Interview:Musicians, Moments, Gear, and the New Band
Part Two: Musicians, Moments, Gear, and the New Band
Lee Sklar’s body of work as a bass player puts him in pretty rarified territory. An L.A.-based musician since the ‘60s, he has over 2,000 albums (and counting) to his credit and is a top-shelf choice in the highly selective Hollywood studio world. For music fans and musicians, his distinctive playing and style have made him just as iconic as his heavily bearded visage. Recording with artists as diverse as B.B. King, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Billy Cobham, and Phil Collins, he seems as amused by his experiences as most of his fans are amazed by his flexibility and tasteful licks. Most of all, though, Lee is an exceedingly pleasant guy to be around with a quick smile, great sense of humor, and a million entertaining stories to tell. Even with a busy plate of touring, recording, more touring, and pet projects, Lee still found time to sit down and fill us in on life in the musical fast lane.
MF: You’re a huge Beatles fan. Have you ever played with any of the guys from the Beatles?
Lee: No, but I’ve met McCartney and that was fabulous. It turns out he just bought a house a mile from mine and I’m real anxious to get back and drop a note in his mailbox [laughter). Hopefully he’ll get it. I’m just going to welcome him to the neighborhood and say, "If you need any restaurant advice or anything, give me a shout." And who knows, he might call, I don’t know.
MF: If he ever needs a bass player...
Lee: Yeah, you never know. There are certain people I regret not having had a chance to play with like Hendrix. I met Jimi a few times but never had a chance to play with him. I feel lucky because I’ve pretty much met or played with just about every guy I ever liked. There are other people that I’m close enough to that even if we haven’t played together it’s nice to be able to say I know them. I’ve never had a chance to play with Elton [John] and I love Elton to death. I’ve met him a bunch of times and the opportunity was just never there. I got called one time to work with him but I was committed to another project and wasn’t able to do it. But I see him; I can talk to him.
MF: How about drummers? Have you played with Steve Gadd?
Lee: Actually, I just worked with Gadd for the first time on Livingston Taylor’s new record. It was interesting because Steve and I have worked on records but only as overdubs. So we’ve appeared on records together without actually playing together. We did, there was that old song . . . I think it was Leon Russell’s "A Song For You," and we did it with Ray Charles. We were both brought in after the orchestral part was done to put the rhythm section on and I remember asking, "Who’s playing drums?" as I was overdubbing my bass part. And they went, "Oh, that’s Gadd." So we did Livingston’s record at the end of last year and it’s a great record. I don’t know when it’s going to be released, but Livingston is writing his ass off. He did an a capella song with Take Six and it is to die for. It was great to spend a few days in the studio with Steve.
Every once in a while I still work on a project where some new drummer will come along that I haven’t worked with and I just go "Oh Jesus, this is great!" It was that way with Abe Laboriel Jr. I’ve been working with Abe over the past few years and just watching him evolve. I think I’m working with him probably as soon as this project’s over. Matt Serletic called me to do a project with a new artist he’s producing. Matt is the head of Virgin Records but he produces Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20 and I did Willy Nelson’s Great Divide record with him. Some Celine Dion and different things. And this new Virgin artist who there’s a big push behind, Hope Partlow. So I’m hoping Abe will be on this ‘cause I love playing with Abe and another guy I love to death is Kenny Aronoff. The last thing we did together was Bronson Arroyo’s record, the pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.
MF: No way!
Lee: Yeah! So we did that and it’s all covers of like Toad The Wet Sprocket and Stone Temple Pilot and all that stuff.
MF: Do you know Abe Senior?
Lee: Oh, I love Abe to death. He’s a fabulous human being and a monstrous musician. The first time I met Abe Jr., I just thought "If this guy doesn’t play great, I’d hang myself [if I were him]." [laughter] Because to grow up in Abe Sr.’s household, some of that’s got to rub off. Even if a tenth of Abe rubs off on somebody, they’re going to be gifted. And his heart is so big, he’s such a dear human being.
MF: But Wolfgang’s still the best band you’ve ever played in, right? [laughter]
Lee: Well, I’ll tell ya, it was certainly up there. The weird thing is it was two guitars, bass, drums, and B3. One of the guitar players was a guy named Brynn Howarth, and he and the drummer and one of the guitar players were all English. I knew the other guitar player back from high school and his name was Randy Zacuto. Brynn, after the group folded, moved back to England and became an evangelical preacher. But apparently he and Randy stayed in contact and Brynn dug through some old boxes and he found some demos we cut in ‘68. He dumped them down to CD and sent them to Randy, and Randy just sent me a copy. We did eight songs and as soon as I put it on, I time traveled. I went right back to 1968 at the house we were living in when we did all this stuff, and it kicks ass.
