Touring with John McLaughlin at the young age of 17 started this bassist on his musical journey. What followed, were decades of tours, recording sessions and appearances with top name artists in many genres. Such a rich musical history couldn’t help but generate some great stories, read on to get to know the wonderful Mr. Ralphe Armstrong.
JS – Could you give a little history of yourself? You had a very young start with John McLaughlin and went on tour with him at an early age.
Ralphe – My first experience with John McLaughlin, I played with the Buffalo Philharmonic with Michael Tilton Thomas and Jon Luc-Ponty…we went to London and started recording for CBS records with George Martin who produced the Beatles.
JS - You toured with John McLaughlin for 3 years?
Ralphe - Yeah, 3 years and after that I went on the road with Carlos Santana for about a month, then we recorded with him, went in the studio. After that group I went out with the great Frank Zappa and his band for about 7 months, I was in the Mothers of Invention.
JS - Which album were you guys playing at that time?
Ralphe - Oh, I think it was Hot Rats. We were doing that and all kinds of crazy stuff. I was kind of burnt out so I took a time out. Now what’s so funny about this whole thing, Michael Henderson, the same guy that got me started with Michael Walden’s Soul Scenario, started my career, he had Miles Davis call me. So I was picked to play in Miles’s band early 1977 and what happened was that Miles had a car accident and he stayed out of music for years.
It was so funny, on the way to going to see Frank Zappa, I was on the same airplane sitting next to Herbie Hancock…..I knew Herbie from playing with John McLaughlin….He said, “Man why don’t you play bass with me?” Cuz I was upset, it’s funny ‘cuz Herbie was going to see Miles but he was in the accident. So he called me to play bass with him and I ended up in the Headhunters.
I had promised Jon Luc I would go out on tour with him, so after Herbie’s stint I ended up working with Jon Luc-Ponty and stayed with Jon Luc for almost 5 years.
JS - Did you play your fretless throughout all these groups?
Ralphe - Ah yes, always used the fretless bass except with Herbie, I used the Gibson, The Ripper and the EB2, because for the type of music he was playing back then, you needed to pop the bass, get more of a brighter sound than the fretless instrument so it sounds a little bit better.
JS - You and James Jameson were the first guys to play the Fender fretless.
Ralphe - It’s funny, he told me about the bass, I thought he was crazy. I looked at a 1970, dead positive on that year, 1970 and they had an illustration of a sunburst fretless Precision Bass. What I did, I swapped my neck and put in on my candy apple red Precision Bass and I went and auditioned for John McLaughlin and he went berserk over the fretless Fender bass and Jaco was there at the same time. He didn’t get to audition, he [John] liked the way I played, loved it, went crazy over it. So Jaco got mad and ripped out the frets of his Jazz bass and this is a true story. There are a lot of people who are still living, like Sandy Terrano, Michael Narrada Walden, they were all there. Greg Feld, Greg DeHovan, they’re all living and they remember this whole incident. That’s how Jaco started playing fretless because back then in 1973 there was no such thing as the fretless Jazz bass, so he ripped the frets out of his bass and put epoxy in it.
JS - So, everybody owes you a big thanks then, you and James.
Ralphe - Yeah, he was my friend, Jaco was my friend too. He told me, man I’ll never forget about it, about a year later I was in New York and he was like, “Man, how you like my bass”? And I was like, “What, this plays awful, you play an F and it sounds like Eb.” He took it somewhere and somebody put on another fingerboard for him and fixed the bass up real nice. Then the next time I saw Jaco, he was playing with Wayne Shorter and Weather Report and he was really playing the bass you know. But, as far as I know I was one of the first to really record with the fretless exclusively.
JS - Where you were friends with Jaco and James, did you ever have the chance to sit with them, trade licks or just jam?
Ralphe - I didn’t trade any licks with James Jameson, me and Jaco would play, he would play and I would play, we would just sit there and dig each other’s playing you know, ‘cuz we respected each other, we were friends. We didn’t really trade licks, we’d listen to different concepts.
JS - Would you hang out at a club and play sometimes?
Ralphe - Right, hang out, go in a dressing room, he’d say, “Man, try my bass, check out my amplifier.” And I would show him the things I was using you know. But he would come around, he was a good guy, he was cool, he was a very sweet person, he really was. He was really nice, he could really play, he was just a kid you know, we were both kids.
