What about the Electric Bass?
Interview with Professional Bassist James Amelio Pulli
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
Lurking in the shadows of the six-string guitar, the electric bass is a slimmer, more versatile instrument than the traditional upright bass in the areas of recording, effects processing, instrument care, economical cost, and travel options. The four-string instrument is tuned an octave lower than a guitar at 4 = E, 3 = A, 2= D, 1= G, and is plucked with fingers or plectrum as opposed to bowed. It is an instrument that is capable of representing diverse styles such as reggae, gospel, blues, country & western, jazz, hip hop, and heavy metal with equal conviction. In styles such as funk, the bass is a lead instrument, busy in the note department and up in the mix, while in other styles it can sit unassumingly in the pocket and often lower in the final mix.
The popularity of plucked string instruments such as the ukulele and mandolin are on the rise, sometimes rivaling the guitar as in demand with amateurs and often employed in school music programs. The electric bass sometimes gets neglected and not advocated for as much. The purpose of this article is to serve as a conversation piece with a middle or high school student who expresses an interest in studying the uncommon choice of the electric bass. The interview questions were also written with the novice in mind.
Today we visit with California-based, professional electric bassist James Amelio Pulli. Currently James is with the hard rock band Impellitteri, who record for the Italian record label Frontiers Records. He also plays the casino, state fair, and club circuit out west in an AC/DC tribute act called Bonfire. Thank you to James for sharing his knowledge and experience with NAfME members interested in knowing more about the electric bass to share with their students.
The role of the electric bass is sometimes dismissed and often lower in the mix. What would you like to say about the role of this instrument to someone who perhaps does not understand its importance?
Of course, there are many genres of music, and even within the one genre of rock you can hear many variations of the role of the bass. Bands like Yes, The Who, and Rush offer the bass as an equal instrument in their recordings. Some bands use the bass as a supporting instrument that seems buried both in volume and the part that’s played. But one thing is clear: When the bass is missing, you know something’s not right.
If you take a great song of any genre and remove the bass, our ears tell us something important is missing. You may not always here what the bass is playing, but you know when it is not there. I look at the bass as the glue that joins the rhythmic role of the drummer, to the more melodic attributes of the guitars and keyboards. As a bassist, you should be interpreting the drum pattern into the right notes that support the chords and melody of the song. I heard years ago that the drums are the heart, the bass is the blood, and the guitars, keys, and voice are the limbs.
What advice would you give to a school-aged student who was interested in starting on the electric bass?
The bass is a great instrument to take up! I would not say that it is easy, but it is easy to get started with. If you take up guitar, you have lots of chords to remember, and you have to struggle with those difficult bar chords. With bass, you are playing just one note at a time, so it takes less time to get a few songs under your belt. There were three things that got me good at bass at an early age. First, I learned songs that I loved, and I did that by ear (“The Real Me,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “My Generation” by The Who, and “Bassically” by Black Sabbath). Second, I practiced a lot with a metronome. Third, I played with live drummers at an early age. That doesn’t mean that I was playing at a club or in a bar. It just means I was in a basement or a garage with a drummer playing with some volume. I think two hours of playing live like that is worth months of sitting alone in your room practicing. Just be sure that the drummer you are playing with has good meter! Get a bass that is comfortable to play. Make sure it is set up correctly (so that it is in tune all the way up the neck), and learn to accurately tune your bass.
Listen to MANY styles of music, and listen to what the role of the bass is in each style. Learn some R&B bass lines; learn some basic blues patterns; learn some reggae.
I would also suggest that you listen to MANY styles of music, and listen to what the role of the bass is in each style. Learn some R&B bass lines; learn some basic blues patterns; learn some reggae. It all helps your playing in whatever style you decide to focus on. There have been more than a few times that I pulled out something I learned for a gig or recording that I thought would just be fun to learn. Blues is a great way to jam with other musicians when you don’t have other songs in common.
What essential equipment would you recommend to a bass student who was ready to make the leap to mostly playing their instrument at home to gigging live in a variety of settings?
Do the research and find out what basses are used for the type of music that you will be playing. That purple 5-string bass with the yellow flames may look really cool on your wall when your friends come over, but it will not cut it if you are hired to play in a reggae band. When I started attending Musicians Institute in 1984, I walked in with a Rickenbacker 4001 bass because that’s what Geddy Lee and Chris Squier were playing. Now in there, I was playing blues, jazz, R&B, Latin, and learning funk too. That bass was not appropriate for most of those types of music. I sold that Ric (and, yes, I greatly regret doing that) and bought a used Fender Precision which I still own. It has the “sound” that is used for most types of music that I now play.
