Occasionally we ask a well-known guitarist about playing bass. Why not begin with the great Todd Rundgren?

What does the bass mean to you, Todd?

I place a lot of stock in the bass-lines of my records. They’re more or less grown, rather than conceived wholly. I come up with drum grooves and then I come up with bass-lines, so they’re the second thing that I focus on. I didn’t really focus on the possibilities of the bass until the late 80s or the early 90s. I did two albums, Nearly Human (1989) and Second Wind (’91), in which the bass was orchestrated and somewhat prominent. When I was with Utopia, I had some ideas for bass but Kasim Sulton was certainly competent and creative enough to come up with his own lines. It wasn’t until I was out on my own that I had to truly focus on the bass.

How do you approach playing the bass?

When I did The Individualist album in 1995, my concept was that the bass could define things in a lot of different ways. It might be about changing the root, while what everybody was playing stayed relatively the same – or another way was that the bass played the same thing all the time while everything else changed around it. So it became this big warm flat foundation that you essentially put all different sorts of things on, and depending on what they were, it made the bass sound as if it was changing. There was a song on that album that lasted seven minutes, and for at least 80 percent of that seven minutes the bass was playing exactly the same thing. That’s one of the places you should start out from, as a bass player. You don’t have to be the fastest bass player in the world to be a hero!

Do you have any tips for bass players from outside the box?

As a producer I know about certain things, such as the intimate relationship between the bass guitar and the bass drum, and the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you’ll get a job. Perhaps! The bass can make things sound so great and it can make things sound so awful. A sloppy bass player who can’t lock in with the drums will make a band sound sloppy, no matter how tight they are. It’s pretty simple – just find the bass drum, that’s all.

What bass do you play?

Normally I try to find a bass with a skinny neck and a short scale. The best bass I ever played was on ‘Bang The Drum All Day’ (1982), which I couldn’t have played on anything but a Höfner violin bass, because it’s a small instrument and very light. That made it a much easier transition for me. I don’t practice, really, other than just to maintain my technique. I don’t think I’m really capable at this point of getting better unless I want to take lessons from somebody, but that’s just too many things – I’m more concerned with having something good to play on. The important thing is to think like someone who knows what they’re doing.

Which bass players do you admire?

Nobody even knew what a bass player was until Paul McCartney! Fortunately, he was a good one and set a good example for everyone. Before then, everybody was playing big fat low notes on Fenders. Okay, there was the occasional brilliant line, but the bass was usually a rhythm instrument going bom-bom-bom-bom. So when Paul McCartney started playing way high up on the neck, everybody knew what the bass guitar was and wanted to be a bass player.


Todd Smallie: Country Ghetto

FROM HIS 15-YEAR TENURE AS A 6-STRING jazz/blues accompanist/soloist with the Derek Trucks Band to his duty as an R&B groove machine with JJ Grey & Mofro, Todd Smallie relies on his Atlanta Institute of Music education to navigate circumstances with subtlety and nuance.

Incubus Ben Kenney Talking Tone

PART ROCK STAR, PART HIP-HOP aficionado, and all musician, tone hound Ben Kenney knows a thing or two about sounding good. It’s something Kenney’s able to do whether he’s rocking arenas with Incubus or playing multi-instrumentalist madman in his home studio.

Kasim Sulton: Rocking For Utopia with Todd Rundgren and Meat Loaf

“I WAS SHOCKED WHEN I GOT KICKED out of my first band because I didn’t have a bass amp,” says Kasim Sulton. “I promised myself I would show those guys!” At age 14, Kasim began on bass by shedding on the techniques of ’60s rockers like Paul McCartney. Since 1976, Sulton has been a lynchpin in guitarist Todd Rundgren’s ensembles— including Utopia—and he recently joined “The Runt” as he performed his 1973 progressive opus A Wizard, a True Star live in its epic entirety. (That band’s current lineup includes Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes, and longtime GUITAR PLAYER contributor Jesse Gress.) Sulton’s other long-running gig is with Meat Loaf; he played on the Rundgren-produced 1977 classic Bat Out of Hell, and he is currently Meat’s musical director.