From daring solo voyages to courageous collaborative expeditions, Jonas Hellborg’s journeys might make him the bass world’s boldest explorer.
Glance at the discography of Jonas Hellborg, and a portrait of the artist begins to emerge in broad strokes: adventurous, ambitious, assiduous (heck, that’s just the “a” words…). Pop in any one of his 20-some solo records, and the sketch sharpens around the edges: focused, meticulous, imaginative. Have a chat with the Swedish-born bass player, and it comes more fully into focus: insightful, rational, enterprising. Watch him play, and the picture positively jumps to life: assertive, passionate, inspired.
Naturally, there’s more to the man than his work. But in the case of Hellborg, there almost needn’t be. Since bursting upon the bass scene in 1979 with The Bassic Thing— a solo bass record that came at a time when such a thing was practically unthinkable— Hellborg has gone on to push the boundaries of bass in terms of tone, technique, and perhaps most significantly, theory. Exposed to Indian classical music as a teenager, Hellborg dipped into that tradition’s pool of inspiration first with guitarist John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and later with a slew of other collaborations, most notably guitarist Shawn Lane and Indian percussionist Selvaganesh. In his lifelong quest for ultimate tone, he has worked closely with a number of manufacturers to design the kind of gear that allows his sonic vision to come to life.
What are you up to these days?
I have three records I’m hoping to finish and put out in the next couple months. The first is a remaster of The Silent Life, a solo bass album I recorded back in 1990. Back then, what I did was record for three days, playing straight through the tracks and picking the best takes. Listening back to the master tapes, I realize now that I prefer some of the takes I didn’t use. So I’m making a new compilation.
I’m also working on a new duet record with Selvaganesh, and a trio record with [guitarist] Mattias Eklundh and a drummer named Ranjit Barot, who played on John McLaughlin’s FloatingPoint [Abstract Logix, 2008]. It’s not as structured and composed as what I did with Mattias on Art Metal. It’s freer—more like the stuff I did with Shawn Lane.
Until now, your recordings with Selvaganesh have always featured a third or fourth player. What is different in this duet setting?
I’ve done a number of duet concerts with Selvaganesh, but we never dared to do it on record. I’m doing it to develop my approach to playing up to the standards of Indian classical music; it borrows a lot of the logical development inherent in that music. Indian music is very phrase-oriented, building up musical ideas through variations. In that way, there’s a certain similarity with Western classical forms. The big difference here is that I don’t stay within a single raga [see Classical Education] in a given piece. There is actually a form of Indian music that involves a kind of modulation. To make it simple, imagine a pentatonic scale within the raga: E, G, A, B, D, E. Then, with the drone still on E, move the scale up a full step to F#, A, B, C#, E, F#. I use that kind of method a lot on this new project.
Another element is the type of South Indian rhythmic compositions and improvisations we develop. Much of what I’ve learned from playing with Selvaganesh involves taking a rhythmical phrase—say, of seven beats—and superimposing that on top of 4/4 time. It gives the music a really interesting kind of tension.
How did you come to study Indian music?
When I was a teenager, I was a potsmoking hippie who listened to Ravi Shankar. Of course, I had no idea what I was actually hearing, but that was my introduction to that sound. That later led me to John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Shakti, which opened my eyes and ears even further. When I eventually started playing with McLaughlin, I started getting some real information from the great Indian musicians themselves, like Zakir Hussein and Hariprasad Chaurasia. John is quite knowledgeable, so I picked up a great deal from him, as well. A big development for me came when I met Selvaganesh around 1993 and began working with him.
Selvaganesh comes out of the Carnatic music tradition from South India. How did that differ from the Hindustani tradition of Zakir Hussein and Hariprasad?
The really great Indian musicians know about both worlds. Plus, Selvaganesh is the son of Vikku Vinayakram, who played with Shakti. He is the most knowledgeable percussionist I’ve ever come across.
