THE ACOUSTIC BASS IS ENJOYING A LARGER
role in popular music than at any time since the birth of its
younger brother, the bass guitar. The hybridization of such
styles as bluegrass and swing into the mainstream, coupled
with players of diverse backgrounds, have set the stage for a
pop upright hero to one day rival the legends of the classical
and jazz worlds. Except that the archetype already exists:
Tony Garnier has been doling out deep end on his doghouse
for chart-toppers since his early-’70s stint with Asleep At
The Wheel. Most notably along the way, he has become a
keen interpreter of song for Bob Dylan. Indeed, 38 bassists
appeared on Dylan albums before Tony came onboard; in the
25 years since, no others have. Garnier has a gift for putting
emotional weight into each note he plays, while seemingly
drawing his bass lines from the same muse that inspired the
songs he’s supporting—listen to Dylan’s “Cold Irons Bound”
or Lucinda Williams’ “Lonely Girls.” A true root renaissance
man, Tony is a walking textbook of bass history and methodology,
whose passion extends beyond four strings. He’s
also an amateur pugilist, an avid motorcyclist, and an aficionado
of the culinary arts—his gumbo recipe appeared in
the New York Times.
Tony Garnier was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on May
10, 1955, to a musical family. His mom taught piano and
played organ in church, while his dad, a carpenter, sang in
local opera and musicals, and his grandfather, trumpeter Papa Garnier, led the Camelia Brass Band in New Orleans and taught a
young Louis Armstrong. Along with his seven siblings—including
his brother, noted Creole fiddler D’Jalma—Tony was given
music lessons early on, choosing clarinet at age eight. Two years
later the family moved to Southern California, and Tony took
up guitar, only to be coaxed by his brother to switch to a Gibson
Kalamazoo KB bass guitar when he was 12. Soon after, his mother
got him a plywood Epiphone upright, and his junior high school
music teacher showed him how to hold a bow and read bass clef.
Eager to play, Garnier immersed himself in rock cover bands,
jazz and Latin big bands, musical-theater pit bands, and bluegrass
and jug bands, while gathering such disparate influences as Ray
Brown, Israel Crosby, Rick Danko, James Jamerson, Bob Moore, and
Roger Bush—the first person he saw slap on an upright. Moving
to the Bay Area to attend U.C. Berkeley as a poly sci major, he was
soon gigging so much that his grades lagged. He studied with Ron
McClure, who turned him onto the Simandl method and got his
fingering and technique together. After opening for Asleep At The
Wheel with a bluegrass band, he bought and wore out the group’s
debut album, only to find out a few months later that they needed
a bassist. Although he was “a little weak on country shuffles” at
his audition, the group decided to teach him on the tour bus, and
he left school to pursue his musical dreams.
In 1974, Asleep relocated to Austin, Texas, where Garnier
recorded four albums with the band and got to play with such local
legends as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Ernest Tubb. But
the lure of jazz remained strong, and when the band visited New
York City, Tony would jam in jazz clubs and take lessons with the
likes of Michael Moore, Dave Holland, Cecil McBee, and George
Mraz. He laughs, “My mom, who was still in L.A., managed to get
me a lesson with Ray Brown. He listened to me on Asleep records
and said, ‘You sound good, but you need to understand changes
a little better,’ so the whole lesson was him sitting at the piano
showing me the bebop chord cycles and passing and altered chords
Dizzy Gillespie had shown him when he hit the scene—a revelation
for me.” In late 1978, Tony made the move to New York to
concentrate on jazz, gigging with Willis Jackson and gaining valuable
experience playing with Mary Lou Williams. His education in
rock & roll would quickly follow when Bruce Springsteen’s bassist,
Gary Tallent, recommended him to play rockabilly slap bass with
Robert Gordon and guitarist Chris Spedding, opening a whole
new set of doors and grooves.
In addition to multiple albums and shows with Gordon, Garnier
joined John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and Buster Poindexter’s
Banshees Of Blue for live and vinyl stints. He recorded with Marshall
Crenshaw and Tom Waits, and landed jingle and soundtrack
work, as the electric bass became more prominent than ever in his
workload. Regularly manning the bass chair at legendary venues
The Lone Star and Tramps, he anchored everyone from Dr. John
to Chuck Berry. “I asked Chuck how he liked to hear the bass. He preferred broken eighth-notes on the root, as opposed to a moving pattern of
steady eighths.” He also subbed for T-Bone Wolk on Saturday Night Live for three
years, where he met guitarist G.E. Smith and drummer Chris Parker, who were
in Bob Dylan’s band. In 1989, Dylan bassist Kenny Aaronson had to take a medical
leave. Garnier was flown to Europe to fill in for six weeks, ended up finishing
out the year, and has remained ever since. When Smith departed two years
later, Tony stepped into the bandleader role—“making sure the songs start and
end where they’re supposed to.” His tenure with the Voice of a Generation is
where we began our detailed discussion.
