“I KNEW WHAT A BASS LINE SHOULD sound like, but I also felt free to create something new, since I was one of the first to play electric bass in bluegrass,” says Nick Forster. The utility stringed-instrument man played bass in a band for the first time when he was asked to join Hot Rize in 1978. The ensemble soared for a highly successful dozen years before disbanding. Forster then founded the widely syndicated eTown radio show, where he remains a strong broadcast voice and utilizes his broad instrumental and vocal skills to back Americana artists each week before a live audience in Boulder, Colorado. When Hot Rize reconvened last year at eTown Hall studios, it took under a week to knock out the group’s first new material in more than two decades.
How did you wind up playing electric bass in Hot Rize?
They wanted electric bass, and they provided the gear because I didn’t have it. Part of the reason was logistics. We traveled in a ’69 Cadillac, and everything had to fit in the trunk. Also, banjo player Pete Wernick had started using electric bass in his other projects. Pete felt that bass players should be tall and coordinated, and he liked my style when we played softball. I believe that’s partly why I got the gig.
Did you catch crap from traditionalists when Hot Rize played live?
I got booed just loading my tiny bass amp onstage at bluegrass festivals in the late ’70s. Pressure eased when the Osborne Brothers and Doyle Lawson’s band started using electrics right around that time. Luckily, we shared an agent with the New Grass Revival, so we played a lot of the same festivals. John Cowan had a great sound and he came to it naturally out of a rock background, but some other electric bass players in bluegrass were sort of pretending it was an acoustic, and that doesn’t generally lead to great note or tone choices. I found my spot between both worlds. I remember a guy complimenting me because I played electric bass “like it was a real instrument.”
Can you describe the bass hallmarks you brought to Hot Rize?
I plucked a little closer to the neck to get a more rounded tone, and I loved following the melody while leaving room for guitar runs. I played some octaves, tapped the offbeat with my right hand sometimes—especially during mandolin solos—and left space by letting whole-notes hang at the end of phrases.
Playing electric bass also allowed me to move freely about onstage. I could slide up to the vocal mic, and it helped me to connect with each of the three instrumentalists more directly. The late guitar player Charles Sawtelle and I had a special thing. Our approach to the pulse and bass notes helped us sound like Hot Rize and nobody else.
What is the current trend in bluegrass bass?
There has been a definite swing away from electric bass in bluegrass, but I’m proud of my role in creating a new bass sound that was eventually accepted, and is acknowledged as a definitive part of a band people still love.
Hot Rize, When I’m Free [2014, Thirty Tigers]
Bass ’65 Fender Precision Bass
Strings Medium D’Addario Half Rounds
RigEden WT550 Traveler head “with whatever small cabinet is available”