The interesting thing about Indian music is that it’s not documented like Western classical theory. And there are elements in Indian music—rhythm, melody, tonality, and ornamentation—that have developed past the point where Western music has reached. I want to learn all I can to help expand the Western musical vocabulary.
To learn Western theory, you can go and buy a bunch of books. In the Indian system, learning comes from a guru-disciple relationship; if you’re serious classical musician, you’ve grown up learning everything from your guru over a long period of time. Westerners can never really learn to play Indian classical music on a high level. But we can learn a lot and implement those kinds of melodic and rhythmic concepts.
As a source of understanding the process of making music, Western classical training complements my study of Indian classical music to a high degree; I was studying composition and theory in my teens, and have always incorporated ideas from that in both compositions and improvisations.
But in music, we deal primarily with sound. It’s the fascination of sound that draws a kid to a set of chimes, the sound inside a seashell, a plucked string, or a struck piano key. When music theory is taught as gospel, people tend to lose that fascination. They start to believe in absolutes, and they forget there is a sonic reality that in the beginning tempted them to play a certain note on a particular occasion.
Chords and scales are very poor descriptions of how music works—music is about the gravity of sound, and how notes attract and repel each other. Yes, once you have a piece of music you can analyze and describe it based on chords and scales, but that can be rather misleading. Case in poin: take the famed IIm–V–I chord progression that is a cornerstone of jazz. In its simplest form, you can say that Dm–G7–C implies the scales D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C major—in other words, the whole thing is in C. But the magic or emotional power that this or any other harmonic progression has over us is hidden in the gravitational pull that each note has over any other note in the chosen scale or tonality.
How did you develop your approach to playing chords on bass?
The first big thing that happened was I heard Colin Hodgkinson. He had a group called Back Door in the UK in the ’70s, which was made up of bass guitar, saxophone, and drums. They started showing up in the popular rock press because they were such an absurd group for the time, and I was intrigued by the whole idea. I got some records, and they sounded nothing like I expected. What was remarkable was he was strumming chords. That opened up my mind to what you could do on bass. When I started studying theory, I didn’t have a piano or a guitar at home, so I would play harmonic progressions the only way I could—on bass. That developed my vocabulary for chord playing. Then I was trying out jazz standards, and I had to figure out how to play the melody and the chord at the same time. That finally led to the idea of doing a solo bass record because I figured it sounded pretty interesting. Nobody at the time was doing anything like it, so I felt pretty strong about it.
How did you develop your slap technique?
Some time during the ’70s, I was invited to join a disco band. They said, “You have to play slap,” but I didn’t know what that was at the time. So I got some records and listened to what people were doing and started doing it. It felt very natural—I just took to it and didn’t actually work on it very much.
In your many projects, you’ve performed as much with percussionists as you have with drummers. How do those different types of rhythmic accompaniment affect how you play?
It has more to do with the person I’m playing with, rather than their instrument. But it’s easier to play with someone like Selvaganesh, because he grew up learning how to accompany a soloist, following exactly what happens in the moment. Even if the soloist makes a mistake, he knows how to turn it around so it sounds like it was meant to be. You’ll never be lost, because he understands everything that’s going on, and he’s always there to support you.
In contrast, Western drummers often think that their main purpose is just to keep the groove; it doesn’t matter what the soloist as long as the band is swinging. I fi nd that approach a little shallow—it becomes two monologues, rather than a conversation, and it doesn’t make musical sense.
How does that concept of interactivity influence your compositions?
In a properly composed piece of music, musical phrases travel between the players. That’s something I really developed with Shawn Lane. When he came to play with me, I explained all this, and we started to work that way that when we improvised. We made a point to pick up phrases from each other to make the improvisation more interactive.
I like the idea of what I call “grand guitar,” which involves making bass and guitar function as one big synchronized instrument. The idea started in my duets with John McLaughlin, and has continued in my collaborations with Buckethead, Shawn Lane, and Mattias Eklundh. One of the best examples is on Zenhouse, where sometimes I can’t even tell whether it’s me or Shawn playing.
