Dennis Alstrand is our most experienced writer at Singing Bassist. He has graciously contributed a video which complements his article about how he plays bass-guitar and sings.. The full video is located in the Subscribers’ Section. What follows is an excerpt from that video and a biographical interview with Dennis.
- What was the first musical instrument you played?
I played the piano first, starting at around 8 years old. I suggest all bass players learn to play one of the melodic instruments and piano is probably the best. You get a much more rounded view of playing music than from just playing bass. I think you have to know music, chords. I used to be dumfounded when, say, a guitar player would tell me the chords of a song just saying “It’s A D B E” and I would say “major or minor?” They would say “It doesn’t matter, you’re just the bass player”. But I’m just the bass player who knows that I’ll play different notes depending on whether it’s minor or major. I get irritated just thinking about those jerks.
- when did you first pick up a bass-guitar?
In the video I made for your site, I incorrectly said I’ve been playing bass for 30 years. But I got my first bass in 1969 when I was 14. I think I skipped a decade and it was probably the 80s that I skipped. It was a red hollow body Kent bass with a sort of violin shape. I wish I still had that beloved old bass.
- Why did you play with fingers first and then with pick?
Because the bass player idols for me in those days were Jack Bruce and Billy Cox from the Band of Gypsies. And it seemed that most bass players I would go and see at the Fillmore or whereever played with their fingers. It seemed natural. But it wasn’t long, just a year or two, before I was using a pick as well (thanks Chris Squire).
- Do you prefer fingers or pick and why?
I play both ways now. I like the subtle nuances of playing with fingers. There is so much you can do. If you pull up on the string in the normal style, you get one sound. If you turn your index finger to the side and play off the side of your finger you can get a string bass sound especially if you pluck away from the bridge a ways. Then sometimes if the night is long I’ll try different things that I think are awesome but no one notices. One is to play all four strings with a different finger. Index on the low E and on down. It really gives my pinky a workout. The pick is used more for when I’m outnumbered soundwise by the guitar and need to get louder. Or when I want to play more precisely, aka Chris Squire basslines. Or, finally, if I grow blisters on my fingers and they break and it finally gets too uncomfortable, then it’s back to the pick. One problem I had for years was that I would get excited and play too hard with my fingers and my wrist would start to lock up after a few hours.
- Who are your favorite singing bassists?
Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney, Greg Lake. Jack Bruce is an amazing bass player/singer; I’ve never seen anyone that good. Well, maybe Greg Lake. He was incredible too. He can’t sing no mo’. Paul McCartney is funny. He was and is one of my bass playing idols but if you watch him he used to have these weird habits. Not any more but I don’t see how he played SO damn good back in the 60s. Watch the mimed performance of I Am the Walrus. His fingers keep looking like they’re going to trip over each other. Maybe I should give him this: I’ll bet a lot of money he was seriously stoned when they filmed that. I will never knock him; he was THE FIRST singing bass player in the pop world. He was the guy who made it cool to sing and play bass: heck to play bass in the first place. It was him that generated bass sales. I remember going into a guitar shop in the mid 60s and there was always a lot of guitars and just one bass hanging on the wall. A few years later the balance was swinging towards the basses.
- in what types of bands have you played?
I started off in a Blood Sweat and Tears type horn band, early 1970s. Boy did I learn from them how to listen to everyone in the band. They would NOT let me just listen to myself and I’m grateful forever to them for that.
I was in a jazz-rock band that got well known around the biker bars in Fremont California. That was interesting considering the lead singer was a very good looking woman.
I spent about 5 years in (if I may say so) the best wedding band in the SF Bay Area. Those were the disco days and hate it if you will, but the bass player always had fun parts.
I got into a country band that I felt had a good shot of making it famous but the usual band politics interfered. From that, I had a good dose of what the music industry was like towards the higher levels and had no desire to go there again. I’ve since been very happy in the club scene, thank you.
I played in country western clubs for some years, and made a lot of friends there. It was during this time that I started switching to being a keyboard player, a real rock and roller type. Jerry Lee Lewis, stand aside. I got into an Elvis Presley imitation band. I hear you laughing, but it was the best band I’d ever been in. You have to be SHARP to play that 1970s Las Vegas stuff. He had top musicians and so we had to be tops too.
After moving from California to Hawaii, I’ve been playing both bass and keyboards. The musicians here on the big island are very friendly, different than Calfornia. I got right into recording heavily here for local bands and love that. I was in a dance band here on bass for about 7 years. That was big fun.
Then I got into ANOTHER Elvis band here. It was going great for a while but politics got in the way as usual.
Right now I’m the keyboard/bass/guitarist in a band that is finishing up an album of songs written by the lead singer and me.
- in what types of bands have you sung and played?
Just about all of those bands. Excepting, of course, the Elvis band where I did sing but it was those cool background vocals.
- which song posed the greatest difficulty for you to sing and play, and why?
Let’s see……We Gotta Get Out of this Place because the bass is SO different than the vocal. Addicted to Love, same thing….Those were difficult, but I would guess that The Story In Your Eyes by the Moody Blues was the most difficult. John Lodge played bass on that and since Justin Hayward sang it, he could make up a killer bass line. Playing that line caused you to run around the neck in a wild fashion but the vocal has to be soothing, with expression.
If you listen to the vocals, he slides into most of his notes. The bass part is not “slud”. I was always a bit proud doing that song but I doubt if anybody noticed the absolute difficulty of it. I’d even announce it saying “This song is a BITCH to play and sing” and who cares?
- Bass players are generally background musicians on stage. But, I suggest that every time you play, do your best and be sharp. Let your musical spirit shine every time on every song. You may be “just the bass player” but you never know who is watching you. It might be a guy or a friend of a person who is at the next level up and is looking for a bass player…or will remember you down the road.
- Never look at the audience like they’re a bunch of assholes because they’ll be able to tell. A lead singer I played with gave me great advice many years ago. I asked him how he stayed so UP when there were just a few people there watching. He said he always acts like there are thousands in the room. “Thank you thank you!” he would say even as we were finishing a song. We would end up having a party and the few people would usually stay and have a good time with us. What a great piece of advice that has been through the years.
The counter to this is, have you ever gone and seen a band and you immediately got the feeling that the musicians felt like they were above it all. That they were cool and you all were fools? You remember that stuff with a sneer and tell other people about it and so will your audience.
- Never play drunk or stoned. If you already follow this rule, then no need to read further. If not, I know you’re arguing about this you bastards. But I’m asking you, PLEASE don’t get into that habit. What? It’s too late? Stop now. Said with gut wrenching emphasis: How many good musicians have I seen who ruined a good career because they felt they could play better after a few drinks? One night a guitar player came into the club and started drinking straight shots. During the first set he fell over his amplifier and went into the bathroom, sat on the toilet and puked into his underwear. We dressed that unconsioucs jerk and put him in his car. He told me the next week he woke up about three AM, underwear caked with the stuff and had to drive home. That story sucks but it could be you my friend. And there is nothing worse than playing with people who smoke pot. They’re real good the first set, go get stoned and then they just think they’re good. Pot smoking/lousy perception of one’s own playing has been known for years. Gene Krupa learned it. Max Geldray learned it.
I really hope there’s someone who reads this and decides to knock that crap off. I’d be able to die happy.
Be sure to check out Dennis’ entire video of his singing-bassist lessons in the Subscribers’ Section. If not already a subscriber, submit your email address to receive the password for the exclusive content.