The amp that you use live is important as well but to a lesser degree. Most front-of-house sound guys will take a direct line from your bass so that your live amp is only for you to hear on stage. But in some cases where your amp is mic’ed and used throughout the venue, make sure the sound fits with the other instruments. Some amps are thin-sounding no matter what you do to them. Some are very clean and don’t have that warm, slightly distorted and compressed sound that you would need in some situations. The clean and bright amps may sound awesome though for a modern funk and R&B gig. So take the time to research what the best bass and amp is for the type of music you are doing. If in doubt, show up with a good sounding P-bass plugged into an Ampeg SVT. When you watch live shows on TV, you would not believe how many times that set up is used for so many types of music!
One last thing I would like to say is always have backup gear. I have broken a bass string on the first song of a two-hour set! Luckily, all I had to do is switch over to my spare bass sitting on a stand that is already tuned up and ready to go. I’ve had a perfectly good amp all set up. It worked great for soundcheck, but when I flipped it on 5 minutes before the curtain opened, all I got was loud buzzing! I watched the tubes glow bright red and then go “POP.” All I had to do was reach behind my amp and plug in my spare amp head and I was ready to go. Once I was using the venue’s amp and I was sharing that with the opening band. The bass player in the opening band placed his jacket over the bass amp, and it shut down from overheating. When I got onstage, he told me, “Sorry man, I think I fried the bass amp.” Luckily, I had brought my small spare head with me “just in case,” and I was ready for our performance. Never be the guy that’s always late to the gig, or causes the band to cancel and lose money for all five guys. Remember . . . the show must go on!
What are your earliest music-making memories and experiences with family, private lessons, and school music programs?
There was always music in my early life. It mostly started from going to our Catholic Church and hearing all of the singing around me. My mother was a huge influence as she would sing in the church choir. She would do some solo singing there, as well as singing for weddings and funerals. She still has a lovely voice, and still sings solo at church to this day at age 88! I also joined all of the choirs in school that I could, starting around 5th grade. The record player at home was spinning some of the greats: Mario Lanza, Dean Martin, and Tom Jones are the ones I remember clearly in those days.
I learned early on that if you played bass, and were a decent player, you would always have work.
The next memory was my brother purchasing a pair of stereo headphones, putting them on my head, and playing “The Real Me” by the Who on Quadrophonia. That would have been around 1974 so I was 10 years old. That experience really stuck with me! Soon after that, I remember driving in our family car to downtown Easton in Pennsylvania to pick up my brother’s new drumset. I sat there just amazed as he put the set together and started making noise. He would then have other musicians over to our house and jam in our attic. That was very exciting to me. My brother had the coolest record collection in those days filled with Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, The Who, Black Sabbath, Sly and the Family Stone, and many others. Around those days, it seems every house we went to had the Black Sabbath Paranoid album playing. My cousins and all my friends were listening to that record! Then one day I went to a friend’s house because someone said, “Jim Brittan knows how to play War Pigs on his guitar”! He was the same age as I, so it was clear that if I wanted to, I could play guitar too with some practice. My brother Frank bought me my first guitar. In junior high school there were four bands but only one bass player. I learned early on that if you played bass, and were a decent player, you would always have work.
Please talk about your education at Musicians Institute and what your main focus was as a bass student there.
My initial goal for attending Musicians Institute (MI) was to learn all that I could, become a great player, and then return to my hometown in Pennsylvania. Once I was out here in California, I learned that it’s not only the location that is attractive (the beach, the mountains, the desert, etc.) but also the people! It seemed to me that so many of the creative people in so many fields like music, film, and art, left their home towns and came to California to make a better life for themselves. I was surrounded with creative, intelligent, and talented people with similar interests. Musicians Institute was initially an excuse to move to Hollywood, but I soon found that I couldn’t leave. It was obvious that there was so much more opportunity here than back home.
The curriculum at MI was great. They even had courses on meditation, performing, ear training, and how to practice correctly. We were taught many styles of music. We were forced to be in three or four different bands, and graded on how we performed live with these bands. I learned a ton from all of that, but not as much as learning how to work with, collaborate, and perform with all types of musicians. We had students from all over the world, and they all wanted to focus on different things. I had no focus going in, but I learned part way through that I wanted to record as much as possible. Part of the training was recording in a studio there on location. I enjoyed that very much!
You play bass in a California-based band called Impellitteri; you have released many recordings on record labels in Italy and have played in front of large audiences in Germany and Japan. What gives you your biggest pleasure of being in a band unit with the same players for so many years?
