Bluegrass Without Borders -- How Todd Phillips Breached The Root-5 Boundary. Article from: Bass Player | September 1, 2006 | Johnston, Richard |
Newgrass, progressive bluegrass, new acoustic-whatever the label, Todd Phillips is the player who freed bluegrass bassists from their root-5 shackles. From his early work with the David Grisman Quintet and the Bluegrass Album Band to his genre-spanning solo albums and recordings with Phillips, Grier & Flinner and Psychograss, Phillips has mixed imagination and musicality in a long list of projects with acoustic music's greatest players.
"My all-time favorite is Todd Phillips," proclaimed Union Station bassist Barry Bales in April '05. "He brought a completely different way of thinking about and playing bluegrass-a really sustained kind of sound, great chops."
Born in 1953, Todd grew up in San Jose, California, and picked up electric bass around age ten. He and his drumming brother Barry formed a band that started with basic rock & roll and went on to tackle tunes by Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Byrds, "taking me into more advanced harmonies, closer to bluegrass," Phillips notes. Later in high school he gained his first exposure to jazz and bluegrass, leading him to switch to upright bass. After a few years' experience playing bluegrass, he fell in with mandolin maven Grisman. "His record collection was phenomenal," Phillips recalls. "Inside of a year I got a complete education on John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, all this stuff, and I was listening to [Bill Evans bassist] Scott LaFaro. I was also learning to play mandolin."
The late LaFaro's freewheeling accompaniment style continues to echo in Phillips's work with Psychograss, whose all-star roster includes violinist Darol Anger, mandolinist Mike Marshall, guitarist David Grier, and banjoist Tony Trischka. On the band's recent Now Hear This, Phillips peppers the raggy "Stroll of the Mudbug" with double-stop accents and raked/pull-off fills, and he gives "Road to Hope" a jazz-ballad treatment with well-placed pickup notes and passing tones. "One Foot in the Gutter" finds Phillips laying down a percolating pedal-tone funk groove, and amid the shifting time signatures and angular chord changes of "High Ham," he maintains a solid bluegrass-bass feel adorned with upper-register flourishes and sliding fills. Throughout, Phillips's German upright yields a big bluegrass-approved bottom end balanced by a singing upper register. "Because I played Precision Bass for ten years as a kid, when I first picked up an acoustic I had a tone reference in my head," notes Phillips. "I wanted a full, little bit percussive sound."
In addition to his touring schedule with Psychograss, Laurie Lewis, and Phillips, Grier & Flinner, Phillips maintains a studio at his northern California home, where he has been working on the latest in his substantial list of production credits: a Rounder Records tribute to folk singer Hazel Dickens. Phillips produced his three solo albums-the jazz-influenced Timeframe and Released [out of print] and the tradition-steeped In the Pines-as well as the Grammy-winning True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe. He has shared his instrumental insights in the two-volume video Essential Techniques for Acoustic Bass.
When you were getting solid footing as a bluegrass player, you were also listening to Scott LaFaro. Did that mess you up?
If you asked some real strict bluegrass players, it probably did. [Guitarist] Tony Rice loved Oscar Peterson, and I was listening to Bill Evans and John Coltrane, and we were playing with David Grisman, which was real energetic rhythmically. So, we had to tame ourselves down when we played straight bluegrass, but occasionally we would encourage each other to do some crazier things. I can hear the struggle sometimes in that music. "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" and "I Believe in You Darling" [from The Bluegrass Album Band Vol. 1] are good examples of how we played it very straight but also let the impulse of the moment enter into the music.
How did LaFaro's playing influence yours?
I picked up syncopation-he wove this beautiful thing through the music-and I play syncopations in bluegrass that other people don't.
What other different approaches do you take to bluegrass?
Using a few more notes-in regular bluegrass the bass player doesn't use that many leading tones to the next chord. And I like to play with space, leaving notes hanging or skipping a beat. But there's a misconception about how simple bluegrass bass is. To have that momentum without the drummer and get that feel is not as simple as it looks on paper. I think of it as a kind of Zen thing, a real meditation and a high focus on the rhythm. There's no place to hide.
How do you develop the kind of time you need to carry a group without a drummer?
It's something you're born with, but it's also something you can develop by listening. I remember always being drawn to the rhythmic element-I think that's why I switched to mandolin for a while. I wanted to play on the other side of the beat.
Did that help your rhythm in general?
It helped it a lot-I got to know what it was like to be on that side of the band, and I understood chords better, which helped my bass playing. When I was playing mandolin, I would wish the bass player was playing more like this or that, so when I switched back, I knew better how to support the guitar and the mandolin.
