Eva Gardner: The Queen of Pop Bass

Eva Gardner, the bass phenom behind Gwen Stefani, Pink, Moby, and Cher dishes on her tireless work ethic and her favorite gigs.
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From the time she was born, Eva Gardner has had the bass guitar coursing through her veins and wired into her DNA. Thanks to her father, Kim Gardner, who was a celebrated bassist during the British Invasion, playing with the likes of George Harrison, Eric Clapton, The Birds, The Creation, Ashton, Gardner & Dyke, Rod Stewart, Bo Diddley, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, Eva grew up in a household surrounded by music icons including her dad’s close friends Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) and John Entwistle (The Who). So it’s no surprise that by the time she could walk and talk, she possessed a deep desire to follow in her father’s footsteps and take on the one instrument she had felt a connection with for so long. “I feel like the bass chose me and I was meant to play it. I was lucky enough to grow up with some of the best bassists in the business and have my father as my main influence. There’s something about the low frequency vibrations of the bass that resonates within me.”

Thanks to her genetic disposition and her relentless work ethic, Gardner has now made a name for herself that reaches far beyond the shadow of her father. At 37, the bass phenom who was part of the original lineup of the Mars Volta has become a first call player, supporting pop giants such as Gwen Stefani, Cher, Pink, and Moby. Jumping back and forth from tour to tour has become commonplace for Gardner, whose regular late night talk show appearances, award show performances, and commanding stage presence has made her recognizable to fans even beyond bass circles.

And when she’s not on a tour, in the studio, or playing fly-dates, Gardner’s unceasing practice regimen has her conquering new skills all the time, which is why her prowess with electric bass (with a slew of techniques), upright, synth bass, singing, and percussion has made her an A-list musician who commands the respect of the biggest producers and artists in the industry. So much so, that in 2014 Fender released her own signature series Squier Precision bass that was tailored to her precise specifications and encapsulated all of the basses she had loved over the years.

We caught up with Gardner after a long day of rehearsals for an acoustic performance with Gwen Stefani and another for upcoming television appearances with Pink, where she reflected on her acclaimed work with pop royalty, her never ending quest of conquering skills, her insatiable drive, and her lifelong obsession with the bass. We quickly learned that while her work schedule would be a panic attack and a bout of exhaustion rolled into one for most musicians, to Gardner being busy is a privilege.

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What has been keeping you busy lately?
I’ve been on the road for the past two years between Pink and Cher tours. It was all really intense, but it was super fun. I have to switch gears quite a bit. Since those tours concluded I’ve been busy with Gwen Stefani on the road. Luckily, I had some breaks in-between. It was great to be home because I got into a few different projects I can’t do from the road. I love doing studio work and being involved with creative outlets with friends that involve writing and recording. In between all of that I’ve been doing a lot of clinics. Another great thing about being home is being able to expand my skillset. I’m taking advantage of my time to explore different avenues and different styles of music.

You’ve landed a lot of huge gigs. What separates you from other bass players auditioning for those chairs?
I think the key for me is taking the time to truly be prepared. You have to put in the time and do what it takes to play what’s appropriate for the music, and also to be adaptable. I have a work ethic that people understand, and they know I’ll do whatever it takes to make the music sound good and appropriate for the artists and their vibe. I have to change my tone a lot from gig to gig. If I’m going to play with Pink, I’m probably not going to bring a 6-string bass. You have to feel out the vibe of the artist and the style of their music. You have to be easy to get along with and leave your ego at the door. Being a team player is essential to any gig.

How do you adapt your bass tone for each artist?
Generally I start out with my own tone, which is vintage, pretty old school-sounding. It’s solid and warm. I use Precision basses, which is a big part of my sound. Those are the workhorses of my tone. Different artists call for different sounds though. Especially when they have records they put out with different producers on different tracks. Some songs are played with a pick, some have more of a funky feel, some songs are palm-muted, and at times I might need a pedal or distortion. It’s just whatever is called for. The artist and the fans want to hear the song as it’s played on the album and it’s my job to make that happen.

