What advice do you offer to to young bass players?

A lot of things have obviously changed, but what it means to be an artist is still the same. I think musicians, painters and dancers have to realise that their contribution to our society is important and that it’s to be valued. The concept of having someone who contributes to society in a very positive way, an important way, should be an international concept. A musician is just as valuable as a brain surgeon; when we go to enjoy films, it’s hard to imagine watching without music. I witnessed Yolanda Charles playing for the first time a while back and was just really touched by her as a mum, onstage, performing with her heart and soul was in the moment. You could tell that her mind was not somewhere else – and it was just a great thing to see.

You’ve had a fulfilling career – and now you’re imparting that experience as a teacher.

I most definitely get something back from the two-way conversation with my students. It was a conscious decision to move into the educational realm. I started doing clinics when I was endorsing Ampeg, but in 2007, I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat, so basically I couldn’t play. The first place that asked me to teach full-time was the Los Angeles Music Academy. I had to gather information about ear-training, bass techniques, harmony and theory and put all of that into a curriculum. Every class is a process, but you must maintain their focus while getting from point A to point B.

Does teaching make you appreciate more the playing side of what you do?

Oh yes, definitely. In 2000, I went back to school and got my Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and I’m currently working on my Masters degree, so that has been a constant chipping-away process. It’s really useful, because all of the things I’m learning at school, I can immediately apply as I’m teaching. I’ve done it backwards – but for me, it’s perfect.

You use your thumb to damp strings when you play. How did that technique develop?

When I moved to Los Angeles, one of the first really good engineers I worked with would bring up the faders in the studio and I could hear all my string noise – so I realised I could mute with the index finger of my left hand as I go across the strings. I put the palm of my thumb down across the lower strings, so as I’m crossing them, they’re muted without the additional resonance.

Tell us about your signature Warwick bass.

Their design computers can do everything... quickly! I saw a guitar that had the violin shape, like an old Gibson. I play upright, so I thought the visual of the F-holes would be nice to have. Then I saw a chrome-finished Jack Bruce bass which I liked, so it was a coming together of these elements that I wanted to combine. I left the choice of timbers up to Marcus Spangler at Warwick, whose knowledge of timber is incredible: he’s far more qualified to pick the timbers for a bass. At the time I had a Modulus Graphite instrument, so I asked him to build me his version of it using my design.

When will we hear new music from you?

I’ve been working on a record for several years; I’m a stickler for songs. What can I choose that will really work, what do I love that other people will love? – because you’re not just making the record for yourself. I write my own lyrics, but I also work with other writers. Watch this space!

Info: https://music.usc.edu/alphonso-johnson/

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