Ross Valory's Epic Journey

“I’m an impressionist,” says Ross Valory. “I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none.”
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“I’m an impressionist,” says Ross Valory. “I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none.” He’s used every tool in the box handling the low end for every Journey album and tour, with the exception of 1986’s Raised on Radio, when Randy Jackson and Bob Glaub filled in. After a stint with Steve Miller, Valory co-founded Journey with guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Gregg Rolie in 1973. The Bay Area supergroup (originally dubbed the “Golden Gate Rhythm Section”) first featured Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, who gave way to Ansley Dunbar before Steve Smith settled into the chair in ’78. Singer Steve Perry joined the fold in ’77. When Jonathan Cain succeeded Rolie in 1980, Valory threw sonic shades of Jaco into smash hits such as “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Who’s Crying Now.” After Valory and Smith bailed, Journey took ten years off to count its money before regrouping for 1996’s Trial by Fire, which found Valory digging deeper than ever into the lower register. Modern Journey, which boasts the multi-generational appeal of singer Arnel Pineda, rides the waves of popculture windfalls, such as having “Don’t Stop Believin’” anchor the final scene of The Sopranos, and the San Francisco Giants adopting the same song for its never-say-die ethos on the way to three World Series championships since 2010.

What’s at the heart of your evolution as a bassist?

My choice of instrument has always been most important.

When I started out I played a pre-CBS Fender Jazz Bass, which has a great neck for a small-handed bass player. I eventually wound up putting the Jazz neck on a Precision body, and I used a Fender-like bass built by Peavey for a while. I used Acoustic amps during the ’70s.

The Jaco Pastorius influence shows up on early Journey songs such as “Nickel and Dime” from Next, “Topaz” and “Kohoutek” from the first album, and “I’m Gonna Leave You” on the second album. That’s a good example experimenting beyond being a solid, support player, which is generally my forte.

Can you share some bass insights about a few of Journey’s early hits?

The rolling, pedaling bass on “Wheel in the Sky” has a country feel. These days we play it with a little more bounce, and I don’t hold the notes as long. “Lights” is kind of a country blues. Our blues influences really showed up on the loping 12/8 swing of “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’,” and the shuffle groove on “Walks Like a Lady.”

How did you adapt when Journey shifted to a lighter pop sound?

I transitioned to a versatile Ovation Magnum III. Jonathan played strong bass lines on piano, so I used the treble pickup on songs like “Who’s Crying Now,” “Send Her My Love,” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I found a way to emulate Jaco’s fretless sound on fretted instruments including that Ovation for Eclipse, and then a Steinberger on Frontiers. I’d play with or without a pick, but definitely going for an enhanced attack with a thin sound playing through an Eventide Harmonizer with the pitch ratio set to 99 or 101—right below or above pitch by a cent. Nobody had applied a Jaco-type sound to popular music. When I did, it essentially played me. I played in unison with Jonathan’s strong introductory lines, and that became our signature sound. The edgy Steinberger could cut through the mix without muddying the waters. I used Ampeg amplification for the Eclipse era, and then Meyer Sound for the Frontiers era.

What was the bass story when you reunited in ’96?

A couple of years prior to that, I was approached by an innovative luthier named Phillip Ralph. I was playing a custom Jackson/Charvel, and he informed me that the scale length was long enough that I could convert to what he called “Nashville tuning.” It’s like a 5-string without the G, so it’s BEAD. It worked well for my hands. Phillip eventually built me a custom bass that I used to record Trial by Fire, and I’ve been using what I call a “B” or BEAD bass configuration ever since. I had a Music Man StingRay setup as a BEAD bass that I used from about eight years ago until about two-and-half years ago, when I switched back to the custom Jackson/Charvel.

How has the BEAD configuration affected the way you play classic Journey lines?

I’ve shifted to higher positions on lower strings to play things such as the counterpoint bass line during the chorus of “Stone in Love,” which is in the key of G. Judicious use of the low string is about finding the proper register for playing an arrangement in a given key. “Wheel in the Sky” is in D, so it’s useful to have a low D for when I’m pedaling I/V during the verses. The low string is most notable on ballads. Having a low B is huge on “Faithfully,” because it’s is in the key of B. It’s like kicking footballs from the basement. Players regularly approach me after shows wondering how I get such deep tones out of a 4-string bass. When I hand it to them and they figure out it’s strung differently, I hear some very affectionate expletives!

INFO

LISTEN

Journey, Greatest Hits/Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 [2011, Legacy]; Todd Rundgren, Second Wind [1991, Warner Bros.]

EQUIP

Bass Mid-’80s custom Jackson/Charvel 4-string, tuned BEAD
Rig Ampeg SVT Classic head direct out to house, harmonizing effect via system plug-in, JH Audio in-ear monitors
Strings GHS roundwounds (.060–.121)

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