Reed Mathis: Taking Back Beethoven

Reed Mathis grew up with a different relationship to Western classical music than most of us: His parents are conductors, as were both of his grandfathers, and by age 11, he was already comfortable singing and playing piano, cello, guitar, and the Fender Precision owned by his uncle, John.
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Reed Mathis grew up with a different relationship to Western classical music than most of us: His parents are conductors, as were both of his grandfathers, and by age 11, he was already comfortable singing and playing piano, cello, guitar, and the Fender Precision owned by his uncle, John. But the most unusual thing about his Tulsa, Oklahoma childhood is that although he was surrounded by classical music, he never developed the stuffy attitude generally associated with the genre.

“Most people are exposed to classical through regimen, clear authority figures, and strong ideas about right and wrong,” says the 39-year-old, best known for his adventures with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Golden Gate Wingmen, Tea Leaf Green, Steve Kimock, 7 Walkers, and Billy & the Kids. “People end up associating all that rigidity with classical music itself. I got to hear that music without the cultural hang-ups, and to me, it sounds just as powerful as Led Zeppelin and John Coltrane, and not different energetically.”

If that sounds like a stretch, you probably haven’t heard Reed’s new album (or his new band, Electric Beethoven). Beathoven [Royal Potato Family] recasts movements from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third and Sixth Symphonies by fusing contemporary instrumentation, big grooves, free-wheeling solos, and fresh arrangements that manage to convey the narrative storylines and harmonic sophistication—as well the spirit, soul, and majesty—of the originals. Packed with appearances by a stellar crew of badasses that includes Tulsa legend Steve Pryor, Phish bassist Mike Gordon, the Barr brothers (guitarist Andrew and drummer Brad), and drummers Joe Russo, Matt Chamberlain, and Stanton Moore, Beathoven is soulful and warm, frequently joyful, and a rare achievement by a singularly gifted improviser.


For some reason, we hear classical music, and we think that [the great composers] were like the people who make classical music today. Beethoven was nothing like those people. He was not wealthy, educated, or super-sophisticated. He was the first classical musician who didn’t have a rich master; he played for tickets, and at every show, he improvised. He was totally working class, an orphan at 15 who never went to music school. He was a lot more like Woody Guthrie than he was like Bach, and I wanted to show that.

What’s special about the Third and the Sixth Symphonies?

You know how lots of bass players sound like Pastorius in their teens and early 20s, and then that goes away? Beethoven went through that same process. Everything he did before the Third sounded like Haydn and Mozart; the Third Symphony is really his debut. I chose the Sixth because when I was three or four, that was my favorite. We had the 1963 Berliner Philharmoniker recordings conducted by Herbert Von Karajan, and nobody ever played it better.

Did you rediscover Beethoven after a childhood of being immersed in his music?

I heard Beethoven a lot when I was little, and then I got into Metallica and Hendrix and stuff and stopped listening to classical music until my 20s. I came full circle, and by then, I’d been listening to John Coltrane and Aphex Twin and Digable Planets like, 30 hours a day, and suddenly, I heard the Beatles in Beethoven. I heard Cole Porter. I heard Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and all this other stuff in Beethoven’s music.

How did you start this project?

I got an acoustic guitar and just started humming the Sixth Symphony, finding the chords under my fingers. I recorded both symphonies in a weekend on a whole bunch of instruments I’m not good at, just to see if the music was strong enough to take it, and it could. Then I went measure by measure and wrote down the chords, circling anything that sounded like a strong downbeat or upbeat, and made a list of my friends. I matched styles with movements, and then starting hitting people up and buying plane tickets.

What were your priorities?

I wanted to see whether the music would have the same emotional wallop if I kept the sequence of events in order but altered the duration of each event. I wanted to boil the harmony, the melodies, and the rhythm down to their absolute essence, to see what was absolutely indestructible about them, and then dress it back up with our stuff, our details.

How did you guide the musicians?

I wanted everybody who played on the record to feel like it was their record. I didn’t want them to be expressing my vision of Beethoven; I wanted them to be expressing themselves—not how they feel about classical music or Beethoven, but how they feel about their instrument, those chords, and those rhythms. I told them to forget that it was Beethoven and just play the songs.

The music sounds unusual and familiar at the same time.

These harmonies and rhythms sound familiar because they’re still in all our American music. It’s universal music that never goes away. Every generation should have the right to play timeless songs, to take a great piece of music and express ourselves through what we do with it. For some reason, classical music is usually off-limits.

How does the music change onstage with Electric Beethoven?

We freestyle on those forms. We don’t know where it’s going, when we’re getting to the next bit, when we’re going, whether we’re going to play it as a waltz, in four, or in half-time … dynamics are improvised, and durations are improvised. We don’t know who’s got the melody or who solos where. We just pass the ball, like a basketball team. It’s like a conversation, which is something I’ve seen modeled by the Wayne Shorter Quartet. They’re the gold standard for improvising bands.

