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Al Caldwell - June 2005


"It's been over 50 years since the electric 4-string bass was invented, and it's time to see what else we can do," exclaims extended range bassist Al Caldwell. Although extended range basses have existed for several decades and innovators such as Anthony Jackson and John Patitucci are widely recognized for their pioneering efforts on 6-string bass, it has only been within the past few years that playing extended range basses consisting of 7 or more strings has greatly increased in popularity amongst those bassists who feel they are confined by the physical limitations imposed on 4-string instruments and are really seeking to expand the boundaries of those concepts which have been traditionally labeled as conventional. Today, the ever-growing community of extended range bassists around the world numbers in the thousands, and regardless of the specific instrument, the number of strings, or the style of music extended range bassists choose to play, one variable remains constant. They are exceedingly passionate about what they play and why they choose to play it.

With his 11-string chambered bass and 9-string midi instrument, Al Caldwell is one of the foremost proponents of extended range bass playing, and he's delivering the sounds of his instruments to the masses. For the past 8 years, Caldwell has been backing the soulful resonances of pop vocal diva Vanessa Williams with his sub-contra grooves in the studio, during appearances on daytime and late night television shows, and in live concerts throughout the world. Since becoming a featured performer within Williams' band, Caldwell has contributed to two of her most recent recording projects and has toured extensively, playing in front of presidents, royalty, and foreign dignitaries in countries such as Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, and the United States. He has played in venues spanning coast to coast including Madison Square Garden, the Apollo, Carnegie Hall, the Blue Note, the Memphis Pyramid, Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, and the Hollywood Bowl to name a few. Caldwell's extended range grooves have also been heard alongside the St. Louis, Dallas, and Washington Symphonies, as well as the New York Pops.

Before joining Vanessa Williams' band in 1997, Caldwell worked as a songwriter, producer, and engineer, recording several #1 radio hits throughout the mid-western United States. Inspired by the bluegrass-inflected tones in the major motion picture O Brother, Where Art Thou in 2002, Caldwell pursued learning how to play the banjo, and soon after, formed the Travelin' Black Hillbillies in an effort to further the African American contribution to American music.

In 2005, Caldwell relocated to New York from St. Louis to broaden his career, and later this year, Caldwell will introduce the sounds of his extended range basses to millions of daytime television viewers as part of "The Vanessa Williams Show" on NBC.

In this interview, Caldwell discusses the benefits of playing extended range basses, touring with Vanessa Williams, recording with the Travelin' Black Hillbillies, and much more.




Can you provide us some background information on your bass-playing history?

Al Caldwell I started as a musician playing in night clubs at age 13 in St. Louis. I was originally a trumpet player. After switching to bass during high school, Bootsy Collins became my first big influence. In fact, I made a Bootsy bass in woodshop. It was my first bass, and it looked just like Bootsy's. It was fretless because I didn't know how to install frets. In high school, I entered and won a talent show. I slapped that bass so hard that I broke it literally in half and became an instant legend during that show. People still ask me about that. Slapping was all I was known for when I first started playing because I slapped everything. Larry Graham definitely influenced my slap bass playing. My next bass was a cheap Crown bass, and by the age of 16, I was heavily influenced by the sounds of Stanley Clarke and the melodic phrasing of Jaco Pastorius.

Did you have any formal training on bass?

No. I was actually a first-chair classical trumpet player. I was offered twelve music scholarships in high school for playing trumpet. My specialty was hitting all those high notes. I could play jazz, but I couldn't really solo very well on trumpet. After just a couple years playing bass, I could play all of the Jaco and Stanley lines note-for-note. I had no problem in mimicking anything they were doing, but I ended up attending college on an academic scholarship at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Mississippi, the home of B.B. King.

After I started listening to Clifford Brown and Miles Davis in college, I felt like they both had the definitive trumpet sound, and I saw no reason to pursue it. I thought I would have to play trumpet for the rest of my life to reach their level, but I was definitely more naturally inclined as a bass player because everything developed so easily for me. I still play trumpet, but in college it was all about the bass for me. I can play 28 different instruments pretty fluently because I was originally going to become a school music teacher so I had to learn to play all of the brass, reeds, percussion, piano, and later I added bass, guitar, and banjo among a number of other instruments.

