The Zac Brown Band didn’t have to look far for a replacement when a founding member of one of country music’s biggest bands decided to leave the bass chair. After nearly ten years in the popular jam-ready group, John Driskell Hopkins wanted to move over to guitar and focus on songwriting. The group’s next bassist was already building a solid list of credits as a bassist and producer within the larger ZBB family. “I helped Zac open Southern Ground Nashville studio,” says Matt Mangano, the group’s newest member, “and the band came in last winter to record an EP called the Grohl Sessions. I got a call about a week later from Zac asking me if I wanted to come on the road and play bass with them. I said, “Let me think about it … YES!” Since he had helped record the music and played bass on the songs, Mangano was already familiar with the material, but maybe just as important, he was already tight with many of the band members from years of work, touring, and friendship.
The connections really started for the Visalia, California native when he went to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music in the ’90s. Once there, he focused on music production, engineering, and the music business. He met Clay Cook, who eventually landed in the Zac Brown Band playing guitar, organ, and mandolin. Another important link that helped prep him for the dual life of producing and touring was his Berklee roommate, future superstar John Mayer. The two often recorded and performed in their dorm room, and after leaving school, Mangano played guitar on Mayer’s Room for Squares tour, while David LaBruyere played bass.
What’s it like to take over for a founding member of the band?
It’s been great—like joining a family. John is like one of my brothers, and everyone has been supportive and welcoming.
Has the band’s sound changed since you started playing with them?
By his nature, John is a singer–songwriter and that’s always been his approach to playing the bass. I’m not that; I’m a bass player and I’ve always focused on playing rather than songwriting, so I approach it more from a player’s perspective. I’m thinking about a different set of parameters.
How does that come out in the band’s music?
I think it helps open the band to more possibilities, because there’s a lot of interaction between myself and [drummer] Chris Fryar. I also listen to the other people and try to play off them and do little things in the music that push people in a certain direction. I like to have a musical conversation with the guys onstage and do something to push or pull the beat a little, or make them turn around and smile or laugh.
Does your production background help you as a bass player?
Definitely—it helps me to not overplay. Having recorded bands as a producer, I try to make the song or the singer the focus, and I want the players to support that focus and not try to interfere with it. I try to keep that thought in the back of my mind, and it really helps me to understand where the focus needs to lie and what needs support.
On the reverse side, has being a bass player helped your production?
I think so. When I’m in the studio working on a track, I’m not really actively paying attention to the bass. I’m passively paying attention, and if the bass part is not right, it’s going to stand out, and if it’s right, I’m not really going to pay much attention to it—which is how I think most people respond to the bass, honestly [laughs].
Bass is one of those things that you don’t miss until it’s gone, or you don’t notice unless you make a bad mistake. There’s so much power that comes with bass, and like they say in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you overplay, you’re going to get in the way of the song or the vocal, and if you play a wrong note, everyone is going to sound wrong. But if you play a right note that’s interesting and outside the root, it can elevate the song. One note can change the whole color of the song. Note length matters, too. How you groove is going to change how everyone in the band and the audience grooves.
The whole life of bass players is learning to adjust to everything around you—the gear, the songs—and if you’re not a supportive person, you might not be suited to the bass.
Do you have any tips on getting a good studio sound?
The hardest lessons I’ve learned are all gear-related, and those things will make or break you. You need to have gear that’s in great condition, works well, and plays in tune. There’s nothing worse than showing up for a session where you need to play above the 12th fret and realizing your bass has intonation problems and you don’t have a screwdriver to adjust it. Make sure your bass is intonated and all of your electronics are clean and your cables are good before you go into the studio or onstage.
Having a good headphone mix will also make or break you. I prefer stereo mixes over the “more me” mixes. When the engineer gives everyone the same mix, they’re all hearing the same thing and are all going to play together better, instead of focusing on themselves.
Bass 1963 Fender Precision Bass, with a lightweight ash body that’s had its finish stripped and a “poorly replaced” clear coat; 1959 Gibson EB-2, for “a really fat, almost synth-bass-like sound”; Bluesman Vintage Eldorado “stack knob” J-style; 1974 Fender Jazz Bass, with Badass II bridge; 1937 Kay C-1 upright
Strings Rotosound Swing Bass 66 stainless (.045–.105); Ernie Ball and Thomastik-Infeld flatwounds
Pickups David Gage Realist and Fishman Full Circle pickups (on the Kay)
Amp Studio: Avalon U5 or Demeter tube DI, split to a 1966 Ampeg B-15 (or a 1962 Fender Bassman) miked with a Neumann U47; live: Ampeg SVT-VR Classic series head
Cabinet Ampeg SVT-810AV 8x10
Pedals Spontaneous Audio Son of Kong EQ/Gain/DI, Fuzzrocious Rat Tail, Boss CE-1 Chorus, Boss OC-2 Octave