What effect are you using to solo in higher registers?

I call that the “soprano.” My tuner has two outputs: I send my dry bass signal into an Aguilar AG 500, and the bypass goes into a custom preamp by Kidd Candalario, then a Snarling Dogs Wah, which overdrives the signal a little and compresses it, into a DigiTech Whammy Pedal, which transposes it up an octave. From there, I go into a DOD Juice Box overdrive and an Ernie Ball volume pedal. I treat the volume pedal like a bow; it reminds me of how expressive it is when pedal-steel players use volume pedals. That signal goes into a 1980s Fender Twin Reverb.

You’re not attached to always being the lowest instrument?

No, but I try to always have somebody down there. You’ve got to have a sound on the bottom. I feel like any instrument can be the “bassist”—all they have to do is be stable.

Are you ever tempted to get a 5- or 6-string bass for more range?

Well, I only own that one Jazz Bass. I bought it in 1995, and that’s the last instrument I bought. Whenever I’ve had extra money, no part of me says, Let’s go get a bass. Besides, that bass is still going strong. It plays better and better every year, and it’s tough. I can put that thing in the case, check it on an airline, switch planes several times, go into a completely different climate where it’s 100 degrees, drive three hours in a vehicle with no air conditioning, take the thing out, and it’s still in tune.

How did you approach the bass parts on this album?

Simple and stripped down, closer to Paul McCartney and Chris Wood, where the whole-note is king and you play the root and the 5th, on the downbeat. You don’t play fills; you sit in that position, and you are holding the wheel so the driver can jump out the window. But then as a soloist I’m a totally different animal.

Doesn’t your melodic sense help you make better bass choices?

If you know the melody, your bass line is going to make more sense. I think that if Paul McCartney hadn’t been a lead singer with a high tenor voice and all those soaring melodies, his bass lines might not have made so much sense. And whoever played a bass line with more efficiency than he did?

How do you balance the roles of soloist and accompanist?

When I was younger, I hated taking bass solos—I was way too shy, and I thought they were stupid. Plus, everybody always starting talking during bass solos, because the drummer would kind of stop playing, and the whole room would get awkward and tentative. But once I got the “soprano” rig together and got into that other octave where I hear melodies, all of a sudden, my bass playing got way simpler.

Because soloing became an outlet for your melodies?

I wasn’t trying to cram all that personality into being an accompanist. I was spoiling my bass playing by trying to express all of who I am in that context. I learned to express those ideas where they belong, in an upper register, and just get those out of the way so I could concentrate on playing bass when it’s my turn to do that.



Bass Fender American Standard Jazz Bass
Strings Rotosound Jazz Bass RS 77LE Monel Flatwound Heavy (.050–.110)
Rig Aguilar AG 500 head, two Aguilar DB 212 2x12 cabinets, Fender Twin Reverb
Effects DigiTech Whammy Pedal, Snarling Dog Bawl Buster Bass Wah, DOD Juice Box overdrive, Ernie Ball VP JR volume pedal

Roll Over, Beethoven
By Chris Jisi

Reed Mathis connects all styles of music through his melodic and bass line interpretations of Beethoven on Beathoven, with the goal of doing away with genres and rules. “To me, the sign of a dead art form is when everyone agrees on how to play it,” he says.

Example 1 is taken from “Awakening of Happiness,” at 4:53. “This is the first four measures of Nashville violinist Luke Bulla’s solo. While I was mixing it, I heard how brilliant his solo was, and I thought, I bet I can double this. So I learned it and punched it in. The challenge was to play it as legato as Luke did. Sing along as you listen to it, which will get the line in your voice and thus help your hands interpret it with the proper articulations.”

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Example 2 is the opening bass line of “Rain Dance.” “Beethoven’s original bass line, from the Third Movement of his Sixth Symphony, used arpeggios with neighbor notes. I went a step further, adding leading tones and chromatic neighbor notes to demonstrate the link between Beethoven’s music and early New Orleans jazz. Listen for the slurs and accents to get the swing feel.”

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Finally, Ex. 3, played in 6/8 but written here in 4/4, occurs 2:35 into “Shepherd’s Song.” “I’m improvising here on Beethoven’s melody from the second part of the verse, employing his stylistic devices. When pivoting between the I and the V7 chord, as he often did, he would maintain a pedal note while the other notes moved melodically through the changes. He was also known for introducing the tritone in a consonant way, to set up a key change—here the B in the G7 chord in bar 4, to set up the modulation from the key of F to the key of C in bar 5. Again, I recommend singing along as you play to help make the line an extension of your body and not your thinking.”

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