JS - Yeah you were both young when you started out, you were 17 when you went out with John McLaughlin. You were classically trained before that, right?
Ralphe - That’s right, I went to Cass technical highschool and Interlochen national music camp, I studied under a teacher named Robert Hurst and also had Robert Warner from the Seattle Symphony.
JS - Do you ever get the chance to play classical music these days?
Ralphe - Yes I play, I play with the Fox Theater Orchestra in Detroit, I played behind Roger Daltry recently. I just played Arabas with Sting [also] with Michael Narada. We did Sting, Marilyn Macoo, Billy Davis, Jeannie Tracey.
JS - What are you using now for amps and basses?
Ralphe - Right now I’m using HARTKE equipment, I have a Hydrive 10 and a Hydrive 15 and for the theaters, I have the little 35 watt which has the XLR out. I like HARTKE equipment very much.
JS - I saw you’ve got the 5 string fretless upright.
Ralphe - Yes, I love that one. I have the Triumph bass from Warwick, I’m endorsing Warwick. I have a Streamer 2, which is a 6 string red with a flame maple. The wood is very fine, it’s almost like a bass violin and I have a Star 2 bass, fretless made out of Bodega wood.
JS - I’ve never played on that wood, how does it feel?
Ralphe - It’s fantastic and it’s made like a 335, like BB King’s guitar. I also have Dean basses, I have a 6 string Edge Q6, I have a fretless and I have a 6 string Q6 fretted. I have a 5 string fretless Edge and a 5 string fretted Edge and a 4 string Edge with P-Bass pickups. I have a Fender American made precision bass. I have a Fender 5 string Jazz Bass…a Fender 4 string fretless bass. I own one of the instruments I played with Jon Luc-Ponty, a Gibson RD artist with Robert Molt pickups.
JS - Is that the mahogany one with the ebony neck?
Ralphe - No, that’s the maple one, I sold that one. This is the one I really use a lot, in the beginning I used this one.
I have a Samick fretless 5 string, a Horner 4 string acoustic bass guitar. I have a fine, they call it a Manoosh bass made by Leo Eimers, it’s fretless, he gave it to me last year at the Django Reinhardt festival, with an ebony fingerboard, very fine instrument, it’s like an acoustic bass guitar. I have a Dean Pace bass. I have a blonde Precision bass with a black body, blonde neck and I have an Epiphone 4 string bass I love. What else have I got?
JS - I’ve counted about 20 so far.
Ralphe - I’ve got about 23 of them. You know why I have so many of them, because certain producers want certain sounds and they all have different personalities. I’m not collecting them just to collect something. When a person, for example, I had Frank Martin call me for a session last January and he said, “Well, I hear a fretless 6 string if you have one.” It so happened I had a fretless 6 string, I used the Dean HQ6. So that’s the reason why I have them, they all use different sounds.
I use the “Deep Talking” Labella strings.
JS - I’ve never tried Labella, those are flatwounds I’m guessing, right?
Ralphe - Yeah, they’re excellent. Well, the whole objective is to emulate the bass violin, you can’t have a legato sound with roundwounds, even when they’re on a bass violin. Ya see, I’m old school, I’m the last generation of a gut violin player. I played Artone strings when I was a kid and every bass player had a pack of matches because the strings would come apart, would unravel so we would burn them off, those strings were very deep. The copper ones would tear up your fingers and they had no legato in them at all, it was just a low tone. So I really don’t like the roundwounds on a fretless instrument, they kind of defeat the purpose, like the magnetic pickups. I mean, it’s ok, I’ve done them like that, it doesn’t have the sound that you should be getting, clarity is better, like a roundwound or half round, like a Labella.
JS - Being friends with Stanley Clarke, have you guys ever recorded together?
Ralphe - Stanley Clarke is one of my oldest, dearest friends. No, we’re gonna work on that so, we gotta get some time, well we’ve been talking about it. We talk once a month now ‘cuz they’re on the road, I think they’re over in Europe.
JS - I saw him at BB King’s at the end of March, Lenny White sat in on drums for a little while.
Ralphe - Ah Lenny, as a matter of fact, I toured with Lenny in the 80′s, after Zappa I went on the road with Lenny.
