Michael Manring Interview 08/20/94
1994 Naked Eye Press

Michael Manring website www.manthing.comThis interview was conducted for the plain and selfish reason that between the time of my previous interview with Manring and this one, I found his music and approach to bass was having a huge influence on my guitar playing. And I simply wanted to learn more. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Hedges, but Manring always has something insightful and interesting to say about music (except when his mouth is full of Thai food). He spoke by phone from his home in the Bay Area. I particularly like this interview for the remark that says it all: “I can’t live without bass.”


Do you find certain compositions are simply too difficult to play on fretless?

Oh yeah, all the time. When I was younger, I went through a period of writing everything on the fretless. But I got to the point where some of the pieces were just too hard to play in tune. It just wasn’t worth it at that point. I feel I know what my intonation limits are on the fretless now. If I write something that’s too complicated I know I’ll never be able to play it in tune. But if I write something that’s just complicated enough, I know I’ll have a fighting chance. If I’m going to write something that I know is going to be hairy then I’ll just write for fretted bass.

Is “Selene” the first piece you wrote for the Hyperbass? [“Selene” is only available on the Windham Hill Guitar Sampler v. II.]

Yeah. I just kind of jumped into it right away. Before I got the Hyperbass, I had an old Music Man Sting Ray which was sort of set up the same way.

In addition to the Bartolini magnetic pickups on the Hyperbass, what kind of transducers are in the body?

The Hyperbass has a transducer in the top horn, the bottom horn, the top of the body, and one by the nut. Joe Zon and I experimented with a number of transducers. We didn’t try FRAPs, although I do have some that I occasionally use externally for recording. We ended up with Fishman transducers. It was something that we wanted to experiment with more because we noticed a big difference between the transducers we tested.

Did you move the transducers around the surface of the body to get a feel for where you wanted them placed?

A bit. As it turned out, there isn’t that much room in the instrument. It’s not too thick and there are a lot of electronics in it, so we didn’t have too many choices. We figured we’d be able to just find the most resonant points, but there are really only a few places they could go. But we discovered that within those constraints, moving the transducer an inch or so or changing the angle made a huge difference. Unfortunately, since they’re built into the instrument we had to just tap on the wood and take guesses.

How do you handle the outputs from all four transducers?

We ran them all down to one. There’s a set of trim pots in the back that you can change the balance with. That’s the fifth output. Four from the magnetic pickups [one for each string] and one for the balanced transducers.

Are the transducers an attempt to get the tone you got on “Far”, which you played on an acoustic fretless bass guitar?

Right. That’s what I was hoping for. The problem with magnetic pickups is they don’t really have many transients in them. We get so much of our auditory information from those real high frequencies. Even if the tones are low frequencies, all the placement information comes from those high transients. It’s a shame not to have those.

Despite the Hyperbass, are you planning to work with the acoustic fretless on tour?

That’s one of my little heartbreaks. I love that instrument and would like to play it a lot more, but it’s not road worthy and it’s extremely hard to amplify. It’s just very quiet. I also don’t have much time to play it, but I try to get it out once a month or so. I do have a few other solo pieces for it though.

Is Joe Zon finished with your double-neck?

No. We’ve had some pretty major problems on that one. We’ve got the bridges done, which was a major feat, but getting the electronics done is proving to be even more of a challenge.

Are you still shooting for separate outputs for every string and twelve hip-shots or something gonzo like that?

[Laughs] Well, we thought about that. We think we can get the hip-shots on every key. Joe’s pretty certain that it will happen, but the electronics are really a problem. Bartolini wants to do it, but they’re really behind now.

Given “My Three Moons”, have you considered a triple neck?

[Laughs, but with no response. Notice he didn’t say “No.”]

Considering how thin the strings on the Hyperbass are, I was wondering if you’ve ever seen the extra long-scale Steinberger Allan Holdsworth played a few tours ago. He named it “Boris”.

No, but I remember reading an interview where he said he wanted a longer scale. “Boris” is over the top?

It has an amazingly throaty sound. Almost like a didgeridoo.

Yeah, there’s a really interesting sound when you use thin strings on a real long neck. You get that real wide vibration. Sustains forever.

Speaking of sustain, when did you start using the E-bow?

Around 1987. It took a long time before I felt like I could control it and get a reasonable sound out of it. I started using it little by little until I felt more confident and eventually got to the point where I was using it a lot. I kind of always had it in my hand when I was playing with other people, like with John Gorka and Patty Larkin. Any time I was doing more melodic stuff. It’s always nice to have it there, but I wasn’t really using it in my solo shows because it’s rather monophonic. I wanted to be able to play more polyphonic music with it so I decided I’d better figure out how to play with two of them. They’re kind of thick so the only strings I can activate are the two outer strings. If you jam them right together you might be able to activate what would be the E and D strings, but you probably wouldn’t have much control since you need a little leeway in there. For “Adhan” I just wrote the piece for those two strings. When I recorded it I didn’t even plug in the outputs for the two middle strings [laughs].

