After selling over 75 million records, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and earning five Grammys and two Tony Awards, most musicians would happily call it a career and ride out their days in complacent bliss. That’s not the case for Mike Dirnt. Before heading in to write Green Day’s 12th studio album, the 44-year-old decided to do something he had never done before: take bass lessons. In a humble act of betterment, Dirnt studied under a San Francisco Bay Area musician who taught him music theory, which further sparked his drive to make Green Day’s best album yet. And it worked.
Shedding the rock-opera theatrics and dramatic orchestration of their albums of the 2000s, Dirnt, alongside frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and drummer Tré Cool, took it back to their punk-rock roots as a trio and effectively created the band’s best album since— dare we say it—1994’s Dookie. Featuring 12 tracks that could each be radio singles, Revolution Radio showcases Dirnt’s signature, rabid-picking tone, which holds up the foundation whether he’s riff doubling, chugging along with Cool’s manic kick, or stepping out into the forefront with his speedy counter-melodies.
If Dirnt’s new studious approach to writing wasn’t enough to boost his band, his new tone certainly did the trick. Spending the last few years working with Fender to build a rig that would satisfy his taste for gritty yet balanced sound, he helped introduce the new Bassman 800 series of amps, which produced his ideal tone while allowing him to ditch distortion pedals altogether. No matter how seasoned and road-tested he becomes, Dirnt’s passion seems only to intensify with time. Between his efforts to improve both his playing and his sonic profile on his band’s most pivotal album, a revolution is bound to ensue.
How did it feel to dive into Revolution Radio after taking a two-year break?
It felt great, but there were a lot of struggles. My wife was going through breast cancer, and Billy had his things that he was clearing up. When we first tried to get back together, we knew that we still needed more time, so we continued the break. One day, Billy and I went on a drive to Southern California to check out a surf spot, and we were sitting on the hood of his car and he turned to me and said, “Mike, I’m ready.” I told him I had the exact same thought at that precise moment. The process really made us appreciate what we have, between having each other and having what we create musically. We were charged after the time off. We went in there and didn’t even have the mindset of making a record; it was more about getting together to jam. That’s the catalyst for everything. That energy you feel on “Bang Bang” and “Revolutionary Radio” is what happens when we’re on the same page firing on all cylinders. This album just felt right; nothing was forced.
It takes the band back to your early punk roots. Was this intentional?
It wasn’t a conscious decision; I think getting together when we were inspired led to everything falling into place naturally, and the results were explosive. The one word I think you’ll hear people use when they define Green Day is “energy.” It’s the picking style; it’s Tré riding on top of the beat, and all of us driving at full speed. We just plugged in and let it rip, which is probably what gives the album a punk-roots feel. This process brought me back to the days when we were writing Dookie.
What sparked your decision to take bass lessons during the break?
I was playing myself ragged, trying to resolve musical issues in my head and sitting on my couch figuring out [Stevie Wonder’s] “Sir Duke” note for note. Finally, I decided I wanted to try a new path. The spark was that I like to play jazz with friends, and one night I slowed down my walking lines and realized I was playing the blues. Making that discovery led me to want to learn more of those musical connections. I ran into a guy named Steven Burke, who teaches piano and bass, and I began studying jazz and the blues with him. He taught me some theory, and what started as lessons turned into him playing piano while I played along on bass. And if I got lost somewhere he would stop and break it down for me.
What were your main takeaways from the lessons?
I learned how to connect what I play through theory, like the little turnarounds, or fills here and there. It’s nice to know the theory behind them and have that in the back of my mind. Now, when I’m moving up and down the neck, I’m not thinking as hard about where I’m going—it’s not unknown territory.
Did you take lessons when you started on bass?
I just jumped in and began playing. I didn’t even learn cover songs until after our second record, because I was too busy writing songs. I thought it was a great way for me to keep my playing original. Then I went through a phase of having a schizophrenic personality on bass, where I would sound like a few different bass players on one song—which actually works well sometimes. Now, I play what the songs call for, and I try to make my parts cohesive. A lot of times, when bass players are doing their job correctly, you don’t even know the bass is there; you just feel it.
How is your playing different on this album?
This time around, I caught myself wandering more and ending up somewhere new, from riff to riff. I deviated a lot throughout the album—more than ever before. I was taking a sort of [John] Entwistle approach—not that I could ever play like him. It wasn’t baking a cake; it was cooking on a stovetop and randomly throwing shit in the pan. At this point I play the way I want and don’t question myself. When your arm and your wrist are bouncing along and you’re not thinking about it, that’s when the magic happens.
How do you typically go about the songwriting process?
Over the years we’ve tried writing every single way you can go about it, which leads us to try to find a new method. Sometimes Billie will bring in something and we’ll jam on it, and I’ll stop everyone to say I’ve got a good idea for the bridge. Other times we’ll jam and whole songs will come out of it. Billie has become such a strong songwriter. He’ll bring in ideas, and we’ll hone and flesh out the notes and rhythms, and then Tré gets in there and puts his magic all over it. Tré is such a master that when he sits down and plays, it will usually lead me to change whatever part I had come up with. Most fun for me is when we get a song all structured out, Billie and Tré record, and then I go in last and lay down whatever I’m feeling over the whole thing.
One of the most ambitious tracks is the near-seven-minute “Forever Now.”
