Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament - Expanding the Bottom End
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN HAMER TONE MAGAZINE, VOL. 1 NO. 2, 1992
Reprinted with permission of Jol Dantzig
In this issue of the Tone we have the opportunity to talk with Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam about how he got into playing bass, what inspired and influenced him, and how he approaches songwriting, among other things.
Jol Dantzig, a long-time friend of Ament’s, conducts this interview. Hamer and Dantzig have been working with Jeff since the days between Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam.
Why bass guitars? What attracted you to bass in the first place?
I think what got me into playing bass was the whole punk rock thing. The Ramones, the Clash, Sex Pistols – that kind of trip. When I watched those bands or saw videos or saw pictures of those bands, I always thought that Dee Dee Ramone, Paul Simonon and those guys were the coolest looking guys in the band.
I remember when I’d explain a Kiss or an Aerosmith song to someone, I would always end up humming the bass line. Of course they didn’t know what I was doing. I think that some people just don’t hear that end of the spectrum. They listen to the higher end, like the vocal melodies or the guitar melodies.
It’s interesting that you say that, because probably eight times out of ten, when you ask somebody to hum you a song, they’re going to hum you the melody that the singer is singing. To most people, the lyrics are the song. But, sonically, you were attracted to the lower end of the spectrum to begin with?
Yes. I don’t know if it was because I had a shitty stereo (laughs) and the upper mid-range wasn’t coming through, or maybe my tweeters were blown, I don’t know.
When was this, the late ‘70’s?
I started playing bass in 1981. But I was pretty aware of what a bass sounded like as early as 1974-75, when I first started getting into that whole hard rock thing.
Were there any other bass players, outside of punk rock, that you emulated or admired?
I always joked around about being Gene Simmons. I think he had a big influence on me. I also joked around about being John Entwistle just because of the way he looked when he played – kind of bored, while he was shredding at the same time. It was the juxtaposition of how he looked and what he was doing – making it all look effortless.
That’s interesting because you’re not shredding – you’re definitely holding the bottom down. Yet you’re jumping and running all over the stage.
Yeah, I’m exactly the opposite of John Entwistle. I went through those stages where I tried to learn how to play fast and learn all the tricks. But I ended up finding my space in making things funky and approaching things differently. Not approaching it so much from a technical point of view, but really getting into the jam or the song that we’re working on. I just close my eyes and my fingers follow what’s inside.
Most of the time, it’s not a very conscious thing. When you think about it too much, you struggle with it and it usually ends up being something you’re not entirely happy with. Usually, it either happens and it’s really great, or you struggle with it and it’s not.
I love players that can play behind their backs with all their fingers and their toes. My hat is off to all the Billy Sheehan’s and Yngwie Malmsteen’s, but it is something I could never do.
I ended up getting more inspired by things that made you want to dance, or jump around the room, or made you want to have sex. There were all these basic things that music like Kiss’s made you want to do. I was more inspired by things like that than being a guitar hero.
Do you write on the bass?
Sometimes. Like the initial groove. If I’m jamming with Dave (Krusen) and Stone (Gossard) there might be something that I play that I’ll remember when I get home. I’ll play it on the bass a little bit and then I’ll pick up my acoustic and try to formulate it into more of a guitar riff.
”Jeremy” starts and ends with a 12-string bass. Was that an afterthought or was the song built around that?
We actually wrote “Jeremy” and “Why Go?” on a 12-string guitar. At that point, I had already talked to you about building that first 12-string bass. I had been thinking the whole time that these songs were going to be 12-string bass songs. It was definitely something that was thought out when I was sitting around jamming on a 12-string acoustic guitar.
That obviously indicates previous knowledge of the 12-string bass. How did you become familiar with it?
I used an older 12-string bass on two songs for a Mother Love Bone record, “Star Dog Champion” and “Holy Roller”. When I was recording in San Francisco, I borrowed one of Tom Petersson’s basses for a week. It was a rental, and I guess someone at Polygram knew how to get a hold of him. It looked like a Hamer prototype. I even have a picture of myself with it somewhere.
I had always heard my part in “Star Dog Champion” as a 12-string bass. I had listened to Cheap Trick for years and years and years and totally fell in love with the sound of “Gonna Raise Hell” and “Need Your Love” – songs where the 12-string bass was really prominent.
In fact, have a 12-string bass was just kind of a pipe dream for a long time – until I called you and made it a reality.
You own a lot of different types of basses. Hamer, alone, has made you a lot of different ones.
Yeah, I have 5 Hamer basses: a 12-string, 8-string, two fretlesses, and a 4-string.
We’ve pretty much got it covered. How do you determine which bass you’re going to use?
There’s a lot of different ways of approaching it. In practice, I’ll have a 4-string, a 12-string and a fretless sitting there. If I start with the fretless, playing with my fingers, and it isn’t doing it for me, I’ll grab a normal 4-string and play with a pick – just to take a completely different approach to it.
A lot of times you’ll hear a counter-melody in your head, and you’ll hear it as a fretless or a 12-string. You’ll hear how everything is falling into place, and then you’ll think, ‘God, the 12-string bass would sound great in this part’, or, ‘the fretless would sound really good in the intro to this part’.
Having a variety of different kinds of basses has really opened up my creativity. I’m able to hear a lot of different ways of playing against a basic song melody. I think having all these options has made it a lot more fun, too.
”Jeremy” is so unlike what has been done with the 12-string bass up until now. Normally it’s used in the really heavy, driving sort of way, and this is so melodic. It’s satisfying to me, personally, because that is really how I pictured it being played.
That’s the beauty of the instrument. It can be such an extreme thing just by adjusting the volume knob on the bass. You can have it go from being this overdriven beast that sounds like an orchestra of guitars, to this beautiful harp / mandolin-sounding instrument. It’s a really flexible instrument.
Do you approach the 12-string as an overdub instrument, or do you lay the basic track down on it?
I lay the basic track down on it. Normally, I go into the studio pretty prepared, knowing which songs I’ll be playing which basses. When we’re laying down the basic tracks, I’ll plug in the bass that will do the majority of the song.
A lot of your music seems to be much more atmospheric than other rock music. And obviously, the 12-string bass is a very atmospheric instrument.
Definitely, Since I’ve had the 12-string, when I listen to old Beatles stuff, I think, “Wow, if Paul McCartney had a 12-string bass, you know he would have done some amazing shit with it.” They had so many string parts in all their songs. I think there probably would have been a lot of use for a 12-string, I can just hear it on a lot of stuff.
To an extent, Doug (Pinnick) of King’s X does a lot of that. He makes the 12-string bass sound like a Beatles string section in places.
Do you have any new ideas for bass projects?
You and I talked a while back about the semi-acoustic 12-string bass, putting a sound hole in and hollowing out part of the body. You mentioned something about putting in a Piezo blender and I think that would add a huge dimension to what it could sound like.
We’ve been doing some work on a semi-acoustic guitar that blurs the line between a solid body electric and an acoustic guitar. One of the prototypes is being built for Stone. That same sort of idea could be applied to the bass.
Yeah, it seems that by blending you could do some really amazing things. I think the whole acoustic aspect of our music is something we’re going to explore a lot more. I think having an acoustic 12-string bass in an unplugged kind of situation would be pretty amazing.
Hamer Tone Magazine
Hamer published Hamer Tone from 1992 to 1996. There were four volumes printed with three issues per volume. Content includes interviews with endorsing artists, new product reviews and concert photos of Hamer guitars in action.
Hamer Tone was resurrected in an online version named ‘The Hamer Tone’ between 2003 and 2007. Most editions included a single web page with only short paragraphs of special events or new guitar models.