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Fishin' For Grips With Todd Johnson & Jim Stinnett

Ever since the advent of the 6-string bass guitar, bassists have expanded the traditional role of the electric bass with new sonic textures. At the forefront of the extended range movement is Todd Johnson. Over the past two decades, Johnson has continued to refine his distinct performance style through the utilization of innovative chordal techniques by arranging popular standards from the jazz repertoire and original compositions for unaccompanied bass guitar. Assisted by Berklee College of Music professor Jim Stinnett, Johnson's latest production, Fishin' For Grips, is the first instructional DVD to present the application of melodic harmonization on electric bass. This 84-minute DVD/book package is an indispensable resource for the contemporary study of chordal vocabulary on bass guitar. Besides his teaching duties at Berklee College of Music, where he has taught bass and arranging since 1986, Stinnett has authored a series of acclaimed publications including his latest projects, Secret Chambers and 12 Keys To Success, which document his teachings. Stinnett is also the director of the annual New Hampshire Bass Fest and the founder of weekend workshops for both electric and acoustic bassists called Bass Workouts which are regularly scheduled throughout the year. Prior to the release of Fishin' For Grips, Johnson and Stinnett collaborated on One Good-Looking Guy?, their first studio recording to demonstrate Johnson's pioneering chordal approach combined with Stinnett's acoustic upright prowess.

In this interview, Todd and Jim discuss the making of Fishin' For Grips, One Good-Looking Guy?, playing chord-melodies on bass, and more.

What triggered your interest in playing chords on bass guitar?

Todd Johnson & Jim Stinnett Todd - I bought my first 6-string bass in 1990, and that definitely triggered at least some of my interest in playing chords. My first serious and focused attempt into playing chords on the bass came when Ron Eschete sat me down and asked me if I thought I could play some thirds and sevenths while keeping a bass line going. I told him I thought it was possible. I just had to figure out how to do it. I went home and worked my butt off for a week and came back being able to play a simple bass line with some thirds and sevenths. Ron Eschete would be one of my first inspirations to say the least.

How were you first introduced to Todd and his chordal playing?

Jim - At the International Society of Bassists convention in 2007, I attended a lecture presented by Todd, and I was immediately struck by his genius. I have been playing and listening to jazz for nearly 40 years, but I had never seen anything like what Todd was doing. Actually, I had heard this jazz vocabulary played by many great pianists and guitarists but never on the bass. I realized that what Todd was doing had taken years to perfect. After the first song, I told my son, Grant, that we have to learn to do this. At the end of the presentation, I asked Todd to come to New Hampshire and teach me and my students how to play his style. The following October, we presented the first Todd Johnson Bass Workout.

How did the Fishin' For Grips and One Good-Looking Guy? projects come together?

Jim - The idea for the projects started at the second TJ Workout when Todd was explaining why he was calling each specific voicing a grip like country players do. We all began calling the chord voicings grips such as the CMaj7 grip and the C minor with the three on top grip. Someone was attempting to play a song using Todd's voicings and scuffling to find the correct fingering. Todd said, "you're fishing for them grips." We immediately saw the potential of this fun phrase and used it the remainder of the weekend.

When we began to create the book and DVD project, the logical choice for a title was Fishin' For Grips. I have always liked titles that have character and tell a bit about the feeling and origin of a product. Just plain old technical terms seem boring and trite. We did add the subtitle, "Melodic Harmonization For Bass Guitar," just so folks would know what we were talking about.

After the second TJ Bass Workout, I offered to help Todd put his methodology into a form we could share with others. To my joy, he agreed. As we discussed the project over the next few months, I realized this was a big undertaking. I set about creating a plan to record audio, video, and interview Todd repeatedly. I began to teach some of Todd's grips to my students whom had not been exposed to Todd just so I could learn what was needed for our product. I also created numerous play-along tracks to work with. I organized and tried various methods for teaching a student to play a song using chord-melodies. Because I was not adept at this style, it was actually quite helpful. Sometimes when you can do a thing and have been doing it for years, it can be difficult to see the challenges presented to a newbie.

Writing out the pitches, basically a transcription of one of Todd's arrangements, did not work well. I knew we were going to need video so Grant recorded Todd every time he came to New Hampshire, and we made sure Todd came to New Hampshire every few months. Grant would learn to grip a new song by watching the videos. I would watch Todd teach Grant, and I would watch Grant learn from the videos. I began to see what would be the most effective way to convey our message on camera.

