You hear a lot about great electric bassists coming from the University of Miami, but not so much about classical upright bassists and Miami University’s symphony orchestra. An even rarer story would be starting there, spending ten years getting sharp in Cincinnati on gigs with Phil Keaggy, Ellery, David Wilcox, and blues legend Chris Beard, and ending up in Nashville working with Rhett Akins and Mindy MacCready before landing the touring gig playing both electric and electric upright with country/pop superstar Taylor Swift. But that’s how Charlottesville, Virginia native Amos Heller did it.
“I started playing classical upright first, and fell in love with the fact that I was making music with other people,” says Heller, 33. “Once I figured out that the skills on upright could transfer directly to electric, and that the music I could make with that was closer to what I rocked out to on the radio, it was all I could think about.” Heller’s thick, slinky, double-stop line on Taylor’s “You’re Not Sorry” draws a straight line from his bass hero Flea (“I still don’t know anyone who plays the bass with as much raw emotion as he does”) to Pino Palladino to the present day, which finds him touring the world with Swift and cutting an adventurous record with decidedly left-of-center singer/songwriter Charity Daw.
How did you land the Taylor Swift gig?
When I moved to Nashville I found people who were doing what I wanted to do, and I bought them beers and asked them stupid questions. I took absolutely every gig that was offered to me. The pivotal moment was the first time I actually played a show in Nashville. It was with a friend at a small club for no money, but I was thinking, “I made it this far. I got on a stage in Nashville.” The drummer on that gig was Al Wilson, who eventually became Taylor’s bandleader and drummer. We made a great personal and playing connection, and we played together a bunch of times in town. By the time her then-current bassist [Tim Marks] decided to come off the road a few years later, Al was the bandleader and I got the call.
What’s the most challenging thing about the Swift gig?
The show we’re doing now is two solid hours, and there are costume changes, blocking, some light choreography, and also moments that are a little different each night to keep us on our toes. There’s a lot of stuff to remember, but that keeps you from going on autopilot.
What’s your mission statement as a bassist?
Connect. Connect to the spirit of the song you’re playing, to the heartbeat of your drummer, to the person screaming their heart out in the front row, and to the person in the nosebleed seats whom you can barely see. Connect to the moment that you’re in, right now, with the instrument in your hands, making music where there wasn’t any before.
What’s your best advice to anyone wanting to be a sideman bassist for a chart-topping act?
I’d say that until you are actually playing for a chart-topping artist, treat every gig as if you are playing for a chart-topping artist. Show up on time. Do your homework. Respect the players around you. That way, when you finally are in the right place at the right time, you’re at your best. People notice when you’re giving your best to a gig … and also when you aren’t.
HEAR HIM ON
Taylor Swift, “You’re Not Sorry,” on Fearless [2008, Big Machine]; Ellery, Lying Awake [2006, Virt]
Basses Fender Custom Shop ’64 Jazz Bass, Fender Jazz Bass V, NS Design CRM- 5 Electric Upright
Strings Electric: Fender Nickel-Plated Steel (.45–.105); electric upright: Thomastik- Infeld concerts
Live Rig Shure PGX Wireless split into electric/ upright lines; electric: split again to Avalon U5 D.I. (personal monitoring) and a BSS AR-133 Active DI (to FOH); electric upright: Sadowsky preamp/D.I.; all heard on Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors Studio gear Universal Audio LA- 610 MK II
Effects Boss OC-2 Octave (in home studio)