Interview with CJ Boyd
Name: C.J. Boyd
Bands: C.J. Boyd (solo bass), Kirtan (formerly The C.J. Boyd Sextet), Move
Websites: http://www.cjboyd.com, http://cjboyd.bandcamp.com, http://www.myspace.com/cjboyd
Listen to “Pensive Pez”
QRD – What was your first bass & what happened to it?
C.J. – I’m still playing my first bass, a Mexican-made Fender Precision Bass, sunburst with a white pick guard. Lots of things have happened to it, but I have no intention of ever getting rid of it. My mom helped my buy it when I was 14. I have owned only two other bass guitars in my life. In high school I bought a friend’s fretless bass, which was a piece of crap. I later sold it to a pawnshop. Also, for a few years I owned a lovely black acoustic/electric Ovation Applause, which met its death when a lady rear-ended me, crushing the hollow body; along with the violin I’d inherited from my grandfather, but had yet to learn how to play. My Fender P-bass has stood by me through all that other messing around, though.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from bass to effects to amplifier?
C.J. – When I play electric bass, I typically play through a Boss RC20 loop pedal, which has two inputs. I have a mic & my bass going into that, & the output goes to my amp. I like to be self-sufficient, so I usually avoid playing through a PA unless I really need to. When I play upright, I usually don’t plug in unless I really have to. I’ll even play larger rooms acoustic & just do what I can to get folks to move up & shut up.
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – bass, amplifier, or effects?
C.J. – The bass for sure. I play some shows without any loops or effects & I play some shows without amps. But I don’t play without a bass.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
C.J. – In the states, I tour with a wonderful little SWR Baby Blue II. I bought it years ago in Nashville after playing through tons of different amps. I already had a very sufficient Fender 200 watt bass amp that did me fine. But I was going to be touring a lot & I wanted something that was very powerful, with a good clean tone, but that wasn’t very big. I wanted it to be the size of a practice amp, so I could pick it up with one hand, grab my merch with the other & have my bass & bag on my back. The big challenge with playing bass loops is that sometimes I have 30 or 40 layers of bass coming through my amp, so it has to be able to handle that without getting distorted. Most small practice amps you find will crap out & start distorting with even two or three bass layers going through them. I was so glad to find this little SWR.
QRD – Do you prefer upright or electric bass?
C.J. – Hard question for me. I play more electric bass & that’s what I learned on, but I love playing the upright. & I love that it’s possible to do so without any electricity. There’s a purity about it that never ceases to please me. Can’t choose. I love them both.
QRD – Do you prefer to use a pick, fingers, or a bow?
C.J. – I like to get lots of different sounds out of a bass, so I use everything I can think of. I fingerpick sometimes, or pluck, or use a pick, or a bow, or an ebow, or just vibrate the strings on the fretboard, or whatever seems to get the sound I’m going for.
QRD – How many strings do you think a bass should have?
C.J. – Four. I have sometimes wished for a higher 5th string, or even more occasionally wished for a lower 5th string. But really I think 4 is plenty. Limitations make you work harder.
QRD – Why do you play bass instead of guitar?
C.J. – I don’t really like the guitar very much. I think I’m just over saturated with it. I never really thought of playing it, except if I’m just at a friend’s house & messing around with one on the couch or something. When I started playing bass, I was definitely coming from a rock-mentality where I thought of bass, guitar, & drums as being the main instruments out there & everything else seemed exotic. But I soon started playing with cellists & tuba players & harpists & so many other instruments that it boggles my mind why there is so much fuss over the guitar in our country. For some time, guitar was the one instrument I wouldn’t let in my sextet. I eventually made an exception, but only because I met a guitarist who didn’t really play it like a guitar. Those tend to be the guitarists I like most.
QRD – How is a bass different than a guitar other than being lower in pitch?
C.J. – It’s amazing how much the larger strings & larger frets change what a person is inclined to do. The larger size limits you somewhat. But it’s a good kind of limitation I think. Because of the size, it’s often more of a full body experience. That’s even more true if we’re talking about an upright bass, which is of course very different from a guitar, since it has no frets & so it requires body memory to know exactly where each pitch is.
QRD – What’s your main bass & what are the features that make it such?
