18 Fretless Questions: Mark Egan
1. FB: At what age did you start playing fretless bass, and how long have you been playing?
Mark Egan: I started when I was 21, in 1972. So I’ve been playing fretless bass for 30 years.
2. FB: What influenced you to play fretless?
Mark Egan: I was always interested in the sound of an acoustic bass. Sam Samole, a guitarist and great friend who I went to music school with at the University of Miami had a Fender Precision Fretless Bass that didn’t have any fret markers. I loved the sustained sound of it. It sounded like a hybrid acoustic bass, but more like a bass guitar and I liked the expression you could get by having infinite spaces between the notes.
3. FB: Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
Mark Egan: It’s a combination of both. I was originally a trumpet player. I started playing trumpet when I was 10 years old and took lessons all through High School. When I was 15 I started playing bass because I was naturally attracted to the sound. At the time a lot of Motown music was on the radio and I picked out the bass lines of James Jamerson and focused on that. I started taking lessons with Mike Lalli in Brockton Mass. who was a guitar teacher and he immediately showed me guitar fingerings on the bass which I still use as a foundation for my left hand technique using four fingers. So that was my first experience with lessons.
Later I took lessons at the University of Miami with teacher and bassist Don Coffman, as well as with the late, great Jaco Pastorius. In between all of those teachers I would say that I self taught myself and aspired to playing and composing creative music. I was always aware of taking the music to new directions after being inspired by such masters as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Jimmy Hendrix just to name a few.
4. FB: Who are your main fretless bass influences?
Mark Egan: Jaco Pastorius was a tremendous influence because I was around him in Miami at the time when he was in his incubation period during the early seventies. It was a very inspiring time and Jaco was revolutionary. Even though Eberhart Weber plays an Electric Upright bass he has been an influence as far as sound on the fretless. I also listen to a lot of Indian music and in particular the music of Vina master S. Balachander. Indian music in general has a sound that I relate to with the fretless bass. I love the droning aspect of the instrument.
5. FB: Who is your favorite fretless bass player and why?
Mark Egan: I like many fretless bass players, but I would say that Jaco Pastorius is one of my favorites because he was so great and such an innovator not only with his amazing sound and rhythm, and his technique, but also his compositional abilities.
6. FB: Do you play Stand-up, acoustic, electric, or all? Which do you prefer?
Mark Egan: I play all the basses. I play acoustic bass, and NS electric upright, fretted and fretless electric basses. I would say that the instrument that I feel most comfortable on is fretted and fretless bass. But it really depends on the musical situation – the song and the concept, as to what instrument I prefer.
7. FB: What was your very first fretless bass? Do you still own it?
Mark Egan: My first fretless bass was a 1958 Fender Precision that was given to me by Jaco Pastorius as a gift. He had received the fretted bass from Pat Metheny as a gift and Jaco took the frets out and put wood filler in their place and an epoxy finish on the fingerboard. We were performing with the Pat Metheny group in Boston at a club called the Jazz Work Shop in 1976 and I went to the airport to pick it up and played it that night. I knew then that was the sound that I was looking for. Pat Metheny kept the bass when I left the group four years later and I never played it again. I think the bass was stolen from him in Chile while on tour.
8. FB: What is your favorite fretless bass you’ve ever played?
Mark Egan: That’s the bass that I play now which is a Pedulla MVP Fretless 5 String Bass. It’s a Mark Egan signature model. I’ve been playing that one for about 7 years now and it’s really my “voice” on that instrument.
9. FB: What fretless basses have you owned, which do you still own?
Mark Egan: I’ve always played Fender or Pedulla fretless basses. I originally had a 1964 Fender jazz bass that I took the frets out of. I still have it, but I put the frets back in and I use it on a lot of rock and funk and alternative projects. I used in on the Joan Osborne record called “Relish”. I also have a number of different configurations of Pedulla fretless basses. I have an 8 string fretless bass, a doubleneck bass which has an 8 string fretted on it, and a 4 string fretless. I have a lot of different Pedulla fretless basses because myself and Tim Landers – a bassist from Boston, have worked closely with Mike Pedulla over the years in developing what became the Buzz bass.
10. FB: What types of strings and fingerboard combinations do you like?
Mark Egan: I use D’adddario strings, and in particular, XL170’s. I’ve used them since 1976. They’re great strings and they’re responsible for a lot of the sound I get. I like Ebony fingerboards. I especially like the Pedulla fingerboards because there’s a very hard epoxy type finish on it which gives it a lot of sustain.
11. FB: What playing styles do you use – finger, thumb, or pick (or other)? What do you like about those styles?
Mark Egan: I’m mainly a finger player – index and middle finger. I play a bit with the thumb. And I pick a very little bit. I wish I could pick a bit better, but I don’t have that much call for it.
12. FB: What bands/projects have you played fretless bass in/on (list as many as you like)?
Mark Egan: I’ve played on so many projects with fretless bass that I think the best thing to do is to check out the discography page on my website – www.markegan.com. Of course on my own solo projects, which I have four of, I’ve played fretless on all of them. And there’s the group Elements which I co-lead with Danny Gottlieb and we have 8 CDs out. I play mostly fretless bass on those projects.
13. FB: What is your favorite song you played fretless bass on (studio or live)?
Mark Egan: That’s a difficult question to answer. There are moments on a lot of different things that I’ve recorded that I’m really happy with, that I can listen to more than once. I think, there’s one real magical thing on the early Elements record, “Forward Motion”. And the tune is called “Spiral”. I’m sure it’s out of print at this point. It was on Island Records. That tune has an 8 string fretless improvised melody.
14. FB: What is your favorite fretless bass riff you’ve written (if different from above)?
Mark Egan: One line from my recent CD Freedom Town on the title track is a 16th note fast groove that is a lot of fun.
15. FB: What would you say is unique about your fretless style?
Mark Egan: I think the sound that I get from the instrument, and that has a lot to do with the instrument – the Pedulla bass. It’s a very mid-rangy warm sound, but a very clear sound. It comes from a combination of the instrument, the hands and the sensibilities that I use. Another thing that may be unique about my style is the melodic area that I tend to explore. I think that is due to the fact that I was originally a trumpet player so I hear it in a more melodic way.
16. FB: Are you still actively playing fretless bass?
Mark Egan: All the time. Everyday.
17. FB: Do you have any basic advice for bass players looking to take up fretless or those who are currently playing?
Mark Egan: Get the best instrument you can afford. Experiment with as many different instruments as possible. Intonation is so important on a fretless bass, because it’s up to you. You really need to have inlaid markers on the neck in order to visually be in the vicinity of the pitch. Also experiment with different articulations. The fretless neck can be so expressive.
I think it’s important to play with a piano player, or a fixed intonation instrument so that you can adjust your intonation to play in tune. You do that by playing with other people and hearing the relationship between your intonation and the rest of the instruments in your group. It’s like a violin where you are constantly adjusting with your ear and your fingers in a very fast process.
Also, I would recommend finding a teacher – a fretless bass player and studying with them. Or getting a video, cds, what ever it takes: Listening and transcribing, recording onto a tape player and listening to your sound. That’s the best mirror. But you need to have some idea in your head about what you want it to sound like and that comes from listening and paying attention.
18. FB: Do you have a web site address you would like to share?
Mark Egan: I appreciate you asking. I mentioned it earlier. It’s www.markegan.com. Thank you.
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