Was your motivation to develop the use of the E-bow the same as for “ghost harmonics”? A desire to have layered textures?

That’s pretty much it. One of the real limitations of playing any string instrument is what synth players call the ADSR envelope—the attack/decay/sustain/release envelope. You’re really limited with any stringed instrument with what you can do with the volume envelope. If it’s a fretted instrument it’s pretty much the same volume envelope no matter what you do. You can play a little louder but you still have that quick attack and gradual sustain. With the fretless you can change it a little bit by the way you play. As you know, the note can swell up a bit before it starts to decay, but it always seemed to me that it would be great to have more control over that.

Is the E-bow simply an electromagnet?

I think so. It’s very simple. It’s mostly a nine-volt battery. That’s the bulk of it. I’ve seen the circuitry and there’s not much to it. It’s a little IC or something about an inch square.

Could you control the E-bow level with a foot pedal?

It’s very sensitive. It’s funny, I played an instrument like what you’re talking about at NAMM. There was a guy there who had a similar idea, although the similarity was only that they both use electromagnets. His was based on a footpedal. I played a five-string which had a button for each string so you could choose which strings you wanted to sustain and then use the volume pedal to control the field. His was very powerful. It really got those strings going. The E-bow’s a little different. I think because it’s hand held, and again it’s real sensitive, everything about where and how you hold it changes the sound. If you hold it close to the end of the string you activate more harmonics. If you hold it over a certain harmonic node then you’ll get more of that harmonic than the other sounds. If you hold it too close to the pickup it starts to interfere with the pickup’s magnetic field and you get really heavy distortion. So it’s good the E-bow is hand held because you get all those shifting possibilities. They don’t really mention that in the accompanying literature. It just sort of says to smash it down on the strings. I think the thing that’s really important with the E-bow is the available differences. It keeps it from just being an effect you turn on and off like a flanger and makes it really part of the instrument. I’m very dedicated to it.

At first, I was surprised you don’t normally use a five-string or six-string bass. I assume that’s because a tighter neck and/or more strings make it more difficult to keep from muting ghost harmonics?

Definitely. That’s the real drawback of the six-string in particular. I mean, it’s great to have all these extra strings—that’s the good part—but the bad part for me is that I get less control over each one. So I really have to think a lot differently. I guess part of it is that I’ve been playing four-string for so long that I’m always really conscious of each string and can control what happens to each one. But every time you add another string or two it starts to get more difficult. The string spacing on the six-string I’ve got is a bit compressed, but it’s not like the Fender design where it’s more like a guitar. It’s sort of halfway between the two.

Have you ever had any serious hand injuries?

I’ve been real lucky. Bassists...man, it just seems to be an epidemic. Especially for those of us who try to do lots of weird stuff [laughs]. I’m kind of manic about warming up. I really get into it. I’ll often take an hour or more just warming up, doing really slow stuff. Some days I’ll do an hour before I even pick up the instrument. I really like to do it slowly if I have time. I talk about this in my video. [Bass Essentials, produced by Hot Licks.] When they signed me to the video deal they figured I’d show them lots of fancy stuff, but I told them, “You know, I really think it’s more important that we do a video that’s more about warm up. I’ll do a little of the other stuff, but I think we should focus more on dexterity and warm ups. Something that people can really use rather than just, ‘Here’s the hot lick from this record’ and so on.”

How about computer keyboards?

Yes. I definitely notice something when I do a lot of work on my computer. I find the computer a lot harder on my hands than bass now. I prepare so much for bass, but it’s hard to warm up for computer use [laughs]. It’s really dangerous. If you need surgery that’s not a good thing. I have a lot of bass playing friends who’ve had to quit playing for months at a time and a couple that just had to quit completely. It seems like we haven’t been taking it very seriously as a society. The use of your hands is such an important issue. That’s a good point to make to folks—that if you’re playing and typing that you really need to kick into “extra caution mode”. The combination of the two I think is really brutal. I had to stop playing computer games because they were so hard on my hands [laughs].

Speaking of typing, when did you first get into a two-handed bass playing technique?

As soon as I heard Eddie Van Halen.

Frank Zappa said he thought Eddie was the first guy to use that technique and not make it sound like a technique.

I think that’s true. I got Van Halen’s first record and jumped right on that bus. He was able to play it in such a way that made you think there was a lot more to it than even what he was doing. That’s always exciting when someone’s able to do that—play in a way such that they have their technique but it inspires you to think, “Well, if he can do this with it then there must be a lot more to do.”

