Surviving in New York city can be an ongoing struggle, especially if you’re a musician, and even more so if you play rock. Often, you have to search elsewhere for paid opportunities, like touring. Luckily for Brad Russell, he’s schooled in ways that make life in the big city a bit more sustainable. After studying acoustic bass in high school, Russell attended the University of Miami, where he earned his masters in music performance. His education allows him to shift effortlessly between electric and upright and jazz and rock, making him that much more employable in New York. Such versatility has enabled him to land a few Broadway gigs, for example. But Russell is a rocker at heart, and his desire to bounce between genres can have its drawbacks. “In some ways, I wish I just liked and played one style of music,” he confesses. “Playing in different genres can work against you, because you fall off the radar with people. Unfortunately, there are also stereotypes, like, ‘Oh, you’re a rock guy,’ and they think that’s all you do, so sometimes I’m not on ‘the list’ because of that.”
Despite the challenges of navigating a career across two seemingly disparate genres of music, since moving to New York from San Francisco, Russell has carved out a niche for himself. His fleet-fingered 5-string work has supported a diverse array of artists, including singer Mariah Carey, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, guitarists Neal Schon and Gary Hoey, and jazz organist Lonnie Smith. He’s also taught at Victor Wooten’s Bass & Nature Camp, the Berklee College of Music, and the High School Rock Music Summer Program at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Camp. He’s currently working on a bass-and-drums duo project with Brazilian phenom and W.A.S.P. drummer Aquiles Priester.
How did you hook up with Aquiles Priester?
We connected through Facebook—he knew who I was from a video I did years ago with another great drummer, Dean Castronovo. I’ve been trying to arrange clinics, but I got sidetracked a bit because I was doing jazz festivals, which took me out of town for a little while.
Are you more comfortable playing jazz or rock?
A lot of jazz guys, that’s the only thing they do, and that’s why they are great at what they do. But I feel like my bass voice leans towards lead rock bass. When I play jazz, I feel like I’m echoing some of my influences a little heavier, whereas when I play rock, it’s more of my own thing.
There are a ton of cats who double on electric and upright. What makes you different?
My thing is a little more versatile, because it gets into the shredding, hard rock, and metal thing with a lot of tapping and overdrive—it’s pretty specialized. There aren’t many guys who do that and can slip back into upright in a legitimate setting. I studied upright seriously all throughout high school. I can play the instrument at an upright player’s level. I’m crossing over into the electric world, but not the jazz-fusion scene—it’s more along the lines of Billy Sheehan and Stu Hamm. In college I’d be playing Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Van Halen tunes with these rocker guys, and then I’d be in the bebop ensemble playing with all the strict jazz cats. Neither group knew I did the other thing [laughs].
Who were some of your early influences?
Ray Brown, Eddie Gomez. Stanley Clarke. My brother used to say, “Brad’s into both Eddies,” because I was into Eddie Gomez and I was really into Eddie Van Halen—I would listen to both in the same day. I was really into tapping, but I never listened to bass players for that, because there weren’t many at that time. And, I felt that guitar players did it better.
You landed gigs with the touring companies of Grease and Jersey Boys. What did you like most about those experiences?
It’s cool because in one show you can play classical stuff on upright with arco, to a two-beat country thing, to grabbing an electric and playing a straight rock groove or Motown groove. You have to be able to read [on those gigs]. It’s all about not making mistakes and just playing the parts as they are written. The parts themselves aren’t necessarily difficult to play; it’s not like a Bach prelude or something. It’s hard because you’re in the dark and you have 15 seconds to go from playing upright to grabbing one of three different electrics, and it could be the fretless 5-string. When you sub, you’re playing the other guy’s basses most of the time. I would come in on my own time and get acquainted with his instruments. You can’t just do that stuff cold. There’s a bit involved in a Broadway show that goes beyond being able to read and being a talented player.
Has reading been beneficial to you as a working musician?
Reading is really important. It’s not just jazz and classical cats reading. I’ve played with some incredible heavy metal ensembles, and they gave me charts, and it really helped because I couldn’t tell if some of the low notes were a C or a B—they go by so fast it’s hard to discern. It was still hard with a chart. I had to practice it to be able to play it technically, but I could read it, so it made the communication process easier. I think reading shouldn’t be a stereotype for “legit” musicians. All musicians should learn to read music. It can only help you.
Any advice for BP readers?
Play any gig. I wanted to play my bass for a living, so I was like, “I can either play this country gig, or I can go work a day job.” I wanted to play my bass. Playing my instrument on any level in any style of music was beneficial to me. If you’re going to be a working musician, you should be open-minded.
Basses Warwick Thumb NT 4-string, Warwick Streamer Jazzman 5-string, Warwick Thumb BO Flamin Blonde LTD 2007, Juzek acoustic bass
Amps Hartke HA5500 Bass Amplifier, Hartke Hy-Drive 410 Bass Cabinets
Strings GHS Boomers (.040–.095, .040–.105)