Clockwise from left: Evan Brewer, Liam Wilson, and Adam "Nolly" Getgood. DISCUSS THE TONES, TECHNIQUES, AND SURVIVAL TACTICS OF EXTREME MODERN METAL
THE SPEED, DYNAMICS, SONIC TEXTURES, AND POLYRHYTHMS OF PROGRESSIVE METAL impose almost terrifying physical and conceptual pressures on bassists. You almost have to negotiate several intense applications of technique at once, all while putting on a powerful show, and, hopefully, saving your body and arm muscles from harm.
If you want to better understand how bassists can endure such craziness, as well as how they apply their creativity, gear, and technical gifts to keep the intensity flowing, BP has assembled three of prog metal’s most visible and respected bassists for a revealing roundtable interview. In addition to a burgeouning solo career, Evan Brewer plays with technical death metal outfit the Faceless, Adam “Nolly” Getgood is a member of Maryland’s Periphery, and Liam Wilson manages the manic attack of the Dillinger Escape Plan.
First off, playing progressive metal, technical death metal, mathcore, or any related genre involves physical challenges in terms technique. What is your approach to bass in that regard?
ADAM “NOLLY” GETGOOD I just practice like a madman. I was very aware of the technique— especially on guitar—picking just from the wrist and keeping a consistent technique. A lot of people will practice slow, but they’ll use completely different technique when they speed up. They’re not really preparing themselves for speed. I’m very conscientious about how my technique worked at a fast speed, and I try to slow that right down and practice it that way. So there was no real change in technique no matter how fast I played—up to a point, of course. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I haven’t encountered any kind of tendonitis, even playing with a 37"-scale bass.
EVAN BREWER When you’re growing into something that has a physical aspect to it, there’s going to be some natural muscle growth, like healthy soreness. I’ve experienced gradual stuff like that, and it feels okay. I let my body steer me. One thing that has largely saved me from a repeative-motion type injury is that I play with a lot of different techniques. It’s kind of like working out—you have leg day, chest day, cardio, whatever. If I wear out finger-style one night, I’ll do thumb for a while. When I was first getting into using my thumb, like a pick, the skin on my thumb would get sore, so then I’d go back to fingers. Then I’d work on my economy picking with an actual pick. By changing it up and having options, I’ve avoided the repetitive motion of just use one right-hand technique.
Evan Brewer with his Warwick Infinity 5-string. As I’ve evolved as a player, my right hand has turned into a meld of all those techniques where I’m not even fully aware that I’m doing thumb or fingers. I think that lightens the load across the board from the exact repeated motions. On the left hand, the only thing I would say that I’ve done is just try to be aware of my action, because the left hand is essentially doing the exact same thing all the time. You’re not really going to get around that, unless you want to play overhand a little, which sometimes I even do just to give my wrist a rest for a second. But becoming aware of my action, my string tension, and learning how to adjust my own truss rod and monitor that has helped. It used to be when I went on a tour and my action got all high and I wouldn’t know how to fix it, and I would just roll with it and it would start to hurt my hand.
LIAM WILSON I’ve found that if I’m having a problem nailing a part, nine times out of ten, it ends up being because I’m holding my breath. If you’re gasping for air, you instinctually go into fight-or-flight mode, and you tense up. I find that breathing right gives my phrasing more life. It’s more lyrical if I’m paying attention to my breathing. It’s about tuning in to the subtleties of your body and noticing how much of an effect it has.
EB That’s completely huge. It took me ten years of not being able to execute on stage the things I could execute at home, and it wasn’t nervousness. I was holding my breath, and I wasn’t giving my muscles the oxygen they needed to function properly.
I also didn’t have my strap height set. Once I figured out that if I set my strap height approximately where my bass is when I’m sitting, all that practice starts to be functional. I was putting my muscles into a position that they weren’t in when I was practicing because I wasn’t practicing standing up jumping around in my room. It took me a decade to even figure out those two simple things.
LW When recording, I have to stand up. I’m not going to get the same thing when I’m sitting. It makes a huge difference in how I play.
Also, any time I’ll look for info about playing bass with a pick, I come up empty handed; it’s all about guitar picking. I know that a lot of it comes from the wrist, but I feel there’s a lot in your shoulder, as well. Think about the Moeller drum technique— it’s almost like a whip. I really feel like my arm is the same way. If I have the energy just coming from my wrist, I have only so much energy to work with. But if it’s coming all the way from up the shoulder, I’ve got that much more. It’s almost like a martial arts technique. You can throw a punch from close range and knock somebody out if you’ve got the Chi right. It’s a whole-body thing; it starts in my feet for me.