When did you first play upright with Bob, and how do you decide between
upright or electric on his songs?
About a year into my tenure, G.E. Smith and Bob were doing three or four
acoustic duo songs in the middle of the show; I asked if I could add upright, and
it grew from there. I’d say it’s about 50/50 now, or maybe a bit more electric. In
addition to my single-cutaway Warwick Star Bass—which is one of my favorite
electric basses I’ve ever played with Bob—I’ve been playing some Fender VI “tictac”
bass. I use a medium pick, usually muting the strings with my palm, and it
really cuts in a big room. Generally, I make a decision and if Bob wants something
else, he’ll say so. With the songs I’ve recorded since I’ve been in the band,
I basically stay the same way on tour, although I cut “Thunder on the Mountain”
[2006, Modern Times] on upright, and live, it seems to work better on electric.
How would you describe the bass role in
Simplicity works best. Complicated bass lines
can be distracting. You don’t want to disrupt the
song; you want to help it along. What I’m all about
is trying to add some movement in between the
vocal or the verses, but not sound like I’m just filling.
I’m looking to provide subtle forward motion,
as opposed to playing a fixed, steady groove—like
Bob Moore on country songs [plays a root–5 pattern
in two with an eighth-note push on beat three in the
second measure, and then plays a walkup to the next
chord]. As with my instrument choice, I’ll come up
with my own bass lines, or versions of bass lines
from Bob’s earlier songs, and if he wants it different
he’ll let me know.
What inspires you when creating parts?
The lyrics and the vocal, as well as what the rest
of the band is playing. You have to learn the lyrics
to the songs. That will tell you what and how to play,
and it makes your job easier because you have a connection;
you’re not just playing notes and chords.
I’ve always told new guys in the band, “You’re not playing guitar—you’re playing a song.” I know what the songs are about, and
that gives me an emotional attachment when I’m coming up with the bass lines.
And of course there’s Bob’s interpretation to draw from.
He seems to vary his renditions quite a bit.
Absolutely; the songs are different every night because he never sings them
the same way, so we’re not playing them the same way. If he’s phrasing a little
differently on a song like “A Simple Twist of Fate,” the bass line I played the
night before might not work. He may bunch up some words or draw them out,
and it goes beyond that; sometimes he’ll change the chords. Or he’ll sing a different
melody for a few nights, or change the lyrics—like on “Tangled Up in
Blue,” the lyrics in the show are different from the recorded version. Dynamics
are also key, because he may sing a verse at a lower volume. Ultimately, it’s
a conversation between everyone onstage. All I have to do is listen and react.
It’s actually a lot easier than having to play the same bass lines every night, and
it’s much more creative and fun.
What would you say you’ve learned from Bob, playing-wise?
The concepts I’ve learned from him are like what you might learn from Duke
Ellington or Miles Davis—ideas that you can use with other artists throughout
your career. For example, in Bob’s book Chronicles: Volume One [2004, Simon &
Schuster], he speaks about music in terms of numbers and how three and five
are interesting choices. Maybe he’ll write a song with three verses and a bridge,
or create a melodic line in groupings of five, and the same can apply for bass
lines. If I’m stuck, I may apply that, or something like what Rick Danko did on “Chest Fever” [1968, Music from Big Pink], by The
Band [plays Danko’s part, which alternates three and
four eighth-note phrases].
What was the concept for Dylan’s latest
album, Shadows in the Night?
I don’t know anyone who knows as many songs
as Bob does—including from the earliest times of
man. He wanted to do some of these older standards;
I don’t think it was supposed to be a Sinatra
tribute, but Frank’s versions of the songs helped
guide us. The ballads and torch songs seemed to
be a good choice, as opposed to doing an album of
Sinatra swing tunes. From there, we needed to make
the songs work with our five-piece band [lead guitarist
Charlie Sexton, rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball,
pedal lap steel/multi-instrumentalist Donnie
Herron, and drummer George Receli], in lieu of big
orchestral arrangements. If you listen to Frank Sinatra
with the Red Norvo Quintet: Live in Australia, 1959
[Blue Note] or Sinatra & Sextet: Live in Paris: 1962
[Reprise], you’ll hear that it can be done. We just had
to get together and hone our parts, and that’s how
we recorded: live in the studio with no overdubs.
What was your bass approach?
I did a lot more bowing than I’ve ever done on
record, plus some two-feel pizzicato. With so many
long notes to play, I tried to maintain an even sound
and smooth shifts in bow directions. I was fortunate
to have both of my uprights on the album: one with
gut strings for a deep pizzicato sound, and the other
with bowing strings. They both sound fantastic because
the engineer, Al Schmidt, is one of the all-time greats.
