We meet Godsmack bassist Rob Merrill and learn, once again, that less is always more

Bands like Boston’s Godsmack don’t come along every day. If you believe the rumors, their singer Sully Erna is a Wiccan witch; their road to fame began when they self-financed an eponymous debut album in 1996 and sold it through a comic store; and they took their name from a legendary song by the much-missed alternative rock band Alice In Chains. When we spoke to Robbie Merrill he was preparing to soundcheck for a show in support of none other than Metallica (“They’re the best — the friendliest band. I can’t say enough about them”) and celebrating the fact that he had the chance to witness the dazzling bass skills of Robert Trujillo at first hand.

What playing approach do you prefer, Robbie?

I’m a fingers player, but I’m studying pick playing at the moment. I’ve gotten away without one for 25 years, but I wanna move on to the next level if possible. In this band we do a lot of triplets and pulloffs and stuff, and on the bass a pick makes it much more percussive.

Do you pick the string near the bridge, like so many metal players?

Well, I’m just playing around. I tend to hit the string between the two pickups live, but in the studio you can get away with different approaches.

You have the luxury of multiple takes in the studio, of course.

Or at least you have the luxury of Pro-Tools...

So why the change from fingers to pick?

I listen to a lot of drummers, and if Neil Peart (Rush) can change from a rock to a jazz style, I can do anything. But I do everything, from thumping to tapping, I just want to move forward.

You’re endorsed by Ibanez. What is it you like about their basses?

I started out with a Fender Jazz and later a Precision, but I used to play a variety of music — country and western, reggae — and after five sets of playing that stuff, the Fenders used to get a bit heavy! So about 15 years ago I bought my first Ibanez, a Soundgear 800. I played it in the video for ‘Whatever’, and the guys from Ibanez saw it and called me up. I’ve been with them ever since.

What spec do you have on them?

I choose the woods and the pickups, so it’s like a high-performance race car. They’re similar to the 800 series: the neck is a three-piece, but the EQ system is amazing, they did a whole bunch of stuff to it. The pickups are EMG or their stock ones.

So you prefer light instruments?

Oh, I’m a big fan of light basses. My right shoulder is lower than my left from the strap over the years.

Of all the basses you’ve ever owned, what is your favorite?

I had a fretless built for me a year ago which I’m really enjoying. I play it a lot at home and I want to bring it out live, but it has a whole different tone, so I’m not sure if I can. It’s not aggressive enough for me, but I’m gonna work on it.

What’s your amp and effects setup?

I don’t really have many effects. On the last record I had an overdrive unit, and I have a Line 6 unit too. I run SWR heads with 12” speaker cabs: it’s a versatile setup, every year I do something totally erratic with it. I used to have a 4 x 10” cab, but now I use a 4 x 12” cab because the 12s are punchy, they’re not as bottomy. I wanted to do something different with my amp setup, so I asked myself how many bassists nowadays were still using 12” cabinets.

I A/B a lot of amps, I have some Mesa stuff and an old SVT lying around at home, which was an early 70s model, but it’s not durable enough. I tend to go into a warehouse and set up all the cabs and heads and just A/B everything. I change it around, I try to make it better and better and experiment each time.

Any tips for budding bassists?

Just practice and play as many types of music as you can. Learn country, learn blues, learn it all. That way you learn the theory. I used to play that stuff by ear but I couldn’t work out why the notes went where they went — and then I joined a 50s-style band just to make some money and realized, oh, that’s why that is!

Do you practice complex bass parts?

I do practice scales in different modes sometimes. I do a third triad: say if you’re in G, it’s G, B, A, C, B, D, C, E, B, F-sharp and on like that all the way up the scale. Then step up to G-sharp and so on, all the way. Then you can do the minor one as well. These are good for warming up your fingers too.

Are you good at working riffs out by ear?

I learn better by seeing than hearing. In other words, if I see someone playing a riff I can accompany them more easily. What I like doing is working out a song as well as I can by ear, and then going to see the band and seeing how it’s done — and saying oh, OK, I was playing the same notes but with a different fingering.

How do you create an inventive bass part that sits well with a song?

When I’m writing I’ll stumble onto something, add a drum beat and go from there. If someone’s playing a riff, I’ll follow it — I’m the king of following! I’ll also listen to what the drums are doing and try and follow them. It depends on the style of music, of course: in Godsmack I’m basically following the guitar riff, and I’ll throw in bits here and there if it’s called for.

But in this band, less is more. A lot of the time I try and put things in, but then I listen to it on tape and I think, no, I gotta take this out and clean it up. Remember, it’s not how good you play: it’s what you play.

How exactly do you follow the drums?

It’s difficult to say without actually showing you, but I punctuate the kick drum as well as a lot of different things. Drums have always been my inspiration rather than bass players unless there’s something really cool going on.

Jack Bruce told us that the function of the bass player is to make the drummer sound good.

Yes! I wish I could better that but it’s true. That’s the way it is. You wanna walk into the band with that in mind. I realized a long time ago that I could never be the soloist I wanted to be, so I’ll settle for being a good solid bass player.

Are you a five- and six-string man?

No, just four. I either do a regular tuning with a drop D, or we go down a whole step and then I have a drop C. But one thing I discovered is this: take the E string two steps down and the A and D one step, but leave the G string alone. That gives you a tuning of CGCG, which is a chord that I love.

Isn’t an E tuned down to C a bit floppy?

No, and I use medium-light strings, too! Try it man, you’ll see. Take your E string and drop it down to C, it might be a little loose and you might have to bring the bridge up a little bit, but you’ll see it’s not too out of tune, it’s not too bad. In the studio I might use a .105, but I always want to hear the note, not feel it, especially the low C. I hate the B string on a five-string bass, because you hit it and you don’t hear it.

Who are your bass heroes?

Geddy Lee. Jean Paul Jones — he’s just unsung, he never got the credit he deserves. Jack Bruce was a good one. I also studied Victor Wooten and James Jamerson, and later I started tapping because of Stu Hamm. I got my tapping up to a certain level of proficiency, but I do it more for fun. The way I see it is, don’t take your inspiration from the guitarist, because you’re not a guitarist, you’re a bass player. Look at guitarists who play bass, they just sound like guitarists. Listen to Led Zeppelin and you’ll see what a true bassist does. Or James Jamerson. Unbelievable!

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