Stu Hamm: The Bass Master Finds an Urban Groove
Thump. Some people got it, some don’t and bass master Stuart Hamm has thump and then some. Even in a lower register, Hamm can humble even the most advanced six-string soloist.
But with his latest release, Outbound (on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label), Hamm relies more on melody and the urban grooves he has absorbed since moving to San Francisco three years ago than he does on the sheer virtuosic bombast of his earlier days. (Of course long-time fans needn’t fear that he has abandoned that kind of wicked outrageousness altogether.)
In this in-depth interview with Guitar.com, the sometimes Joe Satriani and Steve Vai sideman delivers a solid look beneath the surface of his latest opus, explaining the why’s, how’s and heretofore’s of his style, his inspirations, his writing, and his home-life.
Guitar.com: In the songs on Outbound, do you play around a lot with changing modes and things of that nature? Is there a general mode that you play in?
Hamm: No, they're all different. I mean obviously a lot of them are. I’m a big Lydian fan, obviously. That’s my daughter’s middle name - the song ‘Lydian (just enough for the City)’ is obviously in Lydian. I love the sharp-four [chord or scale step]. ‘A Better World’ is like the first totally minor key song that I’ve written. And I just try to make them all different because there’s a lot of instrumental records of players that I admire, but when you buy the record it’s kind of like, ‘Well, the bass plays the melody and then plays a solo and then every song has the same instrumentation on it.’ And it’s nice to listen to. It’s just not so interesting after awhile. So on this record, I actually tried to have some solo pieces, different sounding pieces, and different ups and downs so you could put the record on and enjoy listening to it from start to finish.
Guitar.com: What is it about the Lydian mode and the sharp-four that you like so much?
Hamm: You know, I don’t know. It just gives a little life to things. It makes the major scale a little brighter sounding and it’s a little discordant to some ears. But to me it sounds beautiful. To be honest it’s pretty challenging music, like some kind of 20th Century music, some John Adams and Alfred Snitchken type stuff, you know. So I have an ear for dissonance. And it’s just a nice voice. I just love it. It gets me going.
Guitar.com: Would you tell me real quick what the chord progression is in ‘Lydian (just enough for the City)’’.
Hamm: It’s C Lydian to a D major. So it’s a C major scale with an F#, and then the bridge goes up to a descending line starting in F natural. So that kind of shifts the ear from hearing an F#, then it goes to the F natural. So the main soloing is just shifting back between those two chords or modes, which are C Lydian and D Mixolydian, which is actually the same scale. And then the bridge, like I said, just goes up to the natural four and goes down chromatically.
Guitar.com: And with the various techniques that you use, the double-stop techniques and chordal techniques and all that, how do you find a way to put all those things in’ Do you not use some of them at times?
Hamm: You know people say I’m a technical player. The only reason you’d use these techniques is to get the music out. I mean I started tapping because there’s a lot of solo pieces that I’ve heard on piano, and I wanted to play on the bass but I just couldn’t figure out a way to do them. That’s how I really came up with or got the technique of tapping, and doing stuff like that. And the technique just really allows me to make the music that’s in my head. You don’t practice scales so you can play fast or anything. You do it so you can communicate the emotions. I’m certainly not writing a song as an attempt to be flashy. And there’s some songs where the bass is playing a pretty normal bass line; there’s other ones where it’s pretty hyperactive. I just try to write for the music’s sake.
Guitar.com: You also write on piano?
Hamm: Oh absolutely, yeah. I mean I played piano when I was younger and had this synthesizer. And I just noodled around, played some of the keys on the records. When you're trying to find a bridge for a song or something, sometimes it's a good way to just get your writing chops up in a different perspective. You know, try it on piccolo bass, or keyboards, just to see what you can come up with.
Guitar.com: How well do you actually play keyboards?
Hamm: Poorly. I was young when I studied. I can just block out chords and play counter lines and stuff like that, but I can’t play through changes or anything.
Guitar.com: But it’s just the exercise of getting off of your main instrument to a different instrument that sometimes inspires you to do different things.
Hamm: Absolutely. I’ll try it on one of my acoustic Washburn basses or one of my piccolo basses just to try to get a different perspective on the whole thing. If it’s a melody, I’ll try writing a melody on piccolo, on bass, on different keyboard sounding patches, just to see what I can come up with.
Guitar.com: What are some of your favorite patches?
Hamm: I use the Oberheim strings a lot. I can’t seem to get away from those, just for pads and stuff like that, which I kind of like with my sound. It’s a really nice, old, analog sound. And that’s my thing.
Guitar.com: When you’re rehearsing on your own, when you’re just practicing, what is a typical rehearsal like for you? What is a typical practice session for you?
