Have Monster Talent, Monster Gear, Will Travel
Bill ‘The Buddha’ Dickens!
Bill Dickens: Walt Whitman was a great inspiration to me. On his album Growing Up was when my 9 string was first heard. The song was called ‘God is’. It was on the first vamp I punched in the 9 string. I was using my 7 and they said “Well, Bill, we need a low A-flat. I said that rather than detuning, I would just bring in my 9.
Bass Inside: Did they know you had the 9 at this time?
Bill Dickens: Well, they knew it but they weren’t too anxious to see it! (Laughs) So I brought it in and added that vamp. When I was done, all I heard was laughing. I thought ‘Oh, Oh I must have messed up. But the first thing they said was, “We have never heard anything that low in our lives!”.
Bass Inside: Synth players, look out!
Bill Dickens: Yes, yes. So people ask me all the time, “When you gonna bring the 9 out again? I actually sold that 9, me and Bill (Conklin) got rid of that 9 because the entire bass was made out of Purpleheart and weighed between 45 and 50 pounds! It was a back and leg killer! It would cut off my circulation! So either way it goes, if it was legs or back, I was in trouble! So I got a new 9-string that is a lot lighter. One of my friends calls it the Jolly Rancher bass!
Bass Inside: Why’s that?
Bill Dickens: ‘Cos it’s green and some other colors sorta mashed together. It’s beautiful, unique, but just not my favorite color. But I did tell Bill to surprise me. He is such a great luthier. I told him to build whatever he wanted, but he went a little overboard this time! I should have told him, “No green!”
We moved into Bill’s more recent activities, something of interest to all of us. His past is well documented on his site, it is the present and the future that this interview is addressing.
He began by talking about his newest project…a local venture where he lives in Chicago. Many people know Bill as much for his work as a producer as a bassist, and it is this skill he is most thrilled with. He had packed in bass playing for quite some time and it was only Victor Wooten’s friendship and constant persistence that got Bill back into the game. As an aside, I asked him if he was truly pleased being back as a bass player and he confessed to have mixed emotions. His great love for all things music and in particular his production work can’t be pursued as heavily when he is out playing in a project. So regarding this perspective he was pleased to say that he was able to chase his other musical love, production, and felt all the better for it.
Bill Dickens: Well, it’s a local guy and it’s a bit of Country, it’s also a combination of everything you can remember from the 60’s as far as bands like The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Animals, but the overall feel is still Country. I am producing him, having played on his first project. His name is Kevin Mooney.
When this record was first started I began by putting all the music onto the sequencer. To do that I played all the instruments. Then, Kevin and Dave Pomeroy (Editor: A previous guest of Bass Inside’s) hired the engineers and the musicians we would need in Nashville.
Little did we know that Dave had arranged to bring in a pile of monster players! I had brought in one guy in particular…Kevin was scared to death that this guy would just brush him off. It was Lee Oscar, the harmonica player from War.
We ended up with Dave himself (known for his work also with Shania Twain and Clint Black), Lee Oscar, Joe Sparvie on fiddle, Dan Dougmore (who has worked with James Taylor & Linda Ronstadt) on steel guitar. Also a guy by the name of Lenny Garcia, who played percussion.
Brilliant percussion player! This record ended up being a really great project. We did the impossible with having so many people from so many backgrounds on that record and still coming out with a great sounding project.
We are still going back to Nashville in July to cut two more songs. We’re working on getting a well-known vocalist on this, a ‘superstar’ that was well known in the 80’s.
Bass Inside: I know you can’t tell me who this is, but does the person themselves know you are after them?
Oh, no, not yet! That’s why I don’t want to say anything yet!
The other thing I was working on that is actually out there now and has been for the last while is a 30-second bass solo for Michelob Light. What they did was they brought me in to replace a drum solo, so I duplicated everything the drummer was playing.
Bass Inside: That must have been a lot of fun!