JS - Is there anyone out there today that you haven’t had the chance to play with that you would like to?
Ralphe - Let me think about that, that’s a good question, I never thought about that. I’ve been friends with Chick Corea all these years, maybe Chick, we’ve been friends for years.
JS - I would like to hear that. Are you working on anything these days as a student of the bass? What’s left for you to conquer?
Ralphe - Oh, I’m always trying to better myself, I’m basically like Miles, I want to find new genres of music, concepts. I like what young people are doing. I still like the bass with the bow and I use the bow a lot but I like playing arco. I still like using effects like I’ve always done.
You can always learn, when you get to the point where you can’t learn anything in music, to me, I think it’s time to quit playing. I’m always learning concepts, I just don’t want to regress. My thing is this, I don’t want to play like I did 40 years ago, 30 years ago. I can play like that but I don’t wanna play like that because that’s been done already.
Last thing Ray Brown said to me, it was funny, I asked him a question, “Why do these young guys wanna play the bass without a pick-up?” There was a big fad one time, bass players went out playing without a pick-up. Yes, it was very popular and they still do it over in Europe, they use just the microphone, I don’t wanna see a microphone.
JS - The upright’s you feel should have a pick-up.
Ralphe - No, it’s called a bass violin, no but you know what, people say that all the time, that’s a hillbilly term. Upright bass, it really just blows me away when I hear it. Upright? What’s upright? What is that? What is the definition of an upright? It’s a double bass, a bass violin or a contrabass.
JS - How about standup? Is that also not a good term, just as bad a term as upright?
Ralphe - That’s not the terminology, that’s slang, that’s just like using profanity, that’s slang terminology, it’s a bass violin. That instrument was the first instrument of the catholic church. Gregorian chants were written on the bass violin. I don’t mean to sound mean but when I hear upright that’s like a street musician’s term you know, upright bass. Trust me, you’re talking about an instrument that’s been around 300 years. I think the electric bass which Leo Fender made popular in 1949 has only 50 years.
JS - Which younger players are sticking out to you in jazz, pop, latin?
Ralphe - All across, I like Michelle N’Degecello, Esperanza, I like, oh god there’s so many young players.
JS - Which pieces are you currently working on ?
Ralphe - I’m working on my own sort of a hip hop cd and I’m working on a jazz cd.
JS - Tell me about your most memorable gigs?
Ralphe - When I played the Opera House in Rome with Curtis Fuller and Roy Brooks, there’s so many memorable jobs. One of my favorite sessions was “So Damn Heavy” with Aretha Franklin because she was in such a good mood and it was one of the easiest sessions I ever did with a vocalist. I also recorded with Patti Austin, aw you know, there’s just so many. I’m working on a complete list now and I’ve got 200 names in there already.
One of the greatest achievements in my life was when I played the Hendrix festival in 1995. I had the pleasure of hanging out with Mitch Mitchell 24/7 and Buddy Miles which I knew from years ago. What a group, John McLaughlin, Mitch Mitchell, myself and then Narada Michael Walden and Buddy Miles. Guess who played saxophone? Clarence Clemons. And guess who played guitar with us? Neal Schon, an old friend of Journey. He’s an old friend of mine, a beautiful guy.
Js – You play everything, you’re with everybody.
Ralphe – Well, I’m versatile, the thing, what happened to me, I had to come back and raise my kids. Now I’m doing my internet show right now, I’m really enjoying life right now. I’ve got a live cd about ready to be released on Tarpan records. It’s called “Home Based Live in Detroit”
JS – Tell me about your internet show?
Ralphe – It’s a media cafe, it’s a studio and a nightclub. It’s got a studio setting with the lights and all the camera works. What you’re seeing, the streaming, those are the edited versions. We’ll put the edited versions up soon and you can see it with the fine camera work and the audio, you even see the cameraman while you’re playing, while streaming.
JS - Is this an “Invite Only” or do people just kind of jump in?
Ralphe-I have special guests, it’s a show, we have scripts and the whole thing, it’s a show.
Join me in a few weeks for part 2 of my interview with Ralphe Armstrong. Hear about his lesson times with Ron Carter, conversations with Ray Brown, and all time favorite bass lines.
Enjoy your BASS!!!