Dwane is second from left.
BELA FLECK LIBERATED THE BANJO FROM HILLBILLY stigma when he—with the assistance of a Wooten or two—proved its potential as an apparatus of art on par with anything played on the world’s finest Strads and Steinways. When Mumford & Sons’ banjo-bolstered Babel took top Album of the Year honors at this year’s GRAMMY Awards, it removed all doubt that the instrument has seen its day of due deliverance. But banjo without bass is like biscuits without gravy. For his part, Ted Dwane lays it down thick on both upright and electric, serving up viscous licks with meaty tone and rhythmic kick.
Did you begin as an upright bass player?
I was a guitar player first, and then I got into electric bass. I studied that for a little while, and then started to teach myself upright. All the guys I was playing with in London wanted the upright, which was fine—I completely adore the instrument. Unless I’m carrying it around in the Underground, which no one appreciates.
What’s an early lesson you learned on upright?
Don’t use any of your arm strength to keep the bass in place—use your body for that.
Mumford & Sons is mostly drummer-less. How does that inform your style and tone?
With no drummer and a four-on-the-floor rhythmic feel, I need to fill out the low end while adding some percussive excitement. I really appreciate the uniqueness of the role. The music we play is like party music—there’s a lot of foot stomping—and I like to lead the charge in that department. On songs like “Little Lion Man,” there’s a riff element to what I’m doing. But other time’s it’s about laying down quarter notes with the kick drum and giving it a lot of power.
What’s your recipe for amplified upright tone?
I’ve developed a really percussive playing style. It’s something I didn’t really realize until we recorded Sigh No More [Island, 2009]. My tone was clack-y, which was a bit of a nightmare; it’s not as nice into a microphone as it is in a live room. Early on, we started experimenting with things like mounting a P-style pickup to the fingerboard with gaffer tape. Now I have a Zadow magnetic humbucker that I blend with a David Gage Realist SoundClip. That way, I get a lot of low-end thump and fullness from the humbucker, and blend as much of the Realist as we can for that woody sound. The piezos supply the percussive side, and the magnetic pickup offers unlimited volume.
Without drums, I wouldn’t imagine your stage volume being that high.
Well, there’s a lot of reckless abandon. [Laughs.]
How does electric bass fit into the band?
I’ve been drawn more to electric as our writing has matured, because it feels as if that’s what the songs are wanting. Also, you’re anchored down when you’re on the upright—it’s nice to move around a bit.
As I started to do more electric playing and recording, I picked up a ’78 Jazz Bass. It has a maple fingerboard, which I never imagined would be for me. I thought it would sound brittle, but it doesn’t. You never know what you’re going to like. That bass pretty much lives in Drop-D tuning [DADG]. That helps on songs like “Lover of the Light,” which has a lot of chordal [double- stop] bass parts.
What’s the band’s approach to tracking in the studio?
We’ve done it a few different ways. We did about half of Babel together live, which was really fun. If we’re not doing it that way, we’ll generally map a click track to a live take and then build it up however it makes the most sense.
Mumford & Sons, Babel [Island, 2012]
Basses 1860s French-made upright (studio), Chinesemade upright with laminate back and sides and solid top, (live); 1978 Fender Jazz Bass, 2010 Fender 60th Anniversary Jazz Bass
Rig Zadow pickup system, David Gage Realist SoundClip, Gallien-Krueger 1001RB with 4x10 and 1x15 cabinets, Radial Firefly DI (for upright); Ampeg SVT-VR and 8x10 cabinet, Radial J48 DI (for electric), Shure SM57. “We don’t mic the G-K rig. That’s just to get the trousers flapping so it feels like I’m doing something!”
Strings Spirocore (upright) and unknown roundwounds