Steve Harris is the consummate bassist–bandleader. His singular focus and vision have enabled Iron Maiden to become perhaps the most successful heavy metal band in history. Despite little radio support, Maiden has sold over 90 million albums worldwide. The 2010 album The Final Frontier [UME/Sony] reached #1 in 28 countries, the song “El Dorado” won a Grammy in 2011, and the ensuing tour put the band in front of two million people around the world. Iron Maiden pioneered touring in countries like India, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Korea. Way back in 1984, Maiden was the first band ever to take a full stage production into Eastern Bloc countries. In ’85, they performed in front of 300,000 people at Rock In Rio. This year they will travel to China for the first time. Even giants such as Black Sabbath don’t wield such broad-reaching global power.
Harris formed Iron Maiden in East London in 1975, and his writing style on early albums, like Iron Maiden [1980, Capitol] and Killers [1981, Capitol], is a fierce blend of prog and punk that spearheaded the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Through songwriting, he developed a unique bass sound and style that influenced legions of aspiring (and many now-famous) bass players. When he first burst onto the scene, his trebly tone was considered unconventional for the genre, and—to the surprise of many—he did it without using a pick. It’s a right-hand, two-finger technique (middle/index), and it produced Maiden’s now-infamous “gallop” sound, as heard on classics like “Run to the Hills” [The Number of the Beast, 1982, Capitol] and “The Trooper” [Piece of Mind, 1983, Capitol], among many others.
But for such an O.G. of metal bass, Harris isn’t analytical about his playing, stating that he mostly does “what feels right.” He says the same thing about his songwriting method, too. As a matter of fact, it seems Harris’ entire career has been built upon trusting his gut. He formed a metal band and persevered at a time when punk music was all the rage in the U.K. For years, he endured a revolving door of musicians before finding the perfect chemistry. And when Bruce Dickinson joined in 1982, he fully embraced the singer’s operatic style, thereby forging the template for a new subgenre of heavy metal, “power metal,” on albums such as The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, and Powerslave [1984, Capitol].
The Book of Souls, Maiden’s 16th album, debuted at #1 in the U.K. and at #4 on the Billboard Top 200. It’s Maiden’s first studio double album, and at over 90 minutes, it’s possibly the band’s most ambitious. The length alone projects a ’70s vibe and appears completely counterintuitive in this age of streaming, soundbites, and short attention spans. And although Harris has always been Maiden’s primary songwriter, Souls features more contributions by other band members than perhaps any other record in the catalog. Still, Souls is a quintessentially Harris-driven record. The intros on “The Red and the Black” and “The Great Unknown” feature the kinds of chordal passages and pedal tones that best represent Harris’ versatility on bass. On “If Eternity Should Fail,” he whips out upper-register runs that are like sublime mini solos. His right-hand articulation on “Shadows of the Valley” is so tight and percussive it’s hard to believe he’s not playing with a pick. On the title track, Harris throws down some sinister, serpentine counterpoint to the guitar parts. His lone solo composition on Souls, the 13-minute “The Red and the Black,” is the kind of history-based anthem that Maiden forged its larger-than-life legacy upon, and it demonstrates that despite sharing the songwriting workload, grandiose concepts are still firmly in the Harris wheelhouse.
With Dickinson’s recent and well-publicized health scare (the 57-year-old singer recently got a clean bill of health), Maiden was finally forced to face its own mortality. The band will hit the road in 2016, but beyond that, not much is known. After 40 years in the business, what comes next will probably boil down to Harris simply doing “what feels right.”
The Book of Souls was recorded more spontaneously than your previous records. How did the process differ?
We started writing, rehearsing, and recording in the same studio, whereas normally we would go into a rehearsal room, write the songs, rehearse them, and then go into a recording studio. We basically recorded each song as soon as we’d written and rehearsed it. It’s happened to us before where we rehearsed nine or ten songs and went back to record the first one and someone forgot what the arrangement was. So, as well as being more spontaneous and exciting, it sort of kept the peace, too. If we make another album, we’ll do that again. We enjoyed it far more doing it this way.
More songs are credited to other band members than in the past. Do you approach a song differently when you’re not the songwriter?
