Stanley Clarke

Godfather of Bass
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
Photos: Neil Zlozower/

Stanley ClarkeDespite being widely credited for pushing the electric bass past its status as a rear-of-the-stage device intended to simply help drummers provide rhythmic backing, and in turn influencing two generations of players, Stanley Clarke remains deferential and unassuming.

In the decade and a half before his arrival on the music scene in Philadelphia, the bass in pop music was used to fill the frequencies below the guitar and help the drummer keep time – like Bill Black and his walking lines behind Elvis or James Jamerson’s chromatic/in-the-pocket fills; its role secondary to the guitarist and singer. That changed when Clarke emerged in the early ’70s.

Clarke learned music in a formal setting, starting on upright bass. He picked up an electric in order to socialize and play music like the rock and pop groups that emerged in the mid/late 1960s. His varied influences eventually found him mingling with players immersed in the blossoming “fusion” scene of the time, where jazzers jammed on tunes that shed the form’s swing roots in favor of a rock backbeat. In 1973, he joined keyboardist Chick Corea, drummer Lenny White, and guitarist Bill Connors in Return to Forever, one of fusion’s first and foremost groups (Al Di Meola replaced Connors after the band’s first album).

Musicians of stature typically come from households where music, art, and/or other forms of culture are part of everyday life, and those early years were no different for Clarke.

“My mother liked the opera,” he said. “She sang around the house, and in the church choir, as well. She was a really fine painter, and creativity was vital to her. So, for as long as I remember, music and art were part of my life. It seemed natural for me to pursue something creative.”

But, why music?

“I always paid particular attention when listening to the radio,” he said. “And, when I was seven or eight, mother bought a piano, and it became a part of our family.”

In the ensuing years, his growing love of music piqued his interest in the school band. Like many musicians, Clarke tells the story of how he showed up on sign-up day only to find other kids had dibbed on all the “good” instruments.

“When I tell that story, I usually go straight to the upright bass, but I actually tried to play a violin for a second; I picked it up. Then, I sat for a bit with a cello. When I looked around again, there were no violins left. So, the instruments that no one even looked at were an acoustic bass and a sousaphone… maybe also a bass drum.

“The acoustic bass at least looked like something serious, like it had some history to it. The school’s upright was a nasty sounding instrument too, so my first challenge was to make a turd sound good! I still do that today (laughs)!”

Clarke calls his new disc, Up, “the most energetic, fun, rhythmic and upbeat album” from more than 40 he has made to date. Laden with the virtuosity and technical acumen, it supplants the predominant acoustic work on the last few albums with 12 songs that evenly mix electric and acoustic.

The disc includes Clarke’s current touring band – Beka Gochiashvili (acoustic piano) and Mike Mitchell (drums) – along with his former, Ruslan Sirota (acoustic piano/keyboards) and Ronald Bruner, Jr. (drums). But one of the primary motivations for making it was Clarke’s desire to acknowledge some of his longtime musical friendships, which include Joe Walsh, Jimmy Herring, and Paul Jackson, Jr., all of whom contributed on guitar. Clarke also addresses his affinity for drummers, and included greats like Bruner, Stewart Copeland, Gerry Brown, John Robinson, and Mike Mitchell.

Produced by Clarke and recorded at the famed L.A. studio The Village, he’s particuarly fond of its sound and pace; the first four tracks are upbeat and include the title track with Copeland on drums, along with Walsh and Jackson on guitars. They’re followed by the acoustic fifth track, “Bass Folk Song #13: Mingus,” which serves as an homage to the late jazz bassist and is one of four that share “folk song” as part of their title; another is “Bass Folk Song #7: Tradition,” which was inspired by his early collaborations with Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz and others. On it, he solos on an Alembic tenor bass.

The penultimate track is a re-work of “School Days” Clarke did with full knowledge of the potential peril of altering what is widely viewed as a bass anthem, this time with Jimmy Herring on guitar, and Brown – who drummed with Clarke on the original.

The album closes with “La Canción de Sofia (A Song for Sofia).” The tune was written for Clarke’s wife and was recorded as an acoustic duet with Chick Corea, onstage in Japan.

We spoke with Clarke just prior to the release of Up.

