18 Fretless Questions: Mo Foster
1. FB: At what age did you start playing fretless bass, and how long have you been playing?
Mo Foster: I started experimenting with fretless when I was 31, having played bass on and off since I was 16. When I first started I couldn’t find a bass guitar in my local music shop – they were unobtainable – so I built one (see my book Seventeen Watts?). I’m now 61.
2. FB: What influenced you to play fretless?
Mo Foster: In a way, the sound was in my head already: I loved the upright bass and the cello and the emotion generated by their use of vibrato. I already used side-to-side vibrato on my fretted Precision.
3. FB: Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
Mo Foster: When I started there were no serious bass teachers – and certainly not for fretless. In an attempt to rationalise some sensible fingering I learnt Simandl from the Ray Brown book and guitar-like ideas from Carol Kaye’s series. I also started the very first bass class in London at Goldsmiths College which is part of the University of London. You learn by teaching.
4. FB: Who are your main fretless bass influences?
Mo Foster: My main influences for fretless are not so much the players, more the sound of other instruments such as cello and upright bass for their glissando and vibrato, euphonium and French horn for their envelope, bassoon for its nasal quality, and the human voice.
5. FB: Who is your favorite fretless bass player and why?
Mo Foster: My favourite fretless player has to be Jaco because he helped to crystallise my thoughts. His sound is warm and inviting, and his vibrato makes me cry. I must add Steve Swallow who I saw playing upright with Gary Burton’s Quartet at Ronnie Scott’s club in 1970. He had the ability to make his instrument sing and – along with Ray Brown – demonstrated that you could play beautiful melodies on the instrument.
6. FB: Do you play Stand-up, acoustic, electric, or all? Which do you prefer?Mo Foster: I have played all of the bass types at different times – they each have their uses – but I am most comfortable on bass guitar. It’s me.
7. FB: What was your very first fretless bass? Do you still own it?
Mo Foster: In early 1976 I was working in Paris for singer Veronique Sanson. Simon Phillips was on drums. One day a journalist friend invited us round to his flat for a drink. He put on a record and said “I think you’re going to enjoy this”. Understatement – it was Jaco’s first album. I was mesmerised. I had to find out how to make these sounds and – back in London – I had discussions with Neville Whithead, a bass repairer for the main orchestras. He suggested ripping off the fretboard of my Jazz Bass and replacing it with an ebony board from a 100 year-old upright. He went through three plane blades to make it fit. For six months the neck was pure black and then I saw a photo of Jaco’s bass – with lines! I asked luthier Dick Knight to put on some white markers – he thought I was crazy – but it helped me with intonation, although it took me many years to learn how to play in tune. Now I love it – it’s my voice. (see the full story here updated 2015)
8. FB: What is your favorite fretless bass you’ve ever played?
Mo Foster: see above
9. FB: What fretless basses have you owned, which do you still own?
Mo Foster: see above
10. FB: What types of strings and fingerboard combinations do you like?
Mo Foster: I use Rotosound round-wound standard guage. They work perfectly.
11. FB: What playing styles do you use – finger, thumb, or pick (or other)? What do you like about those styles?
Mo Foster: For plucking I use either one or two fingers, and very occasionally three (inspired by Neils Henning Orsted Pedersen). It’s amazing the tonal difference you can achieve just by rotating your finger, or playing on different parts of the string. The fingers of the left hand totally command the shape of the note envelope, the growl, and the vibrato (which I learnt on sessions by watching and talking to cellists – it stems from the elbow).
12. FB: What bands/projects have you played fretless bass in/on (list as many as you like)?
Mo Foster: Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Gerry Rafferty, Gil Evans, RMS, Gary Moore, Judy Tzuke, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Rod Argent, Frida (ABBA)
13. FB: What is your favorite song you played fretless bass on (studio or live)?
Mo Foster: ‘On Frith Street’ from my CD Time To Think.
14. FB: What is your favorite fretless bass riff you’ve written (if different from above)?
Mo Foster: ‘Grand Unified Boogie’ from my CD Southern Reunion.
15. FB: What would you say is unique about your fretless style?
Mo Foster: I try to convey emotion with as few notes as possible.
16. FB: Are you still actively playing fretless bass?
Mo Foster: Still playing.
17. FB: Do you have any basic advice for bass players looking to take up fretless or those who are currently playing?
Mo Foster: Don’t just pluck a note – you have to learn to coax it – and there is your sound. Learn consistent fingerings that work. Use your ears. Play in unison with other bass instruments.
18. FB: Do you have a web site address you would like to share?
Mo Foster: Yes!
From Wikipedia.com (full Wiki link):