Interview with Beau Sample
Most of nowadays' slap bass players are interested in a narrow range of music genres. That's usually rockabilly, psychobilly or some sort of early American music. Luckily these days there are more and more players who realize that listening, understanding and playing different styles really helps developing music taste and creating individual sound.
Beau Sample is one of rare players that play everything from jazz, blues and rockabilly to classical music. He was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, but has spent most of his music life in Austin, where he played and recorded with numerous bands (The T Jared Bonta Trio, The Dave Biller Combo, the Seth Walker Band, Whit Smith's Hot Jazz Caravan, The Hot Club of Cowtown, Janis Martin etc) and attended Texas State University for Jazz and Orchestral studies. With Elana James and Cave Catt Sammy he toured US, Europe and some former USSR republics. A few years ago he moved to Chicago, where he plays mostly with the Modern Sounds and part time with Devil in a Woodpile and Alfonso Ponticelli. Last year he was touring with his Modern Sounds as the backup band for Deke Dickerson. After playing two sets at the Knockout in San Francisco, he recorded Limehouse Blues with guitarist Joel Paterson for our website. We had to wait for the club to close to shoot the video (although you can hear some background noise from the last men standing). And they did it in just one take!
I'm proud to present to you here, on The Art of Slap Bass, for the first time ever:
Djordje: Hi Beau!
When did you start and what inspired you to play double bass?
Beau: Hello Djordje!
I started on the double bass when I was 16. That’s almost 14 years ago. One of my first inspirations was the great Ric Ramirez from San Antonio. I used to listen to him on the Wayne Hancock albums and then go out and see him play with a band called The Dead Crickets, now called Two Tons Of Steel.
Djordje: How did you learn to play?
Beau: I would try and imitate what I heard on old recordings by guys like Bill Black on Elvis tunes and Clayton Perkins on the Carl Perkins stuff and also recordings by High Noon and Wayne Hancock. I was also very interested in Django Reinhardt and Hank Williams when I was in High School, so I would try and learn all this music.
I tried to get into the jazz program at my High School (MacArthur High School) but the band director was a big jerk, and he deterred me from getting in, so I joined the Orchestra which was nice because I could get my hands on a decent bass and also learn to read music a bit, but I did really annoy the teacher when she discovered I was trying to slap on the bass. I can understand her annoyance.
I couldn’t afford an upright at the time and the bass I was using at the school was an old Kay (the only old bass they had) and nobody wanted to use it because it was all beat up, so the kids would just carve things in the side of it with a pen or knife. This really frustrated me, so I tried again and again to buy the bass from the department, but she refused to sell it to me, so bassless I was for a while. Maybe the folks in our public school music programs are paid to keep kids from becoming musicians.
Anyway, I did start to study with a man named George Prado. I learned a lot from him about music and life. He remains one of my dearest friends and I love him like a father. His son, Aaron, is a fantastic piano player, and he was one of my first teachers too. He would hire me for jazz duo gigs around town even though I couldn’t play jazz worth a damn. I had to learn quickly.
After Cave Catt, I went to Texas State University and studied jazz and classical bass with Howard Hudiburg. I miss him. I should give him a call.
Man I could go on forever. I just try and learn from everybody I can, but the guys that I have gotten the honor to play with and who have really helped me, are: George Prado, Richard Davis, Henry Grimes, Buell Neidlinger and last but definitely not least, the great John Bany from right here in Chicago. I love John so much, and he has taught me plenty.
I had the pleasure of hanging out with Rufus Reid last year at the Richard Davis bass conference. We were both clinicians and he was a deep cat with a lot of integrity. I don’t even have one recording of his, but just hanging with him for the weekend taught me so much that you can’t get in books.
As far as books… yes, use books. I don’t know. I have a lot, and I have gone through most of the major classical bass method books. Most any book can be beneficial if you think about it critically. Too many books to name…. “The Bass Tradition” by Todd Coolman has some great transcriptions.
Djordje: Musicians that are mostly oriented to roots music very rarely have any formal training. What would you say how much have those years that you've spent at the Texas State University where you studied Jazz and Orchestral studies, helped you in developing your playing style?
Beau: I think it all helped. I like a holistic approach to bass. If you learn jazz it will help your rockabilly. If you learn blues it will help your classical. Everything effects how you play because you are projecting yourself through your instrument. Food, art, literature, sports, politics, poetry, machinery, whatever you are into, when you play it’s all there.
Djordje: How many instruments have you owned, what are they and what do you currently use?
