The Who's bassist extraordinaire talks technique versus mystique
How recently have you noticed an improvement in yourself as a bass player?
Up until the album Who's Next, I'd been using a Precision and valve amps, so I got a very twangy sound, and I got into a rut for the first time, and realised I wasn't improving, or learning any new riffs. We'd just done Live At Leeds before that, and I listened to that a lot, it's one of my favourite albums. I liked my performance on it, it was just before I got into this rut.
I changed my bass and my amp, and started playing with my fingers a lot more, and I got out of the rut. I changed to Gibson Thunderbirds and Sunn amps and I found I couldn't play the way I'd been playing, it was impossible to get the same sound and the same feel. I just taught myself to play with the new equipment, and between Who's Next and Quadrophenia, my style had completely changed.
I could still fall back on the old style if I'd wanted to, by using fuzz boxes and treble boosters and stuff like that. I found the new style much easier to play, and I could play faster.
Did you find the rest of the band turning around to you and saying 'That's not the way you used to sound, we'll have to change to...'?
Oh, yeah, I think that's when they first noticed that I was starting to improve. Since then, if ever I find myself stuck in a rut, I sit down and try to play in a different way.
Since then. I've been playing with so many different musicians, my style changes, and I haven't been stuck.
What other instruments do you play?
I started off on the French Horn and trumpet, and I played piano before that.
Did you have a good ear?
Yeah, I used to get my mother to play the piece first and then I copied that.
Were you one of these people who someone could come up to and whistle something, and you could find it quite quickly?
No, not on piano. I can pick up stuff on bass quite rapidly. Once I've played a song twice, I know it. That's a bit of a drag, because I find that other people take a little bit longer to learn it, and by the time they've caught up with you, you're starting to make mistakes.
So you started on piano...
Yeah, when I was about seven, and then I went on to trumpet and French Horn about ten. I was in a semi-professional dance band by the time I was 12, in an oversized dress suit playing 'Carolina Moon'.
These days, what do you play? What do you pick up when you go home?
I hardly ever play the trumpet, I used to pick that up at recording sessions, play brass with the Who, when Tommy came out. I don't sort of overstep myself, I know what I'm capable of. If I'm asked to play a solo, I have to work it out first, but as far as my arrangements are concerned, I think I've got a bit of a knack for knowing what the Who need. They don't need complicated brass arrangements, they need block chords, and that's the way I play.
Do you have to keep your lip in?
No, I don't. I suppose I've surprised a few brass players by picking it up and playing straight away. I suppose it's determination with me, I just pick the instrument up and play it. In fact, I leave my brasses for about six months and whenever I have to play them, I get them out a day before and oil them up, because they've seized up.
If we went into a studio and for some strange reason, you had to play some brass parts for an hour, would it exhaust you physically?
No. When I did the finale for Tommy, it took me two days to do a 32-piece brass section, trombones, mellaphonias, trumpets, bass trombones — I played the trombones first with a big mouth piece, and then switched to trumpet. With the trombone, you tend to wear out the outside muscles, where with the trumpet you wear out the middle, and then you have a half-hour break and you go back and do it again.
I need ten minute breaks because my lip doesn't last that long. If I'm doing a trumpet part, I can only do it about five times before my lip goes. But it doesn't particularly worry me, in recording.
I don't have any breath problems unless I'm playing euphonium or tuba. On tuba I play a two-second note and that's my lot!
What about ordinary six-string guitar, or keyboards, do you play them?
I have a collection of about 40, but I can't really play them that well. I can pick out single notes and tunes, but as far as chords are concerned, only the basic chords.
What started you collecting guitars?
I was always a window shopper with guitars, I used to walk around with my nose pressed to the windows, praying I'd be able to afford one. Once I could afford a guitar, I bought another one, and started collecting them because I liked the look of them and I liked the sound and I just wanted to possess them. I've got about 20 really old ones, going back to 1954 — Gibson Violins and Les Paul Juniors, an Explorer, a Les Paul Junior Custom. I keep them in pretty good condition, I have them replated and re-finished.
Who does all your guitar work for you?
Peter Cook. He used to make the Ned Callan guitars and then he started making custom guitars, and he made some of my custom basses for stage. He's really good.