Stanley Clarke
(LEFT) This prototype of an original Spellbinder has a wood frame with a composite wrap and – unlike the production version – a 34″ scale. Per Clarke’s specs, the Spellbinder was initially marketed with a 30.75″ scale, a preference stemming from his early days playing a Gibson EB-0. The pickup tray design housed two custom Bartolinis and was part of a sliding-pole-piece concept that was not patented until 1989. The instrument came about as a result of a partnership between Clarke and guitar builder Tom Lieber. (RIGHT) Clarke cites his custom Neuvo Spellbinder, derived from the company’s Spellbinder 2001, for its ability to “do anything the Alembic can do,” and offers its own type of fine craftsmanship.

As you started to learn to play, what kept you focused?
I think it was a combination of things, including the degree to which I was improving. I had pretty good teachers that were very expressive about progress. They gave me the feeling like, “Wow, you’re really getting this together.” That’s nice for anybody who’s learning. So, it was a combination of the teachers, my mother telling me, “You’ve gotta learn music,” and there was school – The Settlement Music School. When I took lessons there, it was kind of like walking back through time; I’d go through the front door of the old, colonial-type building full of people in suits – it was really like an old-school music academy – and walk into a room with nice furniture and teachers who sat with you and your instrument. It was geared to prepare you for college or an orchestra, and it was my first connection with something professional. There were serious rules – you had to be accepted to get in, and you could very easily be thrown out.

Was such structure good for you?
Yeah. At the time I didn’t know it was (laughs). I was just trying to survive it, actually. There were a few times I’d come in late and the teacher would say, “Hey, Stanley, where is Livingstone?” He was a serious teacher and great guy. It was cool, I really cherish those days. The first four to five years, my studies were strictly classical music – old-world in the European tradition.

What was some of your favorite music to play in those days?
Well, I was moving pretty good as an acoustic bass player and there were a lot of sonatas for bass. There was this one written by Eccles – a sonata in G minor – and I used to love to play it. There were other things, too, and I enjoyed playing anything that gave you a sense of feeling special, where it didn’t matter what neighborhood you came out of. It didn’t really matter who you knew. It was really more about whether or not you could play. One guy could come from [a wealthy] family and another could come from Spanish Harlem; I liked that it was simply, “Do you or don’t you have the goods?” And I kept that throughout life.

At what point did the electric bass enter your life?
The electric bass came as a way to play at parties, look cool, and emulate the bands coming out of England, which all the girls liked. When I started on electric bass… I’d be a liar if I said I played like guys play it now. I was wild. And even though it appeared like I had worked out parts, it was mostly off the cuff, because I was a jazz player. I didn’t work out solos. Some of it was good and some of it, to be honest, wasn’t that good. But that’s the kind of player I was. Now, it’s like they’re playing Paganini parts – it’s serious business! For me, though, it was a hobby and I didn’t take it serious – I never studied electric bass, even after I made some records that were popular. The bass players who came after me – Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, and a few others – brought a presentation of the instrument that was really important and really helped move the bass forward.

Did you come to favor one – acoustic or electric – over the other?
I’ve always looked at myself as an acoustic-bass player. I don’t talk about this much because the electric bass is so strong right now. Yes, I play electric bass and I’ve slung it around my arms, I’ve played it with leather pants, I’ve played with the Rolling Stones, I’ve played with all kinds of people. In many people’s minds, I’m an electric-bass player. But, in my heart, I’m an acoustic-bass player. The acoustic work I’ve done gives the full picture. I don’t diminish the electric bass in any way, but my musical genesis is the acoustic bass.

Stanley Clarke
Clarke (left) with Chick Corea and Al Di Meola in Return to Forever, 1976. Return to Forever: Tom Marcello.

Your style on the electric is unique because of that background, especially the way you pluck the bass.
Yeah… I was talking to Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten once about how they hold their [plucking] hands the way I do. Marcus said it took him years to realize he did that. If you look at rock players, their arm goes down and the hand lays in a normal position, but for some reason I got into bending my hand and wrist, which lets you use less power because you’re breaking the energy at the wrist. That’s the way I’ve always played, and that came from the way I pluck strings on the acoustic. I told Marcus and Victor, “Sorry man!” (laughs)

What are your thoughts on the way bass playing has evolved, stylistically? You certainly played a role in it.
If I have any complaints about where the bass has gone, it’s that some players that have lost or chosen not to serve the basic function of a bass player, which is to play rhythm in such a way where the harmony and the rhythm are married. When the bass plays a low C and everybody’s playing a C chord, you really hear the bass at the bottom, playing the fundamental. From that point, it can get as complicated as you want, but still, it’s the job of the bass to bring the rhythm and harmony together. Some bass players have forgotten that – they’re more baritone-guitar players. They play a lot of stuff.

