it. However, once you get a feel for it, the sounds you'll be able to produce will make it well worth the effort.
As a session bassist with several hundred recordings to your credit, do artists often have a particular sound or concept in mind when contacting you?
I've used the EBow on more than 100 sessions, and I receive session calls specifically requesting that I bring the EBow. I try to avoid general bass sessions because I never felt like I was very good at them. There are so many other bassists that are so much better at it. They know every style, and they are able to bring a truckload of basses to each session. I'm just not one of those guys, but I admire that skill enormously. Most of the people who contact me have heard me play before, and they have a particular sound in mind that I can help them achieve.
With years of experience performing as a solo bassist, what is the greatest challenge you've discovered in playing live? From a commercial perspective, how difficult was it to get established as a working solo bassist, and is it still hard to find solo bass gigs?
Performing as a solo bassist can be a bit shocking at first if you are use to standing in the background within a band context. In a band you have other musicians around you, but as a soloist, suddenly everyone is gone, and everything is up to you. You become the center of attention, and you realize that if you stop playing, there is no entertainment. That took some time to get used to.
When I first started playing solo bass gigs, they were difficult to come by because people thought playing solo bass compositions was about the weirdest thing you could possibly do. One of the reasons I settled in the Bay Area was due to the fact that this was the only place I had ever been where people thought solo bass playing was an ok thing to do. I lived in New York for a number of years and people would look at me like I was out of my mind when I told them I wanted to play solo bass gigs. Over the years, things have changed quite a bit, and now it seems to be a little easier. One of the tricks is to not necessarily drive home the fact that you want to do solo bass. Present promoters with a recording of the music you want to play to let them know that this is what the music is going to sound like. For the most part, the average person doesn't care what you are using to produce the music. If the music sounds good, they'll be happy. The average person doesn't think of a bass as a solo instrument because historically, it has been used mostly within a band context. You have to get around that mental barrier. If you are playing good music, there will always be a market for it. Today, it's a lot less of a bizarre idea than it use to be. There are several bassists that are doing really well today in playing solo bass gigs in a lot of different places.
How did the concept of playing multiple basses at the same time evolve?
That came as a result of having several different instruments and wanting to experiment with all the colors that those basses had to offer. I was at a point where I was doing a lot of multi-tracking with pieces, and I figured why not try to play the different parts simultaneously. I avoided it for some time because it just sounded too weird, but then I tried it by strapping on two basses and thought it was the most fun you could possibly have playing bass. For awhile, I was actually considering always playing gigs with two basses strapped on just to make a statement. It's definitely a unique concept that raises people's eyebrows, and I've received a lot of mileage from it. Aside from that, it's really fun because there is so much you can do with it. It's very similar to playing an extended range bass, but the difference is that the sounds between the basses are separated out so you can process them differently with effects. Generally, extended range bassists don't tune the strings on their basses to the same pitch. For example, you could have a string on two basses tuned to the same pitch which would allow you to play a harmonic on one of those basses on that string and at the same time allow you the opportunity to fret a note on the same string on the other bass. Additionally, you can also tune the strings on each bass to anything you want in order to avoid the typical E-A-D-G type of sound.
I have retired "Watson & Crick," but I still play "My Three Moons" when people request it. I really like those pieces, and I'm really proud of them. On the recordings, people can't see how these pieces are played so they listen more deeply to the music, but in a live concert I'm not sure if people are really listening to the music or if they are just captivated by how unusual the performance of these pieces looks.
In live performances, you've often used looping devices to build complex bass orchestrations. Do you have a particular formula that you try to follow when setting up loops?
One of the biggest obstacles is trying to figure out how you can use your bass and still keep the parts somewhat separate from each other in the sonic spectrum. The bass is such a dynamic instrument, and it's capable of obtaining an immense sonic range so you don't have to use just notes. You can set up several layers of just percussive-sounding parts with high transients, and when you take that into account, there is an awful lot that you can do. You could easily set up twelve or more layers and still keep things fairly separated. If you are trying to loop just bass lines, then one or two loops is usually enough. I'd often incorporate a couple of different basses into my looped performances as well in order to work with a broader palette of colors. I might start by playing some rhythms, a bass line, and melody with my fretted bass. I would then put my fretted bass down, pick up my fretless bass, and start layering solos with effects on top of everything. I really had a lot of fun with looping.
I really don't do as much looping as I use to because there are so many people out there doing it so beautifully. Plus, the airlines keep cracking down on baggage regulations so my loopers end up being the first items that I have to leave behind. I feel like I've said all I have to say with looping at this point, but I'll probably get back into it in the future when the technology evolves a little more. I really like the concept of being able to orchestrate pieces with loopers, laying down grooves and then practice blowing solos over them.
Do you have any plans for re-releasing any of your earlier recordings as a solo artist which are now out-of-print?
It's really entirely up to Windham Hill and BMG at this point. They own the specific recordings, but I could re-record the exact same arrangements and then release them. It would be difficult to re-record the ensemble pieces just due to the expense involved in coordinating everything. Recording those pieces was a great experience, but I'm not sure if I would want to do that again. Re-recording the solo pieces would be fun though. At some point, I would like to record live versions of the out-of-print solo pieces and then maybe make them available from my web site or possibly on a future solo recording like I did with "Selene" on Soliloquy. "Selene" originally appeared on a Windham Hill guitar sampler back in 1992, but the version that appears on Soliloquy was recorded live at the Noe Valley Music Series in San Francisco in 2001.
How did your long-time partnership with Joe Zon form?
