Trip Wamsley - March 2007
Although bass-centric solo projects are often revered only by dedicated bass enthusiasts, Trip Wamsley's music contains a remarkable balance of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic variety which extends to an audience beyond that of strictly bass aficionados. After distributing his first independent endeavor, Dancing About Architecture, in 1996, subsequent solo efforts included The Difference Engine (1998) and It's Better This Way (2003). In December 2006, Wamsley released, Curve, his fourth solo session, but unlike his previous productions which featured a collection of both mixed instrumental tracks and solo bass pieces, Curve is the first of his recordings as a leader to present the electric bass guitar in solo and orchestrated bass configurations exclusively.
Wamsley's inventive arrangements combine the utilization of non-traditional altered tunings, harmonics, chords, and looping devices with contemporary performance techniques such as conventional fingerstyle playing, slapping, plucking, tapping, strumming, and picking on 4, 5, and 8-string fretted and fretless bass guitars.
While providing instruction to students during clinics and bass events across the United States, Europe, Brazil, and Australia, Wamsley has demonstrated his techniques and methods at the NAMM Bass Bash, BassQuake, Bass Day U.K., BassUp!, and the Lodo Bass Bash.
Following many years of touring in pop, rock, R&B, funk, punk, and zydeco bands, Wamsley now lives in Louisiana and devotes most of his schedule to performing internationally as a solo bassist, expanding the repertoire of music for unaccompanied bass guitar, teaching, and contributing to select side projects.
In this interview, Wamsley discusses Curve, composing with altered tunings and loopers, playing with a pick, practicing, fretless bass, and much more!
Can you tell us about, Curve, your latest solo project?
Musically, I think that Curve is the best project I've released to date. With the exception of a couple tracks, it's all solo bass. Overall, the tunes are more thought out. The arrangements are better, and the emotional dynamic is really there. There are some neat moments chops-wise, but the music is the main course rather than slapping on every tune. Not that there is anything wrong with slapping, but when it's the main focus, it gets tiring really fast. I can't listen to it for too long. Plus, I can't really wear it out like some guys. Live, it's different story. I let it rip more during live shows. Plus, my live tone can be a bit more aggressive as well. On a recording, I have to think about repeated listening, and if something gets on my nerves sonically after a few passes, I have to think about what it's going to be like for everyone who listens to the music over and over again.
Curve took a long time to complete. This wasn't due to laziness on my part but rather interruptions from life like gigs, tours, hurricanes, floods, and general silliness. The basses I used included an Alembic fretless 5-string, an Alembic fretted 8-string, a Status Graphite S2-Classic fretted 4-string, a Vigier Arpege fretless 4-string, and also a Barker Vertical bass which was so fat and warm that it really made the low end on "And He Speaks Part II" come alive. I recorded my parts with a Glockenklang Bass Art Classic and an Alembic Superfilter. The Glockenklang was the main source of preamplification. I didn't use any equalization on my active basses. They were all set flat. I recorded everything using Digital Performer along with a Mac and a MOTU 828 interface, but I didn't use the microphone preamps on it. Instead, I used the analog inputs on the back. It sounded much better that way. I also used some plug-ins for reverb and some samples I made. I layered the loops instead of looping on the fly because the audience isn't in a visual position while listening to a recording. With that in mind, the order in which I layered the loops really didn't matter so I just went ahead and recorded the progressions separately that I generally loop live. If I'm looping during a live performance, I can still duplicate the recorded loops, and the visual entertainment aspect is there.
Tonally, Curve is the closest I've come to getting things to sound the way I want within today's available digital domain. I despise digital audio as a whole, and I hate the way people master stuff so loud that you can hear the serrated edge in the high end and dither noise everywhere else. My favorite listening format is still vinyl because it's analog.
If I got something wrong tone-wise while recording, rather than equalize it to death, I just recorded the part over. That became irritating at times, but I eventually got things where I wanted them. Fixing problems in the mix never really works for me. I avoided using a lot of equalization in general. I made sure that the levels were good and the mastering guy didn't use any equalization, just multi-band compression. I didn't want him to ramp up the volume to where the audio would get splattered. I got the sound as close as I could to what I was hearing in my head before things were printed, but there's always room for improvement.
How would you compare the tracks on Curve to your 3 previous recordings as a leader?
Curve is the most bass-centric of the four solo recordings I've released, and the tracks sound much better than anything I've previously released. I'm still really proud of my third recording, It's Better This Way, because it was the first cohesive production that I completed. I hired a friend, Todd Bragg, to produce it, and he was also instrumental in keeping me on track for this recording. He listened to everything as I went along, as did other people. I think it's really important for me to surround myself with folks that will tell me if things aren't as good as they could or should be. These are people that I trust and I know wouldn't tell me things just to be malicious, but if I believe in the idea, in the end, I'll have it my way. As for the two solo recordings that preceded It's Better This Way, I can't listen to them anymore. They were nice experiments, but that is where the story ends with them.
