IN HIS EARLY 20s, JOSEPH KARNES
was stuck in Los Angeles traffic when he
had an epiphany. He had been juggling a
steady flow of music gigs with a few acting
auditions, but as he sat at a red light on this
particular day, he realized that playing bass
was all he really wanted to do. He immediately
went home to woodshed, setting in motion a
chain of events that lead to gigs with Colin
Hay, Five For Fighting, Desktop Rulers, and
John Cale. Most recently, Karnes has been
holding it down with high-energy R&B/soul
revivalists Fitz & the Tantrums.
Karnes, raised by a bass-playing dad,
grew up listening to legends such as James
Jamerson and George Porter Jr. When his
friend Ethan Phillips asked him to sub a few
times in Fitz & the Tantrums, he jumped at
the chance, and when Phillips decided to
move on after recording the band’s 2010
breakout, Pickin’ Up the Pieces [Dangerbird],
Karnes’ vintage sound made him a perfect
fit for the Tantrums’ old-school approach.
What’s it like playing in a band with no guitars?
When I first joined, I didn’t think of it
in terms of that, but later on, I tripped out
about the fact that I was the only string
instrument. It made me listen to the horns
more—and the band as a whole—to see what
everyone was doing and which melodies I
could jump on and off.
Do you play the lines straight, or do you
change them up?
In the heat of the moment, I get in a zone
and play what feels best. One of the biggest
factors is how big the stage is. If there’s a
big stage, I’m going to move around more,
and I might stick closer to the original bass
parts. But if it’s a smaller stage and I’m stuck
in the corner, I’ll focus more on my playing
and probably play more notes.
There are echoes of James Jamerson in
your playing. Is he a big influence?
When I began playing bass, Jamerson was
the first guy I gravitated toward. Sometimes,
his lines sound busy, but if you break it down,
he’s playing about half the notes you think
you hear—it’s all in his note placement. His
high notes carry over, and his groove is relaxed.
I always strive for.
How do you get your
The main bass I’ve
been playing this year
is my 1969 P-Bass with
flatwounds. Flats give me
that warm, old-school
tone that does so well
with this type of music.
For slow songs, I’ll palm
mute and play with my
thumb, because that gives
a dubby, upright kind
of sound. When you’re
playing the upright, you
have to dig in; if you
apply that approach to
electric bass, you can
get a really funky tone.
What can we expect
the next album to sound
We’ve definitely been
feeling the Motown-meets-’80s sound, but
that’s evolving, too. I’ve been using a pick
to get an almost punk tone, and then I’ll
switch basses and play with my fingers to
get a deep dub sound.
How do you approach writing bass lines?
I always think in terms of fundamentals.
Some songs require me to be in a supportive
role, some songs need the bass to be out
front, and some songs need a signature bass
part. I always try to bring a signature bass
line to the table. I like lines that repeat, like
ostinatos that are perfectly stated.
HEAR HIM ON
Basses 1969 Fender Precision Bass,
Fender ’62 Reissue Precision Bass, 1969
Fender Jazz Bass, 1950s Kay upright,
1967 Fender Mustang Bass
Rig Aguilar DB 750 head and DB 410 cab;
Aguilar Tone Hammer 350 head and GS
Holy Grail reverb,
Boss PQ-3B Bass Parametric EQ, Éclair
Engineering Evil Twin tube DI
Strings D’Addario Chromes flatwounds
and XL roundwounds (.050–.105)
Picks Planet Waves Medium