When I first moved to New York in 1983, my roommate was renowned drummer, Dave Weckl. We were both from St. Louis. In New York, Anthony Jackson became my mentor, and I hung out with him quite often. Anthony and I never sat down in a formal bass lesson environment, but he would invite me to sessions and we chatted about bass over lunch all the time. Anthony and Chuck Rainey are my biggest influences today.

Was it difficult to get established as a working bass player after college?

I was primarily known as a gospel bass player, but I did play a lot of jazz too. I won top bass honors at the Jackson Gospel festival. I was fairly well-known as a bass player so I never really had any problems finding gigs as a bassist. Even though soloing intrigued me, I have always perceived the bass from an orchestral point of view. I had such great role models like Charles Hunt and Jimmy Hines, the local bass heroes in St. Louis. I would be playing gigs at the Blue Note in St. Louis and Charles would come up to me after gigs and show me lines. I did a lot of blues playing while growing up in St. Louis, and I got to play with a lot of the great St. Louis blues legends.

What inspired you to opt for more strings on an extended range bass, and when did that occur?

Anthony Jackson was definitely the inspiration for me to make the move to a 6-string bass. I actually tuned the high string on my bass to F instead of a low B, and I've kept it in that tuning since 1984. Anthony had me practicing out of a book called the Sturm Etudes, and that material was really difficult, lots of extended cello range. I loved the rich sound of the upper strings on the 6-string bass because it still had bass in it, like a baritone guitar. Even though you start reaching the range of a guitar with the high strings, I've never had a desire to be a lead guitar player because I like to groove. At the same time, I have never liked limitations. I mean, no one has ever handed a pianist only 44 keys and said, here - just do your job. That is limiting your creativity. I like to think that I play a complete instrument, and it's up to my maturity to figure out the music that I'll play on it. I consider piano to be a complete instrument. Harp is a complete instrument, but 4-string bass isn't. My 11-string bass is a complete instrument because I can play much lower than a standard bass, and it also contains the entire range of an electric guitar. It's a completely encompassing musical instrument.

Al Caldwell In terms of moving away from the 4-string and to an extended range bass, it was sort of a gradual evolution for me. I started with a 4-string bass, then moved to a 5-string, and after hearing Anthony Jackson, I bought my first 6-string. A few years ago, I got my first 7-string and a year later received my first 9-string. At this year's NAMM show, I got my first 11-string bass made by Chris Benavente. Chris and I started working on the 11-string in 2004. It all began with a drawing I sent him, and Chris made my dream a reality. When playing the 11-string now, it makes my 9-string feel like a 4-string. Thanks to the sub-contra influence of Jauqo III-X, my 11-string is tuned in fourths, C#-F#-B-E-A-D-G-C-F-Bb-Eb.

Are there any special features on your 11-string bass?

The most significant special feature on this bass that makes it unique to me is the pickup array. The pickups are positioned in a pyramid pattern, and each pickup has a separate volume control. If I'm going to play this instrument in the upper range as a lead guitarist, then I'll turn off the one pickup that controls the lowest bass strings. That eliminates the issue of having to deal with muting the lowest strings which in turn allows me more freedom to play melodies or anything else in the upper registers. If I'm going to just play solid bass grooves, then I'll turn off the pickup that controls the higher strings, and I won't have to worry about those strings ringing.

