HAS IT REALLY BEEN OVER 20 YEARS
since Stu Hamm burst onto the scene with
two game-changing solo albums and a sideman
credit on Steve Vai’s landmark disc Passion
and Warfare [Relativity/Epic, 1989]? It sure has,
and many of the techniques Hamm pioneered and
advanced—polyphonic two-hand tapping, chordal
slapping, and much more—are now a repertoire staple
of today’s more adventurous players. What’s left to do?
Stu answers the question with a veteran’s authority and an
explorer’s musicality on his first new studio release
in ten years, Just Outside of Normal. There’s plenty
of boundary-pushing technique (including something
new called “counter-sliding harmonic chords”),
and there’s an obligatory boogie called “The
Obligatory Boogie,” but the disc
is balanced with moments of quiet
reflection and real beauty.
“I’ve played a
lot of high-octane,
guitar-driven rock instrumental
music over the years,
so I am happy to make records that
explore other sides of my musical tastes,”
says Hamm, now 50. “I may have mellowed a
bit. I certainly allow my compositions more time to
develop.” He’s also not afraid to let his sidemen—if you
call Joe Satriani and Frank Gambale sidemen—take the
spotlight for extended periods of time.
Stu’s trademark humor is present, as well.
What other bass hero would cover “The
Clarinet Polka”? (“After enduring years of
folks hollering ‘play a polka!’ I decided to
finally give the devil his due,” Stu explains.)
He’s serious about staying busy, though.
His trackbystu.com home-session business
is kicking, he’s constantly traveling for gigs
and clinics, his latest instructional video, Fretboard
Fitness [Trufire TV], came out in October,
and he’s still hustling and playing “regular bass” like
the rest of us—even if it sometimes takes a little yoga to
help his body keep up with his fingers.
In terms of your own playing, what were
some of the new challenges you gave yourself
on this disc?
I used more basses and experimented
with a wider variety of tones. There’s also
a lot of layering—adding doubled tracks
on different basses as the songs progress
so that flow of the song will build organically.
“Lucidity,” “Uniformitarianism,” and
the intro to “Windsor Mews” have layers
of basses, and it was a challenge to find
the right tone and mix placement for each
so they would all blend together.
I feel an obligation to come up with
new techniques, or feel that my audience
will expect something new, and the sliding
harmonics on “Windsor Mews” and
“Uniformitarianism” attempt to reach that
goal. And you get your slap/pop/tappy fix
on “The Clarinet Polka.”
There’s a lot of stylistic diversity. What
do you want to convey to someone listening
to the whole album?
With this CD I’m attempting to create
an interesting 50-minute musical ride. I
am all for listening to great musicians strut
their stuff, but when an album is only
about the playing, and the instrumentation
or sonic vibe doesn’t change from
track to track, I sometimes lose interest.
I hope that there are enough twists and
turns on this road to keep the listener
engaged, interested, amused, and moved
for the time that they are giving me.
What was the inspiration for the big-band
swing tune “Big Roller”?
I did a two-year stint in a San Francisco
show called Teatro ZinZanni; I’ve
done many things in my career, but if you
ever told me that one day I would be playing
a duet with Joan Baez in a Belgian
circus tent, I never would have believed
you! The band played so many different
styles of music, and it was hilarious to
watch acrobats try to act and sing every
night. I wrote this piece to feature every
member of the band when we played it as
the last song of the evening. The idea was
to write five different lines that could each
stand alone, but when added together
would create a sum greater than their parts.
I met drummer Stanton Moore in the U.K.
when I saw him play with his trio, and was
blown away. He took the song in a whole
new direction with his [New Orleans] second-
line business, something I had never
envisioned when I wrote the song. But
that’s why you hire cats like that to play—
to add their individual stamp to the music.
Where did you get the idea to cover
Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” and
how does it lay out on the bass?
[Guitarist and Guitar Player Los Angeles
Editor] Jude Gold invited me to play at
a benefit concert, and this was one the songs
we played with a singer. At one rehearsal
the song broke down and I kept it going
with a pattern of harmonics that seemed to
fit the mood of the piece, which has always
been one of my favorite Zep tunes. I’ve
played it for a few years as a solo piece, and
it kept evolving into what it is now.
