Below the stage inside New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, Richard Hammond sits in front of his bass command center and readies the evening performance of the hit show Hamilton. Unable to see the actors and action above, he’ll have only a small video monitor to keep an eye on the band’s conductor as he grooves his way through the book of 51 tunes that make up this acclaimed hip-hop-meets-show-tunes musical about Alexander Hamilton. Whether he’s reaching for the rack of electric basses to his right, leaning forward to funk out on the two-octave keyboard in front of him, or getting up from his chair to play the upright to his left, Hammond will busily cover a lot of musical ground over the next two and a half hours, and he’ll execute it all perfectly. The 48-year-old New Zealand native, who began his American bass journey more than two decades ago at Berklee College of Music, might be found on any given night playing jazz standards with Patti Austin or doubling for a dose of R&B with Joan Osborne, but on this night Hammond is hammering out his deep tones in the pit of Broadway’s hottest show.
What has been the biggest challenge for you on this gig?
I think the most challenging thing is honing one’s mental state so as to bring it with the same level of intent, accuracy, and musical integrity on a nightly basis. It’s tricky when you’re playing pretty much exactly the same thing with very little variation; it requires a ton of discipline and awareness. I’m fortunate that the musical material we’re dealing with is so great, and that I’m surrounded by such an amazing rhythm section. That helps the process immensely.
How did you go about designing your setup for the pit?
I wanted to create something that would first and foremost be straightforward to use, but also had as many fail-safes built in as possible. Because there’s so little downtime in the show, if something goes wrong with anything in my [mixing] board, there has to be an immediate solution, hence there being two separate switchers/loops, and the “nuclear option”: bypassing the board altogether and going straight into the Avalon U5.
Your main bass in Hamilton is the Bass Mods Nate Phillips model.
It’s a great axe. I was playing a jazz festival with Patti Austin, and Gerald Albright’s band was playing beforehand, and the rhythm section was killing it—but I couldn’t see who was playing bass. When we were switching the stage over, the bass player and I chatted. Turned out it was Nate Phillips, who is someone I’ve listened to forever. He’s a total gentleman and we spoke about the bass he was playing—it’s a great-sounding instrument that comes with an Aguilar pre and Delano pickups, and really importantly it’s Plek’d [put through an automated setup process] before it’s sent out, so fingerboard-wise it plays perfectly out of the box. For the price point it’s hard to beat.
What have been some of your personal highlights during the Hamilton run so far?
It’s been an embarrassment of riches in terms of highlights. Meeting President Obama and the First Lady and performing at the White House was unforgettable, as was performing live on the Grammys. Meeting Paul McCartney and Bill Clinton within a couple of days of each other was pretty cool, as well.
What were the sessions like recording the Hamilton album?
Really fun. On top of being one of the best piano players I’ve worked with and a brilliant arranger, Alex Lacamoire’s organizational abilities are exceptional. We plowed through a huge amount of material in a short amount of time. We have a crazy-good band, and everyone was at the top of their game over those couple of days.
You regard Will Lee as one of your biggest bass influences.
Yeah, it’s all Will’s fault! When I was first learning to play in this tiny remote little town in New Zealand, my music teacher, Ray Palmer, gave me Spyro-Gyra’s record Freetime to check out. The bass playing blew my mind—just straight-up mean, confident, and grooving. At age 12 I had no clue what was good and what wasn’t; I was just drawn to what Will was doing. I went back and checked it out recently after not having listened to it in 30 years, and yup—still super-badass. It doesn’t get any better than Will.
Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording [2015, Atlantic]; Joan Osborne, Love and Hate [2014, eOne]; Billy Porter, Billy’s Back on Broadway [2014, Concord]
Basses Bass Mods Nathaniel Phillips Signature Model 5-string with DR Strings Highbeams (.045–125), Lakland Skyline hollowbody strung with DR Strings Flatwound Legends (.045–105), e-size German plywood roundback bass circa 1960 with Pirastro Evah Pirrazi strings (orchestral gauge), Callowhill “Hammy” RH signature model shortscale 4-string, Callowhill OBS 5-string
Amps Aguilar DB 751, Aguilar Tone Hammer 500
Cabinets Aguilar GS 410 (x2), Aguilar SL 112 (x2)
Keyboard Arturia Analog Experience The Player MIDI keyboard controller
Pedalboard Radial Engineering BigShot I/O Selector Switch (modded), Fulltone Supatrem, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe (x2), Danelectro Cool Cat Bass Chorus, Lehle Little Lehle True Bypass Effects Loop Switcher, MXR MC-403 power supply, Voodoo Labs switcher, Aguilar Tone Hammer DI (x4), Custom passive volume control by Tom Urwin, Avalon U5 DI, Boss TU-3 Chromatic Pedal Tuner (x2)