From my previous experience with a 9-string midi bass, I came to the conclusion that it makes absolutely no sense to even attempt doing midi on any string that has a gauge less than .080 because those strings are just way too difficult to track. Those strings vibrate so slowly that it becomes an issue of latency and tracking. After experimenting with midi on the lighter strings, I figured out that I could simply drop the tuning an octave via the midi if I wanted to generate midi tones in the bass registers. The Roland GR-33 has proven to be an indispensable tool because it contains so many features and allows me to tune any string to any pitch I want. With this module, I have no issues with tracking, no issues with tuning, and by designing this bass so that only the top six strings are midi-capable, I've eliminated the possibility of the low strings interrupting the processing of the midi on the high strings. One of the biggest issues I've had to deal with on my 9-string midi bass is that when I have all nine strings activated and I'm playing in the upper registers, the midi system gets thrown off by any low-string vibration, and you'll hear a weird midi anomaly. With only the top six strings of my 11-string Benavente being midi-capable, I don't have to worry about tracking problems caused by the low strings. I figured out that eliminating the lowest strings from the midi chain really made sense because the latency involved in reading those lower strings make them completely worthless.

Electronically, my 11-string contains Benavente signature pickups, a Benavente preamp, and a RMC midi piezo pickup placed within the bridge. It has a multi-laminate maple neck and maple fingerboard. The body is made of basswood, and it's chambered which suggests a slightly increased semi-acoustic sound. Due to its hollowed chambers, I can achieve an acoustic upright-type of sound, and the entire bass weighs less than 10 lbs. I can't say enough good things about Chris Benavente and what he has done for me.

Did you have to make any adjustments in your existing technique in going from a 4 to 9-string bass?

Most definitely. The biggest obstacle to overcome was to first make sure I was playing on the correct string. Sight reading was really challenging because I'd go for one note and then realize I was on the wrong string. Mentally, it took some time to adjust to having strings both lower and higher than a standard 4-string bass. Absolutely no one is going to be able to pick up a 9 or 11-string bass and play it without running into this problem. I spent a significant amount of time doing extensive scale studies, especially in the first couple of positions, in order to familiarize myself with the fingerboard. Mastering the positions is really the key to unlocking the potential with this instrument. I spend at least 2-4 hours practicing every day, and most of that time is spent working with scales and positions. I'm not focusing on speed but rather concentrating my efforts on understanding the intervallic relationships from one note to the next without looking at the neck across the entire range of the instrument. I spend quite a bit of time practicing with my eyes closed and jumping from first position to fourth position and so forth. There is a lot of territory to cover.

Muting use to be a major concern before I received my 11-string bass, but now I can electronically turn off those strings that I'm not using. That bass really solved any muting-related problem I had experienced previously.

How do people react when they see you play a 9 or 11-string bass?

Generally speaking, people are usually very fascinated by its appearance and very complementary. Sometimes people will try to crack a joke like asking me if I'm trying to over-compensate for the lack of something else then they see me play and realize this is no joke. Only recently have I been able to utilize the midi capabilities within Vanessa's (Williams) band, but I hope to use that more extensively in the future. Earlier this year, I played the 11-string at a gig with Vanessa where she was bestowed "The Entertainer Of The Year" by the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, and people just freaked out when they saw it. I've played it on several television shows, and the producers pulled out their pocket cameras and took pictures of it.

I always try to play it as tastefully as possible to emphasize that it's not a gimmick. It's always going to be a bass first, but I can do so much more with it than I ever could with a standard 4-string bass. Some people are always going to be intimidated by the instrument, and there will always be those people who are insecure about trying something that is different. The best thing I can do is try to educate others and spread the good word about extended range basses. It's been over 50 years since the electric 4-string bass was invented. It's time to see what else we can do. I no longer wish to be just a bass player. I want to be an incredible musician, and that's my goal. It may take me an entire lifetime to realize my goal, but at least I'm in the midst of a journey.

Al Caldwell

Where did you locate strings for your extended range basses?

The only company that I'm aware of that is currently doing research on strings for extended range basses is S.I.T. strings. In terms of gauges, the strings that I use range from a .009 for the high Eb all the way to a .195 for the low C#. I've always liked to have heavy gauged strings on the bottom and lighter strings on the top. S.I.T. has been really great to work with, and they supply all of my strings.

What advice would you have for those bassists looking to make the jump to a bass with 7 or more strings?

