IN THE FIRST OF HIS MANY WELLcrafted BP features, Richard Johnston profiled classical/jazz/bluegrass virtuoso Edgar Meyer. Richard, a regular freelance contributor in our early days, would later become a staff editor in what was then the Miller Freeman Music Group—he was the head man at How to Play Guitar and then Guitar Player (1995–97) before becoming BP’s editor-in-chief in 1998.
Educated at Peabody College in Nashville, Richard was our go-to guy for country music but could write knowledgeably about most any style. He also introduced us to such BP mainstays as David Hungate and Dave Pomeroy (both of whom became columnists) and enlivened many of our meetings with his sharp observations and dry wit. After leaving the BP staff, he became the executive editor of Backbeat Books, where he supervised the publication of my books, How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses. Now semi-retired from the music business, Richard lives with his wife, Trisha, on a farm in Oregon, where they care for rescued dogs, cats, donkeys, llamas, and birds.
Edgar Meyer was only 29 when Richard interviewed him for this story, but he had already recorded four solo albums, played on sessions with such artists as Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, and made a name for himself as an extraordinary acoustic bass soloist. Today, with a discography that lists dozens of recordings, he continues to appear in a dizzying array of concert settings and remains a paragon of virtuosity and versatility.
The bow is Meyer’s main solo tool—his arco solo on Kathy Mattea’s “Where’ve You Been” [Willow in the Wind, Mercury, 1989] may be a first for a hit country song—and violinists Mark O’Connor and L. Shankar have had a major impact on the bassist’s search for a solo style that reflects the human voice. “For all of its difficulties, the bass may have a more vocal quality than the violin,” Meyer says. “There’s a little bit of strain to it that makes it sound more human. As I go up higher, you can feel that strain, and that has the thrilling sound of a singer trying to push those notes.”
Listen to Meyer’s solo on “Cycles” [on his album Unfolding, MCA 1986] and you’ll hear Shankar’s influence: flowing upperregister phrases with microtonal embellishments. “One of the things I got from Shankar is playing long phrases with one finger,” Edgar explains. “That gives it a decidedly vocal quality. The problem is, unless you’re pretty accurate, it’s a cow-like vocal quality.” Meyer enhances the technique with a wide vibrato. “You get a clearer tone playing on the tip of your finger, but you get a wider vibrato playing on the flat of your finger. To get both, I play on the fingertips but double fingers up, so the center of the pitch is very focused yet there’s a wide oscillation. I usually double up 1st and 2nd, or 2nd and 3rd. I can also do it 1–2–3; if you bounce it, just barely have the 2nd and 3rd touching, you get a wide wobble and don’t lose any focus.”
Attention to vibrato contributes to Meyer’s fluid, singing sound. “Vibratos should always sound alive, never like they’re turned on and off,” he says. “Speeding up, slowing down, widening—they should always have a natural shape to them.” On “Cycles,” Meyer’s one-finger technique also produces a sound uncannily similar to a screaming, hard-rock guitar. “I’ve heard that sound all my life,” he says. “That kind of phrasing just comes naturally.”