NG I’ll definitely concur with the picking thing. I go to guitar and my technique is very wrist-based. On the bass, it’s not. On guitar I’ll rest my palm on the bridge. On bass, I won’t do that. My hand is always floating above it, and that’s when you start to get more of the elbow. I do this also for the sake of muting, because when you’re playing with a lot of gain you’re getting a lot of string noise.
Nolly Getgood with his Dingwall Guitars Afterburner 6-string. What are the main basses you use on tour and in the studio?
EB My bass with the Faceless is a Warwick 4-string Streamer Stage I. It’s a production-model bass I found in New York at Warwick’s Custom Shop. I went through almost every bass there, playing just Faceless bass lines, because there’s a sound I have in my head for them. I was choosing purely with my ears. I recently swapped out the stock M.E.C. pickups to EMGs.
What do you prefer about the EMGs?
EB The highs from the M.E.C. preamp are voiced too high for my preference.
On the EMG, there are two DIP switches to select the high frequency, and I choose the lower of the two. But I picked the bass for what it sounded like flat. I hardly ever boost or cut anything on the EQ. But when my strings start to die, I might boost the highs a little. Also, the Variable Mid Control from EMG gives you the options because it’s a filter so you can control the frequency you’re cutting or boosting within a set parameter. If I boost my mids, it’s usually way back to the lowest midrange setting or maybe just a little up from there. I’m big on the magic midrange. That’s where we need to sit to cut through effortlessly and not have it be a volume war.
LW Zon Guitars made me two Sonus basses, and I favored the one with the most P-like growl. Our producer [Steve Evetts] also has an early Spector bass that I used a lot. It’s a neck-through with a P/J pickup combo.
NG I use a Dingwall. It has fanned frets and a 37" scale, which is cool. The three-pickup thing isn’t as crazy as it looks. There’s quite a lot of distance between the neck and the start of the frets, but it’s cool because you can have the bridge and neck together in parallel for a kind of jazz sound, but you can also have the bridge and middle in series, which sounds huge.
So how did you come to play a fanned-fret bass?
NG Actually, the first tour I ever did with Periphery was back in 2009, and although I hadn’t got much experience playing bass at all, I was filling in for the current bassist. He let me use his main bass, which was a Dingwall at the time. That was kind of the lowest one in that range and it felt amazing to play, and it sounded amazing unplugged, but I knew nothing about bass tone. I didn’t really know what sounded good. So I wasn’t too aware of what I was doing sounded great. I was also using his kind of jazz rig. But that stuck in my mind, how playable, and especially being a guitar player, how narrow the nut width is. This is a 6-string but I guess the nut width is kind of like a 5 almost. You can see the strings are really close together. And it’s very top sensitive. So as a guitar player, it instantly really reached out to me.
Liam Wilson with his Zon Guitars Sonus 4-string. What about your rigs?
LW I use an A-Designs Audio REDDI tube D.I. and a Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver D.I. re-amped through an Ampeg SVT-VR. Live, I use my Magnavox-era ’70s SVT, and Ampeg 8x10 cab, and an Aguilar Tone Hammer pedal. I leave the Sans- Amp on pretty much the whole time. I get a good fingerstyle sound with that, and then I throw on the Tone Hammer for more pick attack and clarity. Other pedals will find their way into the mix, like a DigiTech Hardwire Tube Overdrive, and some effects by Source Audio and Fuzzrocious.
EB With the Faceless, the whole band goes direct—we don’t use any cabs onstage—so my setup is beyond simple. I just have a Warwick Hellborg Preamp. I recently started running into a Two Notes Audio Engineering Torpedo C.A.B. cabinet simulator, which make it feel more like a miked cab in my in-ear monitors. We run all in-ear rigs—no amps, no monitors. So the stage is silent except for drums.
Did you find it a difficult transition to in-ears with no onstage amplification?
