Interview - Vaughan Misener
Vaughan Misener plays Electric Bass and writes music. He has done so in Boston, New York, Europe, Israel and Canada. Vaughan went to Berklee College of Music where he studied with Bruce Gertz and studied privately with Jeff Andrews in NYC. He has worked with some of the finest musicians of our time including Kirk MacDonald, Geoff Young, Barry Romberg, Vito Rezza, Ted Quinlan, Adam Rogers, Lorne Lofsky, and Mike Stern. Vaughan Misener teaches at Humber College in Toronto, Canada (humbermusic.ca) and has given clinics at Humber, Mohawk College and York University.
What are some important musical and other lessons you've learned that you can pass on to aspiring bassists?
There's a lot of them, I could really go on here. I'll limit my answer to advice received from some great mentors I've had through the years that has proven to be very true...and maybe a little of my own interpretation of that advice.
From Mike Stern on staying the course and making music: "Keep playin' man. There's a place for everybody. Just keep playin'. It's good for the world".
I take that to mean that music is a very real and transformative force in the world. I think it's not for us as individuals to fully understand or know the full effect or reason for what we do as musicians. It's simply our job to play! Especially as bass players. We potentially can change the course of the music we play by what note we play on the bottom and how we articulate it...how we touch the instrument. That's power baby! With great power comes great responsibility. I would add that the responsibility should take the form of a certain mindfulness allowing the music to be what it is rather than trying to control it. After all, the musicians in any given situation should supposedly be working together to make the best music they can.
From the great bassist Jeff Andrews with whom I studied at length: "Self doubt is your enemy" and "Learn your arpeggios".
One of the coolest things about Jeff is his self confidence. Bravado without attitude. Self doubt undermines your potential and you don't have room for it in your life. Many of us struggle with it in life and that's normal but knowing that self doubt is the result of external behavioural influences throughout our lives is key in keeping it at bay. Get out of your own way and be the best bass playing human you can be!
On learning your arpeggios: Since taking Jeff's advice I've learned that a comprehensive knowledge of chords ie arpeggios and diatonic harmony on the instrument you play - The Bass (not simply a theoretical knowledge or knowledge of them on keyboard) is invaluable. I cite here the depth and intelligence of Paul Chambers' bass lines and the brilliant use of upper-structure in the improvised solos of Jaco Pastorius. (this is clearly evident in Jaco's work with Joni Mitchell).
From Jerry Bergonzi: "a mind is a terrible thing"
My take? When we endure a long stretch without gigs, or practice a bunch without getting a sense of our own progress, or endure personal hardship emotionally or otherwise, that's when our minds can get in our way. Again, potentially undermining us with a lack of self-confidence. Even when trying to create or make new strides in our improvisational abilities, our minds can limit us by way of conditioning. Go forward acknowledging all the theory, tradition and contributions of those that came before you but don't let your mind prevent you from pushing past all of that into new musical territory. Somebody's gotta do it!
We are a product of our life experiences, everything we've ever been, done or seen shapes the way we play. Everything from our sound to our musical tastes and sensibilities. Live life and remember that everything we do contributes to our musicality. Don't question. Just live...and practice!...and play!
What are three of your favourite recordings that you consider essential for any bassist to check out?
It's really hard to limit myself to just three but I'll try...with maybe a few general suggestions of things to check out.
Jaco Pastorius' self titled first solo record. This was a transformative recording that changed the course of electric bass as we know it. It encompasses a great variety of styles of playing and introduced the world to the potential of the electric bass.
Elvin Jones, Puttin' it Together, The New Elvin Jones Trio. Elvin Jones with Joe Farrel and Jimmy Garrison.
This record shows the power of the chordless trio and exemplifies the relationship between drummer and bass player. It's a power trio in jazz at it's finest. The three men churn up some hard driving jazz music that's deeply grooving!
John Coltrane's Blue Train. Two words: Paul Chambers. This record is far from 'Trane's most innovative work but it has the most Paul Chambers solos of any single record I know of and showcases him in a somewhat work-a-day jazz setting where his groove, basslines and soloing are all clear and great!
I'd also recommend that every bass player check out James Jamerson. Master of the improvised R&B bassline. He's on a ton of Motown records and worth checking out. Getting a sense of his musical essence is key to learning how to make groove style basslines on the fly. That's a skill that's very often part of my reality. Carol Kaye is the main west coast contributor to this musical sensibility and is absolutely worth checking out as well!
Miles Davis classic quintet. Herbie, Ron, Tony, Wayne...and Miles. Anything from this era will give a window into how deeply creative, cohesive and interactive a rhythm section can be.
Listen to music as much as you find it constructive or enjoyable. Make a point of checking out modern trends in bass playing and take from it that which speaks to you.
Can you share some practice ideas? What should aspiring bassists focus on? What worked/works for you? I realize this is a very broad question that varies with individuals' needs, but I'm looking for some general ideas, and in particular what worked for you.
Learn to play time! Develop a relationship with time by using a metronome. It's always correct and as such you can use it a bunch of different ways to reinforce your time feel. It's not about developing metronomic time feel. I't about controlling your own muscles and strengthening your relationship with the bass. Lot's of people have great time but what they don't have is sufficient control of their muscles to play accurately. Use a metronome to strengthen this aspect. Also, once a basic accuracy is established, you can use it to establish internal rhythmic independence. For example, put the metronome on beats 2&4 at a fast tempo, say 144 = 2&4 or 288 bpm, and play a tune such that your walking bass line is the dotted quarter note of that tempo. Or, practice arpeggios, scales or exercises as 1/8 note triplets at a medium tempo. Any different way you can think of to subdivide the beat while the metronome is clicking away is good for you. The metronome can also be a motivator to keep you going while practicing scales, exercises, reading and the like.