Beau: My first bass was a Sri Lankan laminated bass. Then I bought a 51 Kay M-1. I still use that one a lot. I guess I have had it for 11 years. I have a Lowendall bass circa 1890. It’s great. It sounds great in the studio. I have owned others. I had an American Standard, a Blond Epiphone, another Kay. I don’t like having a bunch of stuff, so if I am not using something much, I normally get rid of it.
Djordje: You're one of the endorsers of Pirastro strings. You've been using their Eudoxa E & A and Chorda D & G for a long time now. What are the advantages of those strings over the others in your opinion?
Beau: I just like the sound and feel of gut strings, but I don’t like the plain gut on E and A because of the lack of definition and sustain. Eudoxas are a good balance of sustain and a nice gut sound. I also like the new Chorda E and A. They have redesigned them and they are quite a bit better than they used to be.
Most plain guts work well for the D and G, but I prefer the Efrano Brand.
A set normally lasts me about a year.
Djordje: Are you using the same string combination for all music styles you play?
Beau: Mainly, I have the Chordas on my carved bass that I do mostly bowing on and the Eudoxas/Efrano on my Kay. But they all work well for everything.
Djordje: What came first, pizzicato, arco or slap and how did you learn the slap technique?
Beau: Slap came first for me because I wanted to play rockabilly. I would just listen to and watch Ric Ramirez and Kevin Smith and try and learn and then try to come up with my own bag.
Djordje: I noticed that historically there is a lot of confusion about the names for different slap patterns (read more about it here). What are the names that you use and what kind of different slap patterns do you use in your playing?
Beau: That all seems to make sense to me. I normally say triplet or quadruplet but it’s basically the same thing.
Djordje: Who are your bass and more specifically slap influences?
Beau: Steve Brown, Bill Johnson, Al Morgan, Pop Foster, Milt Hinton, Willie Dixon, Kevin Smith, Ric Ramirez, Jimmy Sutton those are the first ones off the top of my head.
Djordje: Do you like any slap players nowadays?
Beau: There are probably lots of people I haven’t heard but I like the guys I have mentioned and I like Viorel Vlad with Taraf De Haidouks.
Djordje: On your myspace page you listed bass players from Bill Johnson to Bob Moore as your influences. Besides the more obvious ones, it would be interesting to hear how Charle Haden, Božo Paradžik, Vlad Viorel or François Rabbath influenced you?
Beau: Anybody that plays from their heart and soul and sounds strong and beautiful will inspire me.
Djordje: Who are you playing with these days besides the Modern Sounds (with the amazing Joel Paterson)?
Beau: Alfonso Ponticelli and The Sanctified Grumblers (used to be Devil in a Woodpile.)
Djordje: You've been studying jazz at the conservatory and your band Modern Sounds was voted number 1 Chicago jazz band. How often do you play bebop or more contemporary jazz styles?
Beau: We play some bebop with Alfonso. We play some bebop with the Modern Sounds but I don’t play much of the kind of Jazz most people are playing these days.
Djordje: You also studied classical music. How often do you play something from that repertoire?
Beau: Everyday, in my living room.
Djordje: You've been involved in many music projects that expand over multiple styles. You've played rockabilly with Cave Catt Sammy, blues with Seth Walker, hot jazz with Whit Smith, Western swing with Elana James, jazz with your own Impressment Gang, boogie woogie with Carl Sonny Leyland, Gypsy jazz with Alfonso Ponticelli, ragtime with Devil in a Woodpile... How much do you have to adjust your playing when you perform with these guys?
Beau: The Impressment Gang was a collage of various styles.
I try to adjust my playing enough where I can gel with the group sound, but not so much that I don’t sound like me.
Djordje: You also play bass guitar in an early 60's style band Del Moroccos (where another great slap bassist Jimmy Sutton plays lead guitar). How much of your work involves bass guitar these days and what is your approach to it comparing to the upright bass?
Beau: Not much at all. I am not playing with the Del Moroccos anymore. I have a love hate relationship with the electric bass. I really don’t give it the time it deserves.
Djordje: What was your experience playing and recording with the legendary rockabilly singer Janis Martin?
Beau: Unforgettable, she was an inspiration in the studio and everything felt good. I hope somebody releases that stuff someday. She sang great and the band played great. We had Dave Biller, Bobby Trimble, T Jarrod Bonta and me. Rosie Flores was the producer of the session.
Djordje: You were born in San Antonio, spent a lot of time in Austin, and then you moved to Chicago. Both Austin and Chicago have long music traditions and they are among the most important cities in the history of American music. How would you compare roots music scenes in those cities these days?
Beau: When I was living in Austin it was much easier to sit in with many bands. It seems to be more like a big family, and people are less competitive. Chicago has many clicks that don’t co-mingle. But the level of musicianship in both cities is high. Chicago has such a great vibe. It feels good to live and play here. I moved here to play more jazz and blues and I am doing that.