Fishin' For Grips We scheduled three sessions for recording. Each session consisted of two full days. We filmed the video in Jon Chase's recording studio so we could get high quality bass and voice sound. I did most of the video recording in the studio. Grant did the additional outside-the-studio recording. In the studio, I had numerous roles. I was the producer, the student, the assistant teacher, the coach, the audience that asked questions, Todd's accompanist, and sometimes Todd's voice while he demonstrated. It sort of ended up with both of us teaching and Todd demonstrating.

It was an honor and pleasure to work on such a monumental project. Todd is a delight to be around. Jon Chase is the ultimate engineer, not seen nor heard. Grant worked tirelessly to edit all the 40 hours of video and mix in the studio-quality audio. Grant's two years of work learning to play numerous jazz standards using Todd's style was necessary for him to be able to edit the music as it needed to be done.

I truly believe this product will benefit bassists for many years to come. Fishin' For Grips will become the foundation on which an entire new generation of grippers will build a jazz vocabulary.

Todd - I've been working hard at this chord business for 20 years. It's second nature to me, but every time I've tried to teach it to other people, it was either too hard for them or I was making it more difficult than it needed to be. Once I did the first TJ Bass Workout with Jim, I realized that I needed some serious help in figuring out how to teach this to others. This is where Jim really needs to receive some much deserved credit.

In addition to being a phenomenal musician and bassist, Jim is arguably the best teacher I've ever known. He really helped me to organize and break this style down into bite-size pieces so everyone can have success with it. I could not have done this without him.

Jim - Part of our plan for the Fishin' For Grips project was to make a CD that featured Todd's grips in all their glory. This CD was not to be a part of the book but a compliment to demonstrate how it's really done. We simply played some tunes that groove and have grips. Todd pulled out all the stops!

I think I came up with the idea for the title for the CD sort of as a joke, and of course, it stuck. Why not? It's fun. Besides, I have had to bear the burden of being bald and good-looking most of my life. I decided it was time to shout it to the world. Notice the question mark at the end of the title. Today, I am often referred to as one-half a good-looking guy. Have you ever seen two more perfect heads?

Todd wrote four tunes. I wrote four tunes. We hired the best drummer and tenor saxophone player we knew and rolled the tape. Joe Hunt and Dino Govoni are outstanding musicians who made us sound good. That's why we hired them. I have worked with these guys for years, and they had both met Todd at the New Hampshire Bass Fest in 2008 and loved his playing. One Good Looking Guy? was recorded in two sessions. The first session was with the quartet. A couple months later, we spent a day recording the duo and trio songs.

Todd played his beautiful Zon TJ-6 bass direct into the board for all the tunes. I chose to play my Juzek double bass and nylon string Rob Allen basses which are strung with a low B-string on the 5-string fretless and a high C-string on the 5-string fretted. The sound of these basses seemed to compliment Todd's sound well.

I believe One Good Looking Guy? features some of Todd's best playing to date. Not only is it beautiful but also quite inspiring and impressive. No one is playing jazz on the 6-string bass like Todd. My favorite track has to be "My Beloved" which is a gorgeous ballad that Todd wrote for his wife, Gay.

Todd - Doing the CD was a no-brainer. Jim and I love playing together. It's a natural fit. We don't have to talk about much. We just play. We're very like-minded, and our music is a natural extension of that. Plus, we both know the burden of being bald and good-looking so it's nice to have someone else around to shoulder the burden.

Does a person need to understand a great deal of music theory in order to play chord-melodies on bass?

Todd - Not really. A working knowledge of music theory is helpful but not totally necessary to be able to play this stuff. The main thing is to sit down with the DVD and press play every day and practice what we've laid out for everyone. Figuring out the theory can wait for later.

Can your chordal approach be applied to any song in any style of music or does it only work well on jazz compositions?

Todd Johnson Todd - This chordal approach can definitely be applied to most any song. I'm sure we could find a few exceptions, but for the most part, this method will work across a wide range of styles. As you can see in the DVD, we've applied it to jazz, classical, and pop music.

For beginners, I recommend looking for songs that have melodies which fall within an octave or so. "You Are My Sunshine" is a song with a melody that only goes about a sixth or so which makes it a good example of a tune to start with. This helps us keep the melody in a range where it sounds the best without getting too muddy.

Was your signature model Zon bass specifically designed for chord-melody playing?

Todd - The Sonus TJ-6 was definitely designed for my style with chord-melody playing in mind. It has an amazing neck with a 26-fret fingerboard, an extended cutaway which provides easy access to the upper register, and a round fingerboard radius that makes playing chords a lot easier. The fingerboard radius is something you really can't see, but it's something you feel when you play one.