When you're in the States, do you still pick up instruments?
Oh yeah. I'm still waiting for a couple of guitars to come over, another Explorer, and there's another one I'm after, called a Gibson Moderne.
Do you get as much pleasure from playing bass as you do from playing ordinary guitar or brass?
Yeah, I enjoy playing bass because I know I'm good at it. A lot of people have told me I'm good, and the more people who tell me I'm good, the better I get. The only trouble with me is that I find it very easy to play bass. Therefore, on stage, it looks as if I'm not doing anything. I'm not wiggling my eyebrows and straining — I don't need to strain to play figures.
A lot of people said that when I played with Ox — they couldn't believe it until they heard me playing with another band — they realised how much I contributed to the Who. If you looked at the Who on stage, you'd think I wasn't doing a thing.
What steps have you taken to get around the limits that come after playing for so long, limits both within yourself and in the style of music?
Well, I've had some special guitars made, because with the Who, there's a lot of high, melodic bass work to do, and my main bugbear with basses at the moment is that they go from low E to E flat, which is completely useless.
The only high key you can really play in is either C or D, or you could go right up. What I'm doing now is having basses made with four extra frets, so I can get two octaves on each string, and go right up to high G.
I've also had a six-string bass made with a wide neck.
How did you get used to these extra two strings?
It was pretty difficult, actually. It's easier if you take up a lead figure solo, and you know you can work an octave higher, but I tune the top two strings to C and F — B and E are no use to me at all, they're for chords and shapes.
The main trouble is when you're in the key of A or D and you find yourself going to the wrong string.
A lot of bass players are saying that today they get a great deal more penetration than they used to, that they're actually throwing a hell of a lot of sound out, and hearing very little on stage. Is this a problem that you've found — that although your monitoring is good, you're also quite loud?
No, with the Sunn set-up I use on stage, I have normal pressurised cabinets so I can hear it on stage. I've got long throw bins as well, I double up on everything. I want a good sound on stage, and I want to sort of push it out. The problem is that I have to use four amps to do that. I'm starting to use Olympic pre-amps. I was thinking about using Crown amps with the Sunns, because there's slightly more treble on them, and they're just easier to use, you can use slave amps. They're stereo, all you have to use is two of those and two stereo amps instead of messing around with four different sets of stacks.
Was it difficult when you went on your own to fulfil a different sort of function, to be a different sort of bass player?
I didn't really change my bass playing at all. I split my equipment in half, I had to simplify it a bit because I was singing as well. But I found myself without the other members of the Who. The drummer I had was really brilliant, Graham Deakin, and I know the organist was good, because people told me, but I never heard him! I felt the guitarist we had was the wrong kind of guitarist, I wanted a lot of sustain. I found myself taking over all the solos. I broke the band up when I got back from the States. I was hitting head on with the lead guitarist, and it didn't work.
Would you like to put another little group together?
Yeah, but I think there would be a few changes. I'd have to use people who went with me. In the last band, if I did anything different, they would be dumbfounded. If I turned my volume up, they would all look around and wonder 'Why did he do that, instead of turning their volume up.
I found that very difficult, because in the Who we do that automatically.
Do you find that you've been working with them for so long that you tend to know what's going to happen before someone actually does it?
Yeah, but I wouldn't say it was telepathy. To a certain extent, it all revolves around the bass player and the drummer, and that part of Ox was really working out.
The relationship between the drummer and bass player is obviously among the most important in a group. Is it something you've always had with Keith Moon, or did you have to work at it?
Well, I had to work very hard. Moon must be the hardest drummer in the world to work with. You haven't just got a normal bass drum beat. When he plays the drums, he plays them all at once. You've got such a wide choice of riffs to play. Once he gets going and goes into a break, you've got to go with him, otherwise, you disappear. I suppose that forced me to work on my speed. I ended up using four fingers on my right hand instead of just one.
Was that the only way you could get the speed to stay with him?
Yeah, well, with a plectrum — I think that's what first put me in a rut. There's a lot of picking you can do, but it doesn't necessarily have any bass foundation. I started using my fingers again. I'd used my fingers right at the beginning, and we'd been doing a lot of numbers like 'Happy Jack'. Once we got out of the Tommy thing, I found I could use my fingers and play a lot faster, as well as playing rhythmic figures by sort of slapping and plucking and playing double notes, varying my technique.
