Stanley Clarke revolutionized bass playing and took it from being a support instrument to a full fledged soloing vehicle. His inovative slapping style emphasizes low and high frequencies with almost no mids at all. His work in Return to Forever and his first solo album in 1974 established the idea that a virtuoso bassist could be a star and stand on his own.
GC: How was your experience being inducted into the Rock Walk?
Clarke: I had been to the Hollywood Guitar Center quite a few times and I had noticed it, you know. I remember I did have a thought like, "God, I don't really see any bass players here or anything!" And lo and behold some time later I guess somebody must have got the idea that, you know, we should acknowledge the bottom end of these groups. I saw a bunch of guitar players, a few drummers, singers and those types. Actually, the most important part of a band, the bottom part of a band is the bass. It's not only a rhythmic instrument, it also defines tonality. It actually plays a very unusual role in a band, you know. It does kind of what the drummer and a guitar player or keyboard player do. The drummer usually defines the rhythm and the keyboards and guitars usually deal with the harmony, depending on how sophisticated the music is. But the bass is unusual in that it does both of them, in a subtle way, but it does both.
GC: Equalizing the bass can be a mysterious art for a lot of bassists that are just starting out. What are your thoughts on bass EQ?
Clarke: I think it really depends on what you're trying to do within the music that you're playing. For me personally, in the band that I have, I function as a bass player to some degree and then also I'm the bass soloist. I like to have two different EQ's: I like to have one EQ that's for the rock bottom, you know, solid low end support bass sound. Then on the other side of the coin, I like to have another sound that usually I can do through a foot pedal or using the Alembic bass which is a stereo bass. I actually don't use it like a stereo bass, I actually use it like it's two basses. Like, when I'm playing rock bottom stuff, I'll use the low pickup, just the low pickup alone and it's usually just a solid sound. But then when I want to take a solo, I bring in the high pickup and I usually EQ it in such a way that it's very interesting what happens. When I turn it up, it almost sounds like it sends the whole bass out of phase because the high end comes up and it actually cancels out some of the real low low low stuff and actually creates this really pretty nice sound. And so for me just going between the two is pretty easy. It's just a matter of turning something up and something else down. So with this Alembic bass EQ is already done, it's my high pickup. I've spent quite a few years developing and fine tuning the EQ that I have for my solo sound. It's really a combination, it isn't just EQ. See that's the other thing, you can EQ your head into a wall if you don't have the right speaker and the right amplifiers in order to translate that EQ into something so that we can all hear it. On most basses, the EQ really isn't as sophisticated as it could be. I mean, I have one bass that has parametric EQ where I can select the frequency and then boost or cut back that particular frequency, notch that frequency in or out. But for the most part basses have sweepable EQ, you're not necessarily selecting a particular frequency. So you're limited right off the bat when you're dealing with EQ just from your instrument. Therefore you go into preamplifiers that have EQ on-board. For a long time I've been using a Alembic preamplifiers which were made specifically for Alembic basses. Then lately I've been using some stuff by a company called EVS out of Sweden and they have a very sophisticated EQ system for the bass. It has good limiters, you know, compressors attached to it and effects loops. You know, you can plug effects in and out, that sort of thing. I actually personally think that a musician usually is constantly EQ-ing. You're always striving for tone. I don't think you ever really land on like the EQ that actually works in every hall, every club, every park, every recording studio. I think we're all striving but I do think as you get older and you've played an instrument longer and longer and if you are one that's striving for tone, it becomes more subtle rather than really making drastic moves. The moves are real subtle. And that's kind of where I'm at right now. For instance, when I'm playing outside I always have much more low end. For outdoor shows, I have my 18" speakers like really booming because I like to feel the low end and because when I'm outside I'm not within an enclosure. There are no walls usually, and I have to pump the bass up enough to make the stage rattle so I can feel it, because I like that. But when I'm inside, you know, I don't have to be so drastic. Basically I use two 18" EV speakers on the bottom. I think they especially made these things for me years ago. They're like these 18" speakers that face down and they're seriously powerful speakers. Then I use EV 10's, two 4x10" cabinets Then right on the extreme sides Marshall amplifiers, just for my high pickup for the solo stuff. So between the Marshall's and the 10's I get a really interesting bang and I usually put the effects in the Marshall's and it's a pretty nice sound. It's a big sound but it's clean whether it's high or low, you know. I use Crest power amps and I use, like I said, Alembic preamplifiers but now I'm using these EVS things and I think I'm going to stick with them. I use an EVS octaplier which I think is probably the best one out there right now for the bass. It's this thing out of Sweden, the same company. They really make nice stuff for the bass, EVS, I was really surprised.
GC: What other sorts of effects to you use?
Clarke: Well, the other thing I use is the Lexicon PCM 70 reverb. I like Lexicon because it's a darker sounding reverb. I mean it has a sound, it seems to have a warm sound. I like a warm sound on the bass anyway, especially as far as effects are concerned. The Alembic bass is such a hi-fi sounding bass. It's very pumped up, very high. It's just a very powerful sound, you know, a lot of spikes, peaks on the bass. It's just the way they did the electronics. So coupling that with the nice soft sort of warm reverb really has a nice effect.
