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Interview with Neil Murray

NEIL MURRAY INTERVIEW

The lynchpin of the classic Whitesnake line-up, and bass player of choice to a who’s-who of guitar royalty, Neil Murray talks about the bass and its application. Interviewed by Rob McKenzie.

Neil Murray’s professional career started with jazz-fusion exponents Gilgamesh, and then moved on to jazz rock band Colosseum II and National Health. A stint with Cozy Powell‘s Hammer provided the connection with Bernie Marsden that led Neil to joining Whitesnake in 1977, culminating in the worldwide hit album 1987.

During the Whitesnake period and beyond, Neil played on multiple albums and tours with Gary Moore, Black Sabbath, Peter Green, the Brian May Band and Japanese group Vow Wow. In more recent years, Neil has played with Whitesnake off-shoot bands such as Company of Snakes and M3 Classic Whitesnake. His current venture, just launched in March 2010, is Monsters Of British Rock.

On top of this, Neil has recently recorded and toured with the Michael Schenker Group and let’s not forget Neil’s day job for the last 8 years playing in the Queen musical, “We Will Rock You”.


Your latest group is Monsters Of British Rock, how did you form?


After we left Whitesnake, Bernie had his own band for most of the 80s and he joined Micky Moody as the Moody Marsden Band for quite a long time and then they joined up with a Norwegian Whitesnake tribute band called The Snakes with a really good singer. That slowly turned into a band with all British people and I joined in 1999 and it was called Company of Snakes. We did do a studio album with our stuff but found there was not enough interest so we just did old Whitesnake songs as M3 Classic Whitesnake. Mickey and I have now started Monsters Of British Rock. It also includes Laurie Wisefield (on guitar from Wishbone Ash), Harry James (on drums from Thunder), Chris Ousey (on lead vocals from Heartland) and Michael Bramwell on keyboards. We are just getting the website sorted and had our first rehearsal recently that went really well.

 

How did you learn to play the bass?


I learnt by playing along to records. I had a headphone amplifier which I put both the turntable output and bass into so I could mix the sound together. I went to college to do graphic design and through that period I was learning the bass. After about five years I got into proper bands; my ability was pretty good but not as good as I thought – though I needed that arrogance of youth to have the confidence to go up to people to tell them I was the bass player for them. When I ended up playing with people like Cozy Powell, I thought - “I am so out of my depth”!


How would you describe your playing style?


I am pigeon holed as a heavy metal bass player which I am not really at all. Everyone my age group was so influenced by the blues bands in the 60s, so me playing in a blues band is like falling off a log. With me, being influenced by Cream and Hendrix led on to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, like many other musicians at that time. The first band I was in professionally was Gilgamesh which was very advanced jazz rock, lots of complicated compositions, written out parts and long solos.



Your early career involved playing with Gary Moore, what’s your take on his musical direction?


When I was in Colosseum II in 1975 with Gary Moore on guitar it was full-on jazz-rock, but like me he started off in the 60s as a blues player. Gary and I got more into straight heavy rock but later in the 80’s you were competing with people coming out of LA playing more ‘hair metal’ and commercialised rock. By the age of forty he probably had stopped proving how fast he was - there’s always someone faster and heavier coming out of the woodwork. So he went back to his first love - the blues.

 

From your blues roots how did you get into heavy rock?


By chance I got to know Clive Chaman who was the bass player in the Jeff Beck Group with Cozy Powell and later in Cozy’s band Hammer which had Bernie Marsden on guitar and Don Airey on keyboards. He had far more ability than most bass players in the 70’s; he was the British/West Indian version of James Jamerson, and he introduced me to loads of black music that I otherwise wouldn’t have got into. I took over from Clive in Hammer at various points over a nine-month period and got to know them well. Later, when Bernie had joined Whitesnake, he brought me in just to help audition a drummer one afternoon but soon after their bass player decided he didn’t want to be in the band after all so I joined. Without my connection to Bernie, I certainly wouldn’t have sprung to mind as the obvious choice. A lot of heavy rock things in the 80’s and into the 90’s were through Cozy Powell because he could rely on me. After he was in Whitesnake with me, Cozy joined Black Sabbath in 1988 and did the Headless Cross album with session bass player Laurence Cottle, then I joined to tour the album. Laurence was playing technically fiendish stuff, probably with very light strings, that I later had to reproduce live!