I've been working with Joe for over 15 years. Joe use to attend a lot of my gigs back in the late 80's, and he expressed an interest in building a bass for me. He was very persistent. I was somewhat reluctant because I wasn't looking for just a regular bass. I wanted what eventually became the Zon Guitars Michael Manring Hyperbass. I had approached a number of luthiers about building a bass for me that incorporated some of my unusual ideas, but they all thought I was completely nuts. Joe lent me a number of great basses, but they just weren't what I was after at that time. I thought he would run away screaming like everyone else when I told him what I really wanted, but he was very excited about it. It took us over a year of very serious work, especially on his behalf, to complete the research and design of the Hyberbass, and we've been working together ever since.
Joe has built some really fantastic instruments for me over the years. The first instrument we designed together became the Hyperbass. It was designed primarily for solo work and altered tunings. It was completed in 1990. It's a 4-string fretless that was based upon the existing Zon Legacy design. It has some very unique characteristics including an extended fingerboard spanning 3 full octaves, a very deep cutaway which allows total access across the entire fingerboard, five separate outputs, and four Fishman piezo transducers placed throughout the body to capture the instrument's acoustic resonances. The Hyperbass has 4 Hipshot Xtender keys on the headstock that permit me to alter the pitch of each string during the performance of a piece such as "Selene." I can also retune the entire instrument on the fly using its custom bridge.
In 1993, Joe built a very cool 4-string fretted headless bass for me which I nicknamed "Vinny." Vinny's design was based upon the Zon Sonus bass with a scaled-down body size and no headstock. I really like the combination of the headless/small body design because it feels so comfortable, balances so well, it's very portable due to its size, and sounds incredible. Vinny was small enough to carry onto an airplane, and he could be strapped on simultaneously with the Hyperbass for multi-bass performances including "My Three Moons" as well as "Watson & Crick." Vinny was my main fretted bass until I recently retired and replaced him with "Earl," a new VB bass that has an amazing buckeye burl wood top. My original VB prototype inspired today's Zon VB series.
Joe also built me an incredible Zon Custom Sonus/Hyperbass Hybrid in 1996 that I call "Junior." Today, Junior is my primary fretless bass. It's a hybrid instrument because it combines features from the Zon Sonus and Hyperbass. The body shape is based upon the Sonus model. Like the Hyperbass, Junior has a 3-octave extended fingerboard, a deep cutaway, and Hipshot Xtender keys on each string. This is such a gorgeous bass. If nothing happens to it, I'll play this bass until the day I die.
The Hyperbass, Junior, and Vinny were the three main basses I used to record Soliloquy, and these are the primary instruments I've been using in live shows for many years.
What non-music-related things inspire you?
Traveling is very inspiring because I get to experience so many different things. Sometimes it is a real sensory perception overload. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel around the world to meet so many new people and learn about what their lives are like. That can be very eye-opening. There are many things that I'm fascinated by, but unfortunately I don't have a lot of time to pursue these interests. There are so many different things to be inspired by in the world that there is definitely no shortage of inspiration. I'm a very book-oriented person. I love reading about history, different cultures, philosophy, and science. Most of the material I read is non-fiction, but there are a couple authors who write fiction that I enjoy. One author in particular, Jorge Luis Borges, has influenced a lot of my creative thought process. He was a very brilliant person, a really original thinker. He wrote mostly short stories and essays. I'm fascinated by all the arts, especially painting, and I love the complexity of nutrition as well as anything dealing with health or the body. I've practiced yoga everyday for almost my entire life. Most people don't know this about me, but I'm really good at standing on my head! I run a little and bike whenever time permits. Of course, my family is very important to me, too. I just wish I had more time to do everything!
Can you enlighten us to any new projects that you'll be featured on in 2005?
I just recorded a bass trio project in France with Dominique Di Piazza and Yves Carbonne a few months ago. That will be available very soon. A new McGill/Manring/Stevens recording is also set to be released very soon featuring some bizarre arrangements of jazz standards. I'm really happy with that project. I think it's our best recording to date. There will be a new Sadhappy recording released this year with Evan Schiller and Mike Keneally, and it may be the most unusual recording I have ever done. I'm also a member of a brand new trio called De Mania featuring guitarist Alex De Grassi and percussionist Chris Garcia. We've been gigging quite a bit, and we are in the process of recording a project right now.
What advice or encouragement could you offer to aspiring students?
In my opinion, the most important aspect of becoming a better bassist is through listening. Listening is the one skill that you need to develop more than anything else. It's more important than technique, and it's even more important than groove. Try to develop your listening skills to a very high level, and learn to listen very deeply.
The Book Of Flame
Toward The Center Of The Night
With Attention Deficit:
The Idiot King
Controlled By Radar
Addition By Subtraction
With David Cullen:
Good Day Bad Dream
With Michael Hedges:
Breakfast In The Field
Watching My Life Go By
Live On The Double Planet
With Yves Carbonne & Dominique Di Piazza:
Carbonne - Di Piazza - Manring
The Artist's Profile: Michael Manring DVD
Michael Manring: Bass Essentials
Michael Manring: Thonk
Michael Manring: Performance Study
Bass Day 1998
Michael Manring: Thonk
Zon Michael Manring Hyperbass 4-String Fretless
Zon VB4 4-String Fretted Prototype (Vinny)
Zon VB4 4-String Fretted (Earl)
Zon Custom Sonus/Hyperbass Hybrid 4-String Fretless (Junior)
Zon Legacy Elite Special 10-String (5x2) Fretted Prototype
Zon Legacy Elite 6-String Fretless
Larrivee Custom 5-String Acoustic Bass Guitar
SWR Baby Blue Combo Amp
SWR Stereo 800 Power Amp
SWR Son Of Bertha 1x15 Speaker Enclosure
D'Addario XL220 (.040, .060, .075, .095)
D'Addario XL280 (Hyperbass - .020, .032, .042, .052)
Boss VF-1 Multiple Effects Processor
Boss RC-20 Loop Station