Reggie Hamilton:
Creating a Career - and a Bass - Out of Character

You might not recognize his name, but you've definitely heard his playing. This was a common intro to interviews during the studio players as heroes phenomenon of the late '70s/early '80s, but became increasingly rare as better technology squeezed out more and more of the old-fashioned carbon-based sequencers. In an era when many producers consider using a real drummer and bassist as a frivolous expense, Reggie Hamilton has managed to not only hang on, but to thrive in this increasingly selective and competitive field. If you've watched TV, seen a movie, or listened to the radio in the last several years, you really have heard his playing! He's worked with artists ranging from Billy Childs to Barbra Streisand; from Ricky Martin to Randy Newman. Now more than ever, being a successful studio musician requires a strong work ethic, pleasant personality, dedication to craft and consistency of character. These traits all came shining through in our recent conversations with Reggie Hamilton.

Why the bass? Well, I started on guitar when I was seven. But everybody played guitar, so I switched to bass.

Who were some of your early influences? Well, definitely Verdine White. He was major. Larry Graham. Man, there were so many of them! My friend Derrick Murdock, he played with the Jazz Crusaders some. I've known him since I was about sixteen. He was a major influence on me. My friend Brett Simms who I haven't seen since we were like thirteen. The guy had this other way of playing bass, just another kind of style. I was influenced by everything, you know? Lots of friends that were older that I looked up to, or my peers. Because they ingested the same things I did musically and made it their own.

And R&B and electric jazz that was going on then? Absolutely. When I first started playing bass, jazz-rock was coming into its own. It was just before fuzak!

Was there a moment when, after you'd switched from guitar to bass, that you knew it was the right move? Probably about a year-and-a-half later, because the first year I was pretty awful. I got kicked out of the band I was in twice, once for not having a good enough amp and then secondly, because I didn't use my thumb. In the beginning, it just wasn't something I would do. In fact, today I'm just finishing up my solo record I think I used my thumb on one tune.

But you mentioned Larry Graham as an influence. I didn't think of Graham thumb-wise because the way he played when he was with Sly was different. I actually dug his horn arrangements and stuff like that more. He's such a great arranger and such a great keyboard player as well. I just got into the overall picture of him. Deon Estus was probably the one that made me start using my thumb first. He had this band called Brainstorm. On their tune called "We're On Our Way Home", there's a bass solo at the beginning, and that's when I had to do it. You had to learn "Silly Putty" if you didn't want to get laughed at in school. I learned to play like Stanley Clarke. So much so, I guess that's why he hired me! I worked for him for about four years where my job was to be Stanley. He didn't play bass at all. We were doing movie stuff like "Passenger 57," and that TV show, "Man Called Hawk." I really dug it. He was like a brother to me. Still is in many ways. I came to him for advice. He was a big influence on me just in dealing with life.

You grew up in Queens, NY but relocated to Atlantic City, NJ as a teenager around '78-'79. Were you on your own at that point? My mom had moved to Atlantic City and then she sent for me. And I hated it. My first day I thought, "Oh man, I just moved back into the Dark Ages!" I had a really hip band director at Springfield High in Jamaica, Queens; Jerome Tyler. I'll never forget him. I used to walk to school and I could hear [neighbor] Marcus Miller practicing every morning. Well, I moved to Atlantic City and I thought it would be awful. Turned out it was spectacular! I met my new band director, this guy named Joe Brown, who I still keep in touch with. He taught Bach four voice writing to the kids, and he started and maintains a big band there. Talk about a wonderful teacher, a wonderful human being.

While you were still in high school in Atlantic City, you were out doing casino jobs? Before the casino jobs, when I was fifteen, I started playing clubs around town. I was playing with some local guys who I still keep in touch with. I mean, fantastic musicians! Then, I went on the road when I was seventeen. I left high school about ten days early. I just had to get out of there! For a couple of months, I played with this guy named Paul Vesco. He was cool because he made me do horn arrangements and sing on the gig. But it was pretty bizarre, we had this giant truck that we had to load with the PA and there was a motor home, not to mention three dogs on the road with us, and you would have to drive either the truck or the motor home at one time or another. You know, I'm seventeen and thinking that this can't be what it's all about. It can't be! So after two months I split, went back home and just played gigs around town. By '84, I was in the pit band for a house orchestra. We'd sit in tuxedos, play for five minutes, like play for [comedian] Louie Anderson, and then I was done for the night and we'd go have a martini.

It seems like it'd be very easy to get comfortable there. Real easy. A lot of my friends did, and then music left that town. I should have moved to Los Angeles even earlier. That would have been the smart thing for me to do.

Why did you choose Los Angeles over New York? Because New York gets cold. It's that simple. It was either, go to New York, or I considered going to Europe and working there because I knew it would have been much easier for me. But it's purely a matter of climate. L.A. is just warm and nice and fuzzy and groovy all the time!

You've been working on a solo project. Is it almost done? Almost. I'm finishing it today. George Duke is doing a synth overdub at noon, Sheila E. came over and played percussion on seven tunes. It's time to mix.

Are your attentions going to be focused on promoting that for a while? Do you have other projects going on? As far as I know, I'm here, so I'm going to just book my own band and take them out to support the record some. As far as doing recording projects, they always go on.

So today, you're finishing a track with George Duke for your album, then you're booked to do a session for the new Rod Stewart album. Busy day! Yeah! Busy is good! Feeding the family is good.

What was it like creating your Signature Basses with Fender R&D? Initially, I thought to myself, "Who am I? There are so many other guys that should have a bass named after them!" But I had always liked the sound of the P Bass¨∆ as well as the Jazz Bass¨∆, and I had wondered, "How did Leo come up with the pickup concept initially?" "Did he start with a Jazz Bass body with a couple of P Bass pickups in it?" Since I don't play with my thumb a lot, and Marcus already sounds like Marcus, why make another bass that sounds just like him? Why not make a bass that sounds like me for the type of stuff that I do?

I also didn't want to have to carry four or five basses with me to a session. Sometimes playing where the dates are rock and roll, they'll go for a traditional sound and want the basses to be passive. So my circuit is fully passive and fully active, so when it's in passive mode you actually have a passive tone control. My bass was designed to get the best P Bass sound and the best Jazz Bass sound in one instrument, in passive or in active mode.

And you've got the drop "D" on the 4-string. And, I have a drop "A" on the 5-string! Both basses drop for guys that play a lot of gospel. Most of the gospel guys tune their 5- and 6-string basses a half -step lower. And for me, I just like those big, warm tones. In fact, I did use the drop tuning on the new BoyzIIMen record, and it's just this big ol' B-flat that just sounded really cool.

I'm really happy with the instruments. I wanted the feel of a Jazz Bass and the 4-string has the neck shape of my '67, which is stellar, and should appeal to younger guys like Jason Newstead or Flea. The 5-string is asymmetrical and built for the old school guys like Will Lee or Leland Sklar. Stellar!