Now… I’ve done that; I’ve been the biggest culprit. But, I can also say that I’ve done my share of playing solid bass lines on lots of records. And after saying that, I can come back and argue against myself and say it’s good that we have bass players who just play solos and chords and things that make the bass universe less monolithic; it was pretty one-sided coming from the ’50s and ’60s. Now, you have guys doing all kinds of records. When I started making records, there was just a handful of solo bassists. Now, there are hundreds. Some are good, some are awful. And the thing I like most is that it’s not so much the music, it’s the fact that a bass player can feel as important as any other instrument. When I made my first record, people questioned me. “Are you crazy? You’re just a bass player.” I’ll never forget that. “What are you gonna play on a record?” So, I showed ’em.

Who most influenced you?
It’s funny, and I have to preface this by pointing out that greatness on an instrument is difficult to quantify – it’s not a point-based system, like sports. My favorite bass player doesn’t have the technique other guys do, but when you listen closely and study what he has done, the stuff Ron Carter did with Miles Davis is truly genius. He shifted the paradigm from the guys before him. It was very profound, the way he played – nothing like a virtuoso soloist, but really interesting. He’s the most-recorded bass player there is, which tells you something,

Stanley ClarkeOne of your new songs directly references Charles Mingus…
Yeah. Even though I love his music and recorded one of his songs, he influenced me more just as a person. He was a crazy bass revolutionary. You could’ve taken the bass away from him, put a rifle in his hand, and sent him to the Sandinistas. He was a wild dude when you sat in front of him.

Which of his songs best relay that?
My favorite Mingus song is everyone’s all-time favorite – “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which I like because it was about his friend, Lester Young, who wore pork-pie hats with the brim up. The title was just so personal, and he was willing to get so deep with that melody. When I first came to New York, I had the luxury of seeing his band at the Village Vanguard. He was tough man, like he was gonna fight somebody that night. I admired that somebody was brave enough to just let out exactly what it is.

I remember when I first met him… Somebody called and said he was at a restaurant in my neighborhood, and wanted to meet. So I walked down to this restaurant on the lower East Side, and there were platters of food at his table, I never saw anybody eat so much… well, other than Kareem Abdul Jabbar. They’re the only two guys I’ve ever seen eat platters – like they were horses or something (laughs). And he only really faced the food – his eyeballs would look up at me, like he was checking me out. It was cool, though. When someone asks me about a deep memory, that’s usually the one. I’ve been around Miles Davis, but those memories kind of pale to Mingus, because he was eerie, in a way. The guy was a serious dude (laughs)!

Stanley Clarke
With its distinguished body style, Clarke says this Rick Turner Model 1 bass is “sweet, really warm, and very nice for accompanying acoustic instruments.” It has Turner’s custom-made electronics with magnetic pickup, piezo in the bridge, and a blending preamp. Its top and back are walnut, the body mahogany, and the neck is a five-piece laminate of maple and purpleheart with a rosewood fingerboard.

When you first started playing electric bass, what was your instrument and rig?
My first electric bass was a Kent. I think it cost $20 at a five-and-dime store, where it was actually a high-priced item! There was like an organ, a Kent guitar, and the bass. My mother got it for me, and I didn’t even have a case. It was real raw, man! I started playing with a guy at school, Steve Sykes, whose family owned a funeral parlor. He was just starting to drive, so our band, Blues Demonstration, drove to gigs in a hearse.

After that, I got a Gibson EB-O with black strings on it, I don’t know what they were, but they sounded dull, man. I played it in early Return to Forever, too, until Rick Turner came to a gig in San Francisco and politely said, “You’re a really good player, but your sound sucks.” Said it just like that! I was like, “Who the hell is this guy?” But, me and Lenny White, the drummer, talked to him more. We appreciated that he was so bold. Eventually, he said, “I have something…” and he went to his car and brought back one of the first Alembic basses. I played that thing, and it was like night and day; I could actually hear the notes I was playing. So, we gathered a bunch of money… Rick wasn’t there to sell it, but we were aggressive. I think we gave him $1,600, which was a lot of money at that time. He said, “Man, this cost me two grand to make.” (laughs) And it was such a great addition to Return to Forever. It changed our sound because the low-end up and everything was very clear. I was in heaven, man.

