Ed Friedland is a bassist and author who has seen it all, done it all and survived to tell the tale. We meet the master. Pic: Charlie Spieker

The music business may not be as as highly populated with genuine characters as it used to be, but there are still a few around – and one of those is definitely Ed Friedland, acclaimed bassist, author, educator, long-time Bass Player contributor and more. Charismatic and friendly, but also more than capable of poking jabs at fools when it is warranted, Friedland spends most of his time these days as a member of the Mavericks, the renowned roots band.

How long have you been in the Mavericks, Ed?

I joined in 2015, so it’s about four years. They basically tour all year round, so I’ve learned not to schedule too much. Every time we have a couple of weeks off, they schedule something, so I’m always on call. We do take breaks, though: it’ll be nice to have a few months off at the end of this year, although I get a little stir crazy!

You’re also a prolific author.

If you include all the different editions of the books I’ve done, it’s somewhere between 17 and 22 titles. I’m not sure if I feel the need to write any more at this point – my ideas may be too niche or too esoteric these days. But I’m also not in the mindset: I’m experiencing life as a performer rather than as a teacher or a writer. For years I was the writer and teacher, and it feels good to be on the other side for a change.

What gear do you take on the road with the Mavericks?

It’s a very basic setup, because our music – roots, or whatever you want to call it – means that I don’t need pedals or preamps or all the fancy shit that people get all excited about. I use two basses, a KK Baby Bass and a G&L L1000, which is a great instrument that I really love. I have an A/B box and I plug straight into my amp, and boom, you know.

What else is in the Friedland studio?

I have a Steve Azola-built Ampeg Baby bass that’s been my main axe for a few years. I also have a couple of 70s-made P-Basses that I rotate in and out. I’m using a Genzler Magellan 800 head, which I’ve used ever since it came out. I’ve played probably 350 to 400 shows on it, and it’s flawless. I can take it to the UK and Europe with me because it’s so small, so whatever cabinet I get, at least the head is what I want. At home I use Green Boy Audio, which for my money is the best cab – there is nobody who comes close to these guys. It’s a smart design with the top components, there are no compromises because they make custom one-offs. They’re perfect for upright playing.

Presumably you come across all kinds of interesting gear on the road.

On tour you use whatever you can, so I’ll choose an Aguilar 8x10 or an Ampeg SVT, although the SVTs from rental stock are usually pretty beat up, so I prefer an Aguilar. I usually fly with my Chadwick double bass, which is a wonderful instrument.

What are the Mavericks up to?

For the Mavs’ 30th anniversary, we went into Blackbird Studios in Nashville to record an album of songs that were inspirational to the band over the years. The Mavericks Play The Hits is a collection of classic country, rock and R&B tunes that showcases the band’s uncanny knack for remaining true to the original, while putting their undeniable stamp on it. I used my 1940 King Moretone on most tracks, as well as my G&L L1000 for electric bass and Tic Tac tracks. We had some special guests like Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Martina McBride on vocals, and we covered songs by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Freddie Fender, John Anderson and others. It was great to play real country music again, as our music of recent years has been more of a Latin, ska and Tex-Mex hybrid, but the Mavericks have always had deep roots in traditional country music, and I think those fans are going to be blown away by the new record.

How did you become a bass player?

Like a lot of us, I started with the guitar, and in junior high school in New York City they had a music program where you had a choice of band, string or orchestra. The bass had the same strings as the bottom four on a guitar, which I knew would give me an advantage, so I chose that. My family bought me a bass and I started taking classical lessons. In my high school jazz band at NYC’s legendary High School of Music & Art, the rhythm section was Marcus Miller and Kenny Washington, and I got turned on to these amazing musicians at a young age.

You studied at Berklee, and later taught there.

I didn’t attempt to play jazz or anything on the bass until right before I went to Berklee as a college student, because I was playing blues-rock guitar and classical bass. I was actually considering classical music conservatories, but I didn’t love classical music enough to dedicate my life to the profession. It’s a very unforgiving art form and that doesn’t suit my nature – I need some forgiveness!

