In for a nickel... Pic: Getty

You’d think that the pressure of being in a massive touring band would make a man cynical after a few years – but that’s not the impression you get from Nickelback bassist Mike Kroeger. Perhaps it’s because his brother Chad is the frontman and takes most of the strain; perhaps it’s because he’s talking about one of his favorite subjects, the bass guitar; or perhaps it’s because he’s in a position that most of us would sell one of our kidneys to attain, with the very best gear and a tech to worry about the details. In fact, when you ask him which model of Trace Elliot amp he uses, he simply laughs and says: “Couldn’t tell you that – the biggest models they have is what we asked for. The enviable situation I have is that my bass tech makes sure that I don’t even know how to turn my gear on – it’s job security for him.”

Kroeger alternates between pick and fingerstyle, and switches his Spector basses each time he does it. “The pick basses are all solid maple with different tops on them,” he says, “but the fingerstyle basses that I use are all mahogany, which I had Stuart Spector make. I don’t know if he ever made one before. I wanted something that sounded mushier and didn’t have so much of that springy, super-round tone: I wanted it to sound softer and smoother. It’s really super-warm. I like the big paddle headstock that Stuart usually only puts on four-string basses, so I had him put that on my five. Y’know, there are some cosmetic differences but basically it’s an NS5. It’s fully maple, so it weighs a ton!”

Swapping between instruments live makes perfect sense for Nickelback, Kroeger explains. “If you have the choice of a lot of basses then you can choose which bass is best for each style. I find that those maple basses just love the pick. They’re really attacky and have that barky sound. They really cut through the guitars. The fingerstyle basses that I typically play are with a clean guitar sound in a more ballady setting, and the bass doesn’t have to cut through things. It’s more the backbone of the melody, so you just want warmth and depth. It’s also nice to play the mahogany bass because it’s half the weight of the other ones: I play it on about a third of the songs. I find that with the pick basses, the heavier they are the better they sound, and exactly the opposite with the fingerstyle basses. An old P-Bass or J-Bass is super-light, for example.”

Kroeger is a committed five-string user, in line with Nickelback’s brand of downtuned stadium rock, although he adds: “I do have a couple of four-strings: I bought a couple of Fenders for the album sessions, actually, from the Relic series. They’re basically a ’59 P-Bass and a ’60 J-Bass reissue, I believe. They were really fun. I’ve tried to move down to a tuned-down four-string, but I find there’s always something on that top C that I need, and I do like the strings being a little bit closer together. I like to have the option of that extended range downwards, too – and we have a few songs down there."

Ask him if he’s thought about going up to a six-string bass, and he muses: “Oh boy – I don’t know. Lower is where I have to go, and not higher so much. It’d be pretty interesting if I could do to one string lower still [ie an F#]. But it’s pretty hard to understand when you get down below a certain register. It works if you play in a prog-rock or a jazz-fusion act or something, but it’s not going to go too well in a four-chord progression.”

Amp-wise, Kroeger is in clover, he explains. “I’ve used Peavey for several years and now they’ve acquired Trace Elliot,” he says, “so they offered me the opportunity to change to Trace if I wanted to, and I happily agreed because I’d played Trace before. They’re super, super-clean: that’s the thing I like about them so much. There’s no breakup: what you put in is what you get out of them. For effects, I use a Big Muff a little bit and that’s about it. I used to carry a Peavey guitar rig and use it for distortion, but not any more.”

“It’s largely reactive,” Kroeger says of his way of approaching bass-lines. “I react to what the drums and/or the vocals are doing. There are a lot of times when you can get tripped up and rub into the vocal, and play notes that don’t flatter the vocal but actually hinder it, and you gotta avoid those. That’s really where it’s at with the bass: do whatever you can do to enhance the vocal and give the song a little bit of melody, and maintain a really solid backbone to the music. My job is to keep it moving wherever possible.”

Ask him what the secret of good bass playing is and he announces: “Less is more! Overplaying is the worst thing that a bass player can do. If you listen to great bass players in great compositions, they are often not playing very much. It’s how you play it that counts. One bass player who I like is Seal: he played a lot of the bass tracks on his first record, and the track I was talking with him about was Crazy. It has a very simple bass-line, and he said to me, ‘I can’t play the bass very well, but if you give me one note I can play the hell right out of it!’ And he did. Listen to the way that record grooves: it’s all feel, and that’s what I always try to remember. Less is more, period.”

Kroger has gained his worldview on bass playing over two decades: asked when he started playing, he says: “Oh boy, I shudder to think. I was 15 when I started. My grandfather was a bass player: we had an old Fender P-Bass around the house, with an old Fender amp with a single 18” speaker in it. His bass was my first one. My grandma played drums, so that stuff was always around. Then Chad started playing the guitar and my cousin Brandon was playing drums, so there had to be a bass player and I started doing that. Guitar is cool and everything, but bass is where my heart is. I feel I can get into a song more deeply on the bass. Since then I’ve owned more or less every bass over the years, but for a long time it’s only been Spector.”

The bass-playing in Nickelback is simple and dynamic, in line with the big choruses and quiet-loud-quiet arrangements of many of the band’s biggest songs. But Kroeger is a worshipper of the slap and the pop on the quiet, he admits: “I like the freaky bass players – guys like Les Claypool and Flea. I thought they were superhuman. Another guy that I’m always interested in is Billy Gould of Faith No More, he’s so underrated. I don’t know why people never mention him, he’s amazing. I had a period where I wanted to slap all the time, but it became increasingly obvious that I was never going to do it in this band... So I abandoned it because I wanted to work on the basics.”

No chance of a slap solo in the live show, then? "Bass solos are where everybody goes to the bathroom, right? I don’t want to be the bathroom music…”

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