I’m continually amazed by the clarity of your tone on fretless. How long did it take you to find a tone that wasn’t the usual mud, but could still rattle your fillings?

[Laughs] It’s really tough. I think it’s especially tough for bass player’s because overall there isn’t much good equipment out there. A lot of the stuff that is good is very idiosyncratic. As a bass player growing up, you never really hear what your bass sounds like because you’re playing through an amp that colors the tone a lot. And the same for PAs. Then you finally get into a recording studio and really hear your bass, but usually for only five minutes until you can’t afford to be there and you have to leave.

I think the first bassist who grabbed me with his tone was Jeff Berlin. Particularly with Bill Bruford’s band. He could cut through the whole band when he wanted to.

Yeah! Jeff’s one of my favorite bass players. He’s a really good friend of mine. He’s been so supportive of me, he’s been really sweet. I’ve been trying to get him a deal on Windham Hill. He’s got a solo album that he’s remixing. I would just love for Jeff to have a deal and be able to help out if I could. He’s a great guy.

I saw a clinic he and Holdsworth gave together in Manhattan during the Road Games tour. It was unreal.

The two of them?! Oh God. Yeah, I regret missing that tour.

What aspect of your technique are you focusing on these days?

I work mostly on groove stuff. Just trying to get the “rhythm thing” together [laughs]. A few months ago I was working real hard on intonation, but I feel pretty comfortable where that’s at now. I have a whole bunch of new pieces I’m hoping to work on more, although I don’t have as much time to practice these days as I’d like because I’m doing transcriptions. I’m putting a book together for Hal Leonard. It’s fun, but a serious challenge. It’s kind of hard for me to do my own music, but I don’t think I could get anybody else to do it because my stuff is so weird. I have a friend in Virginia, he just got his Master’s from Peabody in fact, who’s a real musical whiz and does a lot of transcribing and he was going to help me out on a few of the things that were more clear.

I imagine you’d need your own notation like in Hedges’ book.

I’m just trying to get it to the point where it makes sense [laughs]. It would be great if somebody like John Stropes comes along and cleans it up the way he did for Hedges. What an interesting thing to do—to transcribe music. You need a lot of patience. I wanted to do transcriptions for Hal Leonard on my computer, but they said they do everything in pencil. Actually, with the computer programs, I don’t find it’s really any faster, but it’s easier to correct and revise.

I really love your discussion of altered tunings in your video. Even though I’ve been messing with them for a long time, it gave me a fresh perspective. It made me realize that the thing I like most about them is they force you to just listen and not intentionally avoid weird chord forms. Or simple forms either.

Definitely. That’s what I love about altered tunings. It shocks you out of the preconceptions you have about the instrument. You don’t say, “Oh, that’s just a fifth” or “That’s not hip enough.” You just start listening to what you’re playing. I grew up as a jazz player with all those jazz biases where if a chord didn’t have a flat nine, a flat five, and a flat thirteen in it then it’s not a good chord [laughs]. It’s nice to get out of that and just listen to what you’re playing instead of thinking about it and judging it all on some other basis. Also, because the resonances of the instrument change with the tuning, you hear things in a new way. You play a fifth, but it sounds different. It kinda opens up your head and your ears. If there is a unifying factor for me, it’s that I’ve always felt the bass has a lot of sounds inside it that are part of it’s sound. There are a lot of little messages that it wants to convey and I’ve always had a desire to…well…kind of like exploring a cavern to see where all these little places are going and trying to find out what this instrument is really trying to say.

This may sound like a dumb question, but it usually gets an interesting answer—why do you think you make music?

That I really don’t know. It’s just something that I’ve come to accept as part of my personality. For as long as I can remember I’ve composed music in my head. Even before I had an instrument to play. I can remember writing little songs. I think it’s something that I can’t help but do. It’s just part of who I am.

What do you think is your greatest compositional contribution?

That’s a tough one. It’s hard to say. Actually, “Oyasumi nasai” from Drastic Measures—the duet with Paul McCandless—is really one of my best. It really came out right. Compositionally, there’s a really nice balance between the two instruments. Not too much going on. It’s kind of a unique sound and the performance came out well. I have some more ambitious compositions that didn’t turn out as well [laughs].

Ian Anderson once said his ultimate musical goal was to write a 60 second piece of music where everyone who heard it would say, “I know exactly what he means”. Do you relate to that notion?

Wow! That’s a good way to put it. That’s a really good way to put it. I’ll have to think about that more. I never actually thought of it that way before. It’s such a good point that I’d hate to give too hasty a answer. I’ll need to think about that some more.

The flip side of course is do you really want your audience to experience the music the same way you do?

Right. You almost want them to think about it more and not get it right away. I don’t know. But yeah, it’s a good point though. Definitely a good point to think about. I’ll have to think about it some more. Ask me again later [laughs].