It is so good.
MF: Is it a decent recording?
Lee: The recording quality’s OK. It’s not bad at all, but it was never finished or mixed or anything. But man, it is slammin’. It is so good.
MF: That’s cool.
Lee: I love it. I mean, for me it was a real . . . kind of like an epiphany to listen to that stuff after this many years and go "This was a really good band." The reason we were called Wolfgang is we were managed by Bill Graham and Bill Graham’s real name was Wolfgang. Our way to suck up to our management [laughter] was to name the band after him.
It was one of those situations that, you know, time and placement and everything just didn’t bless the band with success and everybody moved their separate ways. It’s not ‘til this new band that I’m in that I’ve actually had this feeling again.
MF: What’s the name of the new band?
Lee: The new group that I’m working with is called Barefoot Servants. We just finished our CD. The way this all came about was, in 1993 I was up working at a studio called The Sight across from Skywalker Ranch, north of San Francisco. I can’t remember at this point now; I was either doing a Linda Ronstadt record or a Jimmy Webb record ‘cause we did both of their things up there. This guy Michael Frondelli-who used to produce and ran Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood-called me and said "Look, I’m doing a record with this group called Barefoot Servants and there’s no bass player in the group. Let me send you some things and see if you’d be interested in working on their record with them." He sent me a cassette of some songs and I put the thing on and listened to four bars of the first song and called him and said "Count me in." It was so good. So I came back and met the guys and we rehearsed for a week.
The singer-guitar player was Jon Butcher who used to have Jon Butcher Axis out of the Boston area and the other guitarist was Ben Schultz who worked with everybody from Hendrix to Buddy Miles to Belinda Carlisle, all kinds of different stuff, and then a drummer named Ray Brinker who had spent the past eight years working with Pat Benatar and doing different stuff. So we all hooked up and went into a rehearsal place and rehearsed for a week and went in the studio at Capitol and cut the record in a week. At the end of the week I looked at the guys and said, "If you need somebody to tour with you or anything, please give me a shot at it." We just hit it off great.
So it ended up they got called to do a tour called the Southern Spirit Tour but we called it Bubba-palooza [laughter]. We were the opening act for Marshall Tucker Band, 38 Special, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and The Outlaws. We were out for close to three and-a-half, four months doing this tour. We ended up getting standing ovations every night. The other bands were all going, "Jesus, you guys should be the headliner out here." It was really great and it was zero dough. I did the tour for per diem and that was it ‘cause we were an opening act and there was nothing there. I actually turned down a really big tour with a major artist to do this one ‘cause I believed in it so much.
But we were signed to Epic/Sony and by the end of the tour . . . they did nothing. They literally never came to a gig, they never saw us, they never did any . . . I don’t even know why they signed the band. At the end of the tour we went to get an accounting of things and they basically never distributed a record anywhere. So I looked at the other guys and I said, "You know, I was real happy to invest my time and energy into this but I have enough hobbies; I can’t do this again." So I quit and then the whole thing just fell apart. But over the years we would all kind of bump [into each other]. I ended up doing sessions over the years with Ray Brinker, the drummer. I loved playing with Ray. He’s just a great drummer. But I would bump into Jon and Ben at the NAMM shows or something and we were all friends. Ben is an incredibly gifted engineer and he moved and ended up building a studio in his house, a Pro Tools studio.
Ben called me two-and-a-half years ago and asked, "Would you come over and put some bass overdubs on a project I’m working on?" And I said, "Sure, I’d love to check out the studio and all that." So I came over and, man, it just felt right again. We called Jon and he came over and all of a sudden every little thing started clicking and we went, "Let’s do it! Let’s do it again." We had no deal, no nothing, but the thing was, we weren’t under the pressure of a deal saying, "Look we’re at Capitol Records today; it’s costing us $2,500, we’d better come out of this something." We were working at Ben’s house and we were working at our own pace. We could do whatever we wanted and it suddenly started falling into place.
