Many of us harbour a desire to make a living from playing bass. But if you want to make it you’re going to need to know your onions. With this in mind, we thought it would be a damn fine idea to tap into the considerable experience and collected wisdom of one of the UK’s top session bassists. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together, and give a warm welcome to Dave Swift.
As Jools Holland’s bassist for over two decades, Swift is arguably the UK’s highest-profile bass player. He has made more TV and radio appearances than David Beckham’s had haircuts. In addition, Dave regularly tours the world with the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Not a bad gig, eh?
Of course, this level of success didn’t happen overnight, so some enlightenment is required – and where better to meet than at Jools Holland’s Helicon Mountain Recording Studio. As I walk through the door to the studio’s live room, a plaque located just above it reads ‘The Greatest Of Mortals Have Walked Through These Portals’. This is a pretty fair estimation, when you consider the likes of BB King, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Chaka Khan, Tom Jones, Paul Weller and three of the Beatles have recorded here. Once inside, I’m greeted by Swift, who – ever the pro – is getting a bit of practice in.
Swift looks like the kind of guy only a fool would mess with. However, appear- ances are deceiving, and within moments the thoroughly amiable and engaging bass ace is enthusiastically showing me a selection of the tools of his trade. These include a Fodera Anthony Jackson Presentation Contrabass, an Ernst Heinrich Roth 1939 Double Bass, an Ovation Magnum, a late-70s Fender Precision (in a very unusual, but utterly delicious Moka brown finish – not Mocha, in case you’re wondering), and a custom five–string Dingwall Super J.
As you might expect, Swift’s career affords him the chance to travel extensively, see the world and experience new and exciting cultures. But for every pro there is a con, and Swift is quick to point out that the life of a professional bassist can also be a lonely and solitary life, that involves a great deal of painful time away from family and friends and partners, stuck in hotel rooms in a different city every night. If this is something you can live with, it might be that the life of a professional bassist is for you. So how did it all start for Swift? How did he go from being someone who merely played bass to someone who played bass for a living?
“It was a slow, gradual process,” he explains. “I started playing trombone at the age of 14 and then the following year I picked up the bass. But it really was my trombone teacher, Phil Johnson, who initially made things happen. It took some time to establish myself, but every gig I did I would meet more and more musicians. We would all swap numbers at the end of it and contacts were made gradually over time. I also joined the Musicians’ Union when I was 18, so my name would appear in their members’ directory along with all my contact details. The fact that I could advertise myself in there as a trombonist as well as someone who played double bass and bass guitar may well have helped me stand out from the crowd.”
He adds: “I finally turned professional at the age of 18, and while this might seem young, remember that I had been playing steadily from when I was at school, so patience, diligence and determination were all key factors in moving my profession- al career forward. I made a point of taking on virtually every gig that came along, regardless of how good or bad they were, in a bid to building a good reputation and hoping that basic word of mouth would result in further employment.”
Having mentioned patience, diligence and determination, I ask Swift if these are virtues and personality traits that represent his definition of being a profes- sional musician? “For me it’s about being dedicated, motivated, conscientious, persistent and thorough. It’s also about being the best musician you can possibly be, and fundamentally being a decent human being.”
Swift continues: “My job with Jools requires a huge amount of responsibility. If I have to learn new songs for a TV, radio show, gig or album, everything else in my life has to be put on hold. Nothing is more important than learning those new songs as quickly, authentically and accurately as possible. I like to think the reason so many of us become pro bass players is because of our love of music, and the sheer joy of playing our chosen instrument. I believe that no matter how long we remain in this industry, it’s important to retain the love, pride, dedication and passion that we all felt when we first started out. If we’re able to do this, it will help us to have long and fulfilling careers.”
With such sound wisdom imparted, I ask Swift for the best piece of advice that he has been given as a musician. “I haven’t been given much advice at all,” he chuckles. “Nearly everything I’ve learned has simply come through experience and making mistakes. A short answer would be my trombone teacher suggesting I also take up the double bass as well as playing bass guitar. After all, this got me where I am today. Other than that, I really have learnt everything the hard way. But hey, if you get told off for being late for a gig or session, or if you turn up drunk, or forget you even have a gig, then assuming you are still allowed to keep your job, they will be lessons well learned.”
So is your attitude as a person as important as your ability as a versatile musician? “It’s equally important,” reasons Swift. “You can be the best player in town, but if you’re egotistical, arrogant, obnoxious and conceited, it’s probably going to affect the amount of work you get offered. When people hire musicians, they want to see confidence, the highest level of professionalism, a positive attitude, the ability to get on with others, and just a good vibe all round.”
The week before our interview I called Swift to arrange the logistics of when and where we should meet. By the time I hung up, I realised we’d been chatting enthusiastically about our shared love of bass playing for over 90 minutes. One name that came up several times throughout the conversation was Anthony Jack- son, and when we meet, Swift duly gives me a copy of an interview which Jackson conducted with Guitar Player in January 1986. With due reverence, Swift says, “I read this interview once every couple of months. It remains one of the best, if not the best, interviews I have ever read, and is a constant inspiration to me.”
