Doug Johns on Composing Beyond the Bass

“Don’t write ‘bass music’ just because you’re a bass player,” implores proud Ohioan Doug Johns.
By Jimmy Leslie ,

“Don’t write ‘bass music’ just because you’re a bass player,” implores proud Ohioan Doug Johns. “You can hear all instruments in the bass, and use it to write all the parts.” Johns has ears and vision that match his supernatural bass chops, and he applied them all to dazzling result on his latest solo effort, Vodka in the Woodpile, featuring guests Dennis Chambers and Oz Noy. Johns adeptly utilizes the bass to conjure ideas that sound musical rather than mechanical—although it’s worth noting that he’s also so mechanically inclined that he has a whole other life as “Buzz,” a race-car chassis designer and fabricator!

Your use of higher octaves with a pristine tone at the beginning of “Happy Family” suggests nylon-string acoustic guitar. Can you explain your vision?

That assessment is dead on. I’m a fan of the nylon-string acoustic—actually, any acoustic guitar. I’m a huge Tommy Emmanuel fan. I had acoustic guitar in mind when I wrote “Happy Family,” and the tonal strategy was to go for the classic Paco de Lucia vibe. I borrowed a brand new Pedulla MVP from Mike Pedulla himself to record the tenor motif you hear up front, as my old ’86 Pedulla wasn’t up to the tonal task.

Horns bring that track home. How do you compose and apply horn-style parts?

I have a two-part system for composing and recording horns. I always hear the horns in my head—no doubt from years of listening to Tower Of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Chicago—but it can be a challenge to transmit those lines to the bass. I put sketches of the horn lines I hear down to tape, but then I refine them when the horn players are on the floor. I’m usually not able to truly integrate them into the composition until I hear the brass in the air. Horn players are a special breed—they’re smarter than us bass players. Admit it.

Your strumming on “Old Woman Creek” implies banjo on bass, and then you accompany yourself with an actual banjo. What do the instruments have in common?

When I wrote that banjo part, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the notes—simply how the rhythm of the instrument interacted with the piece. Rhythm is paramount, period. And what instrument exemplifies rhythm better than the banjo? I love that it’s a bass and a drum at the same time! Banjo and bass have a kindred spirit that can’t be denied. But we’re a work in progress, me and the banjo. I finally got it on the 11th take.

Your bass on the title track brings to mind mandolin, especially when you cop a bluegrass feel juxtaposed over the sick funk groove.

You’re right on with the mandolin connection. Mandolin has an eerie “can’t do without it” rhythm quality. It’s kind of like hot sauce on chicken—just a little and it’s awesome. Too much and it tastes like shit.

“Tricerafunk” is a particularly nasty groove tune with a killer head. How did that one hit you, and how did you flesh it out?

I had just returned from the Dominican Republic when that groove and head struck me in the frontal lobe. Getting the head under my fingers without interrupting the groove dogged me for days. I stuck with it until it flowed from my heart, and hit the air like I heard it in my head. Letting an idea simmer is key to composition. Just because you have a great-feeling bass line under your fingers doesn’t mean it’s a song yet. Give it time to develop. Feed it. Water it. It’ll become music in due time if you don’t let the bass get in the way.

INFO

LISTEN

Doug Johns, Vodka in the Woodpile [independent , 2016].

EQUIP

Basses Pedulla Buzz Bass (fretless model, but with frets installed), Fodera Monarch 6, John Hill Custom 4-string.
Strings DR Strings NLR-40 Sunbeams (.040–.100)
Rig Genz Benz Shuttle 9.2 head, Genz Benz GB 410T-UB-4 Uber Bass 4x10 cabinet.
Effects Pigtronix EP-1 & EP-2 Envelope Phasers, Pigtronix Disnortion, Dunlop 95Q CryBaby wah, MXR M82 Bass Envelope Filter.