The only thing that didn’t fall into place was Ray, the drummer. Not to say his drumming wasn’t unbelievably great but he just started working with a girl named Tierney Sutton who’s a jazz singer, kind of like a Diana Krall. His heart was more in that and he started disappearing for months on end. His interest level wasn’t really what it once was. But I’d been working with a French artist named Veronique Sanson and I’d go over every year and work with her for a few months in France. The drummer was an English drummer named Neil Wilkinson. He was a first-call drummer in London. Neil is right up there with Phil [Collins] in terms of pocket and feel; the guy’s just a magnificent drummer. His wife is from Southern California so he was splitting his time between London and Southern California, and when it became obvious Ray wasn’t going to be involved, I asked Neil if he’d come over and play on a couple of tracks for us.
The minute he sat down the whole thing just snapped into place. It changed the whole dynamic of the band. So we said, "You want to cut some more stuff?" and he said "Sure." Finally about half-way through all the stuff we said, "Look, this seat’s open to you. If you want to be in the band, you know, this is your seat." He didn’t know whether he should commit or not because he didn’t know what his lifestyle was going to be in terms of where he was going to be living and everything but it kind of just worked out. He said, "Yeah, I’d love to do it." So we ended up canning all the stuff we had recorded previously with Ray and a couple of things we recut with Neil. We didn’t want him to overdub the tracks we had cut with Ray ‘cause the feel was different so we just redid everything and then started writing new material.
Eventually we did 50 songs but we ended up canning a whole bunch of it because the group started evolving in a slightly different direction. We just worked on it for the past year-and-a-half and finally finished it. We signed with a small indie label called Atom Records that John has been doing his solo work with for a long time. So we ended up paying for the whole project ourselves. We got the artwork done, we got our website up and running.
I called this guy Steve Marcussen, who mastered Bronson’s record, when I heard it just to say, "I really liked what you did on Bronson’s CD. It really turned out great." And he went, "Oh man, thank you for calling. It made my day." We started talking and I said, "Look, I’m in this band and we’re just finishing our record. We’d love to talk to you about mastering our thing." We took some roughs of our stuff over and picked his brain about what would make the mastering process the easiest for him and he had some suggestions for Ben about different level things to do and all that. So we went back and finished mixing and took it to him and he mastered it; the CD [Barefoot Servants 2] just became available about two weeks ago. We got it all finished and got the pressings done.
Phil Collins has said that I could sell the CDs at his gigs at his swag counters and I think I’m going to talk to Lyle about bringing them out for the next leg of our tour. John and Ben are out right now doing an acoustic evening together and starting to get the hype and the hustle going There’s a couple of the DJs at XM Radio waiting for copies of it because they want to try to help. We’re just basically kind of a band of old farts, so it just isn’t going to work going the traditional route. A label wouldn’t . . . I wouldn’t want to be with a label anyway. I’ve been down that road and the idea of having to sell a million records and still not see a penny because they’re still trying to recoup for the party they’d had in Hawaii and all this. It makes a whole lot more sense to go the indie route. Plus there’s a real cult following with the group. We put our website up and in the first two or three weeks we already had 17,000 hits on it.
MF: So what’s the website and where can you buy the CD?
Lee: As of right now, the website is Barefootservants.net and the CD is available on the website or through Atom Records. I’m not sure yet where else it is because I’ve been out of the loop out here while some of the stuff was done. I’m not sure how the distribution’s being handled; if this is going to stores yet or how it’s being handled but certainly through the website, it can be found.
This is one of those things that to me, when we finished our last mix and finished the mastering, if nothing else for me happened beyond that, I’m 100% satisfied with the experience. But there’s nothing we’d like better than to sell enough where this could become like the next career, because it is so slamming and so good. The thing that, to me, is fabulous is when Jon came in to do his vocals, it’s one vocal top to bottom. You listen to this . . . this isn’t 15 vocals comped: it’s a vocal. This is the real thing. This isn’t a record that’s covered with overdubs. There’s no keyboards on the record, it’s just two guitars, bass, and drums. Everything on there can be played live, so to me there’s an integrity to it that really harkens to the old days; how we used to make records.
MF: So you guys won’t be lip-syncing?
Lee: Ah, no [snicker]. You know, I mean I’m kind of hoping to get my chops up so I can clog dance like Ashley Simpson [riotous laughter]. I think she’s got that covered. In a moment of stress she really pulled out all the gifts and showed you she’s not only a gifted singer, but a gifted dancer.
MF: Exactly. She’s got the whole package.