Welcome to later. Here’s Michael’s updated response as of 7/28/97…

I don’t know of I have any better of an answer for the “question in question” now than I did then. It really gets me thinking about my goals as a composer, which is a pretty big issue and not an easy one to put into words. I can certainly relate to what Ian said, but for myself, I don’t think I’d express it in quite the same way. I’d like to be able to write music that has some sense of meaning or significance, but I’m not that concerned about whether “everyone” gets it or not. I guess I’m just trying to express ideas that as far as I’m concerned, can’t be expressed in any other form. Beyond that, I’m not sure I can describe what it is I’m looking for. If somebody out there gets something out of my attempts to do something that makes sense, then I’m a happy guy. But I think I’d keep doing it in any case.

How great a difference is there in the emphasis you place on considering yourself a composer first and a bassist second. Is it really that clear?

No. I remember reading some stuff on-line—actually, a couple of people were having a flap about this question and I felt really bad about it. I felt sort of misrepresented by what was said, but then again I didn’t express myself very well. What happened is that in the cover story in Bass Player, Jim Roberts and I were talking and in the course of the conversation…I’m trying to remember what I said exactly. Oh yeah, I remember what I said. It was that I often think of myself as a composer who’s medium is bass. Some people took that to mean I was a composer first and that playing bass was just a coincidence. That’s not the case at all. I can’t live without bass. The point I was trying to make was that when I write for the bass I don’t try to write compositions that showcase my technique. I try to write compositions that satisfy me as a composer and then use my skills as a bassist to support it. I try hard not to write pieces that are collections of flashy tricks. That’s not what I’m about. But I try to use my abilities to express musically valid ideas.

How much do you experiment with other instruments?

I play piano…badly. Actually, I pretty much suck on piano. I played a lot of instruments on my first couple of records. A lot of the keyboards and percussion. I suppose there are a few percussion instruments that I guess I actually play—instruments that I’ve developed a concept on. Will Ackerman had me play piano solos on two of the Winter Solstice albums. My performances are nothing special. [Maybe not technically, but Manring plays beautiful solo piano arrangements of his pieces “Sung to Sleep” and “Hopeful” on Winter’s Solstice II and Winter’s Solstice III, respectively.] Again, I’m a pretty bad piano player considering I’ve been playing all my life. It’s kind of sad because I know what you need to do, but I just can’t play it [laughs]. That’s one of those things I ended up appreciating more. I was working on one of Will Ackerman’s records and during one of the breaks I sat down at the piano and started noodling. Will said, “That’s really nice. Why don’t you send us a piano solo sometime?” I thought, “Are you kidding?!” [laughs]. But then I thought about it and thought, “Yeah, I don’t have any chops at all, but I’m a musician and I can play something musical.” So I sent them a few pieces and they really liked them and put it on the samplers.

Speaking of Windham Hill, how do you feel about being the Duck Dunn of the label? Doesn’t it cut into your own time a lot?

[Laughs] I just love to play bass. I’m often torn between how much time I spend composing and how much time I’m going to play bass. It’s a tough one for me. That’s a good point. There just isn’t enough time to do as much of both as I want to do.

Do you have any desire to write for orchestra?

Great! Thanks for asking this question because it’s one of my pet peeves. I really don’t want to write for orchestra. I’ve actually done a few orchestral sketches and a fair amount of chamber music, but I feel that writing that way is like putting on a ball and chain. The orchestra is the state of the art of the nineteenth century. For me it’s very hard to write contemporary sounding music for those instruments unless you use other instruments as well. I certainly don’t have the desire to write a symphony. That would just feel like backtracking or copping out. There are people who write for orchestra and do make it sound contemporary, like John Adams, and there are others who write beautiful symphonies. I don’t feel that. I feel like if I were to write a symphony I’d be pandering to peoples expectations or trying to impress people. That’s not what I want to do. I’m trying to write better music all the time, I’m trying to write music with more going on and more interesting music and also trying to write more immediate music…like what Ian Anderson said [laughs].

OK. Well, now that we’ve come full circle and I’m about to run out of tape, I guess we’ll have to wrap it up. Thanks for talking. I had a good time.

Me too. Oh, before I forget, we were talking about the Hyperbass. I used to do it by cranking the keys on my Music Man bass. I wrote a song called “Music for Armchair Funambulists”. A funambalist is a tight-rope walker. I performed it a ton, sort of like “Mercy” by Joe Zawinal, but I never recorded it. I had a whole bunch of tuning changes but it got to the point where I realized I couldn’t do it anymore without a bass that was designed for it. It was brutal. I actually still do that, like on “The Enormous Room”. There’s a move where I flip the detuner and turn the key at the same time to get an extra low note.

Never satisfied, are you?

[Laughs] Gotta push the envelope, dude!


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