Mo Foster – A History of His Fender Jazz Fretless Bass
Article by Eric Larson, © Copyright 2015 FretlessBass.com
I have been in touch with the legendary bassist Mo Foster recently. I was telling him that I was a bit of a fretless bass collector, but assured him my collecting was not an addiction (I can stop any time I want to). His reply was perfect, “There is a concept known as Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, or GAS. It is a question and an answer: Q – What is the correct number of guitars? A – One more than you have already. Luckily I don’t suffer from it — the only instruments I have are the ones I play.”
The discussion started when I asked about his gear, and what fretless basses he has and uses. He told me that he has one main fretless bass that he has used for the past four decades. The bass is a 1968 Fender Jazz bass converted to fretless (see recent live videos below). When I learn of a master musician that builds a career-long history with a special instrument, the appreciation is hard to articulate. By listening to his music, I know that this bass sings. He himself refers to it as his “voice”. But if it could talk, I would love to hear the stories. Foster has played with Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Gerry Rafferty, Gil Evans, RMS, Gary Moore, Judy Tzuke, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Rod Argent, Frida (ABBA) (just to name a few), and there are many, many other artists he has recorded and toured with over his career (see more of his resume at mofoster.com). Foster had given FretlessBass.com the summarized story of this bass many years ago when he did our “Fretless Questions” interview. In December of 2014 he told me the full story.
Story by Mo Foster:
“1976. I was at the Paris Olympia for a series of concerts with singer and pianist Véronique Sanson (at that time Mrs. Stephen Stills). One afternoon a journalist friend invited 19 year-old drummer Simon Phillips and me round to his apartment for lunch. During the afternoon he placed an LP on his hi-fi and said: “I think you’re going to like this” and a moment of magic ensued – the sounds were mesmerising. I asked who the artist was. “Jaco Pastorius” he replied. It was a life-changing moment.
Inspired by these exquisite sounds — but knowing nothing about how Jaco removed his frets and replaced them with wood-filler — I enlisted the help of symphony-bass repairman and craftsman Neville Whitehead; it was his suggestion that he should remove the entire fingerboard of my beloved 1968 sunburst Fender Jazz Bass, frets and all, and replace it with a 100-year old piece of ebony that he’d removed from an old upright bass. It seemed like a good idea. He went through three plane blades. Each visit to his workshop felt like I was being fitted for a suit. The finished bass was amazing and although the neck was a little fat, front to back, that soon ceased to be a problem. The main thing — the ‘sound’ — was there: the growls, the singing. The neck was pure black with no lines, no markers, and I struggled like this (and played some sessions on it) for six months even though I had great difficulty knowing where I was on the neck. I finally rationalised that I should have helpful fret-lines put on and entrusted luthier Dick Knight with the task. He did a beautiful job. Some time later the body was stripped to plain wood (losing the decal) and I replaced the bridge with a Badass. EMG pickups were added in 1982 at the request of the Phil Collins road-crew (the Vari-Lites were causing a buzz). This instrument has become my ‘voice’.
You have to have a sound in your head and aim for it. My fretless sound is a composite of the timbre of a bassoon (I use the bridge pickup only), the envelope of a euphonium, and the vibrato and glissando of a cello. I also try to emulate the fabulous growling sound that double-bassist Ron Carter achieves on the low notes. The pressure of the left-hand fingers can determine the sustain of a note. And I almost caress the strings with my right-hand plucking fingers: by rotating the whole wrist it’s possible to use the side of your finger like on a double bass. I discovered this when I had to re-learn my technique after I’d hurt the tendons in my wrist.
For me it’s a voice which is much more expressive than the fretted instruments, simply because you can play with a vibrato like on a cello (I used to discuss this with cellists on orchestral sessions). It can be as wide as you like, and you can slide between notes — ‘glissando’ — which you can on a double bass (it’s less convincing on a fretted bass where there is a distinct set of little leaps). I’ve got a terrible voice — my singing voice is just hideous and this instrument has allowed me to sing, because I can play fairly high up on the instrument and make it sound emotional. The way that you play it, the way your fingers attack the strings and the pressures and so on, you actually create the note, you’re not just hitting it. You actually have to spend a couple of decades figuring it out until you and the instrument become one, and you make this sound which you hope someone else likes!
When I began playing bass guitar seriously there were no instruction DVDs or colleges, and only a couple of books. I needed to develop a logical system of fingering (so that I could play without looking at my hand) and reasoned that as the bass guitar (34 inches) has qualities of both double bass (42 inches) and guitar (26 inches) – the scale length is halfway between the two – then the fingering should reflect this. I used double bassist Ray Brown’s tutor to learn Simandl technique (the system double bass players use where the finger spacing is wide —fingers 1,2,4). I also learnt one-finger-per-fret-guitar fingering for playing higher up the neck, and I worked through session bass guitarist Carol Kaye’s books for sight-reading. Combine these techniques and you can play anything – in tune. On non-fretted instruments your ears also play a big part in accuracy. I’m amazed that many current bass guitar magazines do not teach fingering at all (possibly because they don’t know what it should be?). And that wretched tablature teaches nothing.”
Foster sent us some video of him playing this bass live in November 2014 at The Alehouse near Malvern, England. A big “thank you” to Pindrop Events for giving us permission to embed these videos on our site. Please be sure to visit the Pindrop Events website at https://pindropevents.co.uk/7 for more!
Please visit mofoster.com to learn more about this legendary bassist.
Mo Foster & Friends “So Far Away” November 2014
Mo Foster & Friends “Waves” November 2014