Lee: Yeah, it’s miraculous. I wish she could have done a little bit of stand up, but she did that at the press conference afterwards and blamed the band. [laughter] It’s fantastic. I’m so proud to be in this industry.
Lee: But the thing I love about this band is it’s just so real. This isn’t like click-track time and fixing stuff time. This is really in your face and more about the writing and the songs. It runs the gamut from completely slamming in your face stuff to real intimate acoustic stuff. The guy who’s the house mixer for Phil [Collins] has been using one of our songs "Dog Days" to dial in the house systems at the gigs and everybody who’s heard the stuff is just absolutely going, "Wow!"
MF: Can you put a style label on it?
Lee: Not really, because it’s a product of all of our musical experience. There’s a touch of Zeppelin, a touch of Hendrix, a touch of The Beatles, a touch of the folk era. Basically where this sort of evolved from is there’s an entire disenfranchised audience out there that sits and listens to oldies stations because they loved old music and they’re not into rap and a lot of the contemporary music, even though there’s lots of good stuff. I’m a fan of lots of contemporary bands, even though they’re not contemporary any more. I love Sound Garden; I enjoy Green Day; I like Primus. I like all these different kinds of quirky bands. But the problem is, a group like Green Day, who I thought was great when they started, is getting real, kind of slick and stylized now. When I first heard No Doubt I thought it was great. I think Gwen Stefani now sucks huge because when she first hit the scene with that band I thought they were fabulous. So everybody gets their hands on them and they want to turn them into something else and all the guys are wearing makeup.
MF: So listening to your CD is kind of like being in the ‘60s with fresh songs?
Lee: Well, that’s what we were looking for. Giving the people who are sitting and listening to you know, Badfinger and all the old records that they love, we’d like to give them something that is slightly of that guild. But with a real contemporary feel so they can walk away from it going, "God, this feels like the stuff I used to love." But it’s new so it’s fresh to them; it’s not like listening to "Stairway To Heaven" for the 100 millionth time, as good as it still is at 100 million. It’s nice to give them something kind of fresh to dig into.
I can drive around and listen to our stuff and I feel kind of like Bob Dole talking about Bob Dole. I can see a third person and not feel weird about it. My perspective on it feels real comfortable. I can really appreciate it and go, "This is really good!" I’m really, really proud of it. I think John has written and sung his ass off on it. I think Ben did an absolutely world-class engineering job. To sit and watch this poor guy wearing his guitar-playing hat and his engineering hat all at the same time . . . he would sit there with a remote foot pedal and when it came time to play, he’d be doing his punches with his foot while he’s playing guitar. He was multitasking to the highest power. We had the drums set up in his living room and the drum sound is to die for. It’s really cool. I think you’ll really like it. There’s snippets on the website of a few of the songs to get a little feel for some of it.
If nobody ever buys it, that’s not going to diminish how good I feel about it. I’m just real proud of the work we did and there’s one track called "Crack The Sky" where I finally got to go in and reintroduce thick fuzz bass.
Lee: There’s lots of other things going on, too. Like I said, we just did this B.B. King record and man, it was just wonderful. It was such a treat to work with him. I sat there pinching myself the whole time going, "It’s B.B. King." It’s pretty staggering when you look at a guy like that and you think of his contribution to this industry, and of all the guitar players out there. How much wouldn’t exist had this guy not existed?
And It’s another one of B.B.’s duet records and Bobby Bland was the first duet we did, so I got a picture of me sitting with B.B. and Bobby. I can look at them and say, "If I crash on the way home and I die, it’s OK." [laughter] It was fabulous. The second guy who came in that day was Billy Gibbons and I’ve got a great picture of me and Billy Gibbons together. We look like a Smith Brothers cough drop ad.
You know, I have two basses at home. One of them is my absolute primary bass and the other one is a backup that was built to help me out in case anything ever happened to the first one but both of them are completely covered in autographs. I’m a consummate fan. I admire everybody. I did a gig and Bob Hope was on the gig, so I got Bob Hope, I got Milton Berle, I have Debbie Reynolds, Mel Torme . . . you name it. I get all these people on this stuff and I’m a fan of everybody. To me, anybody who has strived towards some level of success in whatever their given profession is and done something with it; I have nothing but the utmost admiration. I feel that way about friends of mine that are plumbers. When they come to your house to work, the pipes aren’t out of level, out of plumb, ‘cause they take as much pride in doing what they do as I take in my bass playing. I have nothing but admiration for anybody who approaches whatever they choose to do in their life with that kind of professionalism. George Lucas became a friend and it was great, he wrote "May the force be with you" on the bass. I met Peter Max and he saw that and he drew a Saturn right next to what Lucas wrote. I guess I love it all. Basically every day I feel so blessed to be a part of this community.
