I had the pleasure recently of interviewing Berklee College of Music Bass professor Joe Santerre at his home in Massachusetts. Anytime I am in the presence of Joe and his bass, I immediately want to dust off my 6 string bass and hope that after much practice I could gain even a small percentage of his mastery. Whether it be chords, grooves, solos, flashy techniques or advanced scale work, I have yet to see Joe stumped.
Among his playing and/or recording credits are Jon Finn, Bruce Bartlett, Tiffany Jo Allen, Sal Difusco, Don Lappin, Shaun England, Chad Wackerman, Mike Mangini, Guthrie Govan, Steve Hunt, George Garzone, Steve Morse, John Petrucci, Ross Ramsay, Tom Coster and Mark Walker among many others.
As an educator Joe’s lengthy teaching career has found him at Berklee College of Music for 28 years, among his most notable students are Brian Bellar (Dweezil Zappa), Chris Chaney (Alanis Morrissette, Robben Ford), Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith) and John “J.D.” DeServio (Black Label Society, Vinnie Moore, Lita Ford).
Also in his list of accomplishments are 3 lesson books, Rock Bass Lines, Slap Bass Lines and Finger style Funk Bass Lines for Hal Leonard/Berklee Press.
Recently released by a leading music publishing company in Taiwan are 2 of Joe’s latest instructional DVDs, How to Play Bass Lines & Fusion Bass.
Joe was my Bass professor at Berklee and therefore I can attest to what an avid soul player and great teacher he truly is. Please read further to get to know this wonderful credit to our instrument.
What brought you to the bass?
I started playing bass when I was 13 or 14 but I had been playing alto sax since like 10 or 11 and then I switched to bass. I switched to bass because I grew up in a small town and a kid had moved up from the city that played electric. We were doing a concert that night and when I went into the concert, the good band was playing, you know the older kids, and this kid was playing bass and I had never heard an electric bass in a room with a band before. I had recordings and stuff but never knew what it was. And the boominess, the low end captured me immediately, I was like, what is that sound? That’s what made me want to start playing bass, hearing that kid.
I found another guy that taught lessons around town, his name is Moon Maggue by the way, I want to give a shout out to Moon mague. What an amazing guy, when the guitar player in his band left, he let me play rhythm guitar parts high up on the bass neck, cuz’ I couldn’t play guitar, the strings are too small but he let me play rhythm guitar up on the bass. It was a 2 bass band, he played bass and did vocals, drums, sometimes a keyboard player. To me it was very helpful because I really started to know the fretboard because I’d have to think about 3, 4 note chords, I’d have to figure out a guitar part that was in a rock song. Being a bass player you just find out what the bass line is.
You do a lot of chordal playing, I wonder if that’s where it started?
Yeah, absolutely. Then I came to Berklee, I studied with Charlie Banacos for a while, took a couple lessons with Jeff Berlin, way back in the 80′s.
Was he at Berklee?
He wasn’t at Berklee, he moved to Boston I can’t remember why but I know at the time he was doing a lot of gigs with Mike Stern. At that time, Mike Stern was still in Boston before he moved to New York. I think that’s why he was in the area.
It was interesting, I remember going to one of his lessons, he had auditioned for Frank Zappa and he had a Frank Zappa part up on the piano. As you can imagine, it was craziness, I just looked at it in awe. It was cool though, because he said, you know, people they say I’m a good reader, they think I can just look at something like this and just site read it right, first time, boom ready go. But he said, no, I’ve got to stop and think, ok, they’ve got a bar of 7/16 here and then I’m going to a bar of ¾. I’ve got to find out where the pulse is and take my time with it, then I can read it. So that was interesting to hear, that he couldn’t just you know, site read read anything ever written.
It makes it seem like it’s possible to do it too.
Is that what you guys worked on during your lessons?
No, at that time I might have been able to do one measure out of the whole part, it was just craziness from what I remember. He had me writing bass lines out and working on soloing through changes. I told him I was into funky R&B and Motown kinds of basslines and he would say ok, write like 5 or 10 for the next lesson. Then he would have me do a tune out of the Real Book, working on improvistaion.
I remember the stuff you used to have me do in our lessons, going through the chord changes. Go up the neck for 8 measures and then go down the neck for 8 measures but I had to hit the chord tone that was always the next closest one, not necessarily the root.
Yeah, I still do that. It’s a good exercise.
When did you start teaching at Berklee?
It was a couple years after I graduated. I was going back and forth between New York and here. I was working with an original pop/rock band here.
Jon Finn, he and were working with each other back then, not doing the original stuff yet, but he mentioned he had applied in the guitar department and he said he had heard they were looking for someone in the bass department too.
When I left Berklee, I had left Rich Appleman my resume just for the heck of it, I figured no way are they going to ask me to teach. I called Rich and he said drop off another resume. I dropped off another resume and about a month later he called and asked if I would be interested in doing a few hours of private lessons and that’s how it all started.
Did you and Jon Finn [Berklee Guitar Professor, Guitarist Boston Pops] meet at Berklee?