How was the Berklee experience for you?

Well, I actually applied to Berklee as a guitar player, but a friend of mine told me: “You’re pretty good, but you’re going to show up at Berklee and get eaten alive, because they’re monsters there. I’ve seen it happen – the hotshot from the local high school shows up at Berklee and gets his ass handed to him, and he works at a 7-Eleven for the rest of his life. You play bass. Take that to Berklee and you’ll be a king, because there’s always the need for the instrument and you’ll always have a gig”. I thought that sounded good, so I chose to play bass. That was the best life advice I ever got. It made a huge difference, because I’m suited to the bass – I don’t have a guitar player’s personality. I’m not competition-oriented; to me, music isn’t a competition. I feel that bass players are more supportive of each other.

How had you changed as a bassist by the time you went back to teach there?

It was interesting, because when I was a student I was into free jazz and didn’t really feel the need to have my changes down. Whit Browne, my teacher, told me that I could play all the free stuff later, but first I had to get the theory under my belt. I had an attitude, like ‘Oh yeah?’ but of course he was right, and after a few years of work in the real world I went back and said to him ‘Whit, I have to tell you, you were right, and thank you for setting me straight’. It’s tough when you’re young and talented and you think you don’t have to be told what to do. It was great to go back to him, cap in hand, and thank him.

Is a music degree still useful for today’s bass player?

Yes, for sure. The school has changed, because music itself has changed, and what you need to be a viable professional player has changed. Steve Bailey [Chair of Berklee’s Bass Department] totally understands what it takes to make it as a bass player, and he’s got a star-studded staff. I feel that Berklee has always been about training players to meet the demands of the commercial market. When it started, in the 50s, that meant jazz, but they’ve done an amazing job of keeping up with what’s happening.

The mid-Eighties was a great time for bass, with new innovations such as five-strings.

I was one of the last holdouts on the five-string. I remember, at Berklee everyone was into their five-strings, but I was like ‘No, man! I’m sticking with four’ and stuck a detuner onto my four-string. I’m a late adopter of most things that come through. It was an interesting time, though.

Which bass players inspired you?

The first bassist that inspired me outside the classical world was Stanley Clarke. He was huge back then, and revolutionary, and he blew my mind. After that it was Jaco Pastorius, of course, who was fresh and new and we were all trying to scramble to absorb what he was doing. Then it was Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, Ron Carter – all the classic jazz players. Marcus Miller, as I said, because I had a lot of opportunities to see him play in formal and informal settings around school for several years. He kicked ass even back then – he was the king of slap at the age of 15. People would huddle around him and watch him like a hawk, because he was incredible. I didn’t get into R&B bass playing until later – I had to go through my jazz snob period first.

We all do it.

I think you have to. Jazz is so deep and vast a world that if you don’t allow yourself to be overtaken by it, you’re never really gonna get it. For a lot of people, that means divorcing yourself from everything you’ve ever done, and almost pretending that you never played rock’n’roll and that you were born playing Charlie Parker tunes. But you have to enter that realm fully, or else what you get will be commensurate to what you give, like anything. So I fell in there and everything else sucked for about five to 10 years – except Steely Dan, who were always cool! It was a really limited attitude, but it helped me gain a really good grounding in the genre. I did that with country, I did that with blues: I even moved to Texas to absorb those traditions because you’ll only understand Texas music by living it – by actually being in Texas and playing for Texan audiences.

What are your goals at this point?

I just want to enjoy what I do. I want to feel healthy physically and emotionally, and to make people happy with what I do. I have that opportunity, so in a way I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve. I can look back at my catalog and say ‘I’ve contributed and I’ve made a difference’. Now I just want to enjoy my life.

The Mavericks Play The Hits is out on Mono Mundo on 1 November. Info here.