MF: Do you ever get slobbery?
Lee: I try not to be, but there are times when you meet somebody and you become tongue-tied and kind of foolish. I felt that way when Tina came and played with us for the Brother Bear stuff. On the one hand, you’re standing there going, "It’s nice to meet you." and on the other hand you’re going, "It’s Tina Turner!"
I used to go see Ike and Tina and I’ve been a fan of hers since the ‘60s. How do you not fall all over yourself? After the first time I saw Sling Blade I was in the studio working with another icon-Andy Griffith-doing his gospel records. I’m sitting at the console right next to him and I just found myself going, "It’s Andy!" And then I hear a little bit of noise behind me and at that point I turn around and Billy Bob Thornton is sitting right behind me.
And I just turned around, set my bass down, and walked over and hugged him. And I said "Thanks man, thank you!" And we’ve become friends and we call each other. The greatest part of my career was I came home from work one day and there was a message light flashing on my answering machine. I hit the play button and I hear, "Hey Lee, Andy here down in North Carolina. Just checking in to see how you’re doing."
MF: No way!
Lee: And I saved it. I was watching a Diane Sawyer interview and she was interviewing Michael Fox about his Parkinson’s and what’s happened to him and she said to him, "Is there anything that helps you get through these bad moments that you have to deal with in your life?" He said, "Actually, one of the things that’s gotten me through a great deal of stuff is this song by James Taylor called ‘That’s Why I’m Here.’ I listen to that and for me, it’s just one of these songs that’s helped me a lot." And a light went off in my head. I ran in my den, dug through my Gold Records and there was a Gold Record for the album "That’s Why I’m Here." I immediately put myself on a quest and tracked down his management and ended up sending him my Gold Record.
Lee: I sent a letter just saying, "I hope this might help you through things." I never heard a word again about it and I just kind of went, "This is f*cked!" I told his management, "Look, if you’re not giving this to him; if this is going into the dead letter closet at your office, I want it back because I value these things." And they said, "Oh no, we’ll get it to him." About eight months later, I come home one day and there’s a message on my answering machine and it said, "I hope I’m reaching Lee Sklar," because my answering machine is only the sound of my basset hounds. The only thing you would hear if you called my house is the dogs howling. [laughter] So this voice goes, "If this is Lee Sklar’s address, hi, this is Michael J. Fox, the stupidest asshole in the world. I was just digging through my desk and found a thank-you letter I wrote you eight months ago and forgot to mail."
Lee: He left me his phone number and I called him and we had a long talk. He said "Look, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the record. It’s hanging above my desk in my office." It was really special. This guy . . . to me the kind of movies he made were the best. I’ve spent a lot of time on the road just sitting and watching Back To The Future and all that stuff on long bus rides. It was really nice to be able to turn around and give him a thank you. We ended up just having a really nice hang time on the phone.
MF: That’s awesome.
Lee: I just wished him all the best for his future because of what he’s got to deal with. To me, this is a real amazing little community with these things that happen. If I’m not boring you . . . .
Lee: Okay, this is another unbelievable story. This just happened on Phil’s tour in Europe. My wife normally always thinks I look like a bum. [laughter] She’s always embarrassed by how I dress, how I look, and all this. She always says, "Maybe if you just cut your beard a bit and try to dress a little bit better."
MF: But you looked like that when you married her, right? She knew what she was getting?
Lee: Oh yeah. We’ve been together 35 years now. A couple of years ago she took a trip with a girlfriend of hers to Europe and went to Italy. A friend of her cousin worked at a shop that handled Armani clothes and she went in there and called me and said, "Jesus, they’ve got a good deal on these Armani suits." She was thinking of buying them for herself, so I said "Get them; if the deal is that good, get them." So she bought these two beautiful Armani suits for herself. She came home and showed them to me and I said, "Yeah, you look great in these." And she says, "Well, maybe some day you’ll look like this too." [laughter] Well, the greatest moment for me happend at gig we did with Phil Collins in Milan, Italy. I come walking out of our dressing room and this guy comes walking out of Phil’s dressing room just down the hall. He sees me and says, "You’re the most beautiful man, I must have my picture taken with you." It’s Giorgio Armani.