Switching between bass and mandolin is pretty extreme.
It is weird! But I recently met another bass player who has taken up the mandolin-John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. He's a bluegrass fan, and it's even weirder to come from his world to bluegrass mandolin. At least I stayed in the same genre.
What about the physical adjustment going from mandolin to bass?
We did one tour with Grisman where I played bass in the bluegrass band that opened and then mandolin in his quintet. At that time I thought one helped the other, like doing different kinds of exercises. But today when I switch back to mandolin it's just too small and quick. I have stronger, slower fingers now.
Your bass lines often feature techniques like slides, hammers, pulls, and ghost-notes.
A lot of that is creating my own reference points for the rhythm; instead of going thump thump thump, I might go ka-thump ka-thump ka-thump, with a rhythm built into the line. I think that's so my right hand has a reference for the time-little mechanical motions that help me define where the next downbeat is going to be. It also helps me create momentum. And sometimes I'm just entertaining myself.
You vary your articulation a lot. Is that also a matter of defining your own rhythmic space?
It's all part of making it musical. When I solo a bass track I've done, I hear all the different shapes of the bass notes-it's not just thump and there it is. When a singer or guitar player does something, somehow I am shaping the note around that. It's done with how quick or long the note is, or with a little vibrato or sliding into the pitch, that kind of stuff. But I don't think about it.
Do you use classical left-hand technique, with the ring finger and pinkie working together?
I almost always skip the ring finger, but sometimes using it is unavoidable. I'm completely self-taught and I don't read-I am really just a folk musician. I grew up on the Fender bass, and it was so big for me that I began to develop fairly proper left-hand technique on my own-I had to skip my ring finger and use my little finger just to get to the next fret. Somehow that applied when I switched to upright.
Do you do any specific warm-ups or exercises?
Every time I pick up the instrument I just try to get my pitch references back. I'll locate the octaves, like a D note on the G string, and I'll play notes closed [fingered] and reference them to open strings. I do that for a few minutes to get my ear and my hand connected. That's about it.
Do you use a bow for pitch location?
I really don't bow. I'll do it on a record now and then, but I'm faking it. I might spend two hours to do one little passage.
As a bass player, what do you bring to the producer's role?
Bass players have an overview of the whole ensemble, whereas the singer is focusing on the lyrics, the lead player is focused on his role, things like that. Since I'm playing a fretless bass I'm aware of pitch, plus I'm aware of the rhythm and the structure of the music. That serves me well when we're recording and mixing. I think I have a good perspective on when we have a solid take, when the rhythm section's good, when the singer's on pitch-all that kind of stuff.
On the Hazel Dickens project you're working with a lot of different singers.
It's a whole different role-I play real minimally. When I got together with Joan Osborne I thought, Man, you'd better be on your best behavior! You want to do the right thing to make it work.
Basses 1930s/'40s "standard" German acoustic; Czech Juzek acoustic ("It developed a buzz and I did half the repairs, but I haven't put it back together"); D'Addario Helicore Pizzicato strings
Onstage rig Fishman BP-100 pickup; Hughes & Kettner BATT tube preamp; Gallien-Krueger MB150S 1x12 combo miked to the house through an AKG C3000
"The mic can be set to hypercardioid and attenuated by 10dB to be placed very close to the speaker. I don't put any bass in the front monitors; the singers and lead guys hear me from the back."
Studio setup Two Audio-Technica 4060 tube mics, one positioned "up high, opposite my right hand and aimed about 80 percent at the upper chest of the bass and 20 percent at the fingerboard," the other "maybe six inches below the end of the fingerboard so it's looking at the top circle of the A-hole. I mix those about 70 percent from the top mic and 30 percent from the lower. Using two mics gives it a much fatter sound."
Phillips's Head: Adventures In Woodworking
"I played Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen's bass," reports Todd Phillips, "and I liked the string spacing and string length so much that I went home and chopped the head off my bass. I shortened the neck a little, grafted the head back on-with the fingerboard off, I inlaid reinforcement-and put the fingerboard back. The string length is about 41 3/4" now, so it must have been about 42 1/2" before I shortened it. I also set my strings a lot closer together, so there's at least 1/4" of fingerboard outside of the string.
"I remember the feeling of looking at that bass with nothing but a stick coming out of the body and holding the head in my hand. That's what you do when you're 23 or 24 years old. I felt like, Hey-it's my bass."
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