Dennis Ward started playing bass in 1982, when he was in the 10th grade, by accident... literally. He was predominantly a horn player in his high school band, but he also played a bit of contrabass. He credits an “unintentional mishap” as the catalyst for his subsequent foray into the world of electric bass. “I trashed the school’s one-and-only contrabass one night,” he recalls without divulging the details. “So, I was basically forced to start learning the electric bass because we had a concert coming up and there was only a Yamaha BB800 available. I was kind of devastated because, although I already played guitar, I had no interest in learning the electric bass, or to play rock n’ roll for that matter.”
Ward eventually developed a love for electric bass by way of ‘70s disco music. “I was fascinated by the infectious grooves,” he admits. “And the discipline one needed to play with such synchronicity between members—much like classical music I thought.” In 1987 he joined the German hard rock/heavy metal band Pink Cream 69. He’d been singing as well, but only to demo his own song ideas. In 2005, however, he got an email from the record label Frontiers Music Srl asking him to sing on an album for an AOR studio project called Khymera. “I was genuinely confused because, other than the few artists for whom I’d sang backing vocals, no one really knew that I could even sing.” He told Serafino Perugino, the president of Frontiers, that he thought maybe he meant to get in touch with David Readman (the singer of Pink Cream 69). “He told me that he did indeed want me to sing on the album, which made me only more confused. I told him that I would be willing to try and would sing one song and if they were not content I would drop it—no strings attached.” Suffice it to say, Ward is currently singing on the fourth Khymera album.
But it’s ex-Ozzy and longtime Firewind guitarist Gus G’s latest solo record, Fearless, that has finally enabled Ward to put both skill sets to work in one project. Vocally, he has a melodic sensibility not unlike Ozzy, floating ethereal vocal melodies over monster guitar riffs. As a bassist, his tone is muscular and, honestly, enviable. Ward falls into the seemingly ever-growing category of bassists turned producer, so his bass lines, though fairly conventional and in a supportive role on Fearless, stand out nonetheless. The production quality of the bass is top-notch, and Ward’s playing provides the consummate backbone to Gus G’s fiery fretwork. BP recently caught up with Ward to talk about recording techniques, the challenges of learning to sing and play simultaneously and the magic of re-amping your amped bass tracks.
Who were your early influences?
Geddy Lee was a main influence for me, but Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius were what made me realize that playing bass was more than being the failed guitarist, as it so often is in rock and metal. I also loved Bootsy Collins and Verdine White. I loved funk just because the one instrument, the bass, could set the pace for the entire song to build upon. It was a positive vibe that I still, to this day, love so much. Sting was also a huge influence. Not only for his singing and bass performing, but for his songwriting. I loved the fact that he went against the status quo and always did his own thing. That being said, I remember my first AC/DC concert. I was fascinated by Cliff Williams’ discipline and I began to realize the importance of fundamentals and that sometimes you must hold back. I learned that it was important to play for the song and only for the song. The same goes for Ian Hill—feet nailed to the ground and completely in control.
Has singing made you a more valuable commodity as a bassist?
I do get asked a lot to sing on recordings these days, but not often as a bassist. I never really pursued being a virtuoso for anyone other than myself. In other words, I didn’t knock on any doors. I just let things happen. But now, working with Gus G, I know that I will pursue the bassist/vocalist path a bit more aggressively and maybe even start a cover band for fun.
What advice do you have for bass players wanting to add singing to their repertoire?
I guess the best advice would be to give it time to develop. I think a lot of bassists/guitarists give up quickly because they’re not yet used to multitasking. You’ll need to train your fingers, mouth and brain all at the same time. Of course, it’s also a good idea to work selectively on either bass or vocals at times, but you should try to do both at the same time and as often as possible—even if you are just humming along to a song [while playing]. You might even want to record yourself while performing to be able to criticize yourself and work out the kinks. I’ve learned that if I feel uncomfortable with what I hear and/or see in my performance then the chance is pretty good that other people will too. Also take advice from your band members if they are constructively criticizing you about similar issues. Don’t listen to your girlfriend. She loves you much too much to let you know that you suck [laughs].
How did you track your bass parts on the new Gus G record?
I did a combination of a few things. I start tracking with a simple DI signal split into my ancient Music Man HD-130 Hybrid head via a custom-made DI Box using a Jensen Transformer. Then I used a single 12” Celestion Vintage 30-watt with a Shure SM7 on it (on axis). During the mix I duplicated these 2 tracks and put the DI into a UAD B-15N plugin and the miked signal into a separate B-15N plugin—yes, I re-amped my amped sound. Then I used a lot of hocus-pocus in the mix to make it all gel together.
Any other little studio secrets you care to divulge?
Don’t be afraid to re-amp your amped sounds. Seriously. If you have an amped sound that is on the cleaner, soft side, you can easily re-amp it to make it beefier. Also, the choice of mic preamp can make a huge difference. I’m often driving the signal into my mic pre (from the DI and Amp) pretty hard to saturate the in/output transformers of the preamp. I tend to use a Neve 1073, but I find it works quite well with other similar mic preamps that actually have input and output transformers. You can be sure that an M-Audio USB interface does not.
As a bassist and producer, what advice do you have for recording bass?
Don’t try to be a hero and nail it in a take. Record your part in pieces and really construct your part so that it sits right with the rest of the music. And should you feel, later in the production, that you could lay down a better fitting bass that what you already have – insist upon doing it again. For me, I’m often enlightened after the fact when I hear what the song has developed into. I hear that maybe I’ve played too much, or too little, or that I could compliment another overdubbed part or even the vocals. And keep your damn cell phone turned off and place it far away from your gear. I personally hate noticing interfering noises when it’s too late. This happens a lot these days.
Secondly, respect the songwriters’ requests. Sometimes a songwriter has a special feeling for the song and you might have to adjust to make it work. You might think you have a better solution but at least give him/her the benefit of the doubt.
Why does it seem like bass players make great producers?
Because we are a bored bunch of individuals longing for attention—always in the background and overthinking everything [laughs]. But we also have the best overview of what’s happening in the song. Since we often have very little to do in terms of performing in the studio - little to no double tracking, no overdubbing, no soloing - we stick our noses into the other musicians’ work and develop a knowledge of how to make things fit together. And also, because we are just the coolest, no matter what Gus says [laughs].
HEAR HIM ON
Gus G, Fearless (AFM Records)
Basses Blade B-2 (4-string), Sandberg California V (5-string) Dalegria (5-string)
Amps Ampeg SVT-CL, Music Man HD-130, Ampeg SVT-810E
EffectsAguilar TLC Bass Compressor, EBS MultiDrive Universal Overdrive, Digitech Drop Polyphonic Drop Tune Pitch-Shift
Strings Elixir Nickel-Plated w/Nanoweb (Medium Light)
Accessories Line 6 Relay G50 (wireless), TC Electronic Polytune 2 Mini (tuner)