MF: No way!
Lee: Yeah! We took this picture of Armani hugging me and I said, "You have to give me a copy of this!" But I didn’t tell my wife about it. So when I got home from the tour, I said to her, "God, it was the funniest thing. This guy came up to me and thought I was the most beautiful man he’s ever seen and was hugging me." And I handed her the picture of me and Giorgio Armani. She almost sh*t her pants! [laughter] It was fabulous just to have a picture of me and Armani to rub in her face and say, "He thinks I look OK." [laughter] It was hysterical.
My project, when I get off this tour, is I got to go buy a scanner because for our website, we’re doing a photo gallery and I’m going to put pictures that I need to scan, pictures back from like when I was in college bands and high school bands and I’m going to do a whole gallery of old stuff. There’s one picture on the website [www.barefootservants.net], it’s worth going to the website. It’s a picture of me holding my high school graduation picture. It’s in our photo gallery on the site.
MF: That’s awesome.
Lee: We’ve got a gear gallery and all of our links to all of the gear companies we work with, so it’s a pretty comprehensive site. It’s coming up real good.
MF: Have you been playing the same basses for years?
Lee: In the studio, the main bass I’ve used since the mid-‘70s is the one I always refer to as Frankenstein. It was never a real bass. It was pieces of different things that we assembled as a project that ended up being probably the best bass I’ve ever had. John Caruthers actually built this bass. It was a ‘62 Precision Bass neck that I reshaped into a Jazz Bass neck shape. We reshaped the neck because I always liked the Jazz Bass better than the Precision Bass. The body was made by Charvel back when they were doing replacement parts. It’s an old alder body that was a P Bass body but it’s got a set of Rob Turner’s very first pickups from when he started EMG. What we did was take a set of his Precision Bass pickups, put them where the Jazz Bass pickups would normally go, but routed them in a reversed position. I had the luxury of building an instrument, so I kind of looked at it and I thought, just by the nature of the higher-pitched G and D strings, the pickups are going to read them better than the A and E strings. So why on earth when Fender originally put their P pickups together, did they make the pickup under the G and the D string closer to the bridge, rather than the neck? We just reversed the position of the pickups and it evened the bass out unbelievably well. We put a Bad Ass bridge on it and it’s got one of Dave Borisoff’s very first Hip Shot D tuners. I’d say I’ve used that bass on probably 1,800 records.
MF: Are those the active EMGs?
Lee: Yeah. They’re around 18-volts but it’s not like new active pickups that are really hyped. The configuration of the knobs is exactly like an old Fender bass. There’s just a tone and two volume knobs. It’s not like you’re sitting there with notches and midrange crap and all that. So what it really sounds like is a hyped passive instrument. It’s incredibly natural but it’s just got a little more dynamic range to it. I absolutely love that bass. It’s my favorite instrument I’ve ever played.
The only problem nowadays for it is that it’s a four-string. So much of the work I do now is replacing synth bass on projects, it really required me to have a five-string. There’s just lots of E-flat, B, and C crap to do. Probably 10 years ago I was at a NAMM show and this guy comes up to me and goes, "I’d love for you to check out my bass." He was carrying it with him and it was this guy named Sheldon Dingwall. I played his bass and I said, "This is really nice!" To me, you go to a NAMM show and it’s a bunch of people reinventing the wheel. I kind of think, "What the hell are you even bothering for? A new bass doesn’t mean a different paint job." I think if you’ve got a good ‘62 Jazz Bass and a ‘62 Ampeg SVT, you’ve basically got the definitive bass rig to play all of contemporary rock-and-roll music. So you know, things have to be pretty unique to make me say, "This is something worth looking at." Sheldon’s bass struck me that way. It’s got the Ralph Novak fanned frets on it.
MF: Aren’t the Dingwall basses 37" scale?
Lee: Well, it’s a 35" G string and a 37" B string. It spreads out the bridge and the nut. It’s all a mathematical equation, but it basically tempers the instrument like a piano and it reads so well. On one of my Dingwalls I’ve got a de-tuner on both the E and the B strings so I can drop them to Ds and As and you still hear the note perfectly.
MF: Doesn’t Charlie Hunter play one of those too?
