The Bass Dimension

Fifteen albums down the line, Aerosmith are still the kings of America stadium rock. Bassist Tom Hamilton talks to Jon D’Auria about the high end of the low notes

“I’ve been doing this for so long that I’m not fully conscious of the methods I use in writing songs or recording in the studio,” says Tom Hamilton, relaxing in the living room of his home in Boston, Massachusetts. “I’m a bass player who is always looking for a little space to stick my neck out and make a statement on my instrument, but at this point in my career it all seems to come pretty naturally.”

Aerosmith_Publicity_Photo_3_HiRes_Photo_Credits_Ross_Halfin

After 42 years of holding down the bass for one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Hamilton appreciates his downtime now more than ever. “We’ve been spending so much time on the West Coast between writing, recording and performing, it feels like I haven’t been back home in a long time. I’m just trying to enjoy as much time relaxing as I can before we hit the road for the long haul of touring,” he explains.

The product of Hamilton and his bandmates’ hard work is the current Aerosmith album, last year’s Music From Another Dimension! For this album, the band reunited with longtime producer Jack Douglas, who worked on their most groundbreaking albums Get Your Wings, Toys In The Attic, Rocks and Draw The Line. “Our relationship with Jack is a classic one, where we come in and he really sets the method for how we get our sounds and conduct the sessions,” says Hamilton. “I’ll just start out with my bass in its most simple form, and then he tweaks it out and gives it the character it needs. This time around in the recording sessions, I used a combo of DI and amp mics on an old Ampeg B15, which is what I used in the 70s – it seems to always work.”

He continues: “Recently I’ve been thinking of the bass more and more as a percussion instrument like a maraca or a tambourine, in the sense that it has a beat and it keeps a certain rhythm. I went through a long period in my career where I thought there were a lot of notes that I hadn’t learned, and that I had to use counter-harmony to be heard within a song. But the longer I’ve played, the more I’m finding that I like focusing on the simplicity of my lines, while using rhythmic elements to spice them up.”

Aerosmith_Publicity_Photo_6_HiRes_Photo_Credits_Ross_HalfinThe bonus track, ‘Up On The Mountain’, sees Hamilton take over the role of lead vocalist from Steven Tyler. “One thing that I’ve always loved about Paul McCartney is that he’s a classic example of a bassist who can sing and play at the same time. It takes a lot of practice, but I think anybody can do it if they put enough time into it,” says Hamilton. “On ‘Up On The Mountain’, the vocal line comes in and then the bass riff comes in afterwards, and on parts where they merge I’m usually pumping away at the root note, so it’s not that difficult to sing. I’ve never been a singer and I never thought I’d sing on an Aerosmith song, but over the years I had to sing well enough to make demos to bring to the band to convey my song ideas. I pictured that I would sing the basic part and Steven would weave a beautiful line around what I was doing, but they ended up wanting just me singing the part.”

Hamilton has been known for his use of a variety of Sadowsky basses in the past, but this time around he used two new instruments. “For this album I used a Fender Jazz Relic from their custom shop. They make these really insane one-off basses and then they beat it up to make it look old, although I couldn’t really give a crap about that,” says Hamilton. “It’s actually a bass that Steven got for me as a gift at the end of a tour a couple of years ago. I never used it much on stage, but I brought it in the studio and the damn thing just sounded amazing. I ended up using it for about three-quarters of the record. At one point, a rep from G&L stopped by the studio with this beautiful gold metal flake ASAT bass, which has a two-pickup system with a Jazz bass kind of feel. It was so easy to get a good tone with it. It has a great neck, and every note reads. They made me one out of pine and another out of ash, and they hollowed the bodies out to reduce the weight. Both of them came out sounding great. You don’t need a big heavy piece of wood to have great tone.”

Hamilton’s progression as a bass player has taken him from rooted, blues-influenced lines to expansive, technical grooves. “I think the best thing that I’ve been able to do is realise that bass is much simpler than I always thought,” he says. “I’ve always been hung up on what I didn’t know and I was always worried that there was more that I didn’t know than I did know. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I know a hell of a lot more than I thought as far as harmony, rhythm and fingerboard technique goes. Now I’m able to just relax and approach it rhythmically. I definitely don’t have the strongest ear in the business, but I have a strong sense of time and feel.”

Aerosmith_Gen Use_B&WjpgWith all of the challenges Hamilton has faced in his 42-year span with Aerosmith, his biggest challenge came off-stage when he was diagnosed with throat and tongue cancer in August 2006. After taking time off, Hamilton defeated the cancer and rejoined his bandmates with a new perspective on life and music. “Man, I couldn’t get over the fact that I wasn’t going to be out on the road with my band: that was really unthinkable for me. I just kept asking doctors when I’d get back out there with them and they told me, ‘Look man, your job right now is to get rid of this cancer. You need to understand that this is what your life is about right now’,” explains Hamilton. “It made me really appreciate how lucky I am to be in this band and have this role as a musician. It made me come to grips with the fact that we’re closer to the end than we are to the beginning, so we have to appreciate every single moment. I don’t take anything for granted.”

He finishes: “At this point in my life, bass is all about curiosity for me. I know that if you play enough, you’re going to come up with some good stuff. I’m very much a team player and I really enjoy that feeling of everyone being in a room together and working together as a unit. The bass is a team instrument, so it fits my personality to do what is best for the group and take a really supportive position. The bass has allotted me an amazing life in music: I’m so thankful to have the career that I do, and to still have the closeness with my bandmates even after all of these ups and downs over the years. There’s nothing I would change from the past and as always, we’re just focused on the future.”

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