On Curve, I wanted to present what someone would experience at one of my live shows, but the music isn't quite as aggressive in energy. At the time, I didn't want to hassle with all the variables involved in doing a live recording, but a live recording is one of the projects I'd like to complete next or possibly another studio release where everything is more aggressive and other musicians are involved.
Where can your solo recordings be purchased?
At the moment, Curve can be bought directly from my website. I ran out of It's Better This Way, but you can still buy that one from MagnaTune.com as a download as well as from Amazon.com. I recently received some copies of The Difference Engine and Dancing About Architecture that were found in a warehouse in Nashville. If anyone is interested in them, please e-mail me through my website about purchasing one of the remaining copies.
As a former private student of Michael Manring's in the early 1990's, were there any concepts of his that shaped the way you play bass today?
Michael taught me about really listening to what I'm hearing. Listen deep and hard. He helped me be more cosmically aware of my small spot in this life. If I'm going to do solo bass, then I better have something to offer. He also made me focus on time because my sense of time sucks. I have to work hard to maintain what little I have especially since I don't cut solo tracks with a click or anything so being aware of time is critical.
Could you explain your unique method of composition where you assign numbers to different techniques and then apply those techniques to music?
I wouldn't really refer to it as a composing method. It's just a catalyst to help me generate new ideas. It's a logical way to deal with ruts and plateaus. Basically, it was developed around the permutation concepts that Michael showed me when I was studying with him, but instead of the fingerings that he assigns to numbers, I assign different techniques to numbers. Using the numbers one through four, I'll do the following:
1 = Slap
2 = Fingerstyle
3 = Tap
4 = Strum
I can then rearrange the numbers in many different combinations such as: 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, or 2-1, 2-3, 2-4, or 1-2-3, 3-1-4, or 1-3-2-4, 4-3-1-2, and so forth. You can assign any technique such as slapping, fingerstyle, tapping, strumming, and so on to any of those four numbers which will continually lead you to a new idea. Once you assign the various techniques to numbers and then combine all of those possible permutations with all of the notes and rhythms that are available on your bass, you should never run out of ideas. Whether or not the end result is a success is another story, but at least you'll be on your way.
Who inspired your exploration into using altered tunings?
It was due to my environment at the time. I grew up in a small town where nothing was really happening musically. I started tuning my bass weird after seeing guitar players do it and reading about it in various magazines. When I heard Michael Hedges, Michael Manring, and Alex De Grassi, I was completely hooked at that point. I liked the way tonalities could be changed, and I loved the way the open harmonics could be laid out. There were so many new voicings to explore and so much new emotion that could be conveyed.
How have altered tunings and loopers influenced the way you compose and play bass?
I actually reached a point where I was using altered tunings so much that I pulled back on their use and started doing more stuff in standard tuning. I'm getting back into some new tunings right now though. I think the altered tunings concept was becoming a crutch for me at times.
In terms of my looping, I would say that it is very pedestrian. I generally loop a solo section here and there and then do some layering with rhythmic things. It's really nothing special. The looper may have also become a crutch because now it's too easy for me to loop a solo section rather than come up with a good bridge in a tune so for every tune I use a looper on, I force myself to create a tune that doesn't incorporate it. If I was ever in a situation where my looper broke, the show could still go on.
What advantages does a bassist have in using altered tunings?
It keeps you from falling into stock licks and autopilot stuff immediately. You have to be there and be deliberate in what you are doing. It takes a bit of concentration, but after you are comfortable with the tuning, you can take a few flights of fancy. Also, it changes the timbre and emotional impact of the music you are playing. Michael showed me that when the string is placed under a great degree of tension by tuning to pitches higher than standard tuning, the tone is more pure, and when the string is loose, the tone is more primal. I think that is really true.
Have you found any particular tunings or intervals between the open strings that you tend to favor?
I tend to favor tuning in fifths, major and minor seconds, major and minor thirds, and sevenths. Some of the tunings that I have used on a 5-string bass that I normally tune E-A-D-G-C include, tuned low to high, G-B-D-G-D, Eb-Bb-F-Bb-Bb, D-C-D-A-D, G-Bb-C-G-C, F#-B-F#-B-C#, and F-Ab-Eb-Ab-Db. On "Redneck Monolith" which appears on Curve, I tuned my bass Eb-Bb-Eb-F-Db.
I don't deliberately think about specific tunings that much. I just go for it. You can tell when I'm really going for it because strings start snapping after ramping them up and down while I'm experimenting.
