“A Talk With Edgar Meyer”
as featured in Bassic magazine and
Bass Frontiers Online in 1997
Date: Sun, 25 May 1997 10:24:13 -0400
Subject: Edgar Meyer article
I enjoyed your interview with Edgar Meyer that I pulled up on the Internet. There are, however, some questions about possible inaccuracies regarding the Gabrielli bass and its history. First of all, the bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony is SAM Hollingsworth, not STAN. Also, the bass player in Savannah Georgia who sold it to Edgar’s father was, I believe, George “Hofer,” not “Humpher.” I played in the Savannah Symphony for several years in the ’70s and George was the principle bass there and he owned a few truly fabulous instruments, and I believe the Gabrielli was one of them. He also was, by the way, the teacher of the young Barry Green. I have not seen him in many years, as I moved from that area in 1983. But I believe it was George who you referred to in your interview.Thanks for the otherwise excellent interview with this truly inspiring bass genius.
— Bruce M. Hyman, Ph.D.
Boca Raton, Florida
Web Site: http://www.suncompsvc.com/ocd/
Thank you for taking the time to mail me your corrections Dr. Hyman…you have a good eye. I do apologize for both misspellings.
A Talk With Edgar Meyer
When our college orchestra hosted Edgar Meyer as the guest artist for our Spring Concert, I leapt at an unusual opportunity. Ever since I had begun playing string bass, I had a long running, deep interest in Mr. Meyer’s technique and skills. I looked forward to the chance to meet him. Little did I know we would not only meet, but end up crossing most of Pennsylvania together.
Since I was both a Native Philadelphian and an owner of a large truck, the orchestra conductor asked me to pick up Meyer at the Philadelphia International Airport. The Airport was about 165 miles away from Bloomsburg University, via major highways. This trip under normal conditions takes about three hours. My “mission” was to pick him up and get him to Bloomsburg by 2:30 p.m. or sooner. His flight was going to arrive in Philly around 12:30 p.m. I was expected to make the trip in two hours flat or better. My trip to pick up Mr. Meyer became affectionately dubbed “The Meyer 2000.”
After a 12:15 p.m. pickup at the Airport, Edgar Meyer and I arrived in Bloomsburg by 2:00 p.m. and we still had time to miss two turns along the route. Incredibly enough, we only saw one police officer, and the radar detector flushed him out for us. We carried an extra gas can in the back of the truck and refueled while Edgar put his luggage and bass in my truck at the airport. I borrowed a cellular phone from a Bloomsburg business person in case the truck broke down or any kind of emergency occurred. A close friend of mine, named Mark, came along to help the day go smoothly. He monitored the CB looking for police and kept the famous Gabrielli bass secure in the back of my truck. What a job…watching a bass that is older than the United States of America.
During our high speed run across Pennsylvania, I had the pleasure of speaking with Edgar Meyer. He kindly allowed me to transcribe portions of a master class he gave at Bloomsburg University. So presented here is a summation of what he had to say about his career, his instrument and many other topics.
Would you please tell me how Strength In Numbers was formed?
Strength in Numbers was the band from my first MCA record in 1986. I moved to Nashville in 1983. The first record I ever played on was Bela Fleck’s “Double Time” in 1982 or 1983. It was a duet record he did. I actually played that on my red bass, my Czechoslovakian bass. I think [it] was orchestra tuned at that point. I played some string sessions before I moved to Nashville but the first major label record that I played on was Vince Gill’s “Colder Than Winter.” Emory Gordy produced it, and he added a bass solo in the middle, which was nice. He’s a great bass player. At that point I had made my own demo tape and wanted to get my own record deal. I got Bela to help me with getting Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, who I didn’t know real well, They all came and played for fifty bucks. Emory Gordy took that to Tony Bride of MCA right when Tony wanted to do this new label called the Master’s Series, and they did it. That was just what he wanted to have, and most of the songs we did for the demo we did again for the record. So we did about four cuts that way and we’d occasionally play dates. We never did very many dates but we played at a festival in Nashville several years and we played for quite a few years in Telluride at the Bluegrass Festival. We all worked together in a lot of different capacities. And when we started playing together in Telluride we started playing everybody’s music. And then we made a record sometime around 1990 and all of us wrote together. That’s pretty much what Strength in Numbers has been.