Lee: He might. I don’t know who’s using them now. I know that Michael Rhodes has one and I think Mike Brignardello has one. But I think it’s absolutely the best five-string and that’s what I’m using out here. That’s the only thing I’m taking on the road with Phil and Lyle because there’s enough songs in their shows that require playing a five-string that I just left my old bass at home. On one hand it breaks my heart, but on the other I know I’m doing a project as soon as I get back to town and the first thing I take out when I’m in the studio is my old four-string. So, on the road I’m using the Dingwall. It sounds so great live, it’s just incredible. I love it. In the studio I’ll have the Dingwall, I’ll have my old bass, and I’ll also have a Hofner that sounds unlike anything else. When that sound is needed, it’s the perfect bass. It’s also the perfect bass to play octave divider with.
MF: Why is that?
Lee: Because everything else I have is very vibrant and has lots of real nice overtones, which completely screw up the octave dividers. The Hofner is such a dead instrument and is so fundamental that when you play the octave divider with it, it reads almost like a synth. It’s really fabulous. I really love that instrument. On B.B.’s record the only thing I played was my Hofner.
MF: What octave dividers do you use?
Lee: The main octave divider that I still really like is the Boss OC2. That little brown pedal. That’s what I used on "Another Day In Paradise" with Phil and lots of different records. That is really a good one. The other thing I’ve been using, though, is a Roland V-Bass.
I just had a new bass built by Yamaha that was a strange project. Hip Shot came out with a tremolo, whammy-bar-type bass bridge and I was going to retrofit one of my old basses with it, but the guys at Yamaha said, "This looks interesting, why don’t we just build a new bass around this rather than you butchering up an old bass?" So we built this new bass that is absolutely killer. What I also did was incorporated a Roland V-Bass pickup into it and the octave settings on the V-Bass are really cool.
The coolest thing on that is all the different sounds. A few are somewhat cheesy, but some of it’s wonderful. All the moog bass stuff sounds exactly like a mini moog when you’re playing. On our Barefoot Servants stuff, I ended up using a thing that they have called Subsonic, and basically it’s like taking the OC2 and doing another octave below that so it becomes stuff you can’t hear but it’s almost like you feel or sense it.
MF: So is this going to be a Yamaha Sklar signature bass?
Lee: I don’t think so. I think if somebody saw it and contacted Yamaha they would maybe build something like this, but we built this as a one-off. There was no talk about this going into production like the Patitucci, Nathan East, or Billy Sheehan basses. I’ve never really had a signature bass like that.
I did one signature bass for Gibson but it never really saw the light of day the way we intended. The reason I got involved was one of my closest friends Mike McGuire who used to own Valley Arts Guitars moved to Nashville to head the Gibson Custom Shop. Gibson never really had the credibility in their bass department like they’ve had in their guitar department and we thought if we could build a really good bread-and-butter instrument that would be fairly inexpensive, it would be cool. I thought it would be really good for him in terms of his position within the company and stuff.
We designed it and came up with what I thought was a really nice bass. It was real light, so like, female bass players would probably love playing it because it’s not like hanging a big heavy bass around your neck. I thought it turned out great but ultimately the company never got behind it so it never got promoted. They were going, "Well, we haven’t really had any orders." I said, "Well, you haven’t placed an ad! What are they going to do, call Dionne Warwick’s psychic network to see if there’s a bass being made?" [laughter] So I just kind of lost interest. I think there’s some of them floating around.
MF: I’ve seen a picture of one but I’ve never seen one in real life. I’ve never seen one in a store.
Lee: It turned out real nice. It’s nothing I’ve found myself upset about. I thought it turned out real good and that they did a good job. Take Dan Lakin at Lakland Basses. He wanted so long to do a signature bass because he’s done the Joe Osborn and Bob Glaub and all these different guys. I said, "You build a great bass and if I was going to look for a bass, every bass you’ve got, I’d be happy with." I would play the Glaub bass ‘cause I love Bob and I know what he would like out of a bass. I’m such a fan of Joe Osborn’s stuff and I said, "I would just take one of their basses and play it."
I would not bring enough to the table. I’m not a gear head. If, at this point right now, somebody said, "We’re putting a gun to your head, and if you can’t tell us how many frets are on your bass, we’re going to kill you," [laughter] I would be dead, because I honestly don’t know how many frets are on my bass and I honestly don’t care. If somebody says, "How many frets are on there?" I would say "Enough."