GC: Do you use outboard compression at all or is it compression from the preamp?
Clarke: Just out of the preamp. That's one of the main reasons I switched from the Alembic preamplifiers to the EVS ones. It's because the EVS preamplifiers have this compression device in them so, you know, it's nice. I mean I personally like compression in the studio or even on stage. I really like what it does with the bass, especially when you're playing bass a lot, it really tightens everything up, you know?
GC: Do you have any bass-buying tips for someone who is considering buying their first bass?
Clarke: I would probably go to a store, like Guitar Center, a larger store that has a lot of instruments. Go to some place that has a lot of basses and go there with someone who has had some experience with the bass, maybe someone who has owned a bass for a couple of years. The best thing would be to go there with your teacher. I would go to a store like that and sit there and kind of take the same approach that you would if you were buying a pair of shoes. If you bought a shirt or a pair of pants or whatever, you could pretty much survive if the pants are a little too tight or too large. But with shoes, because you use them so much, you know, it's really important that they fit. So it has to really fit physically. The sound, I do believe, is secondary when you're first starting out. I think it's more important that you have a bass that's not too big. Let's say the guy is 10 years old or 11, you know, you don't want to get like a huge bass that the guy can't reach the low F. You want to find a smaller bass or something. A lot of companies have these things and that's really important. And actually most instruments nowadays, you know, the technology has gotten so good that they pretty much sound good. It's not like when I was coming up. Then, there were some basses that actually just sounded horrible! You know, you hit a note and it would be nothing! Now all the basses sound good. They're all using pretty much the same strings, the pickups are wrapped in the same the way. Pretty much the same technology. The wood...wood is wood. There's some wood that's better, but it's still wood. And the design of the bass is pretty much the same. When you get into the high-end basses like Alembic, the Kenny Smith basses, Fodera, a few others, then you really notice like a big big difference. It's a quantum leap from those cheaper basses. The electronics are much more heading toward hi-fi, you know, usually dual pickups, the tone controls are more sophisticated and other things. So, the importance is just finding a bass that really fits with you and I think you're going to need somebody else with you. I was lucky that when I was younger and learning to play the bass, I had a lot of friends that were bass players as well and we were all in the same boat! I think there were like three or four of us. I think our ignorance put together sort of made one smart guy! We would go in and we would get a bass and one guy would say, "No man, but listen to the F on that thing!" And I'd say, "Oh yeah, yeah," and there would be a muff tone on the F. "No, we can't have that bass," or "No, this one's too heavy!" All that stuff that you really need to think about, you know? If you have all that together you'll get a nice instrument. The importance of getting a nice instrument to start out with is that it makes it easier for you to start so, therefore, you'll continue. If you have a really bad instrument it's frustrating, you can't get a good sound, it's just going to make it very hard to want to continue.
GC: What about an amplifier for someone starting out?
Clarke: The amplifier situation has gotten really good. There's tons of them. You can get these small little combos, 1x15". I actually saw a little bass amplifier and I actually bought it too, the smallest bass amplifier in the world! A Crate I think the name is. I think it has like an 8" speaker or something like that and it's a bass amplifier. I bought it for my little office, you know, just to pick the bass up. I could see it for a 10 or 12 year old kid. But, once you're a teenager and, you know, you get the idea that one day you're going to try to be a rock star! Of course, those kids are going to want power. Again, when you get into the high end stuff is when you can really see the difference. Like if you use SWR cabinets and you get a Crest amp or a Crown amp. Then you might have a sophisticated preamp on it and you've got a high-end bass. Then you notice something that's really different. But when you're starting out, again, if you just have a basic bass combo thing, you know, it all sounds fine.
GC: So if I do want to expand my rig into something higher-end. What would you suggest?
Clarke: You are going to need more money, man! You know, if you have parents that are into it, great, all the better! But if you don't, you're going to have to get out there and get equipment. Nowadays you can get speaker cabinets and things, you could get so many things out there! If you were a kid you could buy a bunch of things and just get the biggest sound you can get! Like for instance, I remember for a long time the basic rock bass players were using these Ampeg SVT cabinets, you know, like the cabinets that Bill Wyman used with the Rolling Stones. A lot of guys use those because they create a serious bottom, I mean you almost don't hear the note. A lot of guys use that and swear by it. If you have some small stuff and you're starting out to play with people in a band who have small stuff, and it's time to improve the equipment, to expand and get bigger stuff, the whole band has to do it at the same time. It's not fun if you have a guitar player and he's got a little tiny amplifier and then all of a sudden you come in with 2 SVT's! Or vice versa, guitar player comes in with Marshall stacks and you got a little amp like I have with an 8" speaker! It ain't going to be there! It's really a group decision because if you're a bass player and you have a small little amplifier but you're not playing with anybody, there's really no need to go get an SVT. The only reason to do that is if you're playing in a band. When I look back at my history every time I went and got something, some gargantuous thing for the bass it was because the decision was based on the group - whatever group I was with at the time.