They’ve affected you musically quite a bit.
All of those guys are my teachers. Being with those guys is like going to college again. All of them have had a very profound impact on me. Each of them in a different way.
I’ve read that your father was a major influence on you bass playing. Would you please tell me how he affected you?
In a lot of ways. First of all, I grew up in a house where there was a lot of classical and a lot of jazz music played. My father’s enthusiasm for it was unbridled. He really loved this music. Although we went to church, I would say that those records had more of a religious overtone in our house than church did. They were at the center of what he thought was important. That was just transferred to me. Those records were to me, what was important. That’s what I cared about and that’s what made everything worthwhile or interesting. In that sense, my father is the biggest influence there will ever be on me since he just implanted a love of music at an early age.
He started me on the instrument. I think he was a very good teacher and he played pretty well. He was great with all of that. But I think the enthusiasm is something that’s hard to come by. Part of it was genetic for me, I was born with some of it. Part of it was environmental, my curiosity for musical issues was very extreme at a young age.
Do you have any advice for young or developing double bass players – things to listen for, essential skills or exercises they can do?
It’s pretty essential to develop a very good ear for pitch as soon as possible. Hand strength and flexibility are good to have as soon as possible but I’m not sure how you develop it. Actually the general things that are taught are pretty useful-learning to read music and learning the hand positions…that’s great. I don’t have any real specific ideas as to what a young person should learn that is not already standard fare. I’m usually open to slightly different ways of doing things. That can include starting in fourth position rather than first position. Or say if someone grows up outside of classical music learning to play the bass more in a groove oriented way like you would in a band as a more fundamental way of playing…any of that stuff is fine by me. I don’t think there is an exact way you need to do it.
Any tips for people with small hands?
A lot of ingenuity helps! I’ve seen people play beautifully with small hands. I know for instance on viola, if someone has small hands they do this – the normal player would finger 0-1-2-3. And instead, someone with small hands might finger 0-1-2-4. They have to shift a little more and close up their fingerings more. I think you just have to be smart about these things, don’t try to do things that someone with huge hands might do. People can play extremely well with small hands. Just don’t assume that what will work for someone with large hands will work the same way. If I’m working with a student that has larger hands than mine, I’ll try different solutions. I might have to roll my fingers and use extensions.
You don’t collapse when you do pivots and extensions.
I’ll do a lot of weird ones- I’ll do whole steps and a lot of whole step 1 to 2. But if I can do that I shouldn’t have anywhere near that trouble with half steps. I do a lot of things that are combinations of rolls and extensions where they’re not one or the other. You can use that kind of principal to open your hand up. These are things that might help. Don’t stiffen up. Don’t lock your hand; that’s death. If your hand is tight you’re in trouble. Just that little bit of roll is the difference between comfort and pain. So don’t assume you can do what people with larger hands can do; just roll around a little more and use your ears and your head.
Do you have any method books that you prefer to use in teaching?
The best one I saw going up to intermediate level was Hal Robinson and George Vance’s The Bass Project. Ultimately I don’t think that any method book can really include everything. There’s nothing like the oversight of a really good player. First of all, the most important aspect of playing is developing your ear and the relationship of you ear to your hands. There’s just no way to be able to do that in a method book. And in fact it’s a difficult enough thing to do that no one knows how to teach it anyway.
I think all different method books have their ups and downs. They all have some things that are worth looking at. Overall, for just getting started The Bass Project is good, but after you get to a certain stage I don’t particularly like any of the books that talk about advanced technique. I find them all to be missing big gaps somewhere or another and even if you compiled them all you might have a lot of missing pieces.