Do you ever get into a sort of 'duel' with Moon, where you're playing a part that you both know and you're playing away, and all of a sudden he does something and you say 'He shouldn't have done that, sod him'?
Moon's got this double bass drum, snare drum, tom-tom roll sort of thing that he keeps on going into that — it's like you don't know what's hit you.
Do you ever throw something in that will muck him up?
I've done a few things that make him laugh, a few sort of funky chicken things.
With that much flexibility, it must be a very strong relationship.
Yeah, but sometimes if the sound isn't exactly happening on stage, if you've got something peculiar like a big, hollow stage or a high ceiling, I find myself drifting back to the cabinet, just watching his bass drum, because I have no idea where he is. Sometimes I just have to stop playing and wait until I can pick it up. Sometimes we all have to stop playing.
When you're playing live, do you follow him or do you hold it down yourself?
Once I get an idea of the beat he's playing — I play along. I've started using one of Keith's cabinets on my side, and that really helps a lot, but sometimes it's so deafening, I have to turn the cabinet away.
The worst thing that can happen is when I have to stop playing, but that only usually happens when we do free form stuff, which is adaptable. If I stop playing, Keith knows that the riff is lost, and he'll start another one.
Do you have any disagreements about getting parts together?
No, not at all. We all more or less get a free hand unless it interferes with the feel.
How readily do you and Pete understand each other in musical terms?
I don't know, I don't think we particularly need to. I know what he needs for the song, and I play it, I seldom make a mistake in interpretation on bass, but if I do, he tells me, and if he makes a mistake in interpreting one of my songs, I tell him. It happens very rarely.
Do you play an instrument every day of your life?
Not every day. There are some days when I don't want to see one, when I'm not interested. I find that whenever I go into my studio now, I play a bit of bass, just to keep my hand in. I spend most of the time doing solo projects and things like that.
Most of the time when I go into the studios now I fiddle about with the synthesisers. I've been into synthesisers for quite a few years now.
What kind of synthesisers do you have?
An ARP Soloist, and an ARP Explorer, an ARP Odyssey, an ARP 2600, a Mini-Moog, two String Thing Synthesisers, and a couple of digital sequencers.
What do you feel you'd like to do now, as far as projects go?
Well, at the moment I'm playing big boy's Monopoly — buying a house. We're doing a Who album, we've done about nine tracks and we've got about five to go.
Are you happy with the way it's turning out?
Yeah, it's getting better.
Every one of your albums in the past five years has been like a milestone. Do you feel the pressure is on to do not just a good album, but to do an amazing album?
No, I don't really believe that. Who's Next wasn't particularly a milestone for us, but it was something fresh. Actually, I resent being put in that position in a way. I want nothing more than just to be a normal band, it's the legend that's put us there now.
This album is another Who's Next, in fact, it's more basic than that, it's more like A Quick One While He's Away, a cross between that and Who's Next. It's songs, and that's it.
If the public want another concept album, they'll have to wait another two years. We haven't got two years to wait, we want an album out and we want to tour.
I get the impression that it hasn't gone 100 per cent smoothly.
Well, there were a lot of arrangements to be made, and Keith had to come over from Los Angeles, and it seems that every time we work in our own studio, the company almost goes bankrupt. We had to pull out of our own studio and use Shepperton and the mobile. But it seems to be working very well. We also had to have a three-week break, for a couple of reasons. Keith had to go back to L.A. to arrange somewhere to live, and Glyn Johns, the producer, had to work on another album.
It must be difficult for you to use Los Angeles now.
Not really, it's not as far as everybody thinks.
Do you have any trouble keeping fit?
No, most of the time I'm just ticking over, I conserve my energy. To my wife and the people close to me, it must seem like I'm lazy, but I suppose it's just conserving my energy for when it's needed.
In fact, I feel worse when I feel fit, I have to feel rundown in able to work properly, it's the norm for me.
After the album, what will you be doing?
Well, we've got a holiday period coming, and I'm going to Los Angeles for a week and then to Hawaii. After that, we'll be going straight into rehearsals and then do some English and European gigs, and then a double three week tour of the States.
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