Saturday, April 24, 2010
When, after starting his class with a ten-minute solo concert that drew rousing applause from participants, bassist Michael Manring asked whether he should answer questions or play more, you could tell from the look in his eye that he wished his students would ask him to do the latter.
No such luck. The students wanted to pick the brain of one of the most adventurous and eclectic bass players on the scene today
A student of the late Jaco Pastorius, Manring has played or recorded with musicians ranging from pianist, electronic music performer and sound effects specialist Suzanne Ciani to folk singer/songwriter John Gorka to English New Wave keyboardist Thomas Dolby to Tim Alexander, former drummer of the alternative rock group Primus. He even once joined jazz/metal guitarist Alex Skolnick to play in a funk band devoted to cop show themes. He was also a house bassist and a solo artist for the Windham Hill Records, a label specializing in New Age music.
When Manring took the students’ questions, he was humble and courteous, but to the point. When asked, for example, what a player can do to increase how far he can stretch his fretting hand along the neck, Manring immediately led the class through a series of limbering exercises for the hands, wrists and fingers.
Manring advised the class that a player should allow his instrument to do what it wants and essentially let the music go where it wants. Still he uses an arsenal of innovative technology— including magnets that extend the length of a note and switches that allow him to change tuning in the middle of a song—to help it get there, not to mention slapping, popping, tapping (fretting with both hands) and other more traditional techniques.
But if you want to know more about Michael Manring, hear it from the man himself:
BBP: One thing I was curious about was what do you think camps like this do for bass in general in this country.
Manring: I think it’s amazing because when I was growing up we didn’t have this kind of experience, kind of all alone in our rooms trying to figure it all out by ourselves. And I think this will really make a big difference where the instrument goes in the future. I’m really kind of hoping we’ll see a serious kind of uptick in the creativity of the instrument.
BBP: One thing I noticed is that when you were playing you were kind of working the two hands together. How does that work?
Manring: Well I think again…you kind of hit the nail on the head just by saying it, it’s just a matter of trying to get your two hands to work together, and figure out how they need to be independent of one another and yet dependent on one another at the same time (chuckling). There’s no one single method, it’s just a matter of working out all of the different possibilities of how the two hands join together.
BBP: Why did you choose the bass as an instrument as opposed to all of the other instruments you could have chosen?
Manring: I just love bass. I just love it. When I was a kid everyone told me “Oh you should play guitar” or something where you get more glory. I just love the instrument and just have stuck with it. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the years, and I think a lot of it is to me this is kind of my native voice. This was an instrument that was invented not far from where I live not long before I was born. It’s an instrument that—as I was talking about earlier—combines acoustic and electronic technology together in one instrument so it’s old technology with the new. It’s an instrument that’s popular all over the world. It really has this kind of universal appeal. So it kind of reflects all of these things that are happening in our culture that I think are kind of part of me because I’m a product of this time and this era. And so for me it’s my voice, it doesn’t come with a lot of baggage of the past and yet it’s related to upright bass, it’s related to guitar, both acoustic and electric, so it has all of these wonderful references in it. Just the kind of, the kind of resonance of the instrument the kind of meaning of the instrument appeals to me.
BBP: Do you see it more as a performance instrument or a background instrument? I mean traditionally it’s a background instrument but do you see more of its performance capabilities coming up?
Manring: I think it’s both. That’s what makes it so great, because it does both so well. I think both are equally important.
BBP: So explain the technique to me.
Manring: I have a set of different strokes I use with each finger, and they kind of work in different ways. One of the things I do is go both directions with all of the fingers of my right hand. So either use the flesh side of the finger or the nail side and use some kind of alternate layer…So, a little set of strokes by the flesh side of the thumb, the nail side of the thumb and the flesh side of the finger and then the nail side of the finger so use that kind of as a set of strokes. But it’s just a matter of taking little combinations like that and putting them together in different ways.
BBP: Was that a technique you developed on your own or did someone teach it to you?
Manring: It’s kind of something I worked out for myself. It kind of started with the slap technique and kind of looking at that and saying, you know, how can I kind of expand on that? It’s a really cool technique but it seems to me kind of the same thing over and over and I really thought there would be more to do with that. That’s over the years of looking at it and trying to figure out different things to do. I’ve learned more about Indian music and realized that that’s exactly what they’re doing. On any percussion instrument in India they analyze the set of strokes they’re going to use and then they work on putting those together in patterns, in kind of cell patterns and putting those cells together to build bigger patterns. So that’s kind of the way I look at it with the bass. It’s a process that I’ve been going through for a long time and it’s so complex I’ll never finish it. I don’t consider myself a master of it in any way but I have a lot of fun with it and I really enjoy learning about it and figuring out different things.
There’s some techniques that involve the left hand too. It’s a little simpler with the left hand than the right. Mostly it’s a technique of tapping the string to the fingerboard it’s called tapping. Also, different kinds of pulling off. Sometimes the pulling off involves pulling off across several strings to get a few different rhythms.
BBP: If you could…like me for example, whose slap technique really isn’t what it needs to be, what piece of advice would you give people to improve their slap technique?
Manring: Again, my approach really is this thing of figuring out what strokes you want to use and then being able to use those in any way that it’s going to happen. So I would say just isolate the stroke that you’re going to deal with, and figure out how those can go together and then work with those patterns.