That relationship became very strong…
Yeah, and I still play Alembic basses. They’ve allowed me to play the things I envision, which was difficult on those early Gibson basses because I just couldn’t hear it.

On [Return to Forever’s] Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, I used a Gibson except on one tune, “Theme to the Mother Ship.”

One bass I found, before the Alembic, was a Dan Armstrong I borrowed from someone… [Mahavishnu Orchestra bassist] Rick Laird, I think. It was really, really clean, after playing it I thought, “Man, if I could just get a clean bass.” Then, the Alembic came to me.

As a result, you raised Alembic’s profile and maybe Alembic played a role in your profile coming up.
Yeah, it was a good marriage, and they were always very nice to me. To this day, every couple of years they make me some kind of amazing, fantastic billion-dollar bass. For the 30th year anniversary of our relationship, they made a great one that I’ve only played in public once, but I’ll maybe take it out next year. It would be okay on a bus tour, but I’d still worry about it.

Stanley Clarke
(LEFT) Clarke calls this Spellbinder II “a good, solid bass.” Based on the Spellbinder 2001 prototype, it has a 34″ scale, maple neck-through design with body wings made of quartersawn Sitka spruce, and a 24-fret ebony fretboard. (RIGHT) This Alembic is Clarke’s primary/“workhorse” bass. A 1999 Series I short-scale, it has Coco Bolo top and back with extra-wide maple-accent laminates and a vermilion core. The neck is maple and vermilion with an ebony fretboard.

Which other companies have approached you about endorsement deals?
They all have – every company that’s been out there. And I’ve actually liked a few. I’m not a big Fender fan, but I have a few Fender basses. Marcus [Miller] gave me one of his signature basses, and I used it on a few movies and the new Al Jarreau record. I really like how Warwick makes basses, they’re very nice.

Do you recall being approached by Kramer?
Yeah, I endorsed a Kramer for a while. There was an ad where I’m holding the first Kramer bass; they brought the prototype to me, and it was interesting.

Do you recall what you thought about the neck with the aluminum inserts?
What I liked about it was the neck didn’t move, so there was a precision in the intonation with that instrument. One of the things that I didn’t like was its tone controls – I couldn’t really hear things that would apply to what I was doing. That’s the problem with sweepable EQ on basses – it basically alters one frequency, whereas the smarter design was a “cut” knob with other knobs on top, where one does this and one will take one of the pickups off, which gives a whole lot of flexibility. That was really what I liked back then. For instance, playing solo, especially with loud drummers, in order to cut through, I need some midrange, maybe hi-mids, to boost my sound. Back in those days, there weren’t any pedals that did that. So, I had to use the switches on the bass. Now, they have all kinds of stuff that can boost your sound 10 db – just flip a switch.

Studio and live, do you have preferred instruments and/or amp rigs?
I use Ampeg stuff now. I did SWR, I did EBS, then I went back to Ampeg, which gives me a warmer sound. I have my Alembics with the preamp input module, and I use pretty much the same rig live as in the studio. The only difference is that in the studio it’s a little smaller. The Alembic is usually taken direct and amped, but that’s pretty much it.

At a gig where you’re playing electric, do you switch basses through the course of a night?
If I bring both. Usually, though, I take just one because, really, the Alembics cover it all for me. They made a five-string for me that is really, really, nice. I just gotta learn how to play it (laughs)! I can play it, but I can’t really play it. It has a beautiful sound, though.

Speaking of, where do you come down on basses with more than four strings?
I have nothing against five- and six-string basses, but I’m pretty much a four-string guy. I’m not big on those nine-string instruments – all those wild strings that look like they’re on a table or something. They’re cool as far as creativity, and its progress – good or bad. I’m also not against the physical looks of any instrument, as long as you’re playing the right stuff.

Speaking of, your new album, Up, has some highly melodic material, and then there’s some virtuosic stuff that might freak out some people.
That’s the thing I like about it – it’s a lot of what I do, you know? It’s nice.

Did anything specifically fuel or influence your desire to make a new album?
I hadn’t made one in a long time, and I wanted to make a record where I would just have fun hanging out with my friends in music. So, pretty much everyone on the album, I have a close relationship with. It started out with me and Stewart Copeland, who is one of my oldest friends – we go back way, way, way before the Police. So, we messed around with a couple tracks, then called Joe Walsh and did “Up!,” which was fun. The album opens with “Pop Virgil,” with [keyboardist] Greg Phillinganes, John Robinson, and Paul Jackson, Jr. – essentially the Michael Jackson rhythm section, who I’ve known since they were really young and used to do sessions for me. They’re like a team, and when they play, it sounds like a record. They could take the worst tune and make it sound like something.