C.J. – I guess I talked about this a bit in the first question, but I could also say that I’m not really a gear head. Sometimes guys (I don’t know if its ever been a lady) will come up to me after a show & want to talk about the kind of bass or pedal or amp I have. I’m happy to tell them what I use, but I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert. I just play this bass because it’s my bass. I don’t know that much about other basses, & I’m not that interested to. I think its way more important to use what you have & do something passionate with it than it is to get just the right one. Any one would work, as long as it’s functional. I mean I have played some crappy basses that were cheaply made & would be a pain in the ass to play; but other than that, I think if I had learned on an Ibanez or Peavy or something else, I’d probably still be playing that. Having an upright certainly opens up a different range of possibilities, so I guess that’s a different issue. Much of the music that I’m writing or arranging for groups has more of a chamber music feel to it & so it just works better on these old acoustic instruments, rather than modern electric ones. But having said that, before I had an upright; I would do whatever I could to get tones out of my electric that don’t usually come out of one.
QRD – What do you think of the thumb rests on some basses?
C.J. – Don’t have an opinion about them. Haven’t played with a bass that had one. Or if I did, I don’t remember it.
QRD – If you had a signature bass, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
C.J. – My friend George is making me a bass out of a humidor so that I can have something acoustic to play in the woods that isn’t as big & heavy as my upright. Maybe that?
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
C.J. – No, I don’t think I’d have a signature pedal. Unless there was a pedal that was like a reverse distortion pedal. I mean a pedal that could take crappy, blown out speakers & make them sounds clean & beautiful. I’d claim that one.
QRD – How many basses do you own?
C.J. – Just two. One electric & one upright.
QRD – How & where do you store your basses?
C.J. – I tour all the time & so I have them with me all the time as long as I’m touring in the US. When I tour in Europe, I have left my upright with a friend who will appreciate it. My friend Jason took good care of it once & my friend Jim did last time. It usually has something to do with where I’m stashing my van while I’m overseas.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a bass?
C.J. – When I bought my electric, I didn’t know anything about what I wanted. But I tried a few & liked the action on the one I got. I don’t like high action. I also don’t like having the strings really close together the way they are on most 6 strings, & on Fender jazz necks, for example. But, again, I’m just used to a Precision neck, so I think I’ve just grown to think of that as ideal.
QRD – How much do you think a good bass should cost?
C.J. – As far as bass guitars go, I have no idea. I think I paid $400 or so back in 1994. That was the only bass I ever bought new. It was harder to find an affordable upright bass. There is such a huge range of prices depending on if it’s a solid bass or a laminated bass. In the end, I went with a hybrid--a bass with a solid top & laminated sides & back, which cost about $3000 with the gig bag included if I recall correctly. That was more than I wanted to shell out, but after doing a lot of research, that ended up seeming like a pretty good deal. & since 90% of the sound comes from the top, it definitely felt worth it to get that solid body sound without having to pay $5000 or more, which is what most solid bodies cost.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your bass or just stick with what you get?
C.J. – The only changes I’ve made to my electric bass was when I was in high school, the plastic for the pickups broke, & I was able to keep them on by using a washer on each side. They’re still like that now. I wonder sometimes if it contributes to my bass’ buzz, which can be pretty bad depending on the room. But I’ve never really tried to put new pickups on there.
QRD – Are you after one particular bass tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
C.J. – I mostly have one tone on electric & a different tone on upright. But I’m trying to make myself get other tones on the electric. It’s funny to admit how conservative I can be when it comes to tone. There are so many “out there” tones I really hate on bass, especially fretless bass & thumping bass. I don’t want to be so narrow, but I guess I am so far.
QRD – What are some basses, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
C.J. – None really. I think I have everything I need. I wouldn’t mind having an acoustic bass guitar so I could do more unplugged shows. But at this point, it’s more of a nice thought than a lusting.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first bass that aren’t always there?
C.J. – I mentioned this earlier, but action is the main thing for me. If there’s a foot between the string & fretboard, that’s going to be a pain in the ass to learn on. Also, I have noticed that some cheaper basses will not file the frets very well, & they can be sharp. I have cut myself playing shitty basses before.
QRD – What have been the best & worst bass related purchases you’ve made?