Probably the dead giveaway in advanced technique books is how they are organized. Some books are organized according to certain techniques. Some are organized according to scales, arpeggios or certain repertoire. You immediately begin to sense what drives this particular book and if that drives you maybe you should get the book. But none of these things really drive me. My interest in music is generally broader and more inclusive than any of these books tend to be. So I’ve never been satisfied with them and certainly never spent any time [with] them. I don’t even heavily recommend them. Probably they can’t hurt as long as you use them to get ideas. I think the only way they can hurt is if you take them as a Bible and believe what they say. If you use them as a source to get some ideas on how to play any of them can be valuable. Nobody’s got a total handle on it so don’t get too stuck on one book.
What techniques did you employ to develop your strong and fluid vibrato?
In my own case it’s not something I worked very hard for. I heard people with vibratos I liked and I imitated them. I did a few exercises early on but I don’t even know how constructive that was. It was very much an imitative thing for me. I heard Gary Karr do his vibrato. I liked it and I learned how to do it. I heard Gary Hoffman do his and I learned as well as I could to do his. Different people whose sound I really liked I tried to pick up. In all cases I had some access to these people, I knew them, I could see them play, I could see what they were doing physically, and I heard them. I heard what they were doing. If I hear a sound I like, I figure out how to get it.
The specific techniques of it are- a certain strength and liquidity of the hand is very nice, very useful. Using extra fingers can be really useful if you want a very wide vibrato. That can be a somewhat dangerous thing to do because you end up with a lot of immobility for shifting by using extra gingers. Then you just hear more of the shifts and you have to make more shifts.
How do you achieve the voice-like quality of your playing?
As dangerous as it is, playing with one finger makes it easier to imitate the human voice. You have to move your finger to get to every note the way a person has to change their vocal chords to get to every note. If you place a finger without having to shift to the new pitch, that’s more like playing the piano and the resulting sound is less vocal. So the whole act of moving your hand and finding the pitch is essentially vocal in nature. Obviously, that has all kinds of problems too, so you must have a blend of techniques. Also doing things vocally requires listening to the bow. For instance, listen to the way people enunciate when they speak and then listen to the way enunciate when they sing. There is hard consonance, soft consonance, rolled words, and phrasing. All of these things to some degree can be imitated by the bow. And then there’s the issue of where all these inflections lie in relation to where the pitch comes in. Is there a slide before, after or during the pitch? Is there no slide? Is there a slight inflection at the end of a note? An important thing to consider is how vocalists connect notes. Those connections are a very tricky thing to do with your hands, but the more you can equate to them, the better. Part of this process is developing your ear so you hear these things and then transfer what you hear into your hands.
Could you tell me about your instrument?
This is a Gabrielli made in 1769 in Florence, Italy. The bass came to the States in 1950. I don’t know anything about it before then. My father found the instrument, it was in Nashville. Stan Hollingsworth owned it, he used to play principal in the Pittsburgh Symphony. He sold it to George Humpher for $1200 in 1958. I was born in 1960 and my father started following the bass ever since. He lived in Savannah, Georgia for a long time with George Humpher and he finally sold it in 1983 and I’ve had it ever since. The fingerboard and extension were put on by Don Robertson’s Shop in Albuquerque pretty much to my specs. For instance, I had them inlay the dots on all my favorite notes.
What kind of strings do you use?
At this point I’ve got Spirocores on the bottom two strings and Flexcores on the top two strings. The top three strings are solo strings and the bottom one is a regular orchestra tuned E string. I’m sort of stuck on them now. I’m not even sure there aren’t some that are better. I’ve just gotten to the point in my life where I like these strings. They sound fine and the things that are good and bad about them I identify as my own way of playing. I’m not saying I would never change it. For instance, they make thinner strings now. These thinner strings are nice for certain aspects of arco playing as they are even easier to get around on than the ones I have. Although these newer strings are pretty easy to get around on and seem to have a good clear sound, they are a little thinner for pizzicato and are a little thin on the low end. And I’ve found in the strings I have a balance that works for me. And I haven’t found anything that really improves on that balance. If there is another set of strings that would perform better than my current set, I would use them.