Bill Dickens: Yes, it was. They left me in the room with an engineer and I pieced it together.
Bass Inside: You must have loved that!
Bill Dickens:Oh, are you kidding?! For a national spot! 30 seconds of pure crazy playing!
Bass Inside: Note for note?
Bill Dickens:Yeah, note for note. Every single thing, man. That was really pretty awesome. It’s been airing since last summer. It was originally for the Super Bowl and got bumped, but they have continued on using it as part of a two-year ad campaign. I am going to have them send me the tape and I will put it on my website.
Also I was a special guest at Victor Wooten’s Bass Nature Camp. I was there with Chuck Rainey, Steve Bailey, Adam Nitti and one of my good friends and I guess you could call him a student (but he has pretty much held his own) Kenny Davis, who was the bass player for The Tonight Show. That all went real well.
I was also on Victor’s new record, the song’s called ‘How Low Can You Go?’ with Victor Wooten, myself and Adam Nitti. I sing on one song that is dedicated to Jaco.
Now what he did, Victor did that I thought was really interesting, was that he brought in all these well known bassists like Will Lee, T.M. Stevens and Christian McBride only to sing! There must be 10 to 15 bass players. He’s got some interesting stuff on that record. For one song he’s got Dennis Chambers (drummer extraordinaire), Will Kennedy playing drums on one song. The amazing thing is they were never in the studio at the same time. Dennis and Victor and Mike Stern, now that was very interesting! Victor is so kind and very focussed and for anybody who has gotten as successful as he has gotten, he takes it so well.
No conversation with ‘The Buddha’ would be complete without addressing his highly personal bass collection and a new amplification system built to his specifications. Starting off, how many people do you know that can tangle with 7 and 9 string basses? Some will say, ‘Oh, why the 7 string?’
Why the 7 string? The fact of the matter is that, looking at bass, one of the hardest things for me as a bass player is to read music in the higher register. Unless you know your neck really well, you are gonna end up missing some notes.
With the 7 string you don’t have to travel up the neck, you can go across. It makes reading soooo much easier. It eliminates the shifting. A few short steps to travel and you are right there at the high note you are reaching for. That’s one reason…the other reason is for playing chords.
I have played on several records, for that matter, one guy by the name of Dave Thomas, who did a remake of ‘What You Won’t Do For Love’. I played keys and bass on that. I played a lot of chords on my bass on that. They didn’t use a guitar player. A lot of times people will use my bass in place of a rhythm guitar.
Bass Inside:On your chordal work, how do you avoid the problem of the parts coming across muddled and choked?
Bill Dickens:My bass sustains forever, though I can’t take credit for that. That’s because of Bill Conklin and the electronics from Bartolini. Bill Bartolini and myself sat down and actually found the frequencies for my low B and my Low F-sharp. So inside the bass we have two trim pots, one for the frequency of the B and one for the low F sharp. You have a push/pull knob on the top of the bass. It gives you the actual harmonic of the string, but it also comes across completely clear. I also have a switch with all my favorite parametric settings. That means I don’t have to set a parametric EQ on my amp. They are right there, preset. They start at 12K, 18K and 21K. So what I have done here is to simplify things so I wouldn’t have to have a million knobs on the thing. The advantage of having all this on one bass is you are able to plug into any amp and it always sounds exactly the same. You can even plug into a monitor and sound the same. That sparkle is always there.
That’s the great thing, it’s also on my 9-string. The 9-string has piezo’s and that’s great for getting that nylon-string sound. That also works great for me on ballads where with the lower strings, the bigger the band sounds.
I have a friend of mine that made a four-string bass that goes from a low C sharp, a 5th below my F sharp! Then he went from that low C to the F sharp, then B and E. On a four string bass!
He plugged it into an amp, having already done some research on frequencies, into a 10-inch speaker and it worked. I think that this is the kind of stuff that is going on right now and if you are into the next wave, if your are able to hear these kinds of notes, it just broadens the music so much. I mean, if you hear the same major chords on guitar and then add this! You will have a brand new sound in music.