I’ve never been one of these guys that’s into collecting instruments and stuff. I don’t really care about it. I’ll play whatever I’m handed. I like having everything from a couple of old Washburns to a Yamaha fretless to a Hofner to my old funky bass to a Dingwall. Every one of them is dramatically different, but at the right moment they serve the purpose. I don’t care about anything other than the fact that they’re serving the purpose.
MF: Do you use any other pedals besides the Boss and Roland stuff?
Lee: At this point, the only other pedal I’ve got is an old Chorus Flanger from TC Electronic.
MF: And that works well on bass, huh?
Lee: Oh, I love it. Where I like to use it most is there’s three positions on it: there’s a chorus position, a flange position, and a center position called Pitch Shift. It’s a kind of a real interesting chorusy effect but not actually chorus, and I like using that on fretless. It’s a real nice kind of warm, silky sound. But basically, to me, my whole concept is I like having my bass, a cord, and plug it into something directly. There’s got to be one fundamental involved in the music and I think primarily that should be the bass. It’s not the keyboards, it’s not the guitars and all that. Especially when I’m playing live I like to give the house mixer a signal he can build from. I try to give him as pure a sound as possible. On Phil’s tour and Lyle’s tour I don’t have any pedals.
MF: What amp are you plugging into?
Lee: The primary rig that I use is a Euphonic Audio rig. I love their work. They’re based out in New Jersey. Larry Ulman, one of the owners of the company, he came to our gig with Lyle last night. It was great to see him. They have a head called the I-800 and that’s what I use with Phil and with Lyle. Cabinet-wise I’m using a 12 and a 2-10 cabinet and it’s such beautiful hi-fi bass. It’s really rich but it doesn’t saturate the stage. I really, really love his gear.
I got turned on to Euphonic Audio at a NAMM show where I went to a hotel room with Mike Tobias and Brian Bromberg to check out Mike’s new basses. We walked into this room with a bunch of slapping freaks just pounding away on these basses. We looked and said, "Where are we hearing this from?" And I looked over and next to the bed were these two little boxes with an eight-inch speaker in each one and they sounded unbelievable. That was the first Euphonic rig that I saw. Larry and his partner John were sitting there and I got their number and about two weeks later I called them up and said "You know, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what I saw." And that was the beginning of our relationship. One of the coolest rigs I’ve got is two of the eight-inch cabinets that I use with a Walter Woods head. The whole bass rig will fit in a Halliburton suitcase. I used it at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and it sounded great.
I love their stuff. In the studio I’ve been using the old Gallien-Krueger combo. [MB150S-III/112] I forget the number designation. It’s an old metal cabinet bass amp combo and it’s great in the studio.
MF: It’s made from metal?
Lee: It’s steel, I think. They’re heavy. It’s all metal with an extruded metal face plate and grille cover, but it’s a single 12" speaker and it’s a great studio amp. It comes in a gig bag and I carry it over my shoulder and just walk in and there it is. So, I use that mostly in the studio. I’ve also been involved with Yamaha. They’ve got a new bass amp. It’s like a BB-500 or something [Yamaha BBT 500H] which is a sound-modeling thing. It’s got like a dozen different bass amps configured electronically. It’s pretty cool and it’s just a little bit bigger than a Walter Woods head. So I used that a little bit on our Barefoot Servants’ stuff. But the primary live rig that I’m using is the Euphonic Audio setup.
One of the things I’m doing with Phil is really cool. Yamaha makes a thing called a Sub Kick and it looks like a snare drum but it’s got a speaker mounted in it. A lot of drummers in L.A. are setting it in front of their kick drums and it acts like a giant mic diaphragm. When we were doing the Crosby-Nash record, Russ Kunkel had one and I said, "I wonder what that would sound like in front of the bass rig?" So we dragged it over and set it in front of my bass rig and when Russ’s son Nathaniel, who was engineering the stuff, pulled the fader up he just looked at me and said, "Dude, check this out." It sounded incredible.
So, with Phil, I’m using a Groove Tube Brick as my DI and we’re blending that with the Sub Kick in front of the 12" speaker. It matches right up to the front of the 12" Euphonic speaker and live, it is unbelievable. In a 60,000-seat stadium, the bass sounds as good as it does on a CD.
Lee: I’m so thrilled with this rig.
Want more of Lee Sklar? Don’t worry, there’s lots to come. Check back to read more as Lee fills us in on his new band, fan-boy moments, and some of the gear he uses.