Playing with the same musicians for long periods of time is a real blessing. You know what to expect. When I know what to expect from the other guys, I know when I can branch out and try something new or totally different. I can do that because I know the other instruments will be right there underneath me. As a bassist working with the same drummers a lot, you can really glue the grooves together. I know where the drummer is going before he gets there because I know his style and his patterns. This can really tighten the rhythm section. For me, the greatest compliment is when a fellow musician/fan tells me after a show that we were really “tight”! There are many, many amazing bands out there to see live, but try to see “Kings X” if they come to your town. They are a perfect example of what happens when the same guys play together for many years. Especially the drums and bass!
Playing with Chris Impellitteri for so long has had a huge impact on my playing abilities. He is meticulous with his playing, and when you do not play accurately alongside him in both live and studio situations, it is obvious. When I first joined his band around 25 years ago, I was not a great pick player. I used mostly my fingers because that is what my idols did (Geezer Butler, John Entwistle, Geddy Lee). It became clear to me that when you try to match the attack of the bass with the drums at the speed and volume that we play at, a pick is the only way! At the time, Chris was famous in Japan and among many other guitar players. The drummers we used in the studio (Ken Mary and Glen Sobel) were monster players. I had to really “up my game” and practice to be on par with these guys! I like feeling that the other players are somewhat “better” than I, as it keeps me on my toes and keeps pushing me to be my best. These days, recording has become less work and much more fun. Chris is great at letting me come up with what I feel is a great bass line and usually loves what I play. He has a great ear and will point out if I miss something he is playing that I need to match.
After all this time, Chris and I are great friends. We live pretty close to one another and enjoy hanging out. We have the same taste in music and bands which are mostly the classic greats that we grew up with.
You also are a member of a very successful AC/DC tribute act that plays out regularly. What are some highlights that you would like to share about being a professional musician in this context?
I can’t tell you enough about the joy I get out of our AC/DC tribute band Bonfire. If it was all that I did, I would still be happy. I’ll tell you the highlights . . . the fans, the travel, the money, the fans, my bandmates, playing live, the fans, and the respect. Oh, and did I mention the fans?? Bonfire has been playing together for 18 years. I just love these guys, and I love playing, traveling, and hanging out with them. Now you would think that playing the same AC/DC bass lines over and over every night would get boring, but because I love being onstage with these guys, it’s a new experience every night. If it’s 20 or 5000 people, it’s still fun because we enjoy playing together.
Right now there is a big market for tribute bands. Casinos are popular for us (I’m sitting in one right now, with a show to play tonight) as they have the money to hire the good bands and people appreciate them. I hear from fans at almost every show that they are so thankful for us playing the music they love. They don’t have to pay $200 for a good seat, and they get a good, high energy show with all of their favorite songs played! The tribute band has taken me to Wales, Mexico, Canada, Nicaragua, and all over our states. We play a lot of Indian Gaming Casinos, nightclubs and bars, a couple of wineries, “Music in the Park” events, private parties, corporate parties, and concerts that feature multiple tribute bands. One other benefit that I didn’t expect is that playing this music with a pick (as original AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams does) night after night, has made me a much better player for metal music.
With all of the traveling that we do, it’s made me much more adaptable in so many ways. I’ve had to play gigs where I could not hear the vocals, I’ve had to play gigs where the drummer had to hit softly and is hidden behind clear plexiglass (yes even for AC/DC songs!). I’ve had to learn to sing without hearing my own voice, and I’ve had to play without hearing my bass too. Working with so many different venues, monitor guys, and sound guys has taught me to be ready for anything. I have three different size amps that are appropriate for the different size venues we play. We don’t travel with a crew, so we do it all for ourselves. After adapting and being flexible for anything that might come up, it has taught me to stay calm when a disaster strikes onstage.
10 Electric Bassists to Check Out
- Victor Wooten
- Billy Sheehan
- Mark King
- Marcus Miller
- Nick Beggs
- Steve Harris
- Stuart Hamm
- Meshell Ndegeocello
- John Myung
Additional Bass Resources
- Bass Player Magazine
- Hal Leonard Electric Bass Method
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello is the NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair and also serves as the Guitar Education Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association. He teaches guitar for the Flemington Raritan School District and Hunterdon Academy of the Arts. Tom graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory with a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance. He is the author of the children’s picture books: A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo & Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand (March 2019), both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made two vinyl record releases on the H42 Records label of Hamburg, Germany, featuring former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and others. Visit https://thomasamoriello.com/ for more.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
December 13, 2018. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)