In his first bass interview ever, rock icon Lenny Kravitz sits down with Jon D’Auria to discuss his love of low end, the legends who inspire his playing, and how bass has been the catalyst of some of his biggest hits.
Photos by Mathieu Bitton 

Photos by Mathieu Bitton 

Let’s face it; Lenny Kravitz is a certified rock god. His legendary guitar hero and superstar status would be impressive enough if it wasn’t always competing for the spotlight with his model good looks, his undeniable swagger, his cutting edge fashion, his larger-than-life persona, and his downright cold blooded ability to rock sold out arenas across the globe. We get it; the man is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist who plays everything that he picks up—from a drum kit to a piano to a damn triangle even—at a master level. He’s even a recording studio ace who has produced every one of his albums himself, which, by the way, have won copious amounts of awards and have gone platinum more times than he’s redefined his image, and that’s a lot. And if he already wasn’t a generation gap-breaking household name, he went and starred in The Hunger Games [2012 & 2013] series of blockbuster movies, which earned him high praise from even the staunchest of critics. We could go on and on about his accomplishments, his immense fame, and his trendsetting ways, but we’re actually not going to talk about any of that. Not one bit. And that’s because for the first time in his triumphant 37-year career, Kravitz sat down to chat with us about something he’s very passionate about—the bass guitar.

It might not be what sparked his fame, what gets him on late night talk shows, in the pages of GQ, or what will land him his next starring role in Hollywood, but when it comes to bass, the 54-year-old takes it very seriously. Just listening to him talk about his 4-string heroes Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Verdine White, and James Jamerson, you can hear the excitement in his voice as he recalls specific tracks and moments in songs that hipped him to the instrument when he first picked it up as a budding young musician. I started playing bass right around my junior high/high school days when I was out in Los Angeles. I’ve always loved bass, and especially in listening to funk music I was always attracted to it. I originally got some cheap, no name 4-string and I just started learning on it. I couldn’t put it down. I was already playing guitar, piano, and drums, so bass was the last instrument that I added to my repertoire, but it’s one that really grabbed me and sucked me into it.”

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And it went on to become a staple of his music, ever since he first burst onto the top of the mainstream charts with his 1993 hit album Are You Gonna Go My Way [Virgin], where his love of rock, blues, reggae, pop, and psychedelic funk erupted through his song writing and onto the radio. And while the bulk of the attention is typically cast on his monster guitar playing and soulful vocals, his stylistic approach to his bass lines has always been just as important to him. “A good bass line should be something that exists on its own and carries the song. Sometimes on a straight rock track it sounds best for the bass to follow the guitars while adding some fills and runs. But I love a bass part that drives the melody and the rhythm and becomes something that sticks with you that you’ll hum later on. For instance, any James Brown song you mention, I could easily hum you the bass line because it’s the center of the track. And it’s so simple, like ‘ba-dum, da-dum, boow, ba-dum, ba-dum, boow.’ But the dude playing is grooving his ass off and he’s playing it with feel, and he can take those few simple notes and make you feel it in your body. That’s what bass is all about to me. Bass is an instrument that has the ability to get into your bones and make you move.”

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Luckily for Kravitz, writing catchy lines is an instinctual activity that he approaches organically with the rest of his songwriting process. “[My bass lines] just come out; I don’t even think about them at all. The first thing I lay down is the drums, and then I usually lay down the main guitar part. Then maybe I’ll lay down keys or another guitar riff, or at least I’ll have enough on the track to feel comfortable with it. Then I listen to the track and let it play and I put the bass in my hands, and the line just naturally comes out. I don’t even think about it. I’m very intuitive and when I’m inspired it just comes through me. Being that I’m the guy playing all of the instruments on every track and being my own producer too allows me to not have to talk to anyone or explain anything. I just do it and react and naturally the counterpart comes out.”

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His latest album, Raise Vibration, was no exception to his free-flow process, as he wrote the 12-song LP in the span of two weeks and then produced the record himself at Gregory Town Sound Studios in the Bahamas. Each song, Kravitz claims, came to him in a dream, which subsequently led to a very sleepless time period with very productive results. He also chose to look at each track as an individual entity, which inspired very different approaches to how he dialed in his bass tone on each song. “Every track was a completely different session and I approached each song with a fresh headspace. That way I knew instinctually that something should be played on a Fender Precision Bass instead of a Jazz Bass. I know the sounds of all of my basses inside and out, so in the studio I know that this specific bass is inherently better on its own without EQ; just straight through the amp. And maybe this bass sounds great too, I like the mids, but the bottom isn’t as round. So I pick a bass and then from there I add processors—first from the amplifier and then from the EQ in the racks and the decks. That way I can control if it should be cleaner, fatter, or woodier sounding, if I want to hear more of the bass’ natural timbre. I might want to hear my fingers more, or add fuzz, or distortion. Every track is it’s own journey for the bass. I want it to be fresh every time.”