In terms of extended range basses, you should play whatever you want to play. Although I started with a 4-string bass before moving to a 5, then a 6, and then a 9, before eventually discovering the 11-string, extended range basses weren't readily available back when I started playing in the 70's. You couldn't just walk into a music store and pick up a 9-string bass.

Think about it this way. If you want to be a truck driver and you've never driven a truck before, you don't have to drive a car for twenty years before you graduate to driving a truck. A truck is still a vehicle so you are going to take the same basic lessons in learning to drive. A truck is going to have more variables so it makes no sense to start learning on a car that isn't going to do what you need it to. It's a waste of time. There's absolutely nothing wrong with just wanting to be a bass player. That is where it all begins, but if you want to play bass parts, take solos, comp chords and so forth, then don't be afraid to pick up an extended range bass.

For practice, I would recommend an exhaustive study of scales. Play scales really slowly. I would also recommend checking out synth bass parts because synth parts are going to go lower than standard low E and even lower than the low B-string. These types of lines will give you an idea on what you can do with sub-bass parts when you are presented with the opportunity. Listen to organists too because they often play really low notes.

How did you get introduced to Vanessa Williams, and how did you become a member of her band?

Back in the mid-80's, I worked for Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Club in New York. I played in the Playboy Orchestra. It was an all-star band. Smooth jazz artist Chris Botti was a member of that band along with Rob Mathes who has put together string arrangements for Natalie Cole, amongst others. In 1997, Rob became the musical director of Vanessa's band, and he offered me the bass chair. It was Vanessa's first band that she took on the road, and one of our first tours was with Luther Vandross.

What are the basic requirements for you as the bass player in Vanessa's band?

Al Caldwell As the bassist, I am required to play electric bass, acoustic upright bass, synth bass, and I also have to program all of my synth bass parts. Primarily, it is a sight reading gig so I really need to be able to navigate through any chart that is put in front of me. Everyone in the band is excellent at sight reading, and we also have to understand a great degree of different styles and know how to play everything from latin to jazz to Broadway show tunes to 70's funk tunes and rock ballads. Everyone really has to cover a very broad range of styles, and just as importantly, you have to sound very authentic when you are playing these different styles. It isn't a single-style-type of gig. You have to be very well-rounded to hold a gig like this.

Have you appeared on any of her studios recordings?

Yes, I've played my 9-string bass on two of her recordings. I'm probably the first bass player to ever record a 9-string bass on a mainstream pop project. I played on three songs on her Christmas album, Silver & Gold. I also recorded seven tracks on her latest release, Everlasting Love, using 9-string bass.

What are some of the highest profile gigs you've played with Vanessa?

This past January, we played at the Presidential Inauguration. Last year, we recorded a 2-hour Christmas special for the A&E channel. We've performed on all of the daytime television talk shows along with the late night shows including "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show With David Letterman." We've toured all over the world, playing for people such as the Prince of Monaco. We've also played on Broadway, in Carnegie Hall, and with a number of major symphony orchestras. It's just really amazing to look back and think about all the places we've played and all the special guest artists we've performed alongside.

What are Vanessa's thoughts on you playing an extended range bass within her band?

First, I have to give her a massive amount of credit for being the most open-minded artist I've ever played with in my entire life. She has been unbelievably supportive and has given me the opportunity to bring extended range bass playing to the masses. I never thought I'd ever play with someone so open-minded. She wants me to use whatever I need in order to get the job done. I've never heard of any mainstream pop star that will go to the lengths she does for her band. Most stars are too consumed with themselves to look out for their band, but she's the coolest.

You've recently relocated to New York to be a part of the new "Vanessa Williams Show." What will be your role on her show?

It's going to be a daytime television variety show which is scheduled to start airing on NBC later this year, and I'll be a member of the band.

Besides playing bass with Vanessa Williams, you also play banjo with your own group called the Travelin' Black Hillbillies. How did that band come together?

