Cliff Engel's Institute Of Bass

Zander Zon - September 2010

In February 2010, two years after recording and posting his first performance on YouTube, Zander Zon issued his debut production as a solo bassist. Featuring cinematic melodies, expressive soundscapes, and classical to contemporary influences, Sonorous contains a selection of 10 compositions for unaccompanied bass guitar. Before the release of his first solo project, Zon captured the attention of bass enthusiasts around the world and built a massive online audience which resulted from a series of popular solo bass videos on YouTube. On those videos, Zon performed original pieces along with a variety of arrangements spanning from Johann Pachelbel's "Canon In D Major" to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven." Besides showcasing his music through videos that he regularly uploads to his YouTube channel, Zon plays frequently throughout the London area at events ranging from house concerts to legendary venues such as the Troubadour club.

In this interview, Zon discusses his background, Sonorous, altered tunings, composing for solo bass, and more.

When did bass guitar become your principle instrument?

Zander Zon I started playing the bass guitar back in 1999, when I was 17. Before that, I had taken cello lessons for 10 years which I feel very fortunate about. A lot of what I gained from playing the cello, such as hand dexterity, carried over to the bass. I also think that the classical training helped develop my ear. I've never taken bass guitar lessons though, and I first learned how to play by jamming along with my favorite rock bands.

Which bassists have had the most influence on your playing?

Michael Manring and Victor Wooten definitely have had the most influence on me. I was so captivated when I heard how they were able to produce such a full sound with a 4-string bass. I also thought everything about their playing was so musical. To me, fancy playing was never at the forefront with these guys. I felt their techniques were always just tools to help construct music for solo bass.

Can you tell us about, Sonorous, your first project as a solo artist?

My idea for this first project was simply to create melodic music on my 4-string bass with each piece having its own individual identity. The album is dedicated to my father who passed away at the end of 2008 so I think there is a level of sadness in some of the compositions. I also really wanted to try to write music that has a strong emotional impact on people so I hope Sonorous succeeds in that area.

I recorded the album at my home in London using a Smart Research DI Deluxe System, an Apogee Duet, Logic Express, and my MacBook. I wanted all the compositions to sound as good as possible so I wasn't that strict about editing or recording everything in real time. "She Danced" and "Sencilla" contain additional layers with up to four different bass parts while the other eight tracks are composed of single bass parts. It took about a month to record everything and another couple months for mixing, mastering, and finishing the entire package.

Where can people purchase Sonorous?

The main websites are iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby.

What kind of gear do you use?

My bass is a VB4 from Zon Guitars strung with D'Addario piccolo strings which are very light-gauged strings that allow me to tune the instrument over a huge pitch range. Joe Zon makes absolutely phenomenal instruments, and I feel really lucky to be able to play one of his basses. My effects pedal is a Boss GT-10 which has lots of great options.

How did you get started with altered tunings?

I got started with altered tunings just by experimenting. When I first put piccolo strings on my bass, I kept my bass tuned in fourths, but instead of E-A-D-G an octave higher than standard tuning which is just about the highest tuning you can achieve with piccolo strings, I kept my bass at B-E-A-D. Not only did this tuning produce a nice baritone-type sound, but it also provided me with a lot of room to adjust the open strings in either direction. The first real altered tuning piece I composed was "Epic Love." For that piece, all I did was move my third string up a whole step. If my bass was initially tuned B-E-A-D, "Epic Love" would be tuned B-F#-A-D. I was amazed by how much a simple change opened up new possibilities. Apart from experimenting with tunings, I sometimes have a goal in mind. For example, with my composition "Meditation In E," I wanted to have a deep drone to support the higher register melodies I was playing so my fourth string was tuned to a standard E.

Are there particular altered tunings you tend to favor more than others?

Not really, but I do like it when the notes of my open strings are all in the same key the piece of music is in so I can really use them effectively.

When composing music for unaccompanied bass, do you start with an idea or do you experiment until you find something that you like?

If I don't have an idea, I'll experiment until I find something interesting. That's how I started out. Recently, as I listen to other solo artists and analyze solo music, I'll have some ideas and work to find an altered tuning that can help me achieve those goals. I used a different tuning for each piece on Sonorous, but some of my compositions or arrangements have the same tuning.

How do you decide which songs to tackle and which tunings to use when you are arranging a composition for solo bass?

I arrange music that I think has a great melody and also that I think is feasible on my bass. For example, if a song has key changes, I've found it's harder to arrange because I'd eventually have to move away from using open strings as root notes of the chords. I actually tend to stay in standard fourths but usually somewhere from B-E-A-D up to E-A-D-G. I've recently been learning a lot about how to take advantage of standard fourths and have used those intervals with several arrangements such as Pachelbel's "Canon" and "Hallelujah."

Have you ever considered transcribing your solo compositions or arrangements?

Yes, I have. Stuart Clayton has recently transcribed my composition "I, Resolute" for Bassline Publishing's Solo Arrangements For Electric Bass book, and that's made me very interested in the whole process. I'm just so busy these days, and I don't know when I'd fit it all in.

Can you discuss the role of the internet and how YouTube has contributed to your success as a solo bassist?

YouTube has been simply incredible for me, and I feel really lucky that I've been able to build such a following. I uploaded "Epic Love" in early 2008, and the attention that video received really encouraged me to continue composing and arranging new music. I feel so fortunate to live in a day and age when I can put a video of my playing on the internet and share it with people from all over the world. It's just amazing.

Now that you have finished Sonorous, what's next?