We live in a time when there is a ton of recorded music of every genre available to us so when learning tunes or soloing vocabulary, sure, take the information off the page or book but also buy the recordings and play along with those who have gone before. That's where you are going to learn the nuances of improvised bass lines and solos (articulation, time feel etc.), the true feel of genre specific grooves and a good deal of the spirit and intent of the music or musical style you're trying to learn. With my students these days, I've found that this aspect of learning by listening to the music you're trying to learn is less prevalent than it was when I was in school. I'd encourage any student to be a voracious listener.
Reading. Ya just gotta keep at it. The more you do it, the better you'll get at it. I've always found that working on reading first in your practice routine and sort of rewarding yourself with the playing along with records part last is a good way of doing it. You don't get to do the fun part until you do some reading.
One of the coolest things I learned from meeting and playing with my musical heroes growing up is that they all view practicing as being a fun and desirable thing to be doing, second only to actually playing the gig. I found this aspect to be enlightening and inspiring.
Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?
For this I will defer to something Jaco Pastorius said. "Concentrate. If you concentrate hard enough, you can walk through walls"
For me, the tenacity of people like Jaco and Miles Davis and many others has inspired me to keep going. Many of the great musicians who came before us have endured everything from drug addiction and mental illness to racism and all kinds of social injustice and have gone on to do amazing things that have changed music and the world for the better. If one reminds one's self of this then learning that soli part in the chart you're working on doesn't seem like such a thing now, does it?
Apart from that, just remembering that tomorrow is another day and that you don't have to accomplish your entire life's musical goals RIGHT NOW is important too. Go with the ebb and flow of life's energy. Being gentle with yourself is ok as long as you keep going.
Do you have any gear advice (specific pickups, strings, amps, etc. and what to look for)?
I've been a Fender man most of my life, even before I ever owned one. The Fender Jazz Bass to be specific. I think on the whole it's the most versatile electric bass ever made. That being said, I don't have a Fender bass currently. In my lifelong quest for the sound in my head...my voice if you will, I've ended up playing a very "Fendery" bass made of Warmoth parts. Warmoth is a Washington state based company that makes Fender licensed parts out of select woods. My bass was arrived at by way of my experience with the many Fender basses I've owned previously. It has an alder body in the style of a '54 precision bass with a solid indian rosewood neck. I use cloth insulated wiring as was used on the old Fenders with CTS pots and a Lindy Fralin split coil (hum cancelling) pickup in the pre 1972 Jazz bass bridge position. This pickup has a 5% overwind which when combined with the dark tone of the rosewood neck, compensates for the fact that I'm only using a single pickup in the traditional bridge position. The 5% overwind adds more bottom and low mids without sacrificing high end making this a viable and versatile set up on a very simple bass.
For several years now I've used D'Addario .40-.95 nickel wound strings as I've found them to be the most consistent from set to set, are quite reasonably priced and give me the tone I want. They last a good long time too. Lindy Fralin makes hand made versions of the most popular Fender pickups with options for various overwinds etc. To me, they are more fendery than Fender pickups and some models feature a noiseless aspect in pickups resembling single coils. I have big stainless frets (.6000 gauge I think). The metal in the fret wire is harder than the nickel plating on the strings and as I usually change my strings before the plating wears off, fret wear is kept to a minimum. I use a solid brass Hipshot bridge. Again, these are made in a small, family owned factory and are very consistent, high in quality and reasonably priced. All these choices for my bass were arrived at through playing and modifying Fender basses through the years. I now have the best bass in the world!...for me. And, altogether, it was around $1000! I use Markbass amps as they give me my sound with very little manipulation of the EQ section and are very high in quality, workmanship and consistency from amp to amp.
Which brings me to the last part of the question.
What to look for? Regardless of brand or style I recommend finding a bass/string/amp combination that is versatile yet gives a sound that is inspiring to the player. Simple right? It can take years of trial and error though but, it is the way of our people. Look for a bass that is kind of lively with few to zero dead notes. As though the tree it was made from still wants to give, to sing as it were.
Electric bass players should be reminded that the amp is part of the instrument and as such one should compromise as little as possible. This is your sound we're talking about after all!
As far as basses are concerned, I think that a student should initially start with industry standard brands like Fender, Music Man, Ibanez or Yamaha and experiment with strings, pickups and amplifiers as budget permits. Of course, there are those whose musical needs and budgets enable them to have several basses and amps, all for the different sounds and styles they can used for. I'm not one of those people. As mainly a jazz player my quest has been to find "my sound" in an instrument/amp combination that is satisfying and even inspiring to play.
What's coming up for you and how can we follow you (website, social media, etc,)?
I have two great gigs coming up in February 2016 where I'm leading a trio with the awesome Ted Quinlan on guitar and the incomparable Vito Rezza on drums.
We'll be at The Rex in Toronto on February 4th and in Waterloo at The Jazz Room on February 6th. Much fun will be had and I hope lots of folks can make it out. I also have a book out on Lulu.com called Harmonic Origins. It's full of all those arpeggios, scales and metronome stuff I was talking about above.
You can find evidence of my existence online at the following links:
Any other thoughts to pass along?
Playing bass and music in general is not always an easy life but as musicians we have an opportunity and perhaps even a responsibility to effect positive change in the world.
It's definitely worth doing. We don't need to have a full comprehension of the effect we have. By simply playing one note on the bass, or a million for that matter, we are changing the world.