EB It was revolutionary right off the bat. I’ve never experienced anything like it, because all of a sudden I could hear string noise and I’d go, “Whoa, better fix that.” I can hear nuance. To get my amp loud enough to where I can hear all that detail—that’s is pretty destructive for a sound guy. Plus, those sound waves don’t even develop until they’re 20 feet past the stage. So the in-ears have helped me as a player. Our drummer plays to a click, and we all have the click in our in-ears, as well. That may sound sterile, but in the context of extremely technical death metal it just makes things a lot easier. I’ve been playing to a click for a long time, so I’m over that initial weirdness.
NG My thing’s kind of strange because I’ve got to come clean, I’m not a long-term bassist. It’s something I’m pretty new to. So I’m just finding my way with my ears rather than necessarily knowing the tradition and just through what my band does. We all run through Fractal Audio Axe-Fx units live, so everything is direct. For the album, the bass got run through a nice old Ampeg B-15, which was cool. But then for the road, I had to find my own sound. For that, I use Darkglass Electronics B7K pedal, which just has the most amazing sounding distortion.
LW I respect the revolution, and there’s a part of me that wants something like a Fractal Audio Axe- Fx. But with my Ampeg, I know what I’m going to get. I have the sweet spot dialed in. I know that I’ve hit the ceiling with that, and I’m happy with that. I like the way it sounds. So all this other technology is fascinating in that I can dial in something that has never been done before. But to me, Dillinger is almost more of a punk band than a metal band. In a sportsmanly kind of way I like that we sometimes go onstage after bands that use Axe-Fx, and we’ve got all tubes firing, and it just crushes. I like volume. I don’t care if everybody’s too loud. I want it to feel that way. I want the audience to be at the point where it’s almost unbearable.
What are your string preferences?
LW On our record, I was using different strings on almost every song. It was the only chance I had to try a bunch of different sounds. Mostly, I use Ernie Ball Nickels, .105–.045. I like stainless steel strings, too.
EB I use a custom Dunlop set gauged .110–.045. I haven’t tried their new Heavy Core strings yet, because I don’t want to increase the tension much. I might experiment with it, but I’m really happy with the tension with that set the way it is.
NG I use Circle K strings. One problem with fanned fret instruments is that a 37-inch scale doesn’t work for many string brands. You just can’t get them long enough. They’ll taper out before the knot here or something. But these are kind of custom made, extra-huge gauges. You can go up to like a .260 or something.
LW That’s like a piano string.
NG I don’t even know what you’d try to tune that to. But, yeah, they do them. They do just about anything you can imagine basically and I think they sound great. I haven’t had any other brands of strings on these basses because you just can’t get anything to work—other than Dingwall’s proprietary ones, which are just designed for standard tuning.
Who are the players out there who are catching your ear?
LW Besides Evan, there’s Colin Marston, who plays in Behold the Arctopus and Dysrhythmia. He’s really, really interesting—really cool.
At the Revolver Golden Gods Awards, I made a point to say something to Rex Brown and Dave Ellefson. There’s something about Muzz Skillings’ playing in Living Colour—he was raw. I need some grit and attitude in there to latch onto. I like the Persian stitch—that element of wrong to make it seem more right. Janek Gwizdala is another dude that’s fun to shoot the shit with. He’s got such a huge personality, and he’s not so uptight about things. And Bryan Beller is just rad. He’s not trying to be the best— just the best Bryan Beller he could be, and he’s awesome at it and just has the personality to back it up. Sean Malone from Cynic was one of the first dudes I heard that was poetic, but delivered with a metal attitude. That kind of blew me away.
EB Tom Jenkinson from Squarepusher is mind-blowingly awesome. I’m a fan of his approach to making music and creating with the bass. I don’t even consider him a bass player; he’s just a musician who plays bass. Dominique Di Piazza is another guy. He’s largely influenced that particular right-hand approach. Regi Wooten was obviously a huge influence because he mentored me. There’s also Larry Graham, Trevor Dunn, and Darryl Jenifer.
Oteil Burbridge is another guy. I think he’s one of the most unique voices on the bass that I’ve heard in a really long time. He’s inspired me tremendously. But I’m as influenced by songs I hear as I am by guys who are icons in the bass game. I actually learned largely from guitar players. For me, I always take from the people I name more than the people who are pertinent to my genres. I was never a huge metal head when I was a kid. I was more listening to stuff like that and digging into old funk, classic rock, jazz. I bring those influences to what I do and I think that’s why I’m perceived as being maybe a little different for the heavy community. But I’ve found ways to make it work.