C.J. – Buying a crappy fretless bass when I was in high school was definitely the worst. I just got it because a friend was selling it for cheap & it was different from what I had. But such a piece of crap. Best is hard to decide. I don’t have a bunch of accessories, so I could say my electric, my upright, my SWR amp, or my loop pedal. All are essential for what I’m doing these days, & it would be hard to say which one was the best purchase.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & bass brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
C.J. – See above. I really don’t know brands much, outside of what I use. I shopped around for different loop pedals quite a bit before I got my Boss RC20, but that was 9 years ago & I haven’t kept up with what else is out there since then.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a bass?
C.J. – I’ve gotten into the habit of playing this one melody when I’m tuning, which is at the beginning of every night. It’s a song I wrote years ago called “Wander like the Rhino.” It’s never really on purpose, but I have noticed that I play it a little almost every night when I’m tuning before a show. Otherwise, there is this chord progression I tend to play a lot. It’s just a I to VI minor progression. I can’t seem to shake it & it turns up in a bunch of my songs, especially improvisations.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing bass?
C.J. – I got my first bass on my 14th birthday. I had been saving up for a bass & my mom helped me buy it.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best bass playing?
C.J. – I think that’s going to happen in the next couple of years.
QRD – Do you feel bass lines should echo & emphasize guitar & drum parts or be their own distinct elements?
C.J. – I don’t think bass players should play with guitar players except in special circumstances. I said this earlier, but the whole guitar/bass/drum/vocals thing is way over-rated in my opinion. Thousands of other instruments out there. On the question of distinct or echo, that depends for me on the music. When I put a string quartet together, I often like for us to sound like one big instrument rather than 4 different pieces.
QRD – Would you rather people hear or feel your bass?
C.J. – Mostly hear, though its nice playing in bigger venues sometimes where the sound system is really heavy. That’s not what I usually go for, but I do appreciate it once in a while. Even when it isn’t really loud, I do think that’s always an element of playing a low instrument. It shakes you.
QRD – Why do you think a bass fits you more so than other instruments?
C.J. – This is a hard one to answer. I’m sure there are a few different ways to approach the question, but it makes me first of all think about why I chose the bass when I did in high school. I thought myself such a non-conformist; the thought of playing guitar probably didn’t cross my mind. & my family lived in a little apartment, so drums were out too. I wonder what I might have decided to play if my knowledge of music had been broader than rock & pop? I have no idea. But as it was, bass seemed like the only thing for me. I remember listening to John Paul Jones on Led Zeppelin records & hearing the bass above all else & I took this as a sign of sorts. Same with Primus & Rush & some other bass-heavy bands. Bands that are led by bassists seemed to be more quirky, though someone could certainly object with examples like the Police. Anyway, I think it appealed to my sense of being against the grain. It’s easy for me to see in retrospect that this “unusual” choice was not really so strange, given the extremely limited range of choices I considered.
QRD – Do you see your bass as your ally or adversary in making music?
C.J. – Definitely an ally, when it comes to electric. I do remember when I started playing upright though & I hadn’t considered just how different it would be from playing electric. It really frustrated me that I couldn’t just hop from one to the other with ease. & I wouldn’t practice bowing because I lacked the patience to go from sounding shitty to sounding good. In those days my upright did seem like an adversary.
QRD – Who are the bassists that most influenced your playing & sound?
C.J. – Well, early on it was Les Claypool, John Paul Jones, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten. I was listening to so much Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains - all that Seattle shit that kinda was grunge, except over-produced & wildly popular. I loved that stuff & listened to the bass lines so I could learn them all. Green Day too, I’m reluctant to admit. Then I started listening to jazz & classical music more & my favorite bassists became Edgar Meyer & Charlie Mingus. & I started getting more influenced by other instruments. I was listening to Bach’s cello suites quite a bit & Beethoven’s later string quartets & more John Coltrane & Miles Davis in college. By the end of undergraduate, after about 4 years of listening to hardly any new music & especially very little rock, I got into Godspeed & Explosions & a bunch of what folks now call post-rock & math rock. I was in love with Dilute & Silver Mt. Zion, not so much for the bass, but for the compositions. Nowadays very few of my favorite musicians are bassists, & the ones who are are mostly my friends, like Evan Hydzik, whose tasteful understated playing I find such an inspiration. Or Nat Balwin, who is a machine & can play anything from pop to the most avant guard stuff out there. He’s best when he does both at the same time though, I think.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their bass is natural or silly (e.g. naming their bass)?
