This is the first of a series of interviews we have planned on Fretless Bass Guitar Hub. Of course, we kick it off with one of my all-time-favorite bass players and one helluva virtuoso in his own right, Mr. Michael Manring.
What was it that originally drove you to take up fretless?
Like so many of us, it was hearing Jaco Pastorius play that really got me into fretless. At that time, in the mid 70′s, I was playing both upright and electric and struggling a bit with the dichotomy. I loved the warmth of the double bass, but really felt a need for the fluidity of the electric. Jaco’s approach exemplified the best of both worlds and became a kind of standard to try to reach. There were a lot of other great fretless players at the time too, and it seemed like the fretless option offered a beautiful sense of identity for the instrument, which was just beginning to mature.
You play a wide range of bass guitars, a mix of fretless and fretted. Aside from tapping, which you can clearly perform on either type of bass, what factors influence which type of instrument you select for any given song?
The fretless is always my first choice. It has so many expressive options, not only the obvious ones like vibrato and slides but subtle variations in amplitude and timbre that really help make the sound come alive, [that] I always prefer to play it if I can. I go to the fretted bass for stuff with a lot of complex double stops or chords, or if I’m looking for a more plain sound with a pronounced attack and simple decay, or for certain idiomatic things. I love having the option of the fretted bass, but the fretless offers so many colorful possibilities it’s hard to resist.
Following on the previous thought, you also employ some rather unique alternative tunings. How did you come up with these particular tunings in the first place, and what types of alterations did they require on your basses?
For me everything comes from the sound and, in a related way, the feel of the instrument. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s always just seemed to me that the bass wants to be tuned in various ways. Its resonance changes so much with its tuning, and there are so many beautiful possibilities that it’s again a matter of not being able to resist and being seduced into these worlds of sound, ideas and feeling. When you think about all the great music that’s been done on bass and guitar in E minor and its related keys, that’s because these instruments resonate well in these keys due to the nature of standard tuning. With each other tuning, and the the 4-string bass is capable of thousands, there are similar possibilities. I’m really not sure why these are largely unexplored, but I’m having fun and learning a lot!
Altered tuning doesn’t necessarily require any alteration of your bass. In fact, that’s one of the things that made it so appealing to me as a young, poor musician — it’s easy and doesn’t cost anything! If you decide to use unusual string gauges it can be helpful but not critical, to adjust the slots at nut and bridge, but that’s about it.
I’ve helped design instruments with mechanisms that make it easier for me to change tunings quickly on the fly because that’s been an interest of mine, but there’s certainly a ton to do with altered tunings without the dynamic tuning option.
You have collaborated with an impressive array of musicians (e.g. Pastorius, Lawson, Princiotto, just to name some of the bassists). Who is the one bassist that has inspired you the most and why?
It’s a little hard to choose just one bassist as the most inspiring. Every musician I’ve worked with has influenced me in different ways, and I’ve drawn inspiration from so many other musicians as well. It’s hard to sort out which lessons have been more valuable than others, and I’m not sure I really want to think of them that objectively. However, I suppose the most likely candidate for an answer to your question is probably Peter Princiotto. He was my teacher when I was starting out and was a powerful and positive role model. The lessons I got from him have served me well throughout my career.
You are more involved with your fan community than most musicians. Of course, many of the members of the community are also bassists, but what is it that other musicians are not “getting” about participating in the conversation actively?
Thank you, but I don’t feel I do very well at this! I’m very grateful to the folks who buy my recordings and come to my shows, as I’ve always felt my music is pretty far out of the mainstream and probably takes some effort to get into, so I’m always looking for ways to give something back. I get a lot of questions from folks, and I feel it’s the least I can do to answer as well as I can and make any information available that seems to be of interest. Also, these questions often help me clarify my ideas and direction, so it’s not entirely selfless! Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a casual conversationalist, and I struggle with the current forms of social media. I admire those who are good at that process and try to learn from them, but I have to accept I’ll always have my limitations in this regard.
What is one “golden nugget” of advice that all aspiring bass players should hear, perhaps something you wish someone told you earlier in your career?
That’s something I think about a lot, perhaps because a lot of the advice I’ve received in my life hasn’t really been all that helpful for me for my particular path in music. It was all very well meaning, and I certainly don’t harbor bad feelings about it; it’s just that a lot of conventional wisdom hasn’t been particularly applicable to my situation.
For example, intelligent folks with significant expertise often advised me not to pursue solo bass too intently, as they felt it was unlikely that the format would ever be popular. However, as it’s turned out, the solo stuff I’ve done has been more successful commercially than almost all the other projects I’ve been involved in. Fortunately, one of the most inspiring things I learned from Peter Princiotto was a sense of creative open-mindedness. He has a wonderful way of appreciating and encouraging musical excellence without being exclusive or negative, and I think that helped me to maintain a certain self-confidence when it seemed I was going against the grain.
The primary kind of advice I offer these days has to do with appreciating the art of paying attention. Listening is the most important musical skill, and humans have an amazing capacity for it when we apply ourselves. In this Information Age with all the messages flying around us, it’s also necessary to be able to sort through what is effective and what isn’t. I think this is largely the same skill as musical listening — at least similar enough to be put under the umbrella of this notion of how we apply our attention. Of course the idea of directed attention is not at all exclusive to music and some schools of thought teach that it’s the most important skill in life. But there you go — music at its deepest level is so intertwined with life in general I think of them as two perspectives of the same phenomenon.
Well said, Michael, and a heartfelt thank you for being the first brave soul to appear here in an interview. You are truly a friend of the “Hub” as well as any bass player who is lucky enough to have enjoyed your catalogue.