NG Sikth is a band that was very influential to me in terms of getting into a more mathy style of metal. Even though I didn’t have much of an interest in bass at the time, I immediately noticed the bass playing that James Leach had done on both albums. On the first album, he used his fingers and did a lot of slapping and popping. Straight away I could hear the bass was doing something incredibly interesting, really bridging the gap between these guitars that were going off , and the drums, which are playing incredibly technical stuff . He found really neat ways of bridging the gap using slap-and-pop, tapping, or just plucking interesting melodic lines. He had a wicked bass tone. I haven’t heard anything he’s done since then, which is kind of a shame. That was hugely influential for me.
LW I might be getting a bit metaphysical here, but the other night I heard a train pulling away from a station at the end of the night as we were leaving a gig. I stood there and listened to that train for seriously like 10 minutes. Even birds’ songs, or the sound of a chainsaw—those sounds influence me. It’s obviously not just music that makes sound; there are noises everywhere. That’s something I take out of listening to an artist like Flying Lotus, who takes a noise like that and turns it into music. I may be limited to bass, but I still trying to absorb as much as possible.
EB I think you’re hitting on the key to any sort of innovation. You take something that doesn’t belong and apply it where it shouldn’t fit and that’s how you get great new experiences.
A lot of progressive metal guitarists are reaching into the low-end territory, with 7- and 8-string guitars. How do you cope?
EB It’s a struggle. Finding the right string gauges is really important. Beyond that, just understanding what will cut through in that context and realizing that you’re not going to get away with fast triplets or speed picking on your low string. Just saying, “I need half of what the guitar player is doing when I’m anywhere below this range” helps. Matching isn’t necessarily an option anymore. You can’t demand so much from those low frequencies.
LW That that’s where a lot of bass players get tripped up playing this kind of music. It’s been great hearing Evan on this tour, tuning into what he’s doing and realizing that he’s not playing that fast—even though he can. He’s actually playing slow at times and letting notes ring.
EB In technical music, there are bass players who want to match everything the guitar player is doing, and there are bass players who strive to have a counterpoint and do something different that will add to the hugeness of the sound. What I found is when you try to match a speed picking part or something that’s really fast in a low frequency, all you hear is what sounds like you’re playing at half speed, but sloppy, whereas if you just play at half speed, it will sound like you’re playing it solid and you’re playing the right bass line.
NG The fun part for me is locking in with the drums. Coming from guitar, I’m amazing at how satisfied I am when I’m playing bass. Playing guitar is really stressful to me, actually. But playing bass, the joy for me comes with locking in with the drums. And I love playing with Matt, our drummer. He’s a fantastic drummer—excellent sense of groove. I could play one note all night long and be satisfied just jamming with him. As long as I feel like the sound is being heard out front, or at least the power of what I’m doing is out front, that’s the real satisfying thing. It doesn’t matter that I tap and slap and do stuff like that at times. I’d be perfectly content just sitting around and one or two notes.
LW Everybody is so guitar-centric when they play bass in metal, whether it’s guitar players coming over to bass, or the drumming just being so bombastic. But I prefer to pull back and find a way to lock into the simplest thing the drums are doing to have that contrast. I feel like a blast speed over a really slow thing has so much more feeling than everybody blasting with it.
EB I think every musician hits a point when they’ve played long enough and they’ve accomplished enough where the ego goes away, and it’s not about “I got to show everybody that I can play all this stuff .” When I’m playing with a band, I genuinely want to be a bass player. That’s why I’ve created other outlets for myself to explore the more experimental side of bass. Because when I’m with a band, I want to do the bass player thing. I want to be the low guy, the rock that holds everything together. You watch Dillinger Escape Plan, and Liam is gluing the band together. He’s that thing that is holding everything together, bridging the gap from the drums to the guitar. He has the melody and the rhythm and the harmony.
LW Also, when I record certain bass part, I’ll simplify when I play them live. Whether anybody notice it or not, I don’t know. It’s kind of like pissing on my own leg—a warm feeling that only I know. [Laughs.] There’s two-hand tapping on Dillinger records, but I’m not going to do that live, because it doesn’t serve me. I don’t want the focus on me. I want the focus to be on the whole spectacle. I say, get over yourself, cut the cord from your ego, and just play as if you were in the audience. Be the bass player you want to exist.