(Editor’s Notes: Fascinating concepts, but it presents these questions…Will most stereos be even able to produce a faithful copy of notes this low, never mind recapturing that at live gigs and having the power to drive those notes, it means a whole new generation of power amplifiers, speaker efficiency and frequencies and speaker movement, and even the effects of low frequencies on the human body. How to keep people from ‘upchucking’ and feeling nauseous from notes this low!!! All considerations to be taken.)
The way I judge a bass to me is not how well it plays, but how great of a tone it gets. The way I test a bass is to just plug it in, turn everything up and hit one note. Then I just sit there and listen to it. One, to see how much sustain you get and number two, how the note shoots out at you. If it does, that’s a good sign, if it doesn’t, you’ve got a problem.
Bass Inside:Bill has received a group of Signature bass amps and speakers recently that he thinks very highly of. . .
Bill Dickens:AccuGroove. Mark Wright had originally just emailed me and had asked me to come to his booth at the NAMM show. He has a cabinet called the ‘El Whappo’ which consists of a 15, a 12 and a 6 and two tweeters. It covers everything and with an small cab that only weighs 83 pounds. It’s very light, lighter than a 4X10 but with the power of an 8X10!
I went out to also see a 21-inch speaker he had made for my low F-sharp. So I plugged my original 7-string in there and played around with the speaker. I noticed how fast the speaker responded, somehow almost as fast as a 10. Now that is just not possible, if only because of the physical size of it. I don’t know what he and his partner did but they had something in there that was amazing. That speaker is now part of the AccuGroove line.
So I told him I had been toying around with this Signature stuff and have definitely made a lot of progress with my bass, my pickups and my electronics, both Bill Conklin and Bill Bartolini were very good about putting that all together for me. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to come up with my own cabs. By all means, I told him, “Let’s do it!”
Now I am known for blowing up speaker cabs, so they made these cabs for me, both cabs are totally different from one another. The subwoofer cab has two twelve’s and handles 1400 watts by itself. That’s just the subwoofer and is about the same as the ‘El Whappo’ (83 pounds).
The top cab is also made of 2 twelves in a more mid-range configuration. There is also an 8-inch in there and two tweeters. That cabinet handles a 1000 watts. You can definitely tell that a different tone comes out of each of the different cabinets. You run those cabinets full-range, you won’t have any problems. That’s great.
Bass Inside:No audible distortion then?
Bill Dickens:None, but I still can’t even stand in front of it it’s so loud, so clear. I can’t even find any distortion. I would put it up against two 8X10’s anytime. It would still be day and night.
If you’re not 20 years old, it’s nice not hauling a boat to every gig.
You know, those days are gone!
Bass Inside:After the self-imposed hiatus you chose for a number of years, what’s it like being ‘back’?
Bill Dickens:On the one front it’s been great to come back to being a bass player on this level, but on the other front it’s a bit of a downer because as a bassist the phone doesn’t ring off the wall. Also there’s that fear factor out there as well!
What, that your skill level would intimidate? It would. When the chops are higher than the primadonna guitarist, it just ain’t gonna happen, at least not as much as you would like. It’s odd when your skill level gets in the way.
I tell people I don’t need to solo, there’s enough out there on me already for a lifetime, so people can go ahead and solo. I’ll just play. Just to make a decent living, I will bring out my 4-string Fender, plug it in and go! And that calms people down, but again, if you go up on a gig and you have more strings than the guitar player, you’re gonna hear their blood pressure going up! Seems that nowadays it’s like a lot of things are going back to tradition. So you’re seeing more Fenders now…
Or more Fender clones!
Lot of ’em! (laughs) I think a lot of the reason why, especially in the US, it is that they have taken so much money out of the arts, so you don’t have the teachers you used to have. I get little kids saying to me, “Mr. Dickens, why should I learn to play as well as you when I can in two years become a rock star?” My reply then is, “Then, why are you sitting in the audience?”