Hamm: Well I have a set series of warm-up exercises that I go through that takes about 15 minutes to get my fingers going. And then it really depends. I have a lot of old songs stored on discs and I’ll work on some old songs. And some days I’ll work on sight-reading and pick up some of my old sheet music and work on that. And I always work with a metronome. And what I’ve been doing lately is practicing stuff super, super slowly, ‘cause a lot of things are actually harder to play slowly than they are quickly, especially something like a tapping and classical piece. And I find that when I practice super slowly ‘I mean painfully slowly,’ it really strengthens the fingers and just really aids the precision. I mean I’ve got this one Debussy piece that I’ve been working on for years, and I’ll start it at like a 100 beats per minute. Then I’ll play at 110, then at 90, then at 120 and 80, and then at 130, and then back to 70. And it’s just super hard, but by the end, you can really feel the strings resonating underneath your fingers.
Guitar.com: Are the exercises that you go through on a daily basis on your Hot Licks instructional videotapes from a few years back?
Hamm: I think some of them are. I haven’t watched those things in so long. But I’ve also expanded those exercises in the length of my career. And as I get older, it takes me longer to get warmed up. But there are some finger stretching exercises and some scales and some two octave scales that I do, and it’s just fun to get my fingers going.
Guitar.com: Do you use those exercises religiously every time you practice?
Hamm: You know, I do, actually. Yeah.
Guitar.com: And it makes a big difference for you?
Hamm: It sure does.
Guitar.com: What kind of new techniques or new styles do you pursue?
Hamm: The techniques and the styles kind of invent themselves as far as what's required for the music I'm trying to write. It's really just the mother of necessity thing, the mother of invention, you know: to try to figure out how do I get this music to be played on the bass. I can't master all the techniques, like the way Abe Laboriel can go up and down and stuff like that. It?s not like I sit down and try to learn this technique, I'm just trying to make the music come across.
Guitar.com: I guess you?re happy with your playing, Stu?
Hamm: Am I happy with my playing? I think I played really well last year, actually. Yeah. I kicked butt on Joe's tour. I think I came up with some really nice stuff on the Outbound album. I kicked butt with the Jagures, this Mexican band I toured with. And on the fusion record with Steve Smith and Frank Gambale, The Light Beyond, I played solos that I thought were really good. And I really just left myself open in that record and came up with some solos, but I tried not to think, just to react. I did some stuff I'm really proud of. It was a really good musical year. If every year I could do a solo record, and a fusion record, and help a big rock tour, that would be pretty cool. That'd be great.
Guitar.com: Were there any songs on Outbound that, before you went in to record the final version you thought, "I don?t know if I'm going to pull this one off?" and it came through for you?
Hamm: Yeah. The song ‘The Memo.’ Chris and Greg weren’t really sold on that one at first. But they ended up loving it. You can never tell what’s going to happen in the studio. You know ‘Further Down Market’ was a thing we came up with and I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure if it’s any good, but some people think it’s the best thing on the record. All that is really subjective, but everything came out great. I mean I’m super happy with it and ‘The Tenacity of Genes and Dreams,’ that was another one that came out really well. It was a real workhorse trying to get that one done. We went through a couple guitar players on that track, but it came out just great. Of all the records I’ve done, I’m really pleased with it. And also just the fact that I trusted myself. And it sounds less like a Satriani record than my other records. A couple of songs are all me ‘ just me on piccolo basses and regular basses, like on ‘The Castro Hustle.’ That is all me and I like that.
Guitar.com: How did the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ come about’ I know you’ve been playing that at some events, right?
Hamm: Yeah, I did. I actually played a Padres and Dodgers game, last weekend. You know I was asked to do a [Golden State] Warriors game years ago so I came up with this version of it. And I put it on the record for a couple reasons: I think the solo playing is a part of what people want to hear on one of my records, and also it’s just a way for me to get free tickets to a packed park and go see the Giants and the A’s. Free tickets to the ball games, so there you go.
Guitar.com: And ‘Charlotte’s Song,’ I know people are probably going to be trying to figure that one out. Can you give us some tips on that one?
Hamm: Well that is a song I wrote for my daughter. I played it for her a couple seconds right after she was born. And that’s played on one of my original Urge basses for Fender with a short-scale, a 32-inch scale. And now my Urge II bass that came out last year, is a full-scale, 34-inch bass. So I have my old short-scale bass, Larry, that now feels teeny now that I’m playing full-scale basses ‘ I have it strung up as a piccolo bass with a drop-D open tuning. And I just played some nice chords, and threw some reverb on it, and it got a nice vibe to it. It’s just mellow. I wrote that when I was thinking about my daughter being born and, you know, she still likes to hear it. And that’s it, just a lot of open tunings on that one.
Guitar.com: What kind of modes and things did you approach this one with?
Hamm: Well that’s pretty tonic. That’s pretty straightedge. So it’s in open-D. I think there’s a few Lydian’s in there, but that’s just pretty much Aeolian. It’s pretty much major scale. There’s a couple flatted sevenths in there towards the end just to kind of build up the anticipation. That was just kind of a simple song for my baby, what can I say?