With his laid-back surfer charm, chats with bass virtuoso Brad Russell flow as easily as the waves rolling up to the shores of California. But call him a frustrated guitar player at your peril. In addition to his considerable chops as a go-to New York City session man, Brad is also a Golden Gloves winner, and few things irk the part-time pugilist more than being called a frustrated guitarist.
On his solo debut, Let’s Hear It, Brad loudly establishes how he attracted the attention of some of the world’s most prolific guitarists. This six-song EP features Brad transforming his four-string Warwick Thumb bass into a screaming, six-string axe, seething with brainmelting leads, whammy-bar divebombs, subtle harmonics and plenty of skyscraper-sized hooks. Not since Billy Sheehan has a rhythm player turned four standard-tuned strings into such a wickedly melodic weapon.
While most view the bass as a tool to drive the rhythm behind other instruments, Brad sees things differently, explaining to Bass Guitar Magazine, “I like using the term ‘bass guitar’ because it has frets, you hold it like a guitar and it’s shaped like a guitar.” While he cites legends like Sheehan, Stanley Clarke and Jaco among his influences, it was his fascination with Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Jeff Beck that inspired his project. “Most of the stuff they do you can also do on a bass,” he says. “It’s just a matter of opening up your mind and looking for the right tone.”
Unsurprisingly, Brad conducts his tone experiments with scientific precision. “I think distortion effects for bass suck,” he deadpans. “I want to get a guitar-type of rich, sustainy-distortion for the bass, but unfortunately a lot of the pedals made for bass give you this growly, fuzzy tone, so I use the Radial Tonebone Plexitube pedal.” Other instruments of tone that Brad employs are the Crybaby Wah, a Boss Super Octave, a Zoom pedal for a bit of reverb and an MXR Blowtorch distortion, which gives him a tone that he reverentially describes as “gnarly”.
The album stands as a monument to both technology and DIY innovation. Brad laid down a series of rhythms and leads with his bass on top of drum loops and a click track, which he then forwarded to his friend, drummer Gregg Bissonette (David Lee Roth, Joe Satriani, Santana), who replaced the loops with ferocious barrages of percussion. This two-man collaboration accounts for 95% of the album, but for a final bit of icing, Brad called on an old friend from the West Coast – Joe Satriani. “I knew Joe from living out in the Bay Area,” Brad explains. “I asked him to play on a track and he agreed, guesting on a song called ‘Zattack’. He does the first solo, but that’s all: the rest is all bass.” To the untrained ear, there is no obvious delineation separating bass parts from guitar parts.
While he ran a line directly into his laptop for certain tracks, others saw Brad mic up a Gallien-Krueger cabinet with a Markbass head, presenting some very delicate issues when the recording studio is a modest New York City apartment. “I don’t have the apartment soundproofed, or have any sort of elaborate home studio,” he laughs. “I just figured I’d do it until the neighbours started banging on the walls or calling the cops.”
Technology presented the opportunity for three men – Brad, Satriani and Bissonette – to collaborate on material from three different cities, yet the mastered tracks feel as tight and organic as any well-oiled group. A duly impressed Steve Vai released the EP through his download-only Digital Nations label, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly effusive. As the EP gathers momentum, Warwick have lined Brad up to lead a number of bass clinics in New York City, in addition to his own side work and live gigs.
And then there is boxing. Asked what he most enjoys about that hobby, the native California boy says, “You can hit somebody legally.” He laughs before clarifying, “It’s a zen thing, really. When you’re sparring or competing, you can’t really be thinking about anything else, otherwise you could pay for it, so you gotta be focused. It’s a lot like music in that way: there’s rhythm, timing and discipline. Just like practising bass.”