How has your electric bass playing informed
your upright approach, and vice versa?
Starting out on both instruments simultaneously,
I always tried to play on upright whatever I
played on the electric—which included Tower Of
Power tunes, because Rocco Prestia was one of my
heroes when I lived in the Bay Area. Mainly, it’s been
about trying to play R&B on the upright. That was
unheard of when I was coming up, save for James
Jamerson on tracks like the Supremes’ “Love Is Here
and Now You’re Gone” [1967, Motown]. Now a lot
more players do it, like James Genus and Christian
McBride. I got to do it recently with Iron & Wine on
a song called “The Desert Babbler” [2013, Ghost on
Ghost]; they wanted a Marvin Gaye/“What’s Going
On” vibe, and it worked out well. As for the electric,
in a way I view it as a separate instrument; I
use all four left-hand fingers, and I keep the action
high so I can dig in, due to constantly switching
with the upright. Given the choice, I tend toward
upright, although it’s certainly more physically
demanding to play.
How have you dealt with those demands?
I was having back issues about a dozen years ago,
and [bassist] Greg Cohen gave me some great advice:
He said to keep shifting my weight around while playing.
From my earliest lessons with Ron McClure to
studying with Stuart Sankey, I had always been taught
to keep my left leg forward and lean the bass on it,
while putting most of your weight on your right leg.
But if you stand on one leg for 40 years, eventually
your back is going to go. Gary Peacock has also spoken
about this; he says if you feel tension anywhere when
you play, you need to address it. Ludwig Streicher is
one of my favorite classical players, and I tried his
method, where the bass is braced by the bottom of
your left foot, but it tore up my ankle after a while.
Another challenge is playing upright at high
volume on big stages.
I had always played in loud bands, but I didn’t
know about bi-amping until I joined Bob’s band and
got a subwoofer from our monitor guy. Not only
could I hear myself, I could feel the bass. That led
me to some bi-amped systems with a parametric
EQ. I would set my crossover around 120Hz, turn
up loud, and start rolling off the frequencies that
were feeding back. It can also help to use a piece of
foam between the tailpiece and the top, for dampening.
Having a lot of power and a solid-state preamp
is important, both of which I get from my Hellborg
system; live, a tube preamp colors the sound too
much. The other key is how you play. You have to
dig in with both hands and be firm, especially with
the left hand, which is how you get notes to project.
And you can’t let open strings ring; you have to
be muting them at all times. Musically, it requires
that you play simpler parts and shorter notes, and
not worry about finesse notes, like ghosted pickups.
But for me, it’s worth the effort.
You’ve played with a wide range of drummers in your career. Can you share some thoughts?
The upright bass carries the time a little more in
swing and jazz, but with rock and R&B, the drums
are much more important. I hadn’t played much
electric bass until I got to New York, and when I
got thrown in with drummers like Steve Ferrone,
Chris Parker, and the late Richard Crooks and Yogi
Horton, I realized I needed to spend more time on
it and listen to the drums differently. It was a little
intimidating at first, but it makes your job easier and
becomes a pleasure when you play with great drummers.
The first world-class drummer I recorded with
was Jim Keltner, on a Roy Clark album with Gatemouth
Brown. I’ve gotten to play with Steve Gadd,
Steve Jordan, Anton Fig, and Shawn Pelton in New
York, but I left Texas before I could play with the great
drummers there. Our drummer, George [Receli], is
as solid as they come, and he has that New Orleans
side, which is a whole world unto itself. Basically,
playing with a drummer starts with either matching
the kick drum or playing off it. I like to look at
the drummer and watch his foot. From there, it’s
about choosing to lock in tight or to create a push/pull rhythmic tension, where you’re not in perfect time with the drums.
What’s on your horizon?
I’ll be touring with Bob in 2015, and when I’m not on the road I’d like to do
some jazz and other gigs. I recently played with the Ebony Hillbillies and a reggae
group with Vernon Reid, David Hinds, and other members of Steel Pulse—both on
upright, which was fun. I’m a big fan of world music. I did an international festival
in Aarhus, Denmark a couple years ago that Greg [Cohen] turned me on to, and it
was amazing. I was paired with a pianist from Argentina and a local Danish guitarist,
and we backed three singers per night for three nights. That meant learning 75
songs pretty much on the spot, and interpreting the music without understanding
most of the lyrics. It was a great challenge, and I hope to do it again this year.
The scene has changed so much over the course of your career. What
advice would you offer to young bass players?
The downside is the freelance and recording scenes have taken a big hit, but
on the other hand, bass—especially the acoustic bass—seems to be bigger than
ever. I highly recommend learning both electric and acoustic bass. On acoustic,
that means learning how to bow, which is the only way to truly get your intonation
together. I’d also advise getting a home studio and start writing and singing.