I've only been playing banjo for a couple years. The Travelin' Black Hillbillies started after I saw the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. I had never seen a black man play a banjo before so I decided to go to the local music store and pick one up. The guy at the music store made a joke that I should start a black hillbilly band, and that led me to naming the band the Travelin' Black Hillbillies. I took a few professional banjo lessons, practiced a lot, and within the first year, I had composed over sixty songs. That was the birth of the Travelin' Black Hillbillies. I received an endorsement deal with Hohner after playing banjo for one year, and just recently, I signed a new deal with Deering banjos. People can check us out on iTunes and CDBaby.

Playing both bass and banjo is a very unique, non-traditional combination. How has your bass playing influenced your banjo playing and vice versa?

I use bass playing techniques on the banjo and banjo techniques on the bass all the time. (Note: Al puts the phone down at this time to pick up his banjo and demonstrate slap bass techniques on "Turkey In The Straw.") Actually, I freely use bass, guitar, and banjo techniques on all of those respective instruments. Why should I limit myself by using only bass techniques on bass or banjo techniques only when I'm playing banjo? It all comes back to being a better musician. That's all I want to do. An instrument is simply a tool to express your creativity.

Since you have the natural ability to play a wide assortment of instruments, do you borrow concepts such as phrasing on a horn and apply it to bass?

Yes. Let me give you an example. (Note: Al puts the phone down once again, picks up his trumpet and plays some slow Clifford Brown lines to demonstrate vibrato.) The way you control vibrato can be applied to bass. Obviously, vibrato on trumpet is going to sound a little different than vibrato on bass because I can control the length of notes more easily on trumpet with my breath, but it is the same concept.

Remember, the instrument is just a tool so you can apply concepts from one instrument to another without much of a problem. When I pick up an instrument to play, I'm thinking about music. I'm not necessarily thinking that this instrument happens to be a bass or that this instrument just happens to be a banjo. If I'm playing music on a trumpet, then it is going to sound like I'm playing music on a trumpet. If I'm playing music on the banjo, then you will hear the tonal characteristics of a banjo. At the fundamental level, it is still all about the music and the ideas you are attempting to convey.

Al Caldwell The type of instrument you choose to play is really insignificant because regardless of whatever instrument you play, music is a language. It is not comprised of just licks and scales as many people believe. It is a dialogue comprised of words. Many people just learn the licks of their favorite players and never get beyond that point. They don't understand the language because they don't know how to connect words together into sentences. In the end, their playing makes no sense because their sentences are nothing more than random words. Learn the language first so you can speak clearly and then you can touch the hearts of others. That's what I'm constantly working on. Bass players need to transcend just the playing of their heroes and broaden their musical vocabularies.

How many words do you know within the English language? Thousands? What if someone from Japan comes to the Unites States and speaks only a few words of English? Initially, that Japanese person is going to struggle in order to get his point across, but in time with study, he will be able to communicate more clearly with us because he understands the language more deeply. The same thing applies to music. Your voice as a musician may be that of a trumpet player, but the words within the language are still the same as those being used by a pianist. Don't be afraid to expand your vocabulary because there is always more room to grow.

Unfortunately, on many instruments you have to work within certain physical limitations, but the piano and 11-string bass eliminate these limitations due to their all-encompassing range. Seriously, what can't I do with an 11-string bass? I have the range of a piano, and with the midi capabilities, I can make it sound like virtually any other instrument I desire. Limitations aren't always just based upon the instrument. Sometimes limitations are based upon other people's perceptions.

With so many instruments to practice in any given practice session, how do you allocate your time between instruments, and what do you spend the most time practicing?

I'm no longer insecure about chops because my hands will do whatever I need them to do so I generally just pick up whatever instrument I'm inspired to play at that particular time. Since technique isn't a need for concern, I feel that my biggest deficiency as a musician right now is in learning to understand and learning to hear so I'm listening to a diverse collection of music including Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, Weather Report's Heavy Weather, Thrust by Herbie Hancock, and music by Clifford Brown, Earl Scruggs, Richard Bona, Nancy Wilson, and Frank Sinatra. I'll listen to how Sinatra pauses during his phrases on a song like "New York, New York" (Note: Al demonstrates his point by singing a few lines from "New York, New York"), and then I'll apply that to bass. I really like to emulate different vocalists on bass because so few bassists take this approach.