GC: What's the coolest recent addition to your bass set-up?
Clarke: The coolest thing for me was getting a new bass. I've been using an Alembic bass for a long time and it was getting trashed and I never got a fret job on it because it just had this sound. I remember years and years ago I had a bass that I liked and I got a fret job on it. It changed everything so I just never touched this bass. Instead, I got a bass that was a duplicate of this bass. I had the Alembic people come to the house. They came in and they measured this old bass and duplicated it perfectly. The new bass is probably the best instrument I've ever had. I think it's tremendous, tremendous, the best thing they've ever made for me was this instrument! It's so nice that I actually look forward to playing it. You know what I mean? It really sounds good!
GC: So the duplication process came off well?
Clarke: Yeah! It came off perfectly. It's much better than I thought. I mean they brought their measuring sticks. They measured every part of this bass. They literally duplicated everything down to the wood, the size of the neck, the frets, the weight of the particular wood, the machines, the hardware, the separation of strings, every little nuance of the bass. They wrote all the information up and then, maybe a year later, they came back with the bass. I plugged it in and it was like the cleanest, coolest-sounding bass that I've ever had. It had this amazing sound, actually better, it sounded better than the original red bass! Amazing! They told me they got lucky. The wood was right, it had the right temperament to it, it vibrated and it was just perfect, everything was perfect, so I'm really happy about that.
GC: So what's the next thing you would like to get?
Clarke: I actually wouldn't mind a MIDI bass coming out that really worked. But, I know because of the nature of the bass that it's kind of difficult to do. Many people have tried. It would be nice if someone would come out with something that was a little more simple. A good bass but also one you could use with synthesizers. For me that would be nice.
GC: What's in your home studio?
Clarke: Oh, it's good stuff. I mainly use it for film composing. I do a lot of film composing and it's pretty much set up for that. It's a basic recording studio as well but, I have a lot of video equipment in there, video synchronization stuff, and a lot of samplers. I have a ton of E-mu stuff, like a couple E4's, a couple EIII's, and couple of modules. And I have a bunch of Roland stuff. When I'm film composing I usually have an Amek 40 channel board, a lot of old outboard gear, LA2A's, some George Massenburg EQ's, a lot of dbx stuff, noise gates. I have a lot of stuff. I have several 8-channel recorders, you know, like the Sony Digital PCM800, D88's, and I have a DA98 as well.
GC: What about Mics?
Clarke: I have a lot of Neumanns. I have Shure 57's, I have some AKG's. My mic section is probably something I would like to improve on, you know. But I have a few really nice basic microphones that just work well for a lot of different situations. They sound good on the drums, but also you can stick on a horn on it and it sounds nice, you know?
GC: Uh-huh. What's your practice regimen?
Clarke: Well, it's not as consistent as it used to be. But I'll definitely pick up the bass a couple times a week when I'm home and whenever I pick it up I'll practice.
GC: How about song writing? How do you write songs?
Clarke: Because I'm a film composer, I'm usually always working on some project. I write every day. That's the one thing I do that's really consistent, I'm always writing.
GC: Is it better if you're actually making yourself write every day than just sort of waiting for inspiration to hit?
Clarke: I don't really wait so much anymore. I just kind of go out there and open the door.
GC: Do you write on any one particular instrument?
Clarke: Ideas just come out of my head, sometimes I'm sitting at the keyboard, sometimes the bass. You know, it varies if I'm writing with somebody else.
GC: How do you warm up before a performance?
Clarke: It's pretty normal. I get backstage, I usually tune up. I spend a long time tuning. I usually have new strings every time I perform and so I have to spend a long time just stretching the strings so they don't go out of tune when I'm playing. While I'm doing that I'm playing. I'm kind of killing two birds with one stone!
GC: What advice would you have for a young player who might want to model their career after yours?
Clarke: Practice, practice, practice. That's really it. That simple. I think that once you practice a lot and you become very good on your instrument, it's only natural that you're going to want to play with people and show off. And it's only natural that after that you're going to want to show a lot of people. So all these other processes of getting record deals and playing with bands are sort of natural. It's very difficult when you're standing with an instrument and you can't play it to say, "Yeah, I'm going to make it!" Very difficult, very difficult!
GC: Have you shopped at Guitar Center before?
Clarke: I think that it's a great place that has expanded properly as a store. I'm aware of a lot of the other things that they do other than sell instruments. I think that it's nice that they have sort of expanded from just being a store that sells instruments. You know, they do other things, they have other programs, like the Rock Walk that acknowledges musicians that have done important things in music is a real nice acknowledgment. A lot of stores probably wouldn't be doing as well as they are if musicians weren't out there playing their asses off and inspiring other people to become musicians! It's nice that they acknowledge that! They're good people at Guitar Center, Very good service, very helpful. They're very organized and they have a whole scene over there. It's great!