You have to understand that being that ‘rock star’ is more about your marketing and image, playing that is geared towards making hits. Yes, you do have your people that can actually play, but you would never ever guess it. For example, I went to see KISS on their last tour, and Gene Simmons did a bass solo where in hitting one note he hit more notes than I have played in my whole lifetime! He had so much stuff on it. Then, of course, there was the blood flying out of his mouth!
But if you don’t put people like me in a situation that’s tailored to them then you will really never get a chance to hear them. So I was very fortunate in that I had situations where the people were able to hear me being myself.
Bass Inside:So you have run into a fair bit of flack over the years from people who are intimidated by what you do then?
Bill Dickens:Yeah, especially in Chicago, which is unfortunate because that’s where I come from. I have run up against so many people that don’t like me and what I do. The sad thing is that instead of them not liking me, I could be actually helping them. I guess that comes any time when you are high profile. When there was a time that you weren’t popular they had nothing to talk about.
Bass Inside:How have your videos done over the years?
Bill Dickens:Well, the good news is that the record labels have recouped the cost on those now and now only am I getting royalty checks on them, the label is talking about re-recording them into DVD’s. For a laugh, they also include the time where I blow out the entire system at a club in Nashville, that’s in there, too!
There’s also a new book coming out that took me four years to write, with Bobby Rock. It’s called Funk Bass Beyond and that will be out there later this year. It will include a DVD as well. It will include Gary Hoey, he plays all over that one. We ended up saying to each other when we were done that “we have given Warner Bros. an album, not just a book!”
Bass Inside:Any new solo stuff, all of your own?
Bill Dickens:Well, as embarrassing as this is to say, it costs a lot to make a great CD, so I am always looking for investors for this solo album. Even in making a good demo, labels want records to sound finished.
Bass Inside:Bill is more than open-minded to other projects as well.
If you ever hear of anybody who is a music lover that wants to invest in a well-known player, and even see their money back, just let me know! That goes for touring or recording bands that need a high level player as well.
As this great talk wound down I asked Bill what he would want to leave us with for now.
Bill Dickens:What I want to leave behind is that a bass player does not need to think they have limits, there really are no limits to what you can do. You just have to be opened-minded enough to take that on. I try to take on every challenge I am given. Anything that is put on my plate, I try to do the best I can.
Bass Inside:Notes from Mark Wright, the co-designer and builder of Bill’s custom signature cabinets…
I was frustrated myself as a bass player, I could never find the sound I heard in my head. Finally I realized that the ONLY way I would ever find that sound was to create it myself. Bill told us that everyone pretty much uses the same speakers for their cabinets, and because of that, they all pretty much sound the same. Don’t rock the boat and don’t do anything that is going to rock the boat or is out of the ‘norm’. This is all crazy because as a bass player I wanted a sound that none of the others were getting.
When Bill talked to us about his ideas, we felt, “yeah, let’s do this!” That this would be no less than a fun project. Bill wanted cabinets that were small but absolutely crisp, clean and clear. And with a tremendous amount of power.
We started collecting speakers, both stock and specially built speakers, pretty much every kind. We kept building cabinets and testing those speakers until we found the perfect configuration. And then we built our own crossovers here. So with all of the very best, with attention paid to every component, what you get is an incredibly clear and powerful sound. Our drivers are in separate sections of the cabinet. Other companies put the drivers and everything all in the same part of the cabinet, we don’t. So in our case, we have three inner cabinets in an outer cabinet.
This assures that the drivers do not interfere with each other. There is about three times more wood as well. So ultimately it sounds like a giant studio monitor! So it also means that cabinets like Bill’s design can handle 1000 watts and up to 1400 watts. From the very beginning Bill has made it a project of his to blow up our cabinets. With Bill, you are just gonna have to get used to that!