Djordje: You were leading the rockabilly band Cave Catt Sammy for a long time and later on, the jazz group Beau Sample and the Impressment Gang. Are there any plans for leading your own band again?
Beau: I don’t know. I would like to do a record under my own name sometime soon.
Djordje: Most of slap bassists and rockabilly fans know you as the lead singer and bassist for Cave Catt Sammy. Are there any plans for reunion shows or records with Stephen, Dustin and Paul?
Beau: No. We played a show in Texas at Gruene Hall last year, but we don’t have any plans to play together.
Djordje: Is the name of your high school duo Slapdash connected with the fact that you use slap technique?
Beau: No, we got the name from a word definition quiz in our English class.
Djordje: How do you like to record your bass?
Beau: Always, with a mic. I normally let the engineer try the mic he or she prefers and go from there. I have been lucky that a lot of my sessions in Chicago have been engineered by Alex Hall and he really knows how a big bass should sound, so I’m in good hands.
Djordje: Knowing that you have great slap technique and that you've always played more complex solos like Turn Up The Joint, The C-Jack Jump with Cave Catt Sammy; or 12th St Rag, Jazz Me Blues, Muskrat Ramble, Whoa Babe and specially Slappin' In Rhythm with Modern Sounds, it's very unusual to hear that you decided to use just single slap for the solos you played on Carl Sonny Leylend's album "A Chicago Session" (Rockin' the House and Bernie's Place). What is the reason for that?
Beau: It just felt like the thing to play at the time. It fits that early Bluebird Records kind of vibe we had on the session.
Djordje: What is your opinion about slap bass solos in jazz, rockabilly and country music?
Beau: I think there is a time to slap and a time not to slap. There aren’t enough slap players today, but a lot of the ones who do slap, slap too much. And you don’t have to solo if you don’t have anything to say (I risk sounding like a hypocrite).
Djordje: Which songs that you recorded would you recommend to bass players interested in your slap technique?
Beau: Well, I like some of my more recent stuff on the new Modern Sounds double CD. “Slappin’ in Rhythm,” and the others you mentioned, are representative of my style.
Djordje: In the past you've been touring all over the world and you've visited countries where most American roots musicians don't go like Azerbaijan, Armenia, The Republic the Georgia etc. These days it seems that you don't tour that much. Are there any touring plans outside of US?
Beau: We went to Europe for a month in May/June 2010. Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium and England.
Djordje: What are your preferences for amps and pickups?
Beau: I prefer not to use them, but if I have to, I use Underwood pickups and an Acoustic Image combo. For larger/louder shows I use a GK Heads and Bag End Cabinets. I also like to use a condenser mic on my double bass.
Djordje: Do you use any other equipment when playing live?
Beau: I use an MXR 10 Band EQ box from the 70’s.
Djordje: Do you travel with your bass and where do you usually keep it?
Beau: I never did, then I decided I wanted my bass everywhere I went so for about 3 ½ years with Elana James and The Hot Club of Cowtown I checked my bass on the planes in my David Gage flight case. Now I’m back to renting basses a lot of the time because I’m sick of being hassled by airlines.
Djordje: Slap bass is a very intense way of playing. Do you do any wrist stretches or other type of warm ups before the show?
Beau: No, but I should.
Djordje: You did a slap bass workshop at Djangofest in Colorado two years ago (September 2009). After playing quite a few of those on the West Coast I noticed that nowadays Gypsy Jazz bass players never use slap technique. That's pretty strange, since the first Django's bassist Luis Vola and later on Tony Rovira were using slap bass pretty often. What do you think is the reason that bass players change their approach?
Beau: Most of those guys are coming at the music from a different place than I did. I didn’t start off digging the fast, low action, amp and steel string players. I started off digging the players with that big acoustic sound. I think that a lot of guys consider slap bass to be “old timey” and then they turn around and use a bow and don’t see the irony of that.
Djordje: Do you plan to do an instructional DVD and what do you usually teach at the workshops?
Beau: I have no plans, but I guess if someone thinks they could sell any, I would consider it. I normally teach rudiments like you would play if you were a drummer. I also teach different styles of slap, and I teach improvising. If it’s not a “slap” workshop, what I teach can vary widely.
Djordje: What do you suggest to younger players to practice on a daily basis?
Beau: Everybody has their own needs, but I do think slap players should practice with and without a metronome.
Djordje: Thank you for finding time to do this interview and hope to see you play sometime soon!
Beau: Thanks Djordje for all the work you do for the bass.