Can a person with any style of bass play chord-melodies or is there anything in particular you would recommend doing to a bass in terms of its setup to provide for easier chord-melody playability?

Todd - Practically any kind of bass will work just fine for playing chord-melody. However, I would recommend setting it up with low string action.

Is it possible to play chord-melodies on a 4-string bass or does a bassist need the extended range provided by a 5 or 6-string instrument?

Todd - It's absolutely possible to play chord-melody on a standard 4-string bass. The only problem is that you run out of range rather quickly. A 5-string bass that is strung with a high C-string or a 6-string bass is ideal. The simple solution for using a 4-string bass is to go buy a C-string and tune the bass A-D-G-C.

In your experience with arranging chord-melodies for bass, have you found certain keys that tend to work better than others?

Todd - It comes down to the range of the melody. I like to equate it to working with a female singer. We want to put the melody in the key where it will sound the best. Singers do this all the time. This is critical for the bass.

In terms of technique, how do you mute the low strings when you are playing 3-note chord voicings since you use the thumb, index, and middle fingers of your right hand to sound the notes simultaneously?

Todd - I mute with the heel of my right hand and a little bit of my wrist. As long as you're in contact with the strings, you're in good shape.

Now that your walking bass line and technique building instructional videos are part of the Alfred Publishing catalog, which titles will be distributed by them next?

Todd - The next title to be distributed by Alfred will be the third installment of the walking bass line DVD series. It's done and in the can, but it won't come out for at least another year since they just released three of my other videos last year. Eventually, I'll do an improvisation method for them and most likely a fingerboard harmony method as well. Alfred Publishing has been really good to me, and I'm totally blessed to be working with them.

Considering you have released instructional methods as an independent artist and also under Alfred Publishing, what are the benefits of each distribution method?

Todd - When you release products on your own, you take all the risk, but you also reap all of the rewards. With a publisher, you take less risk and have much greater distribution, but you also share a lot more of the reward. I'm thrilled that my books have done well and that Alfred Publishing is giving my books and videos worldwide exposure.

Besides your latest projects with Todd, can you tell us about your two most recent publications, Secret Chambers and 12 Keys To Success?

Jim Stinnett Jim - 12 Keys To Success is a book designed to help you master the bass. This volume consists of 78 classical-style etudes covering all 12 keys. I like to think of 12 Keys To Success as a contemporary compliment to the Sturm and Nanny etudes. The book comes with a CD which features 30 of the etudes performed by my students. The purpose of this CD is to give you an idea of how some of the songs sound and also to inspire you to want to learn them. Four play-along recordings for 12 Keys To Success are also available online. These recordings contain all 78 etudes in three versions including slow, medium, and fast. I have been using these etudes for a few years now with all of my students on both electric bass and upright. Developing technical mastery over the instrument is a big part of my teaching.

Secret Chambers is undoubtedly my most ambitious publication effort. This book features a comparative analysis of 70 bebop solos by Paul Chambers. Besides the transcribed and notated solos, it took many years to present the analysis in a concise manner. Chambers played melodies. In the book, I call these short melodies PC licks and offer a statistical analysis of his use of those licks. Secret Chambers is a distillation of Paul Chambers' jazz language and style.

Where can people purchase the new DVD, CD, and books?

Jim - All of our latest products are available on both of our web sites. We ship all over the world on a daily basis. My wife, Jamie, is a master at processing orders.

Are there any plans on the horizon to release additional collaborations?

Jim - Todd and I have had such fun working and teaching together that there is no way we are going stop. We just completed a very successful New Hampshire Bass Fest in June, 2009. Along with 11 other faculty members, Todd and I taught, performed, laughed, cried, and generally had a great time with a great bunch of students. We also debuted a few tunes from the new CD.

In October, we will be holding our fourth TJ Bass Workout. This three-day bass clinic/workshop actually should be called "The Grip Workout." The entire three days will be devoted to fishin' for grips. The goal is to catch a few grips, but as any good fisherman knows, the catching is just a small part of the fun.

Todd and I already have plans for future publications together. I suspect our next project will be a book titled The Sound Of Theory. We love playing music together so we have also been planning our next recording. I was thinking about playing all the grips while Todd plays upright. Just kidding.

Selected Discography

One Good-Looking Guy?
Fishin' For Grips

One Good-Looking Guy?


For more information on Fishin' For Grips and One Good-Looking Guy?, visit: and

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