In BGM’s interview with Jackson (Issue 53, April 10), we wrote: “It’s always been one of Jackson’s asser- tions that a great bassist should be able to speak volumes through their bass-lines and note choices, rather than the tendency today for many new players who feel soloing is the only way to really show the world what they can do.” For Swift, this says it all. “I love this quote,” he says. “I think it rings so true.”
What advice would Swift give to someone who is looking to come into the industry today, looking to earn a living as a professional bassist? “This question is a little difficult to answer, mainly because my experience of entering this industry happened over 30 years ago, and much has changed since then,” he reasons. “The problem now is that so many people want to be musicians or be involved in the entertain- ment industry one way or another. This is completely understandable because we are constantly being bombarded with so-called ‘talent seeking’ TV shows that encourage a culture of instant gratification. Many young players don’t want to put the groundwork in, expecting to click their fingers and get a top gig and receive endorsements.
“Bless their naivety, but it doesn’t really work like that. If you want to earn a living from playing music to a professional standard, you have to be dedicated and tenacious. Don’t try and become a pro musician because you want to be rich, famous, get loads of free gear, and get on the front cover of Bass Guitar Magazine. There’s every chance that none of this will happen. Do it because you love playing music and you couldn’t possibly imagine doing anything else.”
On a roll, Swift explains: “You have to get as much exposure as possible, whether by going to jam ses- sions, or making good use of social networking sites. Go to see other musicians play, introduce yourself and try and hang out with them – without being an- noying or obnoxious, of course. Take any gig or session that comes along. It may not be what you want to do initially, but you might meet someone who will be of some benefit further down the line. I was quite content doing jazz gigs when I moved to London. I wasn’t earning a lot of money, but that wasn’t my motivation. I was just happy to be in the capital and earning a living from being a musician.”
It was from playing the aforementioned lowly jazz gigs that Swift got his big break. It was in some dingy club that he met Phil Veacock, the tenor sax player in Jools’ band. He and Veacock enjoyed playing together and, equally importantly, they got on really well. When Jools needed a new bass player, Phil didn’t hesitate to recommend Swift to him.
Veacock knew that Jools was particularly demanding when it came to bass players, but he was confident in putting Swift’s name forward because he could play both upright and electric bass, and he could read music, busk and improvise. Swift, however, reminds me that it is very important to remember that luck and timing play an important role. “I’m painfully aware these are random elements, but acceptance of this is paramount,” he explains.
I put it to Swift that to be a professional bassist, you barely stand a chance unless you are a proficient reader of music. “It all depends on the area of the music industry you want to be part of,” he replies. “If you want to be in an orchestra, or work in a West End show, then it is absolutely crucial. If you want to be in a band performing original material, or covers, then you’ll probably never be required to read music. There is, of course, a lot of middle ground there. If you’re a jazz musician, which involves a great deal of improvisation, it’s very useful – and in many cases invaluable – to be able to read music. On freelance sessions, things have changed dramatically. I haven’t been presented with any music or chord charts for many years. These days, it’s now much more likely that when you turn up to a studio, you’ll hear a demo of the song to be recorded, usually without any bass-line at all, and you’ll play along with it until you and the producer feel you’ve come up with something suitable that is worth recording. In this scenario, the ability to read music doesn’t help at all.”
Swift adds, “My musical training came from having trombone lessons at school, and then I taught myself how to play the bass. I had to learn to read music from day one. I didn’t get the opportunity to go to a music college or uni. I didn’t even study music as an academic subject at school, but I like to think I’ve still become a successful musician doing things my way. I couldn’t turn around to a young music student and say, ‘Just do what I did. Leave school as soon as possible, don’t go to college, just get out there and play, and everything will be fine’. This would be utterly reckless on my part, because what worked for me will not necessarily work for anyone else. On the flip side, it also wouldn’t be right to say ‘Study like crazy, stay on at school as long as you can, go to college or uni- versity, get a music degree, then you’ll immediately be able to get all the gigs and you’ll never be out of work.’ It just doesn’t work like that. You have to find your own way. If you desperately want to study music at a college or university, then go and do it, and make sure you enjoy every moment of it. Just be aware that there are no guarantees, whatever path you take. If your motives are true and sound, and you believe strongly in what you’re doing, no matter how you develop your musicianship, something good is bound to materialise.”
In the early days, Swift tells me he had a great deal of time to practise and hone his musical skills, but once he become an established musician he was so busy actually doing gigs and sessions that there was no time to do this anymore. This is why Swift says to younger musicians: “Now is the time to seriously invest in your future. Life will throw all manner of things at you that you won’t expect as you get older, and you will have to deal with these situations, like them or not. So, even though I’m not able to dedicate all of the time I’d like to my musical life these days, at least I can take comfort in the knowledge that in my formative years I worked extremely hard to become the musician I am today.”
