You have a cool custom bass.
Oh man... ESP came up to me and said, we want to make you a bass. And I said, sure, and sent them the body styles of the BC Rich Wave bass, that I had always used, and the body style of the Hill bass which was custom made for me. They combined the two shapes, which I really like, and I told them I’d really like a thin neck with a narrow fretboard. It has their electronics, but I put it down to three knobs: I don’t like worrying about settings on the bass, I just wanna turn the volume up and it’s on. So it’s full of electronics, you can split your pickups.
You can buy the one I play, it’s just gonna cost you an arm and a leg! But at my request, they made an affordable one, the LTD series, the cheaper line. I said to them, kids wanna play what you play, but they can’t fork out five grand for a bass. They gotta be able to go to a store and say, is that the bass he plays? I want to buy that! It retails at a decent price, eight to nine hundred bucks.
Do you use five-strings?
I play a four-string bass with the four lower strings of a five-string: I omit the high G. People say (puts on halfwitted accent) ‘Why not get a five-string?’, and I’m like, you know, I rarely use the higher string as it is. I’ll just keep the four-string and tune it lower.
You used your fingers in the early days, and then switched to using a pick.
Yes, it was just before the recording of Reign In Blood. I swapped over for definition, it makes for a tighter sound. With fingers you can get a really strong sound, but it’s always a warm sound.
Your playing on Hell Awaits had a middly, warm sound for that reason.
Right, and since then it’s been much clearer. It sounds tighter.
I always assumed you also switched to using a pick because of the sheer speed of the songs.
No, no — actually I rehearsed a few days ago with my fingers because I couldn’t find a pick. I play pretty fast with my fingers.
Do you like a clean sound?
I like a little bit of overdrive, but you know the low end of a piano? That’s the kind of nice, resonant sound I like. But with what we do, we do add a little distortion edge to it. Basically a natural distortion. The only pedal I use is a compressor, on my amp.
You had a fully overdriven sound on ‘Scrum’, from Diabolus In Musica.
Yeah... that was kinda overdone. On that album, we recorded the bass and then they ran the recording through a Marshall amp, and they panned it out — four channels, two clean and two distorted — to give it a nice full sound.
Which amps do you use?
Ampeg SVTs, the standard bass amp, you can’t get any better than that. I’ve been using Ampeg on and off since the band started, and only recently have the people there called me up and said, we know you use our stuff, what do you say we give you our stuff? (laughs) I’m like, sure!
On the back of Show No Mercy, you’re pictured with a white Fender Jazz.
Yes, but that was because the bass that I had wasn’t working. It was in pieces! So when we did that photo shoot I had to ask this other band, hey, do you mind if I use your bass? The Jazz bass has a thick neck, but it has a narrow fretboard, which is where I got my preference for that from.
With some songs reaching 240bpm, how do you keep your right-hand technique so fast and precise?
Dude, I can’t tell you how I do it, I just play. People are always asking me how I sing and play at the same time. And I don’t know, it’s just something that I’ve learned to do. And it’s different with every song. I’m not gonna lie to you, I have to cheat.
There’s that part in ‘Raining Blood’ when you sing “Awaiting the hour of reprisal...”, isn’t there?
Exactly! Trying to sing and play that riff at the same time... I just can’t, so I play an open E. To me that’s a strong riff, and the bass would fill it in, but that’s just difficult. I manage to do the second part [where he sings “Raining blood... from the lacerated sky”] now — that took me a while to do.
It’s funny, because other Slayer songs have much more complex parts which you nail without any problems.
Yeah. It depends on how I’m singing and playing. There are some parts which I’m jamming and singing at the same time, and then there’s this really simple verse which I can’t do! It took me this many years to get the second part right.
Another 20 years and you’ll get it.
Exactly! Another 20 years and I’ll be jammin’!
Did you ever master the slap style?
Yeah, in rehearsal I’ll sit there and slap. I half-ass it and it sounds really cool, but I’m just not that kind of a player.
What did you think of Cliff Burton?
He was a jammer. He loved to jam. ‘Anesthesia’ was a pretty amazing solo. And yet he was the bass player. He was obviously really, really good.
Oh, Flea’s amazing, dude. There’s a lot of amazing bass players, and it’s evident in the band. You can listen to it and go, wow. Some bassists sound good at the center of the band, but I’ve just never stepped forward and said (adopts macho voice) I’m gonna do this and that! You know, I’ve got to sing and play, which do I choose? I want to be good at both.