You’ve played on more Whitesnake albums than anyone else besides David Coverdale, how would you describe your influence on their sound?


Somehow the songs we did lent themselves to me doing creative stuff with them. It’s partly me coming out of the 70’s being used to doing a lot on the bass in my earlier groups where we did really complicated music. On the first Whitesnake album there’s a fast semi jazz-fusion feel going on. It took a couple of albums to get our style and by that point I was established as doing moving bass parts which were loud in the mix so you can hear them well.
I look back at that at giving me the chance to put a lot of myself into it. For example, I redid the bass of “Fool For Your Loving“, and made it more interesting. Ian Paice was co-mixing and the bass was getting quieter - so I said to Martin Birch that I didn’t redo it just to be in the background and I don’t think it works. I went home a bit fed up and the phone went at 3.00 in the morning and Martin said “You were right, I’ve turned it up“.

Are you part of the singing bass player fraternity?


I sing as I talk, with too low a range and too quiet. I wish I had made myself sing at age 16; by now I’d be OK! I did sing on a school production of Alice Through The Looking Glass but that was before my voice broke! It is hard to sing and play bass simultaneously. Even Jack Bruce quite often doesn’t play much while he’s singing, and in between he plays a run. You either start with the bass part and learn it so you don’t have to think about it when you sing or vice versa. I have huge respect for Glenn Hughes, he’s a great singer and a great bass player and he does it at the same time.

 

Looking at your career, there is a fair range of artists you have played with


Even though I am child of the blues period, it is nice to appreciate, and be good at, playing other styles and to allow cross-fertilisation of my playing style, so I don’t just do the standard expected thing.
You have to be prepared to play something not quite in your comfort zone and have a wide taste in music and be curious about playing something different. However, you have to keep proving you can play a particular style every couple of years or people think you can’t play that style anymore. Quite often, for practical or financial reasons I have had to have one bass to fit all situations, which isn’t ideal. When you are playing with lots of singers and lots of styles you need to have something that works with everything but it becomes frustrating. You have to approximate the sound by using the mid-control on your bass. There are so many bass tones; you can copy the notes but without the right sound it doesn’t make sense. It works the other round; if you have a certain tone it dictates the style you will play in.
I mostly have the technique that I need. I would need practice to do stuff that might come up if I’m asked to play with a virtuoso or stand in for someone like Billy Sheehan, which I’m doing soon at a guitar show in Bologna. In general, playing most days of the week in We Will Rock You, I could do with playing less, not more. In my touring days, you toured for 6 weeks then got a couple of months off.Although it may seem like I have a lot of spare time in the day before playing in the Queen musical at night, I try hard to make time for composing, such as putting riffs together for Led Zep-type library music for example. I occasionally do session work over the internet; players send tracks to me and I record the bass part using Pro Tools or Logic then send the bass tracks back.


How do you see the role of the bass change through the years?


In the 60’s and 70’s, the drums were not overly featured or overpowering - quite often the bass was more dominant. The influence of Motown and The Stones meant the bass was allowed prominence so you had players who the freedom and space to play. This changed completely in the 80s with huge drum sounds.
When I played with Cozy, I played along with him. I could not compete against such a powerful drummer. Ian Paice was a very good drummer to play with as he would do the unexpected, sometimes throwing in jazz or fusion things. Competing with drummers now is not as interesting to me as playing with a drummer in the same groove.

You were recently part of an all-star cast on the recent recording with Michael Schenker, how did that come about?