Aside from your collaborative efforts, you play a lot of solo bass.
I started doing solo bass performances in 1977, and released [solo bass record] The Bassic Thing in 1979. I have always done it raw—no pedals, loopers, or any kind of background support. The whole concept is to carry a musical message, maintain a hundred percent contact with the audience. It is truly a religious experience. Last year I did quite a few solo performances.
For several years, you and Bill Laswell were partners in New York’s Greenpoint Studios. Where did your studio chops come from?
Around 1980, I met Reebop, the percussionist who played with the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Eric Clapton. He saw me play at a club in Sweden, and he invited me to come to England to record in his studio. I spent a year doing that, and got a lot of experience with recording equipment. I wasn’t just playing—I was sort of like an assistant producer, taking care of sessions and overseeing mixes.
After starting my label [Day Eight Music], I went to record in New York. Seeing how much it was to rent studio space, I calculated that it would be cheaper to set up my own studio in Sweden. I had that for a few years. When I decided to move to New York around 1986, I talked to Bill Laswell, who I had worked with for a few years. I asked him if we could do something together if I brought over my equipment. We eventually got a space together in Greenpoint, New York, and started Greenpoint Studios. I sold all my gear to Laswell when I moved to Paris in 1993, but after a year or so I started assembling a studio again. This time, I got portable gear so I don’t need to have it installed anywhere—I keep it in flight cases.
Has your approach to tone changed much over the years?
In a sense, yes. I think I always was trying to get an acoustic sort of tone out of my bass, even on electric bass. Maybe a better way to describe it is as having a fullrange tone, with all the high-frequency partials preserved.
How does that relate to your gear choices?
Well, it’s easier to get the sound you want when you’re playing a good instrument, but that’s not really where your sound comes from. I really believe it’s all in your hands, your ears, and your mind, as your brain affects your physical interaction with an instrument. Tone creation is all about how you approach an instrument—how you pluck the string and how you fret the note. I think awareness of tone is something a lot of people overlook.
From strings to basses to amplifiers, you’ve been very involved in the development and design of the gear you play. What is behind that?
I design out of necessity—if someone else satisfied my needs, I wouldn’t be involved! I want the sound to be created by how I play, with the instrument, amp, speakers, and strings responding to my intentions, and not necessarily having a sound of their own. Now I feel that the combination of all my signature designs—strings, bass, and amp—gives me a range of expression that for the first time directly connects with the sound in my head.
What lead to the development of your signature set of DR Strings?
I asked myself about 15 years ago why G strings always sound better than the others in a set. The most obvious difference is that it has just one wrap around the core. After overcoming all the issues that came with making single-wrap strings, I finally have a set that has a more balanced sound and that responds much more to my liking than conventional strings.
What is the story behind your signature Warwick bass?
People seem to think they’re acoustic, but they’re not. It’s a double paradox—they look acoustic but are in fact totally electric, yet the sound I’m going for is what people would normally associate with an acoustic instrument. The sound really comes from the low-impedance magnetic pickups I helped design.
The body is hollow, but not for reasons related to sound. In fact, the first prototype is a solid-body. It weighs about 50 pounds and sounds absolutely insane—it has the longest sustain I’ve ever heard on a bass guitar. I chose this shape for ergonomic reasons, as it’s easier on the body.
As an electric bass player who occasionally plays acoustic bass guitar, I find that a bit counter-intuitive.
It’s something I learned from playing acoustic bass guitar in the ’90s. I didn’t play much electric at all, and realized I had much less back pain than when I played electric. When you have a large bass body, your arms rest over the top, and your shoulders go into a more relaxed position. It pushes your shoulders and arms forward. I suppose it would be the same if you put a pillow behind your electric bass, or if you’re well endowed around the belly.
You also helped develop a line of amps from Warwick. What is your philosophy when it comes to amp design?
