“The gig was a revolving door of guitar icons sitting in every week,” says Brooklyn native Paul Nowinski of his six-year tenure with the famous Les Paul trio. “Chet Atkins, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, George Benson, Pat Martino, Slash, and Al Di Meola to name a few.” Perhaps most iconic of all was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who was duly impressed with Nowinski’s upright playing with Les. Richards has since called on Nowinski for various projects over the years, including his recently released solo album, Crosseyed Heart.
Growing up in an extended musical family of music teachers and members of the New York Philharmonic, Nowinski’s bass career kicked in at age 14, backing entertainer Nipsey Russell. The doubler’s resumé includes ten years with the Boston Pops rhythm section and seven years touring the world with Rickie Lee Jones.
How did the Keith Richards session come about?
Keith played bass on all but two tunes on Crosseyed Heart, but he reached out to me when he wanted upright bass on the track “Robbed Blind.” I also did viola da gamba string-section parts on the track “Just a Gift.”
Did he give you any input on what to play?
Not really. On “Robbed Blind,” they didn’t let me hear the song before I started recording. No chart, nothing—first take. I was concerned that I had made one mistake and asked to do a second try, but Keith said, “I wait my whole life for mistakes like that.”
What did you learn most from Les Paul?
Keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to play the melody of a song. Cats would sit in and try to blow Les away with chops and speed, but he would simply play the melody and bring the house down every time, Louie Armstrong-style.
Your impeccable sense of time has kept you in demand. How would you advise bassists to improve their time chops?
Become good friends with a metronome. Put it on really slow, and practice subdividing the beat as much as you can. Slow is harder than fast. For example, set the metronome to 40 bpm and play eight measures of each subdivision— first quarter-notes, then eighths, eighth-note triplets, 16ths, quintuplets, sextuplets, septuplets, 32nd-notes, etc. Try to memorize the feel of each subdivision and go sequentially through each without stopping. Then alternate the subdivisions randomly. Eventually, this will get you really inside the beat.
How do you use the Fishman Full Circle pickup to help you capture your upright’s natural tone?
The tone is in your hands and fingers; Full Circle does the rest. Most pickups on double bass are a big compromise. Studio engineers usually don’t want to use the pickup sound and rely on the mic instead, but that pickup really changed the game. In combination with Fishman’s new Platinum Pro EQ/DI, it’s pretty off-the-hook.
What other projects are you currently involved in?
I’m finishing up a record entitled Chess Moves with hip-hop drum legend Keith LeBlanc and vocalist Bernard Fowler from the Stones. We’re revamping old Chess blues classics to a more funk vibe. LeBlanc and I are also collaborating with visual artist Mark Kostabi and his brother Paul on a fairly wild record, and I’ve been gigging out with my own band with forthcoming new recordings.
Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart [2015, Republic]; Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute [2001, Lost Highway] Rickie Lee Jones, Duchess of Coolsville [2005, Rhino] Hubert Sumlin, About Them Shoes [2005, Tone Cool]
Basses 1945 Natale Carletti ⅞ double bass with Fishman Full Circle pickup, 1963 Fender Jazz Bass, 1959 Fender Precision Bass
Strings Pirastro/Evah Pirazzi (double bass), La Bella (all electrics)
Rig 1970 Ampeg Portaflex B-18, 1964 Fender Showman
Other Tech 21 VT DI Deluxe, Audio-Technica microphones for recording, Fishman Platinum Pro EQ, Mogami cables