Would Swift care to reveal a moment in his career when he was tested to the limit, when all his experience came to the fore in order to get past a disastrous professional landmine? “Yeah, I’ve got a good one,” he says, laughing. “I was an honorary member of Squeeze for one night in 1998, depping for their then-bassist Hilaire Penda. They were booked for a New Year’s Eve gig at Blackheath Concert Halls. I’m a big fan of Squeeze, so when Glenn Tilbrook asked me if I could do it I said, ‘I’d love to, but as long as you can send me a tape of the live set’. This conversation happened in the summer before the New Year’s Eve in question. Weeks passed and I kept calling Glenn saying, ‘Have you got the tapes yet?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh yes, I’ll get round to sending them’. Weeks turned into months and I still didn’t have the tapes. As a pro player, I should have bought every Squeeze CD there was, and started to do my homework, never mind the fact that the live versions might have differed from the studio recordings.”
He recalls: “I eventually got the CD – the night before the gig. I had 27 complicated songs to learn. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’m a professional player. Squeeze have asked me to play and I have a reputation. What other choice is there?’”
Jumping to Swift’s defence, I suggest that this unenviable scenario wasn’t entirely of his own mak- ing. But it gets worse, folks. Swift continues: “I made some cheat sheets, as I didn’t have time to learn the songs by ear. I stocked up for the night with a prawn curry from a Chinese takeaway and then sat there with a cassette player and some manuscript paper. After about an hour and a half, I started to come out in this cold sweat and I was thinking to myself, ‘Jesus, I feel terrible’. The next thing I knew I was in the loo, puking my guts out. I was dripping with sweat and felt like death. By now it was 2am and I’d learned three of the 27 songs.” He continues: “I was so bad I almost called an ambulance. I really thought I was going to have to call Glenn and tell him I couldn’t do the gig. Can you imagine? But I carried on, got it all done by about 5am and went to the venue the next day. Now Glenn and Chris didn’t want to hear ‘Guys, I’m ill. I can’t do the gig’, so with my charts on the floor, we did
the soundcheck and I played the gig. Afterwards I collapsed backstage, with everyone saying, ‘Great gig, Dave.’ To this day, it remains the most shocking situation I’ve found myself in.”
So was it sheer adrenaline that got him through the gig? “Yeah, that, along with a sense of professionalism and having a strong work ethic, knowing I had to do it.” This story might also be news to Squeeze, as Swift heroically adds, “I didn’t saying anything to them about it. I didn’t want to bother them too much.”
After 30 years of hard work and paying his dues, what was the moment that made all those hours invested in his craft worthwhile? “There are so many, as I’ve played with some of my heroes, like Al Jarreau, which was beautiful,” says Swift, with under- standable pride. “But if I had to pick one moment it would probably be the day that I played with Smokey Robinson and Eric Clapton on Jools’ TV programme. “This was very special because it should have been Jools’ rhythm section: me, Gilson Lavis on drums, Mark Flanagan on guitar, Jools and Smokey – that was the set-up and we were going to cover Norah Jones’ ‘Don’t Know Why’. However, we found out that Mark wasn’t available, so we needed another guitarist. Jools somehow managed to bring in Eric Clapton. I had a great afternoon with Eric, really having a laugh with him, before we got the call saying Smokey wouldn’t be rehearsing with us, which is quite unusual. This had never happened before for a live show. Instead, Smokey was just going to arrive and sing live with us, with me sat right next to Eric. There wasn’t even time to say hello. I normally like to play it cool and have a bit of poise, but if you watch the footage of it I’m beaming from ear to ear. I was thinking, ‘It really doesn’t get any better than this’.”
With such an enviable gig, does Swift think that there might be a queue of bassists just waiting for him to break his fingers? “Yeah,” he laughs. “Every time I come out of my hotel room I’m looking for the rollerskates at the top of the stairs. But I didn’t have any idea that the the gig with Jools would turn into this.
“When I joined the band he didn’t have a TV or radio show. It was just a handful of gigs at summer balls and polytechnics, nothing at all like it is now. That is the reason this whole process has such a sweet feeling about it – we were all there from the beginning. It wasn’t a case of ‘I need this gig because I’ll get to play with all these famous people’. That didn’t exist, when we first started out. It was more ‘I’ve got this pretty cool gig, I really like this style of music, I really enjoy playing withthis guy that I’m working for and I get along with all the other guys in the band’, and then everything else came after that. I just thought this would be a touring band for a few year. It’s good fortune, I suppose that the rest of these amazing opportunities have come along. We’ve all had to put the work in. It is the best gig in the world. It’s unique.”
So which amps is our man using these days? He tells us that he’s an Aguilar man to the core: “When I’m on tour, I use an Aguilar DB 751 head with either a DB 412 or a DB 410 cab. In the recording studio, or on smaller gigs and TV shows, I use a Tone Hammer 500 head and two SL 112s. I also use a Tone Hammer preamp/DI box and, once they become available, I will be installing Aguilar’s new Hot P-Bass pickups into some of my basses.” So which musicians are left on Swift’s dream to-play-with list? “With all due respect to all my friends and peers,” he muses, “there aren’t many gigs out there that make me think ‘If only I could get that gig…’, but Stevie Wonder would definitely be one of them. If Nathan Watts ever retires…”
With the amount of legendary talent that queue up to play alongside the Holland, Swift easily has one of the best jobs in the world, for my money. And, for those who doubt it, Dave Swift is living proof that the harder you work the luckier you get. Take note.