What kind of bow do you use?
I have a $10 bow and I have no idea what it is. I’ve had it since I was a kid and I love it. It’s broken in two places. If there’s one thing that’s good about this bow, it’s that it is very hard. You can play it very, very tight and it doesn’t give. It doesn’t really bounce, which I like. It stays in the string and you can apply a lot of pressure. The most important thing about this bow is that it starts the string extremely quickly. I’ve not played a bow that starts the string quite as quickly. And you can really hear that difference, especially on tape when I listen back I can hear how long the attacks seem to take on average. The attacks are fastest with this bow which means the notes start clear and very often that’s the most important part of the note. Quick playing sounds better using this bow. That’s why I like this bow. It has a very centered, very focused sound that I like.
What kind of amplification/pickups do you use?
I used to record plugged in. Now I only record with the mic out in front of the bass. If I amplify the instrument, ideally I take a great mic and put it out in front of the instrument (indicates to a spot 1 to 2 feet in front of the instrument just below the bridge). If I was playing amplified in front of an orchestra I’d put a mic right here (indicates same spot). Get a very good condenser mic-there are tons of mics that would work. But get a good quality mic, put it right about there and just play. I wouldn’t plug in. Plugging in is for when the volume is so loud that a mic out here (refers to the free-standing mic) will get more of the other speakers or other instruments than it will of the bass. This situation can happen very easily just with the drums. This is a microphone type (he points to the bass bridge). So I had to switch to some kind of Sony, I don’t even really know what it is. There are a lot of different types of mics you can get like this (gestures to the Sony). Have it wired into a stereo plug with a Barcus-Berry Hot Dot that’s drilled into the bridge on top string side but far back in. That pickup sounds pretty good for bowing, as pickups go. It does much better for bowing than any other pickup that I’ve ever heard. And then the microphone blended with that gives as good a sound you can get.
I just don’t like plugging in though, is my only point. However, I play in situations sometimes for groups of 15,000 people through very loud monitor speakers. Then a microphone doesn’t work and you have to plug in. Blend a mic and a pickup and for me, I use the Barcus-Berry Hot Dot mainly because it’s the best one for bowing. Just move the pickup to the top side of the bridge. Other pickups might offer some things for pizzicato that this one does not. I’ve owned every pickup there is, I’ve gone through every piece of equipment you can get. I recommend for some of you to try a lot of things. But if you want one that sounds good for bowing, you can try this. That’s my priority most of the time. This is not the ultimate rig for amplified pizzicato. If that’s your top concern, you might want to check with some other folks.
I understand you owned this bass prior to the fingerboard extension and bass extension being put on. I notice that you had to cut the head stock for the bass extension- did you notice a difference in tone in your instrument after all these changes were made? No. Actually, this instrument sounded better after the extensions were put on but it went through several changes at that point. I think we might have tightened the sound post at the moment. I basically think those kind of small changes don’t tend to affect the sound of the bass. Maybe they can occasionally but generally, I find that they don’t. I haven’t had the soundpost adjusted on this bass on purpose for ten years. My general experience is that people get very worked up over a lot of small changes. I find the great equalizer is if you record the instrument on tape you’ll find that all these little things that are bugging you don’t make any difference. For instance, I’ve always been worried about all these buzzes the instrument had. I’d put it in the bathroom with the shower on and I’d spit in the cracks. I’d be doing all kinds of things to get rid of these buzzes and then I’d record the instrument and I wouldn’t hear any of these things. Then I realized my priorities were a little askew. The little things like tiny soundpost adjustments may make you feel better and it may make your instrument feel better in a way but they rarely make a huge difference in the sound. People generally, in my experience, overrate the constant adjusting of all the things on an instrument. Get the instrument the way you like it. If it sounds a little different on some days, it sounds a little different. But it doesn’t sound as different as you think it does. For me, it really changed my life when I had to do a lot of recording. All those little adjustments didn’t make any difference but being absolutely in tune made 100% difference. A soundpost adjustment or an extension generally changes the instrument’s sound a little bit but if you’re a little bit out of tune, you’ll hear that to a much greater degree when you playback a recording. I’ve stopped worrying about little changes like that. But if I’m a little out of tune, I completely freak out because I know you can hear that. Everybody can hear that.