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In that he succeeded, as the album seamlessly moves through different vibes, and in some cases different genres entirely. Tracks like “5 More Days,” “Low,” and “The Majesty of Love” display Kravitz’s ability to groove deep in the pocket and lock in tight with his drums, while the smoothed out feel of “It’s Enough” makes bass the centerpiece of the entire song. “I’m one person doing everything on each track, but I always take on different personalities when I play each one. Every instrument in every one of my songs takes on a persona of the player I envision should be playing it. So I kind of see who they are and what kind of musician they are, and I take on their character to capture their feel. For “It’s Enough,” the main riff is very smooth and almost vocal-driven. Then when I come in later with those Temptations-type vocals I’m just mirroring the bass and then diverting slightly on a few notes to give it some rub. But that bass line is the center of the track for sure. That’s what that song called for.”

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To cop all of the different tones conveyed by his many different personalities in the studio, Kravitz enlists his impressive arsenal of basses that he’s been collecting over the years. “I’m very particular about the basses I use and I’m lucky to have the selection that I do. For a long while I’ve had a 1962 Fender P-Bass that is Olympic white, that was played on a bunch of Jackson 5 records. I have a 1964 Precision Bass in a natural finish, a 1962 Jazz in Sunburst, a 1965 baby blue Jazz, and those are my main studio basses that do not leave the studio–ever! On ‘Low,’ when the real bass part comes in in the second part of the verse, when I’m popping to get that Louis Johnson kind of sound, I’m using a 1976 Music Man Stingray. Then I have a Rickenbacker 4001 in Jetglo, a 4000 in Fireglo, a Gibson EB3 in aged Pelham Blue, which is gorgeous, and that’s actually the bass that’s on “Always On The Run.’ That’s my main collection.”

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For his rig, Kravitz keeps his set up simple. “This time around I was very consistent with my bass amps. I use an Acoustic 220 that I keep in the studio and the cabinet is out in the booth; it’s an Acoustic Horn-Loaded 407 2x15. That was basically the whole album. I also have an Ampeg Classic SVT-VR and an Ampeg Portaflex PF-20T that I love, but didn’t really use this time around. On a couple of tracks I went direct into an API Mic Tree if that’s what I was feeling for it.”

In attempting to maintain his authenticity on bass, Kravitz has spent his lifetime on the instrument cultivating and honing his techniques, which he uses appropriately throughout his work on Raise Vibration. “I primarily use fingerstyle with my middle finger and my index finger, and I dig in when I need to, but again, it’s all about dynamics. Sometimes I use the really fleshy part of my finger so that it’s fat and there’s no knocking. Sometimes I knock it with the tip of my finger to get that punch so it adds some midrange. Then I have a real fingery style, like on ‘Majesty of Love,’ where I’m playing a bunch of licks and it’s very pointy sounding. I look at the bass almost as a drum, or a percussion instrument. That comes out when I play my popping style, where I use my thumb against the low string and I pluck on the high strings, which is very much inspired by Larry Graham in a very old school, dirty funk way. Then I go to my Louis Johnson thing, which is a bit cleaner in the studio, with a Music Man or a Fender. All of my techniques originate from all the different records I grew up listening to.”

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Faced with the necessity of having to shred his iconic guitar parts live, Kravitz requires the help of fellow low enders for his live shows, which in the past fell on the talented shoulders of Tony Briet and longtime sideman Jack Daley. However, for the past several years, the talented Gail Ann Dorsey [David Bowie] has expertly held down the bass chair for Kravitz, which is a fact that he’s infinitely grateful for. “Gail is simply amazing. She’s such a great musician with a remarkable ear. She’s well versed in many genres of music and her playing is so damn tuned and developed that she can play anything. We can go from The Carpenters to Funkadelic to Simon and Garfunkel to Aretha [Franklin] to Led Zeppelin, to anyone. We’re both all over the place and we love it. When we jam, that’s when she’s able to come out of my parts and take it to other places. She’s just the best. It’s a genuine joy to play with her every night.”

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Playing alongside the rock legend would be a tall order for anybody, given both his prowess on the instrument and his particular decisiveness about his bass lines. For a multi-instrumentalist who prefers to approach songwriting on his own, Kravitz has a definite love affair with the bass guitar and how he feels it should be approached on his music. “There are bass players who can solo all over the place and play all this difficult shit, but then you ask them to play a groove and it doesn’t quite feel right. So many players think that more is better and that the faster they can go, the better they are. But then a musician like B.B. King comes in and bends one note that completely penetrates your soul. On the other hand you have guys like [James] Jamerson who were completely busy players, but they knew how to do that tastefully and disappear into the song. No matter what you’re doing, bass is the instrument that has to hold down the groove and the foundation. It’s the glue that keeps the drums and the guitars together, and it’s the soulful monster that keeps everyone moving.”

All photos by Mathieu Bitton 

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