Robert Kearns makes it very clear that he has a serious task on his hands when it comes to following in the footsteps of his esteemed predecessors, Leon Wilkeson (who played in Skynyrd for 19 years until his death in 2001) and Ean Evans (who took over from Wilkeson until he himself died last year).
“Are the Skynyrd bass parts demanding? Absolutely, without a doubt!” he nods. “Leon was basically a lead-type bass player: he was constantly playing in the upper register. The end of ‘Free Bird’ was one of the hardest parts for me to get together. It’s a 13-minute song, and Leon was all over the place! It’s rewarding to play it, though, even if some nights – as with any gig – you think to yourself, ‘I didn’t really nail it tonight’ or ‘I could have done a better job’… but on the nights when you’re really on top of your game, it’s great to play.”
Part of the challenge of meshing seamlessly with a band as experienced as Skynyrd, Kearns reveals, is replicating the different tones of songs that were recorded over a four-decade period. “As far as the bass parts go, the rest of the band were looking for them to be exactly the same as the originals,” he explains. “Luckily I grew up with Leon’s bass parts – they were ingrained in me! Tonewise, Leon had a midrange tone on the earlier albums, so there are some songs in the show – when we go into the classic era, like ‘Three Steps’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ – where I crank up the midrange knob just a bit.”
The crucial tone range comes courtesy of a tried-and-tested setup, he tells us. “I’ve been a long-time endorser of Ampeg. I’ve got an old rig that I have in storage that I used years ago with my old band, Cry Of Love. It was one of the old rigs, but now I’ve got the Vintage reissue head and also the Anniversary head and cabinet. In fact I’ve got one of the very last Vintage reissue heads that were made in America before they stopped doing them. But if I didn’t have a road crew who moved the amps for me, I’d be looking at different options, let me tell you that! Ampegs sound great but if I had to move it myself, I’d be considering something a little bit lighter.”
He continues: “For basses, I’ve been playing an American Fender Jazz Deluxe. It’s the one with the preamp in it. I play Fender as well as Gibson basses – I used to play a couple of old Les Paul Recording basses the whole time. But with this gig it seemed better, based on talking with the soundman and what the guys were used to on stage, to use a bass with a preamp in it – although I’m usually more of a passive electronics kind of guy. Leon always played a Fender Jazz, too, so I wanted to keep the same look.”
The onboard pre-amp is a valuable tool, it appears: “It adds a lot of top and bottom end: both Leon and Ean played with a pick before me, and I still play parts with a pick – again, like the end of ‘Free Bird’ – but I’d say 75 percent of the night I’m playing with my fingers. As they were used to a bit more top end, the preamp helps add that presence a bit more.”
Asked to take us through his career as a bass player, Kearns searches his memory. “Shoot… it’s been 25 years now, I guess, or maybe more!” he laughs. “I started right out of high school, let’s say in 1984. I played rhythm guitar and I switched over to bass because there was a local band that needed a bass player. I was working in a music shop – so the first bass I actually bought myself was an Aria Pro II, I think a SB 900 like John Taylor of Duran Duran. Before that I borrowed a Gibson EB3 from a buddy, which I really appreciated because one of my all-time bass heroes is Andy Fraser from Free. I was with a band called Sidewinder for four years, which toured everywhere and gave me a lot of experience, before forming Cry Of Love.”
Kearns is keen to apply everything he’s learned as a musician to his bass playing – including a stint on a particularly Southern instrument. “I played a five-string banjo when I was a kid, and I try to incorporate that banjo-style roll into my bass playing. I was into slapping the bass in the 80s, but there were so many guys who were better at it than I was, and it wasn’t really my thing. It’s fun to show off to people when you’ve got a bass, but I can’t say I incorporate it into everyday use!”
Asked what the secret of good bass playing is, Kearns muses, “Keep an open mind. Don’t get stuck in one style. You can learn from anybody: every day I try to take something that I’ve learned and try to apply it to the bass in some way,” – and if that’s good enough for one of the biggest bands ever to emerge from America, it’s good enough for us.