That song comes from us loving the album form and knowing an album should have a journey. A lot of our favorite records throw the kitchen sink out of the bedroom window, and we wanted that. Recording a song like that in the studio, you have to let out the little kid in you and picture yourself doing cartwheels onstage. The song wasn’t easy; it was a collaborative effort and it took a while. But we had all the time in the world because there wasn’t a start date to this process, so the pressure was off.
You went back to recording as a trio on this album. Does that give you more freedom on bass?
Playing in a trio is great for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it’s easier to call band practices [laughs]. What I like most about it is the opportunity to carry a full load and to be able to play a part that picks up the slack rhythmically and harmonically. I hold it down first and foremost, but I also get to step out and play some lead to show my personality. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing an intricate run, or even the little eyebrow-raise I do on “When I Come Around”; those are just my personal touches. And if those touches are hooks, that’s all the better. Good songwriting to me is like sticking your hand into a tackle box: just hooks everywhere.
Your new tone is both gritty and powerful. How did you achieve it?
This time it was really simple: Use the right bass and help design the right amp, and Fender delivered on both counts. In that sense, I guess it wasn’t simple. The amp part took a lot of time and work. I knew the sound I wanted, I had it in my head, and I worked with Fender until we got it. The result is Fender’s new Bassman line.
How did that go down?
It was a lot of back-and-forth, but it was an awesome, invaluable process. The entire line is something I’m seriously vested in. When you hear my sound on this album, so much of it comes from the Bassman 800. I’ll give you an example: I wanted a distortion that would go anywhere from [Norman Greenbaum’s] “Spirit in the Sky” to [Metallica’s] “Anesthesia Pulling Teeth,” but I didn’t want to use pedals because I’m sick of losing my signal through the chain. Fender built in vintage overdrive and preamp channels, and problem solved! The amp has a low pull-knob that drops my sound to a whole other world. It also has a clean top end that never gets muddy and enables you to hear the click from my pick. The results were so good I ended up using only the Bassman 800 and my signature Precision for the whole record.
Some of your tone must come from your heavy picking style.
Absolutely; a lot of my sound comes from my wrists. It also has to do with Billie and I picking the same way together for so many years. He’s a master of downstrokes, but I’ve come to be able to mimic his downstrokes perfectly using alternating up- and downstrokes. It prevents me from having pain in my wrists. I see a lot of bass players trying to play our stuff using all downstrokes, and I think to myself, You’re going to ruin your arm. That actually happened to the first bass player in American Idiot on Broadway. He was playing all downstrokes because he thought I did, and he hurt his arm. I told him, “Naw, man, that’s Dee Dee Ramone, not me.”
How would you describe your technique?
It’s difficult to quantify; it’s simply my style. I use a lot of pull-offs, and I roll into a lot of notes. I let notes and sounds ring out until the very last second, and I have plenty of little quirks that are part of my stamp.
Green Day seems to continually get better.
It all starts with band practice for us. We’ve always been a band that practices a lot and writes a ton of music. We come home right after a long tour, and we’ll immediately practice four or five days a week. Other bands will tell us they’re going to get together to practice and write a new record in a few months, and we’ll say, “What? You’re not jamming every day?” I take a lot of pride in the work ethic we’ve always had.
What can you offer about your playing relationship with Tré after 30 years?
I feel so lucky to have been playing with Tré for so long. He’s such a great drummer that when we jam, no matter what we’re playing, he can turn it into a song. We have a special bond. Bass players know where their bread is buttered, and it’s always the drummer. His foot and my wrist are connected. Every night before we go onstage, I take my pick and I rub it across the bottom of his shoe. Then we’re ready.
What do you love most about playing the bass after all this time?
When I was growing up, I had very shaky hands, because I was put up for adoption after some substance abuse issues. As a result, I didn’t have the finesse on guitar, so instead I fell in love with bass. Then to solidify it, when I was 14, someone broke into my house and took my guitars, but my bass was at Billie’s house. I said, “It’s official—I’m a bass player.” But I was already sold on bass at that point. It fit me better and it gave me a voice to write rhythms and melodies. Most important, it gave me job security. We bass players have that going for us. And of course, we are the foundation in any musical setting, and we look cool as hell while we’re doing it. You might as well have asked me what made me want to be the most important member of the band.
Green Day, Revolution Radio [2016, Reprise]
Bass Fender Mike Dirnt Signature Road Worn Precision, Gibson Ripper, Fender ’59 Precision
Rig Fender Bassman 800, Fender Bassman 610 Neo Enclosure
Strings Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt .045–.105
Picks Tortex 60mm
By Chris Jisi
Mike Dirnt’s playing on Green Day’s Revolution Radio is awash in tone, tempo, and melodic and rhythmic risk-taking. Example 1 shows the opening riff of “Somewhere Now,” before Billie Joe Armstrong doubles the line on guitar. Offers Dirnt, “That was Billie’s riff, and he let me put my own bounce on it, which led to it being featured.” Keep your picking wrist loose—this one flies by.
Example 2 shows Dirnt’s stepout 1:55 into “Revolution Radio.” “I wanted to create some tension before Billie’s guitar solo, and when I heard that opening, I knew I wanted my bass line to sound like walking on a wire.” Strive for a singing tone despite the fast tempo. Finally, Ex. 3 features the bridge of “Youngblood.” “I had a part prepared that I liked, with the little gallops and all, but when we were about to record it, there seemed to be one wrong note. I got tired of scrutinizing it, and I just played it and it worked.” Let those open strings and notes ring.