I think I would like to start playing live more often. I have a busy job so I'll have to see how that fits in. I also would like to learn how to play fretless bass, and I have been thinking of getting my hands on an acoustic bass to try out some ideas based around percussion. And of course, I'm also thinking about ideas for my next album!

Zander Zon - April 2013

Three years after producing his acclaimed debut as a solo bass guitarist, Zander Zon returned with his second session, Saturn Return, in April 2013. Included on his latest 10-track collection are six new compositions for unaccompanied bass guitar, three orchestrations, as well as an inventive adaptation of Johann Pachelbel's classic Baroque work, "Canon In D." Having emerged only a few years ago through his captivating video performances on YouTube, today Zander is recognized as one of the most notable contemporary solo bassists who continues to explore new sonorities through altered tunings and expand the repertoire of solo bass music.

In this interview, Zander discusses Saturn Return, composing with altered tunings, his future plans, and more.

Can you tell us about the concept of your latest solo project, Saturn Return?

Zander Zon The title refers to the times in a person's life when the planet Saturn returns to the same place in its orbit that it was at when the person was born which occurs roughly every 29 years. Some people believe it also represents a time of important change when significant choices present themselves. This was exactly what I was going through during that time in my life as I was experiencing some really important changes and transitions personally, professionally, and musically. The idea of a Saturn return was something that interested me. Plus, the title seemed to fit in well with this album's pieces as the initial compositional ideas I was working on really changed a lot over time.

How would you compare the tracks on Saturn Return to your prior recording?

With this album, I definitely wanted to show development as a composer and explore different timbres and textures. Along with the seven solo bass pieces, there are also three multi-track orchestrations. On one of the orchestrations, "A Whisper In Time," I'm playing the electric cello, "Music Box" features some piano, and on "Oracles Of Her," I'm using various distortions, echoes, and choruses. As a result, this album probably has more variety of sound than Sonorous. However, like Sonorous, I've aimed to keep the focus on melody. When I compose, most of my energy goes into trying to create melodies that hopefully have an emotional impact on the listener. I'm one of those people that is really drawn to the melody of a song so I really want the melodies I create to be ones that people want to come back to and ones that evoke emotion.

What equipment did you utilize during the recording process?

The instruments I used were my Zon VB4 bass strung with D'Addario piccolo strings (.020, .032, .042, .052), an NS Design electric cello, and a Roland FP-7 electric piano. For recording, I went through a Smart Research DI box into my Apogee Duet and into Logic. For the effects on "Oracles Of Her," I used my Boss GT-10 pedalboard, and for the reverb on all three orchestrations, I created the parameters using ArtsAcoustic. For the reverbs on the solo bass pieces, my mastering engineer used an amazing unit called the TC Electronic Reverb 6000.

Did you employ a different tuning for each composition?

I didn't use a different tuning for every track but almost every track. Even though I was using altered tunings, most of the tunings were actually transpositions of standard tuning because they were still in fourths.

My track-by-track tunings, from lowest string to highest, are:
"October Starlight" - G-D-B-D
"Chimes" - C-A-C-E
"A Whisper In Time" - D-G-C-F
"Heartbeat Lyrics" - B-E-A-D
"Elements" - E-A-C-E
"Oracles Of Her" - A-D-G-C
"Canon In D" - B-E-A-D
"Kinetic" - Db-Gb-B-E
"Music Box" - Bb-Eb-Ab-Db
"Constellation" - C-F-Bb-Eb

Where can your recordings as a solo artist be purchased?

They can be purchased at iTunes, Amazon, or CD Baby. If you'd like the physical CD, please visit Bassline Publishing.

How do altered tunings influence the way you compose and play bass?

Altered tunings greatly expand the possibilities. By tuning your bass in different ways, you can play chords and harmonics and create sounds that otherwise would not be possible. Altered tunings allow you to not have to think about compositions a certain way. There isn't a set way of going about it because your tunings can always change. Each time you're in a new altered tuning, something opens up and the creative potential changes.

To bassists interested in experimenting with altered tunings, what would you recommend to get started?

I'd recommend just changing the tuning of one string. For example, drop the E-string down to D or C. After exploring that, keep the E-string on C and drop your D-string to C. Start off with small changes to individual strings and then go from there. With even minor changes, it can really make a difference to the types of chords and harmonics you're able to play. I'd also recommend trying out open tunings where each open string is in the key that you are playing in such C-G-C-G if you're in the key of C or G. The possibilities really open up because every open string can be utilized.

Do you follow any particular process to familiarize yourself with a new altered tuning and figure out where specific notes are located?

I mainly just experiment with the tuning. I try not to think about rules or theory too much and think mainly about what is sounding best. I'll probably start off by hearing what the harmonic chords sound like at the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th frets. I might then try to figure out the hand shapes for different chords with my lowest open string then my second lowest open string and so on. It's basically a combination of trying different shapes and patterns but also having an idea of what type of sound you're looking for.

Are there any plans to release a book of transcriptions for the new tracks similar to your last release, Sonorous?

I have had a couple discussions with Stuart Clayton, the owner of Bassline Publishing, about this. Nothing is currently planned, but there might be something happening further down the line.

Besides playing solo shows, do you ever play standard bass parts with any bands?

At the moment, composing and recording solo bass is my main interest and passion. Plus, it's all I really have time for.

Now that Saturn Return has been released, what do you have planned for the rest of 2013?

I'm going to be making YouTube videos for all the compositions on the album. Plus, I want to continue improving on the cello and start composing on fretless bass as well.

Selected Discography

Saturn Return
Solo Recordings
Saturn Return

Holiday Rumblings - Songs Of The Season By Zon Artists

Cliff Engel's Institute Of Bass

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