I flip my Hipshot Xtender down to an
open D, and the bass sits perfectly for the
main harmonic groove of D to G. The
melody is played high up on the neck on
the D string, with the open G ringing and
acting as a drone. Behind Mark McGee’s
beautiful slide solo are four bass tracks:
the main low groove, a track of sliding
harmonic chords that lead into and sustain
each chord change, and two tracks
of counter-motion harmonic patterns
panned hard left and right.
Tell us about your new Washburn signature
basses. It’s your first new main bass
in over 20 years, right?
I had been playing Washburn acoustics
for a few years before we decided together
to design a modified version that had an
adjustable bridge. Without being able to
adjust the string height to get the correct
action—and being able to intonate it so an
A chord at the 5th fret will be in tune with
an A chord at the 17th fret—I couldn’t really
do my thing on the axe. I was impressed
by the quality of the Washburn AB-40SH,
and with its main designer, Terry Atkins.
I started having ideas about what I would
like to see on an electric other than what
I was playing at the time, and “The
Hammer” is what we have come up with.
I had a chance meeting with Rob Turner
of EMG Pickups in an elevator in Sweden,
and I went to the factory to check out some
of his new EMG X pickups. We worked
together to develop the new pickup configuration,
which was a challenge … we
had to figure out a way to give all three
pickups—the piezo in the bridge, the JX
near the bridge, and the soapbar near the
neck—unique, usable tones that wouldn’t
cancel or phase each other out when used
in combination. They’re so sensitive to
dynamics that there are a ton of new sounds
that I’m able to coax out of the instrument.
Also, the tension on my new bass feels
much lighter, which means I can play with
a softer touch, and when I do really lay
into the strings, I get a snappy finger tone
that I have never gotten before.
In your view, what does it take to have
a 20-year career in music, especially in
terms of doing what you do?
Well, I got my first bass for Christmas in
1973, so that means I have been playing for
38 years—wow—and making my living at it
since the early ’80s. To borrow Tom Lehrer’s
line, it’s depressing to think that when Mozart
was my age, he had been dead for 16 years.
You really have to have a passion for what
you do, and the belief and trust in your own
talents to endure the lean times. There is a
satisfaction to being your own boss and
“doing it your way,” but there are highs and
lows in any career, so you have to have the
vision to think ahead when things are slow.
If you could go back in time and tell your
25-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
I wish that I had discovered yoga years
before I did. Doing yoga has helped me
become aware of my body’s moods and
needs, and is a real help as a stress killer
on the road and in everyday life. I am
going through some shoulder issues that
are playing-related, so being aware of
things like the Alexander Technique, keeping
loose, and strengthening the other
areas of my body make the pain manageable.
But I think that if I had become
aware of these issues earlier in my life, I
might have been able to prevent some of
If you could go forward in time 25 years
and find yourself, what would you hope to
A healthy, happy life for my daughter.
What’s Donald Fagan’s line from his song
“IGY”? “More leisure time for artists
everywhere.” That would be nice. I certainly
hope to be playing and being
creative and continuing to learn and grow
as a musician and bass player, and recording
and touring. I would say that I’m lucky
to do what I love for a living, but more
than luck it has been hard work, determination,
and perseverance that has gotten
me this far—so I will try to live in the
moment and keep on keepin’ on.
HEAR HIM ON
Stu Hamm, Just Outside
of Normal [UbikMusik,
Smith, The Best of GHS [Tone Center,
2009]; Stu Hamm, Live Stu x 2 [Ubik-
Musik, 2007]; Stu Hamm, Outbound
[Favored Nations, 2000]
Basses Prototype Washburn
“Hammer” signature model, Washburn
acoustic AB-40SH (fretted
and fretless), fretless Fender Urge II, shortscale
Fender Urge (with piccolo strings)
Rig Hartke 5500 head, two Hartke 4x10
HyDrive cabs, Evidence cables
Effects DigiTech BNX3 multi-effects
Studio “A close mic, a few room mics,
and a line out of my Hartke head”
Strings GHS Boomers (.045–.105, Long
Scale); GHS piccolos; GHS black tape
nylon (for fretless)