IF JOE SATRIANI’S THE DOWN-TO-EARTH, everyman guitar hero, then Allen Whitman is the everyman’s guitar-hero bassist. In a stark, purposeful stylistic departure from the last two folks to fill the Satriani bass chair (Dave LaRue and Stu Hamm), Satch chose Bay Area stalwart Whitman to track his most recent disc, Black Swans & Wormhole Wizards. On the band’s live dates in support of the album, some fans were likely startled at the sight of Whitman standing frontstage, whipping his hair around as he up-picked most of the evening’s eighth notes on a P-Bass, rattling the room with a deep, round, throwback tone. But Whitman is more renaissance man than bass hero: He’s played with renowned eclectic artists Nels Cline and Henry Kaiser; he’s the longtime bassist for the surf-infused instrumental rock trio the Mermen; he’s an award-winning theater music composer; he’s a board member of the San Francisco-based collaborative music distribution organization Independent Distribution Collective; and he’s a freelance music writer. Renaissance man or everyman, Whitman’s playing the Satch gig his way, and having a great time doing it.
How did you land the gig with Satriani?
Joe, Jeff [Campitelli, drummer] and I have been musical peers for decades in the Bay Area. I played in bands opening for their new wave band, the Squares, in the early ’80s. Joe likes the Mermen, my instrumental rock trio, and he and Jeff came to a show in January 2010.
How do you view your role in Joe’s music, and how would you characterize your approach?
I’m a meat-and-potatoes player steeped in solid rock and soul—not unlike “T-Bone” Wolk (rest in peace). I’m not the most precise player, and I can be kind of sloppy—like glue or mortar below the crystalline guitar passages, bringing a bottom-end thickness and roar to the top-end clarity of Joe’s music.
Your picking style—all upstrokes—is pretty unorthodox. How did it come to be?
I am an expedient player. That’s just the way I’ve been able to achieve the sound I’ve been seeking.
What’s the one common thing you try to bring to any gig you’re on, no matter how “out” or “in?”
In the context of most pop music, the electric bass guitar should only be noticed if it stops. But when the bass is playing it should lift the chords and melody, support them, so they can do the most collateral emotional damage. I like when music makes you cry. Regardless of what I’m playing or singing, I’m trying to go straight through the heart.
HEAR HIM ON
Joe Satriani, Black Swans & Wormhole Wizards [Sony/Epic, 2010]; The Mermen, In God We Trust [2010, KMA Records]
Basses Fender Precision with Nordstrand pickups and a Hipshot bridge; Rickenbacker 4001; Gibson Thunderbird with Hipshot bridge; Yamaha 5-string with an Aguilar OPB-3 preamp
Rig Ampeg SVT-CL with 8x10 cabinet
Studio Ashdown ABM 500 EVO III head; early-’70s Ampeg B-15 with JBL D150 speaker; Ampeg SVT-CL
Other Moog Taurus 3 bass pedals
Strings D’Addario XL160 [.045– .105]