A couple of years ago, Michael Schenker had the idea of getting the same lineup that played on his first solo album - Gary Barden, Don Airey and so on. Mo Foster was on bass on the original album; he was a top session bass player and played with Jeff Beck alongside Simon Phillips, but for some reason I was asked to play on this album, In The Midst Of Beauty. The drums were recorded in LA along to rough guitar parts, Don did keyboards in Germany and three weeks later I flew to Germany to do the bass in a couple of a days. The parts were just layered up; we did not play as a band. Two years later, Michael asked myself and Simon to play a Japanese tour in January this year. The day after we got there was the first show, then the next day a live DVD recording; five gigs and then home. Michael is playing fantastically now and In The Midst Of Beauty maybe doesn’t show that as much as it should. There were a few places in the set where I could put something of my own in. If Simon Phillips is throwing all kind of things in, you respond to that and try to keep up. In general, it was a session situation where you are confident to do the job right as opposed to doing solos, or showing lots of your own style.

What are the characteristics of a successful recording and touring bass player?


Being generic but individual at the same time!


Finishing up with some questions of interest to the bass aficionados, what type of bass do you play?


I use various different basses, but on We Will Rock You (WWRY), I play Fender Precisions modified by me - different circuit, different bridge etc. My main bass is the one I had since 1974 except that everything has been changed apart from the ’68 body, and even that has had so much gouged out of it to install different pickups. I shaved the neck down but it got so thin I eventually had to replace it. This was my only guitar for probably six years and so if I wanted to try different sounds, I had to do it myself by trying different wiring combinations and positioning of pickups. This was in the 70s, before you had electronic circuits for bass, middle and treble; whereas now most basses have active EQ.

How do you create an authentic Queen sound for the show?


For Queen, you have to stay close to the Fender Precision sound because that was the bass John [Deacon] used to play. However, with two guitarists, a percussionist and four keyboard players, you have to cut through that whilst playing true to the original sound. It makes you sometimes yearn for the space that you get with just guitar, bass and drums. In WWRY, you also have up to thirty singers on stage; it’s a much bigger sound that you are fighting though. I play as hard as I can with thicker strings particularly on the top two strings (D and G) simply to get a bigger sound, which makes it hard to play. I am not set up at all with something to zoom around on; I would not use the bases I use on the show if I needed to play some jazz-fusion. It’s horses for courses!


Acoustically, how different is playing in We Will Rock You to playing in a studio?


At WWRY, we are mostly unaffected by the acoustics of the theatre because we have headphones or in-ears - I have got some which cost a fortune which allow some ambience in. Because we’re on headphones, the sound is very much under the microscope especially on the quiet bits - but the audience wouldn’t hear it like that as at those points the music is under dialogue. When we are playing a fast piece, I can’t distinguish what’s going on - it’s just a noise coming into your headphones with so many instruments competing. You learn to cope with it but it is too clinical to be 100% enjoyable. Being on stage at Hammersmith for example is more fulfilling even though you are battling against 100 watt Marshalls. I sometimes use in-ear monitors in a live stage setting but is not ideal for a bass player - it is better to feel the stage vibrate and hear the sound naturally.
In the studio, it can be very hi-fi; the bass amp is normally locked away in a cupboard so the sound does not bleed in to the drums so again you have to use headphones. Overdubbing on your own in the control room, the sound is better but then you have everyone focusing on what you are doing, tending to make you play more conservatively than you would want to, so as not to make mistakes.


Do you use a 4-string or 5-string on We Will Rock You?


