Fretless Questions, player bio, photos, videos, music, and more
Fretless Questions: Steve Lawson
FB: How long have you been playing fretless bass?
Steve Lawson: I got my first fretless in, I think 1998, so I was 25 – that makes it coming up 8 years of fretless playing.
FB: What influenced you to play fretless?
Steve Lawson: I actively avoided it for years, thinking that it’d be really tough to find my own voice on it. I think I loved the sound of my favourite fretless players TOO much! I thought ‘why would I want to do anything on fretless other than sound like Pino??’ – I got over that pretty quick though.
My initial reason for getting one was getting booked for a session that required me to play fretless – that made me realise that as I pro I really ought to have one and be able to play it in tune. So I got a Modulus VJazz, and as soon as I did, realised what a great addition to my sound it was going to be – it soon became at least equal to my fretted playing, and when I got my 6 string fretless a couple of years later, it became my main instrument.
FB: Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
Steve Lawson: I went to music school in Perth, in Scotland. The head of the bass dept there is a great teacher called Pete Honeyman, and I learnt and enourmous amount from him. Until I got to college, I was competely self taught, and since then I’ve only had one proper bass lesson, from Todd Johnson, but I really read a lot of books about the mental and philosophical approach to playing music, and so do continue to absorb influence from great teachers, just not one on one.
FB: Who are your main fretless bass influences or favorite players?
Steve Lawson: Michael Manring is a huge influence on all areas of my playing, so he’s definitely top of the tree. Jaco was initially, before I started playing it. After I got into playing fretless, I realised from Jaco what I DIDN’T want to sound like – that roundwound string nasal sound – I love listening to it, but don’t hear it as the primary voice on my own music at all.
Pino was obviously an influence as far as playing fretless in a band context goes – nobody does it better. There were other players who did things that influenced me, without me ever actually sounding like them – I remember hearing Alain Caron playing about 8 bars of a chord melody version of ‘My Favourite Things’ on his 6 string fretless, and that 20 seconds of music was pivotal in me choosing to get a 6 string fretless, even though I don’t sound anything like Alain. Mo Foster was another influence – his phrasing and intonation are impeccable, and a big inspiration.
And Nick Beggs is another player who has influenced a lot of areas of my playing, and his fretless playing was another thing that shaped me desire to play fretless.
Favorite is probably Michael Manring, simply because he’s one of my favourite musicians in the world, and happens to play fretless bass.
FB: Do you play upright, electric, or both? Which do you prefer?
Steve Lawson: I don’t play upright bass at all, at the moment – I’m looking to get an Azola electric upright when I can afford it, they are such beautiful instruments. I’ve got a Rick Turner 5 string ‘amplicoustic’ bass, but that’s not hugely dissimilar as a playing experience to an ordinary solid bodies fretless.
FB: What was your very first fretless bass? Do you still own it? Have you had or played others?
Steve Lawson: My Modulus VJazz fretless four, and no, I sold it after I got my Modulus 6 string – I’m kind of regretting it now, as there are some situations where a four string bass is just perfect, but at the time I needed the money to finance paying for the 6 string! Favorite definitely my 6 string fretless modulus semi-hollow – it’s just the perfect instrument in every way.
FB: What types of strings and fingerboards do you prefer?
Steve Lawson: I use a Steve Lawson custom set of Bass Centre Elites – .028-.125 guage – I’ve got them on my fretless and fretted 6 strings. I’ve tried loads of different string combinations and these are just fantastic. the fingerboard on my Modulus is Granadillo, which is a sustainably farmed Rosewood replacement. It looks great and feels great, and doesn’t seem to have worn noticeably in the 7 years I’ve had this bass! I’ve no idea what the wood is on my Rick Turner, but the strings are Tomastik Acousticores, which sound great on that bass. They’ve got a nylon core so wouldn’t work on a bass with magnetic pickups, but give a great acoustic tone on the Turner.
FB: What playing styles do you use?
Steve Lawson: I use myriad different techniques on fretless – my right hand is my primary tone control so is changing all the time to affect the shape of each note – I pick with two fingers, three fingers, my thumb, my fingernails, I slap, use a pick, use an Ebow, tap, strum chords… whatever gets me the sound I want at the time!
FB: What bands or projects feature you playing fretless bass?
Steve Lawson: I’ve used fretless on a lot of recorded sessions, most of them highly forgettable projects! Of the ones that might be of interest are three CDs with a singer/songwriter called Andrew Buckton, from London, and a quartet that I was in before I started playing solo called Ragatal with a flamenco guitarist called Jason Carter.
FB: Do you have a favorite song you played fretless bass on or some notable songs or experiences?
Steve Lawson: It changes all the time, and I don’t really think of it as a ‘favourite’ but the one that I get the most out of playing at the moment is probably ‘Deeper Still’ from my new album, ‘Behind Every Word’.
FB: What would you say is unique about your fretless style?
Steve Lawson: That’d be difficult for me to analyze beyond the fact that I think I sound like me! There don’t seem to be many people playing chords in quite the way that I do on a fretless, and I guess there’s something specific about the way I play melody that makes what I do recognisable, but one of the biggest defining features is the degree of sound processing that’s going on on a lot of my tunes – those big ambient washes and heavily distorted melody sounds are probably easily recogniseable as me! :o) Also, unusually for a bassist, it seems, I tend to be very stretchy with rhythm – even a lot of solo bassists tend to squeeze there music into some sort of metric grid, and I’ve never been drawn to that as a melody player or solo player, so the rhythmic side of what I do is very elastic…
FB: Are you still actively playing fretless bass?
Steve Lawson: Every day! I probably play fretless about 60% of the time, and if I’m going to a gig where I can only take one bass 90% of the time is my fretless 6.
FB: Do you have any basic advice for bass players looking to take up fretless or those who are currently playing?
Steve Lawson: There’s no substitute for good intonation, so that should always be your primary focus with anything you’re playing, to make sure that it’s in tune. Out of tune virtuosity is still out of tune. Beyond that, I’d recommend spending some time thinking about what makes the fretless sound unique, and how that best applies to what you’re trying to do with your music. After all, any instrument is just your voice with which you express the music inside you, so working on how your instrument best conveys what you’re trying to say is going to be a pretty good use of time.
FB: Do you have websites or social media sites you would like to share?
Steve Lawson: I’ve got a couple – www.stevelawson.net is my home page, www.recyclecollective.com is the site for the monthly improv/looping night that I run in London.
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