If you’re going to design an amplifi er with a clean signal path, you actually have to do some work to match the components properly; if you take one capacitor and replace it with another kind of capacitor, it’s not going to sound the same. It doesn’t have to be expensive, particularly nowadays when you can fi nd manufacturing in Asia that is inexpensive and effective.
For instance, if you buy a speaker driver from somewhere and design a box around it, it will probably sound fine. But ideally it will all work together as one unit. If you make the effort to design the driver and the cabinet at the same time, you’ll end up with a better result. It’s actually quite easy to build a bass amp that sounds fine for today’s accepted standard. But if you want to go beyond that, there’s a lot of work to do. I think the result speaks for itself.
Bass Warwick Jonas Hellborg Signature
Rig Warwick Hellborg preamp, power amp, and cabinets
Strings DR Strings Jonas Hellborg Signature
Coming from one of the world’s deepest musical traditions, Indian classical theory isn’t something you can blithely define in a few hundred words. If you’re looking to tap well (and keep your head above water), here are a few basic terms to whet your appetite.
Hindustani Heavily influenced by the influx of the Moguls into the Indian subcontinent in the 16th Century, it is the tradition of classical music generally associated with Northern India. It was made famous in the West by such players as Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussein, and its most common instruments include the sitar (long-necked lute), tabla (hand drums), and sarod (short-necked lute). It is closely related to the qawwali music of Sufi singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Carnatic Regarded by some as the older of the two traditions, it is the style of classical music generally performed in South India. It has an especially rich tradition of complex rhythmic compositions, and is often performed on vina (lute), violin, mridangam (hand drum), and ghatam (clay pot). Popular performers include L. Shankar and U. Srinivas.
Raga Somewhat akin to a Western mode, it forms the melodic backbone of a classical performance. Often with extra-musical associations (time of day, season, color, etc.), it may or may not start or end on the root played by an accompanying drone instrument. The term also refers to the long-form performance of a given raga.
Tala A metric cycle in Hindustani music. The most ubiquitous is teental, a 16-beat pattern subdivided 4+4+4+4.
Sargam Like an Indian version of solfège, it is the solmization of the notes in a raga. Rather than “do,” “re,” “mi,” sargam utilizes the syllables sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa.
Solo (on Day Eight Music, except where noted) The Bassic Thing, Elegant Punk , Axis , Bass , Adfa , Jonas Hellborg Group , The Word [Axiom, 1990], The Silent Life , Ode to a Tractor , E , Abstract Logic , Ars Moriende  Octave of the Holy Innocents , Temporal Analogues ofParadise , Time Is the Enemy [Bardo, 1997], Aram of the 2 Rivers: Live in Syria [Bardo, 1999], Zenhouse [Bardo, 1999], Good People in Times of Evil [Bardo, 2000], Personae [Bardo, 2002], Icon: A Transcontinental Gathering [Bardo, 2003], Paris (DVD) [Bardo, 2004], Kali’s Son [Bardo, 2006], Art Metal [Bardo, 2007]
With Mahavishnu OrchestraMahavishnu [Warner Bros., 1984]
With John McLaughlinAdventures in Radioland [Relativity, 1986]; Live at Montreux 1974/1984 (DVD) [Eagle Vision, 2007]
With DeadlineDown By Law [Records, 1985], Dissident [Day Eight Music, 1991]
With Public Image Ltd.Album [Elektra, 1986]
With Trilok GurtuUsfret [CMP Records, 1988]
With Michael ShrieveThe Leaving Time [Jive/Novus, 1989], Two Doors [CMP Records, 1996]
With Ginger BakerMiddle Passage [Axiom, 1990], Unseen Rain 
With Jens JohanssonFjaderlosa Tvafotingar [Amigo, 1991]
With Shining PathNo Other World [Day Eight Music, 1994]
With Anders JohanssonRed Shift [Heptagon, 1997]
With PatchworkOdeon [Spirit Zone, 1998]