Stanley Clarke
(LEFT) Clarke calls this “Black Beauty,” and says it’s his favorite amongst the Alembics. A mid-’70s Series I, it has a graphite neck and Bigby vibrato. The top and back are ebony, the accent laminates are Zebrawood, and the core is birdseye maple. (RIGHT) Clarke’s Löewenherz bass is a 34″-scale instrument with a laminate neck of bubinga and maple. It sports pickups by Christoph Dolf, Noll Electronics, and to enhance sustain, a brass lion head tailpiece weighing 330 grams.

Were there any quirks or differences in the way it came together, compared to your other records?
I was surprised that we went straight through. The first four tracks are kind of upbeat. Like, “Can it get any upper than this?” (laughs) Then it goes down, then it goes in these other places, and even the ending is unnatural, which is what makes it natural, for me. It all fell into place, and a lot of it had to do with the guys being ready and having a lot of fun.

Did you choose the guest guitarists based on anything, in particular?
Yeah, for years Jimmy Herring had been telling me how much he liked “School Days.” And, in fact, a lot of guitar players through the years have told me, “Man, if you ever do that again, I’ve gotta do that track.” But, I picked that track this time for Jimmy. It’s funny… I know people have this thing, like, “How could you mess with a classic tune?” And maybe it’s the jazz musician in me, but we don’t really think like that. Rock guys think like that. You couldn’t imagine Led Zeppelin re-doing “Stairway to Heaven.” But in the jazz world… Miles Davis re-cut quite a few tunes, like “So What,” which was a classic on Kind of Blue. He recorded it two, three, four other times on live and studio albums. It’s the same way with me; “School Days” is a good tune, so why not record it? It was fun, and Jimmy played his butt off. He’s in the tradition of the great Southern-rock guitarists – Lynyrd Skynyrd and all the guys who came before him. It just doesn’t get any better. Sometimes, when I listen to him, I don’t even care what he’s playing as long as the tone is right (laughs).

What were some other highlights as you filled the guitar parts?
The way Joe Walsh became involved was kind of funny. When I was getting ready to do the 2008 reunion tour with Return to Forever, the Eagles were going out, too, and me and Joe would go to the same gym, trying to get ourselves into shape. Joe would be one side with his trainer, I was on the other side. When I was in my 20s, we weren’t lifting weights to go on the road – we just went! Not these days. I have to prepare myself, physically, to go on the road and do what I want to do.

I met Paul Jackson, Jr. when he was 16, and have always liked his almost-compositional way of playing parts on a record. He decides what he’s going to play and how he’s going to play it, then he executes. It’s a different kind of spontaneity; it’s worked out, but it’s worked out on the spot, then comes out like, “Wow, he thought about that for an hour.” He recognizes right away what is needed, which is really cool. I told him to do that little James Brown lick in “Pop Virgil.” He knew exactly what to do. That was something…

“School Days,” of course, has a real ear-worm melody…
Yeah, and I really like the sound we got. Sonically, it might be better now. The song’s got a thing. Playing a gig with Larry Carlton once, people were screaming out for it. I was standing next to Larry and I go, “Look at this guy over here screaming ‘School Days.’ Now I’ve got to play it for the billionth time.” Larry looked at me and he said, “Man, you should be thankful. Not every instrumentalist is fortunate enough to have a career song. You have one.” And he was right. I thanked him. I stood corrected and I actually learned to appreciate it (laughs) a lot more. And it’s true, there probably ain’t a spot in the world that somebody doesn’t know that song, and that’s a very cool thing. I remember the first time we played in Senegal and these guys were going nuts, shouting “‘School Days!” “School Days!” These guys wearing robes (laughs). I was like, “Okay, okay. Alright.” That was pretty wild. I’ve been to a lot of places with people screaming out that tune – Tunisia, Turkey, places in the Mideast. I change the arrangement every now and then I add something. I keep the core of the tune, and we’ll add a little thing here and there so it feels like new every tour. On the record, we broke it down bare – took all the extra stuff out – and it’s nice, I like it. That’s the way I prefer playing it these days.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s January 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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