Not really. I just play what’s necessary. Sometimes I’ll play stuff that I can be a bit busy on, and other times I’m not busy at all. I do what I do because I think that’s what’s right for the song. It’s not anything to do with who writes it—it’s whatever I think feels right. Or sometimes, what feels wrong [laughs].
Did [producer] Kevin Shirley have any input with the songwriting?
No, he never has anything to do with arrangements. Martin Birch [who produced eight Maiden albums, from 1981’s Killers through 1992’s Fear of the Dark] didn’t, either. We don’t need that from a producer; we’ve always just written and arranged our own material. Kevin might come up with a suggestion for something, but it’s usually just minor stuff. He’ll maybe suggest how many bars we play something or if a track needs another guitar on it, but nothing that’s going to change the actual song.
When you go to the band with a song solely written by you, are you suggesting melody lines to Bruce, or is it just lyrics?
If you see a song with just my name on it, then I wrote everything, including the guitar lines and vocal melodies. Even the stuff I write with Adrian [Smith] or Janick [Gers, guitars], the vocal lines are usually all written by me. On a guitar solo, I don’t tell the guys what to play, but I might suggest a few things.
So, even those signature Maiden guitar harmonies are all yours?
If it’s purely my song, yeah—100 percent of that is what I’ve done. But if it’s a song I co-wrote, with Dave [Murray, guitar], for example, I usually come up with the melody lines for what he’s written. It really just depends on what he’s got. Sometimes people come to me with just a riff. A fine example from years ago is a song called “Lord of the Flies” [1995, The X Factor, CMC]. Janick came to me with the opening riff, and it inspired me to write the whole rest of the song. But it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes someone will come in with a few bits and I’ll just piece them together. They trust me to make something out of it.
When collaborating on a song, do you prefer to hone the material over time or go with your initial response to their ideas?
When I’m doing stuff like that, the first things I come up with are usually the best ones. For “The Book of Souls,” Janick had the main idea, and I came up with the melodies. Originally, I was really worried because I was recording some ideas for it and they didn’t record properly, so I lost those and had to have another go of it. It took me a while to get what I felt the song deserved. The melodies sound huge now, but it took a while to get there—normally, it’s very quick. It was purely a technical problem. It’s the only time it’s ever happened to me. After all these albums, that’s probably not bad.
“Empire of the Clouds” is 18 minutes long, and “The Red and the Black” is over 13 minutes long. Are these songs presented to the band at that length, or do they evolve in the studio?
That’s a good question. I thought “The Red and the Black” was going to be eight or ten minutes, tops. But when you’re just having fun playing with the band and recording, you don’t really keep track of the time. It’s not until afterwards that I realize a song tends to be longer than what I thought it was. Obviously, if we’ve got too may bars somewhere, we’ll take them out. It’s just playing by ear and playing by feel. We don’t second-guess anything, really.
In “The River Runs Deep” and “Shadows of the Valley,” you’re accenting the drum hits with power chords instead of single notes.
I do play quite a few power chords. Even though there are three rhythm guitars doing whatever they’re doing, sometimes a part needs a bit of weight in it.
Are you plucking those notes simultaneously or strumming downwards using your fingernails?
I play chords with the back of the nail—the whole hand strumming down. It’s basically the tops of the fingernails clicking down on the strings. I don’t really analyze how I do it. I just do it.
Folks tend to be surprised that you get your sound out of flatwounds. Are you still using them?
Yeah, I still use them. I have to change them every gig; it’s not ideal. Back in the old days, everyone used to boil strings to get them to sound fresh again. I’m lucky enough to have my Rotosound signature series [SH77, .050, .075, .095, .110], so I’m able to get a different set every night.
Did you ever experiment with roundwounds?
I did, but the trouble with that is the strings kind of scrape up and down the neck, and I found it very annoying when playing a quiet passage—and I’m sure everyone else found it annoying as well [laughs]. I found the Rotosounds [flats] actually did what I want them to do, but they only last a couple of hours, although that’s enough.
Why don’t they last very long?
I get so much sweat on the strings it makes them a little dead toward the end of the set. So, it’s not the strings themselves that are giving out—it’s the actual elements, with the heat and the sweat.