C.J. – Well, we are naturally a silly species, I guess. I named my bass Rosa Lee, after Rosa Lee Thomson, the bassist from Babe the Blue Ox, who I was really into in high school. I guess I thought a bass should have a girl’s name, & Rosa Lee was the first female bassist I ever saw live who actually played the hell out of the bass, rather than just look good as the cute girl bassist (i.e. the hot bassists in Smashing Pumpkins & White Zombie). I also named my fretless bass “Grace” after Grace Slick & later named my acoustic bass guitar “Rasa.” I’m not as into naming anymore & I didn’t give my upright a name. But I also can’t sleep with my upright, which might be why.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a bass & how did you do it?
C.J. – I’ve had my share of accidents, dropping my bass & whatnot, but never done real damage to it. The upright I was borrowing in college had the bridge fall off, but I never figured out why. The school took care of it & didn’t blame me.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
C.J. – I don’t really practice electric any more. But I play 5-6 nights a week most of the time. I do try to practice bowing my upright. I still feel I have a ways to go before my tone is exactly where I want it. Being on the road all the time is great for playing, terrible for practicing.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play bass & how many hours would you like to?
C.J. – Maybe 10 or so, much more when I’m recording. Ideally, I’d have an hour every day just to work on things, rather than mostly playing on stage almost all of the time.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
C.J. – I usually use Ernie Ball Super Slinkys. I haven’t changed strings in a while, but I think the low is a 95 & the high is a 40. I play lots of chords & so the lighter gauge just sounds better for my style I think. I prefer a mid-heavy sound, which those strings really bring out.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
C.J. – About once or twice a year, though I’m not too concerned with it. My friend Aaron hasn’t changed his in years & I love his tone. Most often I change them only if I’m doing something where I want a bright tone, which isn’t that often.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
C.J. – I’ve probably broken a string about 5-6 times in my life (so in the last 17 years). & at least one of those times I was trying some new strings that were just shitty. I’m not that rough on a bass, at least not on the strings.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming/bowing hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
C.J. – I honestly don’t know. On electric, I’d guess my fretting hand, but I can’t say for sure. On upright, my bow hand is not the strongest. I feel I have a way to go before I’m as proficient as I’d like to be.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
C.J. – Just regular most of the time. Sometimes, when improvising, I’ll feel the need to have a lower D or D# & I might drop down mid-song. But that’s really rare. I can only think of one song I ever wrote in a different tuning, & that was just to get me out of a rut I was in at the time. I tuned it to DGDG. I think re-tuning your bass is a good exercise to make you look at your fretboard a little differently, but I almost never do it.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
C.J. – I only use sheet music if I’m writing something down for someone else. Other than that, I don’t usually write things down for myself. For years, I have had the experience of coming up with something on the bass & thinking, “Oh, I like that. I hope I remember that tomorrow.” Usually, that’s sorta my test. If I can still play it the next day, it’s more likely to be a keeper. If it doesn’t stick, then I let it go.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
C.J. – I’d rather not say. There might be too many to count.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s bass playing?
C.J. – Singing, especially for upright bass. The better I get to just knowing pitches without having to find them on the bass, the more free my playing feels. & I think singing is probably the best way to internalize pitches because you have to find them in your head, not on an instrument. But I’d say the same for improving any instrument, not just bass.
QRD – What’s a type of bass playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
C.J. – One of my favorite recordings ever is Edgar Meyer playing 3 of Bach’s cello suites on the double bass. It’s phenomenal. Every recording of Bach is an interpretation, but his interpretations are some of the best I’ve every encountered. Normally, when I listen to that CD, I’m so spellbound by its sublimity that I’m not thinking about anything very technical. But at times it will occur to me that I will never play anything that requires that much discipline & dedication & sheer dexterity. Another one of my favorites is his rendition of Zigeunerweisen, which is a piece that violinists learn to show off. Not only does he play in on the bass instead of violin, but he KILLS it, so you can’t even think about how ridiculous that transcription must have been. Meyer doesn’t just play classical bass. He plays classical cello & violin ON the bass. I’ll never be anywhere near that & I know it.