Is the way you compose in an altered tuning dictated by the tuning or the idea?
I don't have one particular set method that I strictly follow. When I'm open to the moment, nice things happen and the process becomes what it is. With that said, the tuning generally comes first. I see what the tuning suggests harmonically, and then I go from there. Sometimes I'll get an idea in my head and search for a tuning that enables me to achieve what I'm hearing. Sometimes it's an elusive process and doesn't come to fruition right away. In fact, a few things have eluded me for years, but it's nothing to get upset about because there are always other ideas to develop. There is joy in failed experiments, and composing should always be fun.
Do you have a process that you use in order to familiarize yourself with a new altered tuning and figure out where specific notes are located?
Actually, I've been doing it long enough now that I kind of know where things are going to be found before I start so I can just dive in and get something to happen. In the past, I have sat down and improvised things to get a lay of the land and then went from there. It's a fun system of trial and error. Knowing your fingerboard well in standard tuning is critical so you can quickly transpose notes around. For instance, if the open E-string in standard tuning is tuned down a whole-step to D and the open A-string in standard tuning is tuned up a minor third to C, then the D at the second fret of the C-string will be an octave higher than the low, open D-string. Sometimes, I don't know what the notes are that I'm playing because I'm just into the moment. I figure those things out later if someone wants to play with me or I want to talk about it in a clinic or lesson.
How did you get started with looping?
Robert Fripp, one of my favorite guitarists, had been looping for years. Once the technology became easier to use, I got into it. Loopers are great practice tools because you can instantly hear when you suck. For me, looping has become a logical extension of things, and looping is becoming quite prevalent now.
For live shows, I use the Boss RC-20 Loop Station because it's easy to use. I also have a Line 6 Echo Pro rack unit which functions as a looper. Sometimes I'll hook both of them up and do some experimenting. They are both intuitive and allow me to dive right in without getting bogged down in manuals and technology. That drives me nuts. Keeping things as simple as I can is important to me.
How do you typically build a loop?
I don't really have a specific process when composing with a looper, but my loops generally consist of chords and some rhythmic interest in order to make it palatable for both me and the listener.
What would you recommend to a bassist who wants to start experimenting with altered tunings and loopers?
With altered tunings, first assess the limitations of your bass. The neck should be as straight as possible, and you'll need to look at the string tension. For example, using a heavy set of Rotosound Steve Harris signature strings will greatly limit the available range of tunings. I find that a string gauge of .040 - .095 or .040 - .100 works really well for altered tunings. I've also found that you can tune each of the strings over a span of about a minor seventh above standard pitch, but I don't do this all the time. Keep extra strings around because you will break some while experimenting. I always save old sets for this reason. Once you find a cool groove or melody in an altered tuning, listen to see whether it sounds like a verse, chorus, intro, or bridge part and put things together from there. You can shift ideas around in musical blocks or chunks just like you would if you were arranging something on a computer sequencer.
To start looping, you can initially experiment with just doing a one-chord vamp and build from there. While composing and performing with a looper, you can string together a chord progression and solo over that or play your melodies and then do your layering. I would just tell everyone to go for it and experiment, but please avoid what I call riff/lick syndrome. Most bassists just loop fancy riffs with no melodic or harmonic development involved at all. They then break the riff with a big lick and then churn the riff around before completing an even bigger lick. This is great, now and then, but not again and again and again. Slow down and be more thoughtful. Use the fancy riff as an introduction and then incorporate the big lick as a bridge. It will mean much more when arranged in this fashion.
When you aren't gigging as a solo bassist, do you perform with any bands?
I play with two great musicians from Florida in an improv/art/rock/shred outfit called the Power Triplets. I also play guitar in a church worship band, and I play in a smokin' cover band from time to time, too. I get to use my dual amp setup with the Power Triplets and the cover band. I use a THD Flexi-50 guitar amp for some grit. It has a Cheap Trick or Who sound, or it can be a bit like John Wetton from the first Asia recording with some Doug Pinnick thrown in. I'm a big fan of overdriven bass tone. My live band tone is a huge wall of sound. It's not overbearing, and it still sounds pleasant. I haven't been asked to turn down in years, and that is a mark of good tone for me. I try to make it so that it's still earth shaking in the decibel department, but it isn't fatiguing to me or anyone else.
Would you discuss the significant role that the pick has played in your music?
First of all, let me say that I was anti-pick for years. I was quite vicious about it. Then, one day, I was watching the Police live and saw Sting doing these lines on his fretless P-bass. I loved the sound, and I realized that the pick was the way to obtain that type of sound. I also found that by just changing the pick I could change the overall equalization, and it would cost only 25 cents rather than hundreds or thousands of dollars for a new bass or amp. I could then change the groove or feel by how I picked so that added to my arsenal of possible tones.