I'm working through a book of two-bar ii-V-I riffs. I don't just want to learn the riffs. I want them to be ingrained in my head so I can learn what they say to me and then I can understand how to apply them. I'll play a single line over and over again until it makes sense to me. I don't want to just stop learning at the licks.

Can you tell us about your projects as a solo artist and how they differ from your work with the Travelin' Black Hillbillies?

I've been sitting on a lot of material for years so I finally decided to release my first recording as a solo bassist last year. It's called 9 String Human Being, and I would classify it as smooth jazz featuring my 9-string midi bass and banjo. Later this year, I'll be releasing a brand new project that I'm really excited about titled Forbidden Fruit, showcasing many of my extended range basses including my 9-string midi bass.

I've composed over 1500 songs, and this has actually proven to be somewhat detrimental because I'm spread out over so many categories. Record label management completely hates this because they have a really difficult time marketing an artist who writes music that is hard to define categorically. They want material that is stylistically consistent so now I'm in the process of working on a deal to bring the Travelin' Black Hillbillies into an urban market. Our new music will be funky, but it will definitely maintain a strong country edge to it. In addition to singing and playing banjo, I'll also be playing mandolin and steel guitar. The Travelin' Black Hillbillies have released three recordings thus far. From soul, country, funk, blues, rock, jazz, and gospel, there's a little something for everyone on our recordings. You can purchase my music at several places on the web including iTunes, Napster, and CDBaby.

What other projects do you have on the horizon?

I'd like to do three instructional videos for the banjo, beginning - intermediate - advanced. I also want to do an instructional production video teaching beginning to intermediate uses of Pro Tools and how to produce along with another video demonstrating how to use plug-ins for Pro Tools. For bass, I'd like to do an instructional video with Chuck Rainey where we discuss the foundation of bass playing along with the evolution of different styles and how the roles of bass players have changed within those styles due to the evolution of the instrument itself.



Selected Discography

Al Caldwell
Solo Recordings
Bass For Lovers
Forbidden
9 String Human Being

Collaborations
With Vanessa Williams:
Everlasting Love
Silver & Gold

With The Travelin' Black Hillbillies:
Hell If I Know
Hootananny Soul
Good Livin'
Hillbilly Soul


Gear

Basses:
Benavente 11-String
Benavente 9-String
Conklin 9-String Midi
Strunal Acoustic Upright

Bass builder Mike Adler and I are working on new 9-string bass which I'm going to call my "Vanessa" bass. I designed the body in the shape of a star, and it will feature the same pickup array that my 11-string Benavente has on it. It's very radical-looking, and it should be done later this year. Eventually, I want to record with all of these basses and deliver their distinctive tones to the masses. Once people hear what these basses sound like on different projects, then the work of these bass builders is really going to take off.

Amps & Cabinets:
Madison Hydra Cabinets
Phil Jones Bass Briefcases

My favorite cabinets are my Madison Hydras. Unfortunately, Madison no longer produces these particular cabinets because they are just too big. I have two of these cabinets, and they consist of a 21-inch subwoofer, a 12-inch speaker, two 8-inch speakers, and a horn. I wanted a rig that could allow me to achieve the clarity of a full p.a. system. It is so incredibly tight-sounding, and it can really reproduce the entire range of my bass. I just can't see myself playing any other big box than the Madison's. Along with my Madison cabinets, I equally love my two portable Phil Jones Bass Briefcase amps which contain just two 5-inch speaker cones. I've used these Phil Jones Bass amps at Carnegie Hall, on "Good Morning America," "The View," and "The Tony Danza Show." It's just unbelievable to hear these amps handle a low F# without breaking up. My acoustic upright sounds great through them as well.

Effects:
Roland VG-88
Roland GR-33
Radial Engineering Tonebone

Strings:
S.I.T. Power Wounds


Contact

For more information on Al Caldwell and the Travelin' Black Hillbillies, visit: 9StringBass.com and TBHillbilly.com.


© 2005 The IIB