We didn’t actually meet at Berklee but we both had gone to Berklee. I answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix, at the time that’s how everybody got gigs, for a fusion/funk band looking for a bass player. I went and Jon was the guitar player in the band and that’s how we met, seems like yesterday.
How long does it take you guys to work these tunes out, they’re pretty intricate pieces.
It varies, sometimes we would not necessarily plan, we would get together and have general ideas and a tune would be born out of that or there would be other times where Jon would say I’ve got this outline of these changes, the bridge is going to go to this riff. Let’s just play it and see what happens.
There is a tune in there, Who is This man, that Ross Ramsey wrote……it’s sick! It’s interesting because Ross wrote the bassline in a phrase of 11/16 and then 13/16. So, 11 and 13 equals 24. The drums go back and forth between doing a shuffle because you’ve got the 3, which goes into the 24 so you can do a shuffle or straight. It’s the most interesting sounding thing because the bassline is doing the 11 and 13 phrase on top of that, so your ear kind of goes wait a minute, something is not quite right.
Who are your influences?
When I first started it was the classic rock bands I loved, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Aerosmith. I loved early ZZ Top, I liked that there was blues but there was funkiness in it too. Then I heard Stanley Clarke and Jaco and was like, What is this? How can people do this on the bass? It got me more to the fusion/funk side of things. I love Victor Wooten’s playing, Pattitucci, Oteil Burbridge, so many great bass players.
I can remember being a kid in my parents car going on the classic Sunday drive to get all 4 kids out of the house so we weren’t driving my parents nuts. I can remember they would let us have the radio on and hearing old R&B/Motown tunes. I never listened to the words, I couldn’t tell you what all these songs were about, if they were singing about love or depression, I would always listen to the drums and the bass. I didn’t realize it at the time but now that I’ve gotten older I remember being in the car going, whoa that is a cool feeling, what is that , that is cool. The groove is what I focused in on.
What styles do you prefer playing now?
That’s a tough question, I think I prefer something on the funkier side of things, like James Brown, repetitive, pocket grooves. I still love Jazz and Fusion where it has different elements of different styles, I love the challenge of that. But, there’s something about playing a hypnotic groove with a drummer while you’ve got vocals or a guitar or sax on top. I just love gettin’ in that pocket, just staying there. Where I feel I am at home and my heart is, is just a 2 bar riff with the drums going over and over, I could do that all night long.
Can you tell me some of your best musical experiences, whether it be a huge stage or garage? What’s sticks out in the grey matter?
My initiation into club gigs was playing with my teacher Moon Mague in upstate New York, I don’t know what it is now but at that time the club scene was 9-2. We would do 5 sets, and being a young kid [aged 17 at the time] sometimes the gigs seemed like they went on forever and ever. It was a good learning experience in pacing yourself.
There are so many great experiences. With the Jon Finn group opening up for Steve Morse, Tribal Tech, The Dixie Dregs, Dream Theater.
A recent thing that was exciting was, playing on Don Lappin’s cd. He’s got Chad Wackerman from Allan Holdsworth’s band playing drums and Steve hunt, he used to do the road gigs with Stanley Clarke, on keyboards.
I have also recently played bass on 3 cd’s that I would like to make note of, Jon Finn’s Bull in a China Shop, singer/songwriter and teenage yodeling sensation Tiffany Jo-Allen and guitarist Don Lappin.
There are so many experiences, I could probably sit here for an hour naming them.
Do you have those aspirations as a player, where you say, I just want to reach that one thing, that one moment, that solo, that something that just clicks.
That’s a funny thing because I think you build that up in your head and in some ways it makes it unattainable in your mind. You think that thing is going to be the perfect thing. But once you get to that point, there’s always something else, you say, “Oh, now I want to be able to do this.” So, now I try and be in the moment more than I used to instead of thinking, Oh I wish I had that gig or wish I was playing with that person. Now, whatever I am doing, I try to be there. Like last night playing with Bruce Bartlett. I just try to be right there.
We go on to discuss Joe’s shows and clinics more and he shared about a recent trip to Taiwan playing for guitarist Sal Difusco.
We were so wiped out, it’s like a 20 hour flight and it some respects that’s a good thing. I was on the verge of fatigue and my mind didn’t have the energy to make myself worry about things. There’s one thing I will say about that, this is another thing I am learning the older I get, preparation is really key. That whole thing, although it was improvised, I did have a general map of what I wanted to do. I had that drum loop in 3 underneath so I knew that was going to be there. I had a bassline underneath it too that was playing with it, just a repetitive thing and then I had little areas that I knew I wanted to go to, even though it wasn’t a verbatim solo.
I especially liked the part where you take it out a bit.
I’ve really been experimenting with that. It goes back to my lessons with Charlie Banacos where he would say to stay in for a while, establish the tonality and let the listeners ears hear it and then go somewhere else and then all of the sudden things perk up. It’s all about resolution.
You have been teaching now for a while and I was wondering if you have noticed any trends in ability with students over the past few years with the introduction of the internet, thus allowing more access to information?
