Stu Hamm sinks into his comfortable leather chair, unscrews the top from a bottle of water and takes a long pull. His first teaching session of the morning at the Warwick Bass Camp has overrun a little and he’s rushed over for his interview with BGM. Earlier, I watched as he put the students through their physical paces, demonstrating warm-up and stretching exercises. It’s not just important to be able to play, he told them, but to be fit enough to keep playing. His exercise regime, modelled on the 2007 book The Bassist’s Guide To Injury Management, Prevention And Better Health by Dr Randall Kertz, aims to help avoid common back and finger problems associated with having a large lump of wood hung over one shoulder. Following Stu’s instructions won’t necessarily make you a better player – that’s what the rest of his class was about – but it should help you play for longer.
Once Stu catches his breath, he gives me some background to his career. “My father, Charles Hamm, was a musicologist who ended up being President of the American Musicology Society and wrote a number of books about the history of popular music in America,” he says. “His main books were Music In The New World (1983) and Yesterdays: Popular Song In America (1979). He was the first person to teach a college course on Charles Ives, the American Modernist composer, and founded the International Association For The Study Of Popular Music.”
Stu goes on to describe how his father was a composer in his own right, his colleagues being some of the most important avant-garde composers of their time – from Ben Johnston, who wrote microtonal piano pieces, to John Cage, who was one of his poker buddies. As Stu recalls, “I used to take my little plastic army men and put them between the strings of the piano for John to play his prepared piano pieces, and go mushroom hunting with John Cage and Merce Cunningham.”
From an early age Stu was exposed to experimental music as well as popular music, another of his father’s interests. One week it was Frank Zappa, the next the Rolling Stones. “My mother was an opera singer, so I became involved in boys’ choirs and theatre productions,” he explains. “My oldest brother Bruce played guitar, so he dragged me to a number of rock concerts to see the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s Return To Forever. It was way over my head!” Bruce Hamm, he adds, went on to study an Indian stringed instrument called the sarod and now runs the Ali Akbar Khan School Of Indian Music in California.
With so much music around him, I wondered what instrument Stu started on. “I got a drum set when I was really young,” he says, “and then I played piano for years and years, growing up, as my main instrument. I dabbled in flute and trumpet in the college marching band, but piano was the main instrument.’
The next, obvious, question is why he moved on to the bass guitar. “When I was a kid in Illinois,” recalls Stu, “there was a really stupid television show called The Partridge Family. The bass player was this annoying little pudgy red-haired kid, Danny Bonaduce, and that was me! Around that time, I went to see a rock band at the local park, and the bass player had a red sparkly bass with a white curly cord through one of those Kustom amps with the chrome portholes and quilted padding. I thought it was so cool. I played a lot of instruments, but when I got my first bass I felt immediately comfortable with it.’
After graduating from high school in 1978, Stu went on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, majoring in performance and composition. “I knew I always wanted to be a player,” he says, “but I thought that if I studied composition I would have a bit more musical knowledge thrown at me. I had already started writing my own music to perform on the bass, and I figured I would get a better-rounded education than if I had just majored in performance.”
A couple of months into his time at Berklee he met guitarist Steve Vai, who was playing at a party: having heard what a wonderful guitar player he was, Stu checked him out. Finding that they had a lot of music in common, the two formed a band called Axis. Later, Stu played on Steve’s audition tapes for Frank Zappa before joining an Elvis tribute band. “We played for a year all over the South. It was fun!” he laughs. “It was a lot of work during the disco days: we would do three Elvis shows and four dance sets a night.’
While at Berklee, Stu met German drummer Stefan Kremer, who persuaded him to spend the summer of 1981 in Germany, playing with the Klaus Lens Big Band. Lens was an Eastern European trumpet player who, having escaped to the West, was touring Europe with a 15-piece fusion big band. While in Germany, Stu got a call from Steve saying that Zappa was looking for a bass player.
He remembers, “I worked up [notoriously tough Zappa composition] ‘The Black Page’ and some other stuff, and then flew out to California and auditioned for Frank. I recorded for him for a couple of days and think I did quite well. The problem was, I was never really a huge Frank Zappa fan! He asked me if I wanted to stick around and said that he would pay me to record some more. I probably could have gotten the gig but I decided to fly back to Boston, firstly because I hadn’t seen my girlfriend for quite a while and, more importantly, on that Monday night, I had tickets to see Miles Davis at Kix Club in Boston, one of his first gigs in years. It was with Marcus Miller on bass, Mike Stern on guitar and Al Foster on drums.”