What’s your woodshedding process like for each new project?
Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and start charting and mapping the music out, and cover any unfamiliar territory by doing research. With Gwen and Cher I’m playing a lot of keyboard bass and electric bass while singing. At other times I’ll have to sing and play upright. So I get my chops up in all of those areas. If that means taking a piano lesson or two, I’ll do that. If I have to join a choir, I’ll do that. If I have to sit in with a friend on a jazz gig, I’ll do that. You have to immerse yourself to get better and excel and play your best. By the time pre-production and rehearsals come around you should be stage-ready with the music. What has been very helpful is a method I used when I was in school, which is to play through the material at night before bed and wake up and review it all. Something about that really locks you in and builds your muscle memory.

There’s a lot of synth and programmed bass in the music you play. Does this create challenges for you?
Yes, those situations lead me to play synth bass onstage, or maybe I’ll play synth bass for the chorus and the rest of the song on electric bass. Part of the big pre-production rehearsals we do before these tours is taking the songs from the albums in the studio setting and translating them to the live setting. You have to make these songs sound like a band. A lot of the producers we work with want the songs to sound like the records, but they want to take advantage of the fact that they have real, live, red-blooded humans to play the parts. It keeps it interesting and it makes it fun for us.

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Did you play keyboard prior to needing to for a gig?
I took short-lived piano classes, but it wasn’t a passion of mine. When I discovered the bass that was it for me. It was all I wanted to play. But I needed a keyboard bass sound for a lot of the gigs I was picking up, so I studied it and practiced it and it became part of my toolkit. It has helped land me a lot of gigs because it’s one more skill I have, and the amount of versatility you bring to the table increases your value as a musician.

Do you prefer playing with your fingers to using a pick?
I use my fingers primarily, although I started out with a pick when I was a teenager. My dad played mostly with a pick and that’s how I started. I began with punk rock, but then in high school I got into the jazz band and I was politely asked to put down my pick and use my fingers. It was in the middle of the class in front of the entire band and my teacher singled me out made me put my bright, confetti pick down on top of my amp. I was so embarrassed. It was trial by fire then, I had to play with my fingers on the spot. But I still keep up my pick work for when I need to use it.

Did you start playing upright in your high school jazz band?
Oddly enough, no. My introduction to upright was when I was playing in an ensemble in college [UCLA]. We were playing Arabic music and all of the songs were in treble clef with a million notes. I transcribed all of the music to bass clef, which came out to three or four pages per song. After a while it was too much work so I learned how to read treble clef. I was taking lessons at the time from a jazz player named Roberto Miranda who helped me progress a lot.

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What are the differences in playing electric and upright bass?
The mechanics are very different. On upright it’s all about intonation, so I have to focus on my left hand a lot of the time, whereas I can relax and focus on the bass line as a whole when I’m playing electric. The fingering is a big difference too, as you don’t use a finger per fret on upright. Also with an upright you have to maintain your chops; you can’t just walk away from it for a month and have an easy time of it when you pick it back up. Overall, I feel like when I am playing upright I have a dance partner and when I switch back to electric it feels like a matchstick.

Has singing and playing always been natural for you?
I wouldn’t use the word natural. It can be like patting your head and rubbing your stomach or chewing gum and walking at the same time. It’s often a buckle-down situation, but once you separate your brain and form those patterns in your mind and get the muscle memory going, you can interlock the two separate parts. It ends up being really fun for me. I like the challenge.

How many basses do you have in your collection, and which are your go-tos?
I have about twenty basses right now. My favorites vary and change due to whatever my current project is, but my signature P-Bass is always up there. It’s a mix of all of my favorite basses that I’ve played over the years.

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What was it like getting your own Fender Signature model?
I have to pinch myself all the time. Growing up, Fender was a household name and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have a bass made by them. And as far as I know, I’m the first female to have her own signature bass from Fender. It’s definitely surreal—I remember being 15 and rocking out in the garage and obsessing over basses; I’d never have believed that I’d have my own series.