Will you be publishing any sheet music of your original work?
Eventually I’ll be doing the piano and bass music. I’m not sure at what point I would publish the chamber music and the concertos. Part of it is my temperament, I have a very, very hard time with performances of those pieces even when I am there and can guide every note. The idea of them going on when I’m not there guiding ever note – it is very hard to imagine that they would come out in a way that even resembles…a large percentage of the material I write today is involved with very specific ways of playing the instrument and sounds that I can hear in my had but I can’t totally notate. But there are a lot of things in between the note and not just nuances or pitch-related things or slide. It is a whole sense of phrasing and timing that is important to these pieces. That phrasing and timing is very hard to get right. I’m not sure that this music lends itself to being played widely. I think it’s very idiomatic for the way I do things. I know it’s a little strange but to me it’s almost like a diary, it’s what I’ve worked on and what I’ve done. It wasn’t ever envisioned as something that would be played by a lot of people.
So it’s been just more of a personal expression for you?
Yes. If there are some people who are eager to play certain parts of it, maybe that will be a good thing at some point. That’s certainly not how I hear it. I’ve just never thought of it that way and I’ve never written that way.
Is there any one composer you really enjoy performing the works of, or has deeply affected your playing.
Obviously Bach is the one who has affected me playing the most. I’m not sure that’s the one that I’d most enjoy playing. Even though I’ve always played them, the suites don’t fit the bass as easily as some music but they probably have done more to help my playing than any other music. They’re probably more interesting music than almost anything else I’d ever play. The other real mainstream classical composers, especially Beethoven and Mozart, are the people who have influenced me the most.
Part of my playing has always looked for natural and physical solutions that feel good. But another side of my playing has always been to trying to find a way to play the instrument that would be well suited for playing composers that I really admire and complex music in general. I’ve always had that bit of dichotomy where I was trying to find things that were very easy to do on the instrument that sounded very natural and then trying things that were very awkward on the instrument but compositionally were very interesting and worth doing. I’ve always approached both sides of that and I hope I always will. I’m not saying I’ve spent a lot of time playing Beethoven and Mozart on the bass-it’s not anything I’ve spent much time at all at. I’ve simply spent a lot of time playing those composers on the piano or listening to their music. I am deeply influenced by it and it shows up in the playing. [It] shows up in the way I hear things and the type of values I have-what’s important to me and what isn’t important to me.
What is your practice schedule like?
My practice schedule has varied throughout my life. Up to the time I was about sixteen or seventeen, I probably never practiced for more than about an hour. Sometime around that age I began practicing several hours a day. Throughout college, anywhere from two to four hours. After college, still anywhere from one to four hours. Sometime around 1992 or 1993 I got up to four hours a day for awhile. During the last half of 1994 and 1995 I got really socked with a bunch of writing projects and didn’t practice much for a year or two. And now I’m trying to get back up to about three hours a day. I wouldn’t mind doing four but it’s hard to find the time.
What projects are you currently working on?
I just finished a record with Mark O’Conner and Yo-Yo Ma. That’s a fun project. Mark and I wrote all the music together and it’s very hybrid music. It has a very strong fiddle influence-Mark sounds very native in a lot of the music. It sounds as if it was almost built around him. It has a lot of other influences too. It’s something the three of us built together. It’s nice hybrid music that’s a little bit fiddle-based.
My next record for Sony Classical will be a solo record with literally Strength in Numbers. Jerry, Mark, Béla, and Sam will play for four or five cuts together. Then I will do a lot of material featuring the bass in real small groups, maybe two or three people. Those are the current projects.