Alain Johannes On Obtaining Extraordinary Tones

AN EXCEPTIONAL MULTI-INSTRUmentalist, an accomplished recording engineer, and a gifted singer and songwriter, Alain Johannes is a modern-rock renaissance man.
By Jimmy Leslie ,

AN EXCEPTIONAL MULTI-INSTRUmentalist, an accomplished recording engineer, and a gifted singer and songwriter, Alain Johannes is a modern-rock renaissance man. The success of his band Eleven led to recording and performing credits with heavyweights Chris Cornell, Josh Homme, and Dave Grohl, and Johannes slung a Baratto Cigfiddle cigar-box guitar on tour in 2009 and 2010 with Them Crooked Vultures, which features Zep legend John Paul Jones on bass. Johannes poured his grief over the death of partner Natasha Schneider into songs that he eventually recorded in his home studio for his emotional ode, Spark.

How did you come to play the nylon-string contrabass guitar, and how do you capture its sound in the studio?

I’ve played flamenco music on guitar since I was a child; that eventually led me to the contrabass, which I picked up in earnest about three years ago. It’s essentially a big flamenco guitar tuned an octave lower; unlike most acoustic bass guitars, its rich overtones make it sound as if it were amplified.

I actually did amplify my contrabass, but not directly. I placed an inexpensive condenser mic near the bridge to capture the grit, and ran the signal through an old Vox T60 practice bass amp. Then I placed an old bottle-shaped Russian tube mic about a foot off the sound hole, which captured the amp’s sound in the room, as well. You can hear it on the first cut off Spark, “Endless Eyes.”

How else did you get the bass tones on the album?

I used percussion and fretless guitar— a hollowbody Messenger electric—for a lot of the low-end information. The guitar has a through-body aluminum neck. I took off the frets and strung it with flatwound strings so it would sound good tuned down two steps. I use an EBow to render sounds that are almost like a string section.

Have you always gravitated toward unique instruments for bass sounds?

Yes, although I use conventional basses as well. The Rogue VB-100 Violin Bass is my current favorite. Natasha played most of the bass in Eleven with her left hand on a Moog keyboard. She had the best groove, and a most musical way of thinking influenced by Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, and Stevie Wonder. Some bass guitar purists may say, “Hey, that’s not a bass,” but I feel that anything capable of serving the bass function counts.

HEAR HIM ON
Alain Johannes, Spark [Rekords, 2010]; Spinerette, Spinerette [Anthem, 2009]

GEAR
Basses Esteve Contrabass, Johnson Resophonic Resonator Dobro Bass, Rogue VB-100 Violin Bass, Rickenbacker 4001, vintage Epiphone hollowbody
Rig Studio: Ampeg BA-118, Ampeg VT-22 or VT-40, ’50s monophonic hi-fi amplifier through a 1x15 cab (for fuzz tones); live: Ampeg SVT heads and cabs
Effects Z.Vex Super Hard-On
Strings D’Addario Chromes