I think the access part definitely, there is so much more music available. I think everything in general like programs such as the amazing slow downer for transcribing, where you can slow down a song without changing the key. That makes it a lot easier for a student to figure out something complicated. Whereas in the old days you just have to listen to the thing over and over just to try and get the first note and then the second note. Now you can slow it down and it stays in the same key.
The whole sequencing thing, being able to put loops together. The younger kids now, they can do that second nature.
I have noticed myself in some of my newer students that they have done a lot of work prior to even the first lesson. Where I see them lacking is technique or position playing because they never had that back and forth rapport with a face to face teacher. They are advanced in some ways and not in others.
What I notcied myself gravitating towards most of the time with all my students is making them learn the fretboard. Some kids may be able to play Victor Wooten’s tunes but they may not necessarily know what is happening like with tonality or chord outlining.
Usually I see a lot of holes in the playing and I think it all comes back to being able to know the fretboard. So I think my teaching leans a lot towards that and then the other stuff, they can just go in the direction they want. My feeling is once you know that fretboard enough then you’re free to go wherever you want because then you’re not bound by thinking Oh, I can only do that thing in that position, I can’t even think about how I am going to get up here. Or, you’ve got some riff in 1st position and at the end of the riff you’ve got to be up on the 14th fret of your G string. You don’t want to be jumping or climbing the G string if you’re doing a quarter note equals 180, you want to get up there a little earlier I think.
The bass seems to have gained popularity over the past decade. Have you noticed an increase in enrollment in the Bass department at Berklee?
Definitely, I don’t know what the numbers are but there’s definitely a few more teachers there. I think there’s probably 20 to 25 bass teachers.
How many were there when you started?
8 or 10. The overall enrollment has gone up, it’s up to about 4000 students right now at the school. When you were there, I’m going to say there were about 2500.
How long have you been at Berklee?
I’ve been there since 1984.
Who was there and who is still there since you’ve been there? Rich Appleman , Bruce Gertz, John Repucci?
Whit Brown, John Neves (passed away in 1988) Greg Mooter.
When I first started [in the whole school] I’m going to say there was about 150 to 175 teachers, now there are 500 teachers.
Are there any challenges facing musicians today?
Making a living. I think for a couple of reasons, definitely the economy and it feels like there’s more and maybe it’s because I’m older but it feels like there’s more really good musicians now fighting for the same space for the same income.
Things in general too like I know in the Boston area when I was a student the hotels all around still had top 40 bands playing 3, 4, 5 or 6 nights a week and that’s what I did when I was a student. All the Sheraton’s, The Hilton’s, they would all have bands in their clubs 4 or 5 nights a week. Now there isn’t that element where students could have gained experience playing all the time, there isn’t that. They might do a Friday or Saturday somewhere if you’re lucky.
What do you think of the internet as a tool to reach people.
It’s great in a sense that you can broadcast your creativity to the whole world. That is very cool.
I’m now getting set up to do recording at home. They can send me the tracks and I can record my parts here and send them back to them. As a matter of fact, that’s how Chad Wackermann did his drum parts for Don Lappin’s latest CD.
Which program was used?
The one he used was Digtal Performer I think and Don lappin had used Logic, somehow they’re compatible. Essentially they are different versions of the same thing.
Tell me about the method books you have written?
I did Rock Bass Lines, Slap Bass Lines and Finger style Funk Bass Lines for Hal Leonard/Berklee Press.
Who do you endorse?
D’Addario strings, the XL Pro Steel set of 6, Laney amplifiers and Ibanez Guitars and the gig FX sub wah pedal, it’s wah-wah pedal and flanger for bass specifically. I like the envelope filter part of it, the wah is cool too because you can control it yourself.
What are you working on currently as a “student” of the bass?
I’m working on improving my time and improvisation.
How do you work on that?
I’ll set a metronome and sequence a pattern and play along with it or I’ll do little exercises where I’ll have a click going and play on the different 16th notes. Just keeping it fresh. Working on longer lines too, 2,3, 4 octave stuff with the 6 string bass.
Are you working out of any books? What kind of improv?
Just tunes, you know, old jazz standards to a 2 chord groove. Just trying to play interesting lines using more chromatic stuff, trying to go out and resolve back in. I’m trying to make myself come up with my own ideas with that, coming up with my own thing, not necessarily trying to copy. Which I think all comes down to the ear, if you hear it coming, that’s what you should play.
Who are you playing steadily with these days?
I’m pretty steady with Sal Difusco’s original project. I’m with Jon Finn and just also did a concert with Don Lappin. With Jon, we did a couple gigs last year with Guthrie Govan. Bruce Bartlett, I’m with him pretty steadily. Recording projects seem to be popping up every month too.
Is this where you hoped you would be?
I am very grateful for everything I have experienced so far but if there’s more, I would be even more grateful. If something comes along, I’m ready for it.
Is there something you’re hoping to do yet that you haven’t done yet, either writing or playing?
I’d love to do another cd of my fusion stuff, I’d like to be able to do that. I’d like to be able to do a tour with that kind of stuff, with somebody or my own material and just continue to grow as a player, I think that’s my main thing. Keep maturing to the next level whatever that is.
Enjoy your BASS!!!