18 Fretless Questions: Tony Levin
1. FB: At what age did you start playing fretless bass, and how long have you been playing?
Tony Levin: I probably got my first fretless in the 1970’s. My first bass guitar (I had started as an upright player) was a Fender Precision, and it was only years after getting that that I decided to try a fretless.
2. FB: What influenced you to play fretless?
Tony Levin: I thought it would give me some different options for sound when playing bass parts on records.
3. FB: Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
Tony Levin: Classically trained on upright. Then, as a bass guitarist, self taught.
4. FB: Who are your main fretless bass influences?
Tony Levin: Not many really. I loved Jaco’s playing, but didn’t relate it to mine because I don’t have a fraction of the technique. Aside from his facility, I admired his great intonation, which I aspire to, but rarely achieve myself.
5. FB: Who is your favorite fretless bass player and why?
Tony Levin: Right now, I’d have to say Pino Paladino and Carles Benavent. I’m very aware that there are many bass players out there, with many styles, and I don’t claim to have heard many of them – lots of pleasant surprises in store for me as I discover new players.
6. FB: Do you play Stand-up, acoustic, electric, or all? Which do you prefer?
Tony Levin: I’m happiest, now, playing electric bass guitars, electric upright, electric cello, and the Stick.
7. FB: What was your very first fretless bass? Do you still own it?
8. FB: What is your favorite fretless bass you’ve ever played?
Tony Levin: My Steinberger fretless is a great bass – it’s about the 2nd bass he ever made, and has a great sound. I played it on lots of records, but, having no fret markers, it was tough to play in tune, so gradually I moved to my current favorite – a Music Man fretless.
9. FB: What fretless basses have you owned, which do you still own?
Tony Levin: The Steinberger, and two Music Man basses – one (the Sledgehammer bass) is an old 4 string, the other a newer 5 string, which I tune with a high C string.
10. FB: What types of strings and fingerboard combinations do you like?
Tony Levin: Ernie Ball strings, light guage when I’m using the bass for lead playing.
11. FB: What playing styles do you use – finger, thumb, or pick (or other)? What do you like about those styles?
Tony Levin: Almost always finger playing for me on Fretless. A few exceptions: pick sometimes, and with 8va pedal sometimes. And a few times I’ve played the fretless with my “Funk Fingers” – wooden drumsticks attached to my fingers (usually used with fretted bass) which gives it a very percussive attack.
12. FB: What bands/projects have you played fretless bass in/on (list as many as you like)?
Tony Levin: I don’t keep track of things like that. I know the black Music Man was used on many Peter Gabriel albums, and in King Crimson in the ’90’s, there was more fretless than before, on tracks like “Vrooom” and “Thraak”. On my last two solo albums (“Waters of Eden” and “Pieces of the Sun”) I play lead fretless on some pieces.
13. FB: What is your favorite song you played fretless bass on (studio or live)?
Tony Levin: I would probably choose Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”.
14. FB: What is your favorite fretless bass riff you’ve written (if different from above)?
15. FB: What would you say is unique about your fretless style?
Tony Levin: Not much! I try to play in tune, and to phrase in a musical way. But sonically I haven’t found a unique sound on the fretless, excepting probably that Sledgehammer track.
16. FB: Are you still actively playing fretless bass?
Tony Levin: Yes, a lot. Last night in concert here in … Pittsburgh. Tonight I’ll play in Buffalo.
17. FB: Do you have any basic advice for bass players looking to take up fretless or those who are currently playing?
Tony Levin: No, I have more to learn than to teach about the fretless.
18. FB: Do you have a web site address you would like to share?
Tony Levin: Mine is pretty interesting – diaries and photos from out on the road. Right now, the tour updates are on tonylevinband.com but usually it’s tonylevin.com
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