Whatever it takes—just don’t sacrifice your ideals. It’s very challenging now
in the music business, but music is a big part of people’s lives all over the world,
and the need for good musicians will always be there. If my two kids want to
become musicians, I won’t discourage them if I see they have the passion for it.
If that describes you, keep practicing and expanding your musical horizons.
How Does It Feel?
TONY GARNIER’S PERPETUAL
study of multiple styles of music,
coupled with his long career backing
pioneering artists from Austin
to Gotham, have considerably sharpened
his groove sense. Example 1
recalls Garnier’s upright-slapped solo
pickup and basic groove on Asleep At
The Wheel’s “My Baby Thinks She’s a
Train” [1977, The Wheel]. He pulls the
pitched notes with his index finger
and slaps the ghosted notes with his
open palm against the strings, while
muting with his left hand. Tony offers,
“A good way to avoid blisters is to
use one-inch cloth medical tape. It
sounds more like skin than electrical
tape, which sounds clicky.” Example
2 echoes Garnier’s most famous
Bob Dylan bass line, on “Cold Irons
Bound” [1997, Time Out of Mind]. “I
was listening to a lot of Family Man
Barrett with Bob Marley at the time,
and it came out in this line.” Dig
how Tony—on his ’72 Rickenbacker
4001—lays back on the half-timeimplying
line against the swinging,
Example 3 summons Garnier’s
verse ostinato on Buster Poindexter’s
cover of “Hot, Hot, Hot” [1987,
Buster Poindexter]. “I adapted the
part from the bass line on the original
version of the song, by Arrow.
I played my Spector 4-string and
used hard plucking. The key is to stay
on top and drive the song.” Finally,
Ex. 4 shows the typical verse groove
on Iron & Wine’s “Singers and the
Endless Song” [2013, Ghost on
Ghost], for which Tony teamed with
drummer Brian Blade and plucked
his ’66 Rickenbacker 4005. Regarding
the cool, turned-around feel,
Garnier says, “We got a demo with
basic bass and drum parts, and we
were asked to make it funky and
busy. I was inspired by and reacted to
Brian’s incredible playing.”
With Bob Dylan [all on Columbia] Shadows
in the Night ; Tempest ; Christmas
in the Heart ; Together Through Life ; Modern
Times ; Love and Theft ; Time Out
of Mind .
With others Asleep At The
Wheel, Texas Gold and Collision
Course [1975 and 1978, Capitol]; Robert
Gordon, Bad Boy [1980, One Way]; Roy Clark, Makin’
Music [1979, One Way]; Marshall
Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw [1982, Warner Bros.]; Tom Waits, Rain Dogs [1985,
Island]; Buster Poindexter, Buster
Poindexter [1987, RCA]; John
Lurie, Down by Law [1988, Intuition]; Paul Simon, Songs from The Capeman [1997,
Warner Bros.]; Manhattan Transfer, Swing
[1997, Atlantic]; Brian Setzer, The Dirty Boogie [1998, Interscope]; Peter Wolf, Sleepless [2002,
Epic]; Lucinda Williams, Essence
[2002, Lost Highway]; The Dixie Hummingbirds,
Diamond Jubilation [2003, Rounder]; Buddy Guy, Blues
Singer [2003, Jive]; Daniel Lanois, Here Is What It Is [2008, Fontana]; Jeff Golub, Blues for You [2009,
Koch]; Iron & Wine, Ghost
on Ghost [2013, Nonesuch].
Acoustic basses 2006 Paul Davies e bass with Pirastro Eudoxa Silver/Gut
strings; circa-1860 French e Jacquet bass with Pirastro Passione strings;
Rodney Mohr German-style bow; Gage Realist LifeLine pickup
Electric basses Warwick Star Bass II SC (single cutaway), Infinity 5-string;
’65 Fender Bass VI; ’59 Hofner 500/5 President Bass; ’72 Rickenbacker
4001; Lakland Decade; fretless Ampeg AMUB-1
Strings DR Strings Legend Flat Wounds, La Bella custom flatwounds (on
Amps Warwick Hellborg Preamp, Mono 250, Mono 500, Hellborg Hi Cab,
Hellborg Big Cab
Other Headway EDB-1 preamp/DI, Art Pro Channel mic preamp/compressor/EQ Model 215 (both for upright); Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp/DI (for
bowing); Lehle ABC Switcher (for electric, upright pizzicato, upright bowing)
and AB Switcher (for electric and Fender VI)
Recording Paired Telefunken V76 mic preamp rigged by Marquette Audio
Labs; Neumann M 49 mic (for upright); miked ’65 Ampeg B-15 (for electrics)