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 my injuries.
If you could go forward in time 25 years and find yourself, what would you hope to see?
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, 2010]; Gambale/Hamm/ 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)