Interview with Legendary Bassist Stu Hamm

Posted on February 14, 2011


In order to be a master you need to think like one and in order to think like one, you need to know how they think!

Stu Hamm’s musical career has spanned decades. His first musical ventures were with Steve Vai, who he met at the Berklee College of Music, and Joe Satriani. Later he went on to play with Billy Sheehan and Jeff Berlin on the BX3 tour and had released 6 solo albums. Stu currently tours with guitarist Frank Gambale and drummer Steve Smith. The first Fender signature bass “The Urge” was made for Stu in 1993 and the upgrade, “Urge II” was released in 1999.

In the first half of this interview I talk with Stu about his new CD “Just Outside of Normal”.

JS-I just wanted to tell you that I love the new cd, it sounds so alive and fresh. I’m used to hearing this kind of creativity on a player or bands 1st or 2nd cd. How you have you kept your playing and writing so alive and fresh?

Stu-I make a real effort to remain active as far as different things, different appraches to music. I like to learn. I just hope that I always keep progressing.

This is certainly I think a bigger stretch compositionally than a lot of my other records. I think in some of my earlier records I was trying to be more like what people knew from my work with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and in this record, I didn’t feel so trapped into trying to write music in that genre. I just wrote a bunch of pieces in varying musical styles so that it would be a really interesting experience hopefully for the listener…it would take them to a lot of different musical places.

JS-It seems that you gave yourself a lot of freedom here on this cd.

Stu-Oh, absolutely, yeah.

JS-Is this the cd you’ve always wanted to put out?

Stu-No, I think that every cd I put out was what I wanted to put out at that time. Like in the 90’s when I did the Urge and I had the tight jeans and crap all over the hair and sang. That’s just what was going on in my life at the time. At a certain point it is just a recording of the way yopur playing and composing at the time….I certainly had more influence on this record and just allowed my songs to progress slower, not such a hurry, just able to do some quiter stuff and not just think I’ve got to write some rock songs for people who are Satriani fans.

JS-Do you generally write out all the different parts or do you leave room for interpretation from the players?

Stu-I definately wrote a bunch of songs with certain players in mind. I’m pretty strict about the melodies I write because that is the structure of the song. I wrote the songs Obligatory Boogie and Windsor Mews and gave Joe [Satriani] plenty of room to think of where he wanted it to go, same with Frank Gambale.

I learned a lot of that doing those GHS records. I had 3 records with the trio with Frank Gambale and Steve Smith, learned how to get my point across and how to leave space for when Steve Smith could come up with a better drum part than I could and when to give Frank Gambale room to add his piece to the music.

It’s an art trying to write a piece and keep your vision in mind but also utilizing the strength of the people you have playing on the record.

JS-I had read in your linear notes about one tune in particular……… where you ended up going with an alternate part that another player had written.

Stu-The song was Big Roller. I had written it for this other band that I had played in. So, I sent it to Stan Moore who had played it the way I had asked him and then he did a different version doing his second line, a drum thing. At first I wasn’t buying it because it wasn’t the way I had written the song. Then I thought about it and said, why hire a guy like that and not have him do what his strengths are. It’s great to learn what other people could coax out of the music that I didn’t hear. That’s the fun part sometimes, you have to let go….the mistakes on records are often the best parts. Things that happen that you never would have expected, that’s the good stuff.

JS-The CD is great, it’s a lot of fun to listen to. I myself like a lot of different genres. I was excited there was so much diversity here.

Stu-Well, I love to hear players play and being a musician I really appreciate technical quality. Some records, it’s just every song has the same players, the same instrumentation, same sound and the same mix….It’s all about some guy just playing a very complicated melody and a more complicated solo, then they play a more complicated part and that’s all that the records about. There’s no sonic or musical diversity. Sometimes I think it can wear me out pretty quickly.

JS-Sometimes I find myself that it may be hard to take something away from that. There’s a certain amount of continuity lost when there is just a lot of notes sometimes.

Stu-I agree, and one of the challenges was trying to get the songs to fit together in a manner that would take you from one place to the next without too many drastic steps.

JS-I think it has a real nice progression though. The first few songs were almost more mainstream and then the more intricate pieces like 6, 7, and 8 were next. The last song with the vocalist there was such a beautiful piece, it sounds like a lullaby.

Stu-That piece worked out great. I had the chordal bass part that I’d been working on. I have a lot of riffs and chord progressions and they don’t really become songs until I know what they’re about, so that was one aspect of it. The other was that Robert Fripp sent me a soundscape that I was trying to add bass dubs on and that wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to write a song with lyrics about lucid dreaming as kind of a tribute to this writer that I’m really into named Gene Wolfe When I heard this woman Malike sing at a Circue de Soleil performance in Chili, I said ok and I could just hear how all 4 of those different things came together into one piece of music. At that point, once you know what it is supposed to sound like, it’s easier to write the song and make the music.

There are some things that are a bit of a stretch on the record, maybe not what people expect from me. People may have preconceived notions of what I’m going to be playing but I’m just trying to write the music that I hear, that I feel, that I enjoy playing.

JS-It seems that you’ve got people from all over the world playing on this cd. How did you do that?

Stu-The great thing now is that it’s so easy to do remote recordings. I have this website called . So many people were getting in touch with me through Myspace and Facebook and asking me to play on their demos and cd’s, so I set up the website. It’s easy for people to upload tracks for me, I tell them what file or what format I need it in. I play on it, send it to them and they give me direction. If there’s anything that needs to be changed, I re-do it.

The thing with Malika is she’s actually a French woman in the traveling show of Cirque de Soleil. So we talked on the phone a lot, I told her what I wanted and I sent her some demos with me playing the melody on the bass, and the lyrics….I had her do it 4 different ways, one way with vibrato, one way really straight, one way however you feel it, and one way how about could you sing a little bit of it in French. Then we just created a track in the studio. In the bridge there’s actually two different parts coming in from the left and the right, we just kind of built it from there.

Same with Stan Moore, I sent him the tracks and he sent back some. One of them ended up being that second line. Sent Joe [Satriani] the tapes and he did it….The rest of the drum tracks were done at Artspoke studios by my engineer, co-producer James Boblack.

JS-Will you be touring?

Stu-I certainly hope so. I’ve got a couple of things in the works that I’m waiting to see if they happen….If they do happen, it’s going to eat up a lot of my time and then if they don’t then I’m going to start. It’s just funny, it would be so hard to tour with this record and do all the songs because of the diverse instrumentation so I’ve got to figure out what form I’m going to go on. If it’s going to be solo, if I’m going to take an eclectic band or if I’m going to bring, you know, a rockin’ band with a guitar player in the front, where it kind of gets loud or if I’m going to do something with maybe like sax, keyboards and persuccion. I’ve got to figure out what that’s going to be. Otherwise I’m going to have to bring out a ten piece band and there’s no way that’s going to fly economically these days. In some form or the other, it certainly will happen. I’ve just got to sit down like I said, create a vision of what the show will sound like and take it from there.

Join me next week for part two of my interview with Stu where I will get more in depth with Stu as a player and composer. In the meantime here are Stu’s web pages if you would like to check out his latest cd.

For information on Stu’s books, dvd’s and courses please check out:

Stu endorses:

Washburn acoustic and electric basses

HARTKE amplifiers

GHS strings

EMG pickups

Evidence audio cables