How much of an impact did your dad have on your playing?
My musical roots come from the era he played in. I grew up listening to all of these incredible stories about him and his friends, who I couldn’t appreciate until later on. When you’re 9 and your dad is telling you he jammed with Jimi Hendrix, you’re like, oh, that’s cool. But later on you realize how incredible it is. My dad was in that scene and they were all friends. He grew up in the same neighborhood as Ronnie Wood and that’s how they started their first band together, the Birds. He recorded with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and he knew all of those guys. One of his best friends was John Entwistle. That all laid the foundation of who I am as a person and a player; it’s my roots.

How and when did you first start playing bass?
I knew I wanted to play bass before I knew what it really meant. I remember being around 7 and I was having a slumber party and I told all my friends I was a bass player and I dragged (my dad’s) bass across the floor, much to his dismay. But that let him know I was into it. However, I didn’t start playing seriously until I was about 12.

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What was your first bass?
All I ever wanted was a Fender like my dad, but he thought I wouldn’t stick with the bass. I kept bugging him. Eventually it was sound engineer and producer Andy Johns (Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin) who gave me my first bass lesson. He and my dad were really close and Andy showed up one day with a Gibson EB-3 and a Pignose amp. He knocked on the door and asked to see me. He walked in and gave me the bass and then he taught me the bass line to “You Really Got Me.” After that I still had to prove to my dad I was into it and eventually he let me borrow a bass. When I was 15, having played a while, I looked under the Christmas tree and there was a Fender Precision. It was a new one and I’m such an idiot because I was bummed it wasn’t a vintage one. What a little jerk, right? But we went to the store and changed out all the hardware and worked on it and made it look vintage. Dad knew what he was doing, because that bass has been around the world with me, every nick and scratch is mine, every blood stain, every spot on it is mine, and I think its considered vintage now.

Who are your greatest bass influences?
My Dad would be number one because it all started with him. Aside from him, I would say James Jamerson, John Paul Jones, Charles Mingus, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the list could go on and on.

What has been some of the best advice you’ve ever been given about playing bass?
My dad told me when I first started playing that less is more. I know that’s a very simple statement, but over the years I’ve learned it’s a very important one. Especially when I start playing some “tweedly” stuff I think will sound good and the bandleader asks me to step back a bit. I try to be aware that I’m playing for the artist and I’m supposed to give them what they need from me. Play a good, strong groove and it will make the whole song. Look at Bob Marley’s music. It’s all about the pocket.

My friend, drummer Mark Schulman, gave me a great piece of advice about not taking things for granted. You’ll hear a lot of people say, “I have to go home and practice,” or “I have to play a show tomorrow.” But if you turn that around and say “I get to practice” or “I get to play a show,” it makes you appreciate the process. It brings forth gratitude and makes the whole experience that much more positive. As musicians, we’re all so lucky to be doing what we’re doing, and we should never take that for granted. I’m thankful every single day for what I do. BP

Gear:

Basses: Squier Eva Gardner Signature Precision, Fender American Vintage '62 Reissue Precision, Pfretzschner Double Bass, Moog Synth Basses
Rig: Ampeg SVT-2PRO, Ampeg SVT-VR, Ampeg Early ‘70s SVT, Ampeg Heritage B-15, Ampeg PF-50T, Ampeg SVT-810AV
Pedals: Ampeg SCR-DI, Pro Co Turbo Rat Distortion, MXR Bass Fuzz Deluxe, MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay, MXR Bass Compressor, Mu-Tron Octave Divider, Mu-Tron III Envelope Filter
Strings: Rotosound Swing Bass 66, Rotosound Jazz Bass 77 Flatwounds, Rotosound Nexus Bass

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For more information visit: EVA GARDNER

Follow Eva: HERE and HERE

Photos Credits: Baz Halpin, Sam Gracey, Lisa Skarell-Schulman

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