Fifteen years ago, Maiden became a three-guitar band. Did that make you change anything in your approach or your tone?
No, not really. At first, I was a little concerned. I thought I might have to change my tone to cut through, but I didn’t have to change anything. It just worked right off the bat. I suppose it might have been different if the guitar player had never played with us before, but Adrian had. It just works naturally very well.
The Book of Souls opens with “If Eternity Should Fail,” which has that signature galloping bass. Was “Run to the Hills” the first time you tapped into that feel?
I think when I was trying to explain to the others what I wanted to do with the rhythm guitars, I said I wanted it to be a bit like “Barracuda” by Heart, but faster [laughs]. We were under so much pressure. That third album [The Number of the Beast] was written in basically two or three weeks. I know everyone associates me with that thing, but some songs just feel good like that.
You’ve said it plenty of times, but some people still insist that you play “the gallop” with three fingers. Can you confirm that your right-hand technique uses just two fingers?
It’s only two.
You don’t seem to anchor your thumb on a pickup as most bassists do. Your right hand is sort of free-floating.
I never anchor my thumb anywhere. That’s why I wear my bass quite low—I’m playing at arm’s length. It feels comfortable. Some people play with their bass very high up, and that’s fine, but I suppose that would change the sound because you’re attacking with the fingers from the underneath more.
So, is your forearm pressing down on the body to keep your hand in a stable position in relation to the strings?
Um, no [laughs]. I never really thought about it. I suppose if I don’t know where the strings are now, I never will, will I?
PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE (IRON) CURTAIN
STEVE HARRIS’ TECH, MICHAEL
Kenney, has been with Iron Maiden since 1980. He says that Harris is “very, very picky and set in his ways,” and there is almost nothing in his rig that’s still commercially available. Kenney also handles Maiden’s keyboard parts live, from backstage.
Harris’ main Fender Precision is believed to be from 1971. This bass was white, then black, then blue sparkle, and is now white again, featuring the West Ham United Football crest. The bass also has a Badass bridge, Seymour Duncan pickups, and a graphite nut. “The tone control is not wired—it’s full-on,” says Kenney. “The action is as low as it can go, but the truss-rod is rusted into position, so I can’t adjust it anymore. I use Bourns pots because they are sealed and we had big problems with sweat for a while.” Kenney says that Harris’ Precision is fairly heavy, and most likely made from western big-leaf maple, rather than alder or ash.
The heart of Harris’ system is a custom preamp that was made in the ’80s by Alex Alexandrou, an “electronics wizard guy” from Cyprus. Alexandrou’s “Alectron” preamp is essentially a copy of the preamp section from a Hiwatt 200 solid-state amp. It has been in Steve’s rig since about 1984. “The Alectron has a bass knob, a treble knob, and a 5-band graphic EQ,” explains Kenney. “We turn down the bass knob to about 10 or 11 o’clock, whereas the treble is dimed. On the EQ, the two on either side are most of the way up, and the middle is most of the way down—a typical ‘V’ curve. The problem is that when it’s really hot and sweaty and the strings start to go, I can’t give Steve any more treble because the Alectron doesn’t have the widest EQ. So we got an Aphex Aural Exciter. Now, the Aphex can actually generate harmonics to give the impression that the strings aren’t dead. It’s a lifesaver.”
The Alectron feeds several C-Audio SR707 power amps, with 850 watts per side into 4Ω . “In concert, I use two of them; in the studio, I use one,” says Kenney. Beefed-up Marshall custom 4x12 cabinets complete the rig. “The plywood is a bit denser, and the middle support piece is heavier and braced harder,” he admits. Harris currently uses four cabs: The top cabs are loaded with 300-watt EVM12L BlackLabel Zakk Wylde signature speakers, and the bottom cabs have 200-watt EVM12L Classics.
Also interesting is that Iron Maiden still performs on a “live” stage. Only the guitar players use in-ear monitors—Harris, Dickinson, and drummer Nicko McBrain all rely on stage monitors. “There are times when Steve might be a little louder than the others [onstage], and to me that’s when Maiden is most exciting—he’s the driving force.”