Generally speaking, you can get away with a 4-string bass for a lot of it. Some songs are in D which you need the D below bottom E for. Most of my basses have a Hipshot Bass Xtender where you flick a switch on the tuning key and it takes you down automatically. Apart from Headlong and Fat Bottomed Girls which are all in D, I do it in the middle of One Vision just for one note and then bring it up again quickly, and then down again for the last note where it goes to Eb. Other people use a 5-string but I am not so comfortable with that. For me a D on an open detuned string is different-sounding and more correct than a fretted D on a 5-string; it’s a very subtle difference though. I’m pretty certain John Deacon detuned to D rather than use a 5 string. Another example is Whitesnake’s “Don’t Break My Heart Again”, which is all low D which you pedal on a detuned E string.
In the last 20 years, 5-string basses are more common and I use them at times, especially for recording, but I avoid them if possible. If you play songs with people who always detune a semitone to Eb, like Black Sabbath, then playing a 5-string means you can’t play the open string when the guitarist is. However, playing in a band that always plays detuned means you may need heavier gauges to make up for the slackness in the strings.

Tell me about your typical set-up


With Whitesnake in the early 80s I played a two-pickup bass and took each pickup separately into two channels just so they didn’t interact and lose the middle frequencies, which happens when combining 2 passive pickups. I needed to find the space in Whitesnake to fight though the keyboards, drums and two guitars.
In the studio, I don’t use many effects, just compression if necessary to flatten the sound to make sure there are no jumps or spikes. Under the microscope of the studio going direct from the bass into a mixing console, there is no hiding place, and I try to produce a very consistent sound and level. Less seasoned musicians can be irregular in their playing, but it’s disguised on stage as an amp will have natural compression.
I try to have a bass set up so that everything is very even so there is not a lot of variation between the bottom string and the higher strings. Bass strings are not perfect; it is all a compromise.


Which strings do you use?


The strings you use are important; the makes I prefer are D’Addario and Elites. If you want a punchy midrange, it’s better to use flatwound or semi round strings which have a round wire which has been ground down so they are like flatwounds but a little brighter. These are punchier through the mid-range - harder to play and give you blisters but you will be heard better. The flatwound tone is a very dead sound, which is sometimes what you want if you want a 60’s sound.
If you are playing hard and heavy, it generally means you end up with a big sound; the compromise is you need a high action and thick strings and you can’t play fast. If you want to play fast, you need light strings, which in turn give a thinner, more trebly sound.
In the theatre with WWRY, I use 50, 70, 85 and 105 gauges which is quite hard for me.. Elsewhere, 40, 60, 80 and 100 is great for fast playing, but to make it heavier-sounding I use 45, 65, 85 and 105. Someone like Mark King uses 35 to 95 which are very thin - you can play very fast with that but you can’t get a big meaty sound though.

What’s your stance on the use of a plectrum?


I almost never play with a plectrum. When I started, no one I was a fan of played with a plectrum; I never liked the sound and it also seemed to be the sound favoured by guitarists who wanted the bass in the background. To me it was the opposite of what I thought was interesting or sounded good. There were some great plectrum players but not ones who I wanted to be like. All the people in my first ten years of playing were fingerstyle players - 60’s blues, Cream, Tim Bogert from Vanilla Fudge and James Jamerson.

How do you find your way up and down the fret board?


In my head I have a picture of the neck of the bass and how the strings relate to one another - wherever you are, you have one string as the starting point and just shift along. I hear a note in a chord or a note in the melody and know that is the seventh, for example, and so that goes to the fifth and the octave and so on. I hear it visually! I try to see the tune in my mind as I am playing. The songs have to lend themselves to melodic bass-playing, which obviously a lot of heavy rock stuff isn’t. For example, Paul McCartney is known as a melodic player but it’s partly due to the type of songs he has played on.

What‘s your opinion on the pros and cons of reading music against playing by ear?

 

I studied piano for five years from the age of eight and then learned the trombone as a teenager but I didn’t read music very well. I didn’t need to read music for most of the bands I have played for apart from Gilgamesh and National Health. Not sight-reading has developed my ear by playing along with so many records and styles - I also tried to copy guitar parts on the bass because I didn’t feel I should be restricted to just playing the bass line. If the drummer does something and I need to respond instantly, it isn’t going to be written down - I have to pick up quickly on what’s going on. It also means I can usually learn songs fairly quickly and they stay in my head. Hopefully!

 

NeilMurray

MonstersofBritishRock

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