QRD – What’s a bass goal you’ve never accomplished?
C.J. – I never learned to throw my bass up in the air & get hit in the face with it like Krist Novoselic (of Nirvana) did. & I never learned to throw spin my bass around my back while playing like Vic Wooten does. & I never did grow hair long enough to whip around like Jason Newsted used to do back in the “And Justice for All” days. I better get to work.
QRD – What’s the last bass trick you learned?
C.J. – Hmmm. Well I just picked up an ebow last year & that has been an interesting addition to my arsenal. Not sure if that counts as a trick, but it’s a little trickier on a bass since they’re made to rest on guitar strings & so on bass one must hover with it, instead of letting it rest.
QRD – Did you ever take bass lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
C.J. – A friend of my dad’s played bass & lived a block away when I was in high school. I don’t know if I would call it a lesson exactly, but he definitely showed me lots of stuff & would help me figure out the Nirvana & Green Day riffs I wanted to know. Can’t remember how often he would come over, but he was a great resource for me in the very early days of playing. In college I found out that I could use a double bass if I took lessons, so I signed up for lessons. I wish I’d taken them a bit more seriously; but at the time, I was way more interested in playing my own weird stuff & kinda half-assedly playing jazz than I was in learning classical technique, so I barely practiced for my lessons at all & only took them every other semester just in order to keep my greedy mitts on the bass for the whole year. I did learn a little though, at least how to hold the bow & how to hold my hand so that it wouldn’t get cramped after a while. I think I learned that. I’d like to relearn that, since I can’t remember any more how to avoid that.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a bass lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a bass teacher?
C.J. – I used to give bass lessons & one thing I’d tell them right up front is that they don’t really need me. I’m really happy to help, but the main thing anyone starting the bass needs is just playing a lot. It’s great to be able to ask someone questions here & there, but nothing is going to help you learn like playing all the time. I’d tell my students that my goal was to answer all of their questions & teach them what I knew as quickly as possible & hope to make myself unnecessary.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
C.J. – Grow a big beard & let birds nest in it? Actually, it has happened twice now that friends have shown me new music of theirs & I think, “Whoa, that kinda sounds like my stuff.” That’s a weird situation. But I think its good. If I’m emulatable, then maybe its time for me to find some new sounds & let them have what I have sounded like so far.
QRD – If a band has good bass work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
C.J. – I can’t. Well, I try to, but it’s hard. I think any band is only as good as its weakest player. Of course some bands really showcase just the vocals, or just the guitar, or whatever. But in that case, the players that aren’t as much in the spotlight still have to be good at holding it down. If they stand out as being bad, I don’t care how much the spotlight is on somebody else, I’m just going to hear that lagging drummer or that out of tune back up singer, or that bassist who’s a little off. I try to focus on the positive, but I think even if you’re not the star of the show, you have to play your part & play it well.
QRD – What famous musician’s bass would you like to own & why?
C.J. – Edgar Meyer’s customized 1769 Gabrielli double bass. It sounds so good it makes angels wet themselves.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative bass player & why?
C.J. – So many great players. Edgar Meyer is my favorite classical player, though he does much more that that. But I love so many bass players all over the spectrum. There’s no way this isn’t going sound conceited as hell, but I don’t know anyone personally who tries to stretch the bass & get more sounds out of it than I do. I’m sure there are folks, but I don’t know them. But that’s partly because I’m a fucking thief. If I hear a sound that somebody else is making (whether on bass or on something else), if I like that sound, I’m going to figure out a way to make it on my bass.
QRD – Where can people hear your best bass work?
C.J. – At shows really. I tour all the time, so if someone is interested in finding me, they should check my schedule on MySpace or Facebook. As for recordings, I’m most proud of my newest solo record, Aerial Roots, on Joyful Noise Recordings. I have that & lots of other music up on bandcamp: http://cjboyd.bandcamp.com
QRD – Anything else?
C.J. – Are you kidding? You asked
questions I’d never dream of asking myself. More thorough than The