“It was probably a bad career move,” he chuckles. “If I’d stuck around, I would have probably have got the Zappa gig, but hey man, I saw Miles Davis in a very small club on his second comeback gig after all his years since his ‘motorcycle accident’, which I guess is code for years of cocaine abuse. So that was amazing, but if I was more of a Zappa fan I would have gotten the gig.”
After Germany Stu moved back to Boston and briefly went back to school while working in McDonald’s, gigging and treading water as far as his career was concerned. Then he got a call from Steve Vai, who had quit Zappa’s band and was about to make his first album, Flex-Able. Did Stu want to move to California and record with him? He takes up the story.
“Steve put out Flex-Able independently and it got picked up by a record company called Relativity,” he remembers. “I met the people at Relativity and invited them down to see a couple of my solo bass shows. They liked what they heard, and asked me if I could do a record for very little money. I said, ‘Well sure, but only if I can agree to sell the publishing rights to half my songs for my first three records for the rest of my life…” He laughs ironically and adds: “Remember, kids, always get a lawyer to read your contract before you sign anything.”
With a budget of around $3000, Stu set about recording his first album, Radio Free Albemuth, the title taken from the dystopian novel by Philip K. Dick. Not surprisingly, he quickly ran out of money and called Relativity. “I don’t know what to do, I said. I have no money and I have three solos that need to be played on the record. They mentioned that they had just signed another guitar player, a friend of Steve Vai’s, and he was going to be playing the NAMM Show. If I would play with him at NAMM then they would have him play on my record. I called Steve and he said his name was Joe Satriani. So I met Joe because I was broke, and through my connections at Relativity Records.’
Stu’s other career strand has involved musical education: I asked him how he had got started with training videos and courses. “I’ve always been involved in that, even when I was in Berklee,” he says. “When I graduated I taught there for a while and, when I was in San Francisco, at the Blue Bear School of Music. In LA I was briefly associated with the Musicians’ Institute and, coming from an education background, it’s always been part of my life.”
His first two DVDs, Slap, Pop And Tap For The Bass and Deeper For The Bass were groundbreaking, exploring all the original techniques he had created. Recently, he created the ‘Stu U’ series for TrueFire and there are currently four instructional courses, starting with Bass Basics. “This really is ‘Here’s an E-string, this is how you tune it’,” says Stu. “I teach you how to play an octave and then I have an example of a disco groove so, if you know how to play an octave, you can play a disco groove. I show you how, if you can play root and fifth, then you can play a country song or a Latin song and so on.”
Asked about bass gear, Stu explains: “I designed an acoustic bass for Washburn, the AB40SHBCB. It’s the first acoustic bass for a while that had an adjustable and intonable bridge. This was great because I could adjust the action and make sure that chords at the third fret were in tune with chords at the 15th fret. We then decided to go ahead and design a series of electric basses, the Stu Hamm Series. I used a lot of what I had learned from Fender, and what I’ve learned about ergonomics, to create a much lighter bass. I’ve also worked very closely with Rob Turner at EMG to get the pickup configuration right, with a bridge piezo and a nice J plus in the bridge position. What we changed was to put a Musicman soapbar up in the neck pickup position to get a real growl. I’m really pleased with the basses, which are available in a US and three import versions. I have a whole family of Washburn basses and right now we’re working on a five-string for next year. Along with my Washburn basses I’ve been using Hartke amplifiers since for ever and GHS Boomer 44-105 strings, so that’s the big three of how I get my sound.”
Before Stu dashes off to his next class, I ask him what he was up to at the moment. “I recently moved back down to Los Angeles after 15 years in San Francisco, so it’s quite a change for me and my family culturally, but there’s a lot more work down there. I’m doing some recording work, gigs with my own band and session work, but a great deal of the work I do now is through my website called www.tracksbystu.com. People from around the world, mostly guitar players, send me their tracks and ask me to play on their albums. I have a home studio, which is pretty rocking, and I have a few friends with larger studios if I need to do something a little more adventurous, or film it. I do a lot of home recording because, to make a living today, you’ve got to do a lot more than just play bass.”