After hearing Jerry Peek, Anthony Jackson, and Carol Kaye, I realized that using a pick was actually more efficient, and 5 trillion guitar wankers can't be wrong about that one. It forces me to think binary, on/off and up/down. I also tend to play wider intervals with a pick. I don't know why, but it's cool though! Also, the way you hold the pick and the angle at which you strike the string greatly affects the tone. If you are still holding out on using a pick, please check out Al Di Meola's Tour De Force Live, and listen to Anthony Jackson double Di Meola's lines with a pick.
I practice often with a pick and found ones that do not sound harsh and abrasive. I mostly use 1.14mm PickBoy edge carbon nylon guitar picks. They are a jazz-style guitar pick made of nylon/carbon material that is hard but still flexible. They wear out quickly, but I don't care because they sound great. They can produce a sound that is round and warm but with more edge than I can get from standard fingerstyle. I actually play with a pick on most of the gigs I do with other people.
What kind of material have you practiced through the years that you feel has helped the most in achieving your playing level today?
As for concrete methods, I never did follow any in particular. I had good teachers from day one and that helped tremendously. Good fundamentals are critical. Period. I practiced scales, arpeggios, and learned some theory which I think should be called music reality. Music theory gets to the deepest core of what we play. I eventually stopped focusing so much on scales and got into straight out improvisation and learning melodies. I worked on being able to come up with melodies on the spot which is still an ongoing process.
I'm with Jeff Berlin in that I'm anti-tablature. Tablature is an individuality suction machine in my opinion. It's way more punk to avoid using tablature. Use your ears, read the notation, or do both. Learn chord construction and how to hook chords together. I'm learning more about that right now by studying some standards. I'm not doing this so I can become "Mr. Jazz" but because the information is too valuable to be ignored.
I don't care what style you play. You should never stop learning. Never. I'm a guy who wanted to play metal/prog rock/punk, but I wound up so far from that because I like almost everything. I've really tried to assimilate all the various parts I've picked up, and if you listen close to my recordings, you will hear the energy of rock and a bit of old school punk swagger. It's always there, and I wouldn't change it for the world!
Is there anything you've practiced or found helpful that has really improved your intonation on fretless bass?
I didn't own a fretted bass for over 10 years at one point, and that alone helped significantly. I fell so in love with fretless bass, and now it's part of an arsenal of sounds. Playing along with records and setting up chord progressions in a sequencer to play over also helped enormously. The pitch on an electronic keyboard doesn't move, and you can get relatively inexpensive software workstations like Reason and Abletone. If you aren't embracing that technology, you really should because those programs are also great for creating non-bass music which is really fun.
Are there certain elements of playing bass that you try to emphasize to your students or during clinics?
Technique is the means by which the soul can fly freely. That's a quote from composer Olivier Messiaen. Compose music. Use your chops to execute said music. For individual students, I show them good fundamentals, where the notes are located, and how to tune up. Scales, chords, theory, application, styles, and a host of other things that come up are all elements I try to incorporate in lessons according to each individual's needs.
In clinics, I tell everyone to find the amp that works for them and stick with it. If you spend more time flipping knobs and changing things out, then you will never sound consistent and probably aren't practicing enough. Too many people change amps and guitars more than they change the amount or quality of their practice. Practice means you work on things that you can't do. If you sound great while you practice all the time, you are probably playing what you know. Practice is hard work. After you work, then you can play. Practice does not have to be for several hours a day. If you work for a short time on valid musical information, you will improve more than by just wanking. Practice and then you can wank later. It's all related, and it all can be fun.
Do you have any endeavors besides music that you like to pursue?
I love to travel. I would quit being a professional bassist to host a travel show. My concept would be something like "Insomniac With Dave Attell" but in Europe. I love to hang with my wife and son the most. I'm also learning about electronics and doing work on guitars right now. It's slow going, but it's fun to swap out pickups and modify preamps.
It's Better This Way
The Difference Engine
Dancing About Architecture
Alembic Epic Fretted 4-String
2 Alembic Orion Fretless 5-Strings With Europa Preamps (E-A-D-G-C)
Alembic Rogue Fretted 8-String (B-E-A-D-G-C-F-Bb)
Vigier Arpege Fretless 4-String
Vigier Arpege Fretless 5-String (E-A-D-G-C)
Status Graphite S2-Classic Fretted 4-String
Barker Vertical Fretted 4-String
Aria SB 1000 Fretted 4-String
Glockenklang Bass Art Classic Preamp
Glockenklang 2x12, 2x10, & 1x15 Cabinets
THD Electronics Flexi-50 Guitar Amp
Digitech RDS 3.6
DR Low-Rider and Sunbeams