30 Years Behind The Keys With Bon Jovi
By Chris Elliott
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
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Musician’s Friend: Do you remember the first pro gig you played?
David Bryan: I started out with Jon; he had a cover band called Atlantic City Expressway that I joined in 1978. It was a 10-piece band that had a horn section. We did blue-eyed soul and Memphis songs. I had a Hammond organ, a big (Yamaha) CP80 and a Crumar string machine, so I was raring to go. It was a blast. Sometimes there was one person in the club and sometimes there were 10, but we hashed it out, kept going and haven’t looked back.
MF: What did you learn from those first experiences that is still helpful today?
DB: My musical, Memphis, has a horn section in it. And all those songs I called on for it: “Knock On Wood,” “In The Midnight Hour,” I didn’t have to do any research because I played dive clubs for years with those kinds of songs. For me, it was research done. Those experiences really helped.
MF: How does playing in bars and clubs relate to the massive arena and stadium stages you’ve been on?
DB: There is no substitute for playing live. We always say, “Live, no jive.” There’s no pause button, no take two. That’s the challenge and the honor of playing live, and I love both of those. I think with every live show you play, you’re better than the last one. That’s the idea. Live is live, and it’s always a bad time to stink. [Laughs] It doesn’t matter if you have one person in front of you or a million people, if you’re a musician of note, you don’t let yourself down first. It’s an honor to be given the opportunity to walk up on stage.
MF: What are the keys to performing consistently for so many years?
DB: Being good at your instrument and making sure you’re tour-ready. I memorize everything; we have around 80 Bon Jovi songs in our brains. I don’t have any notes, because if I take notes I need that crutch. So for me it’s about getting it into my brain.
MF: It’s been written that the non-stop touring between Slippery When Wet and New Jersey almost destroyed the band. How did the group recover and find a tour schedule that works for everyone?
DB: We left our houses in 1983 and came home in 1990, and it was an unbelievable, magical, stratospheric ride. We were fortunate enough to where all the planets and moons lined up in ’87 and we had Slippery When Wet, which was our gigantic one that propelled us into working our brains out. By ’90, we were just burnt. We’ve probably toured more in the last 13 years than we did then, but we give ourselves breaks. We work out of home if we’re on the East Coast. We’ll have a week or two between legs or before we go to the next country. Those things make it more human.
MF: What do you enjoy most about touring these days?
DB: I love the challenge of getting up there. We’re a band that doesn’t go out and play songs without a new record. For us, it’s always an album and tour. We’re playing like seven brand-new songs, and the challenge of bringing those to the people and putting them in a different light than what they are on the record is fun.
MF: What are some of the benefits of both touring with a rock band and working with the complexities of a Broadway production?
DB: It’s definitely night and day, but they both help each other. Being the performer in Bon Jovi helps me when I go into my musical world, because I can look at an actor and not just plunk down a melody. I can sing it to him. And I can sing it with intent to show how I want my songs to be performed, not just imagined. Also, I know they have to do it eight times a week, so I’m not going to write something that’s going to kill somebody. In Memphis there were nine people in the band and 23 actors. That’s 30 some-odd people making my music, and I can listen to all of them and know exactly what each part is. It’s really helped my ear training.
MF: Do you feel it’s more attitude and less precision when playing live?
DB: No, you never give up precision. On a record you can play the piano part, then the synth part, an organ part, then go and sing. Live, you have to play all of it. So I’m playing with two hands, and I have one foot pedaling with my right hand and my left foot either pedaling or hitting the Leslie switch while I play with that left hand, and I’m singing at the same time. You’re definitely in heavy concentration mode. I love it.
MF: Over the years have you found yourself collecting vintage keyboards and synths?
DB: Oh yeah, I love collecting the old stuff. It’s really fun and I have a great collection of keyboards. On top of it, I’m also on the cutting edge of technology. I’ve been a Yamaha electronic keyboard artist for years, and I always get the first brand-new whatever before it hits the stores and the world. With that, and all the soft synths out there, there’s a lot of technology to play with.
MF: What’s your on-stage setup like these days?
DB: I still have to (Yamaha) Motifs that I use; I have a P500 that I won’t give up because I love it as my piano and my controller. I have a couple of those, and I know they’re old but I love them. I put a Motif on top of one of those. On the other side I play organ; I have an Oberheim/Viscount playing through a real Leslie, and another Motif on top of that. We tune down a half step to make guitars fatter, and it sounds better live. So it helps to press the transpose button instead of playing in G-flat, E-flat and A-flat. Underneath the stage I have a bunch of soft synths and brains. I sample a lot of my old vintage gear.
MF: What’s typically your favorite song in a Bon Jovi set and why?
DB: There are a lot of them, but I love two things especially. I love the intro to “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Once I start that, the whole place knows what it is. I just fade up and everybody starts to go mental, which is great. Also, “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” When I play that (hums the opening notes), I hit that low note and you’re there. It’s pretty powerful.
MF: You have an extensive background in classical piano, but are there any other influences that have translated into Bon Jovi’s music?
DB: : A ton of blues. Not so much jazz, but a ton of blues, R&B and rock. Everything that I grew up with. It’s a collective really; it just goes into the brain’s hard drive and comes out in different ways.
MF: What is your pre-show warm up like?
DB: I do a vocal warm up about an hour and a half before the show. I have a warm up and a warm down on my iPhone. We have a tuning room too, so I’ll take the set list and go in there, move the fingers around and play. We usually do soundchecks, but whether we do or not, I still go right before the show and move my hands around.
MF: Tell us about the new Bon Jovi album, What About Now.
DB: We’re excited! The new record is the next chapter for Bon Jovi. Our goal always was to be a current band, to make sure we can play songs that you know from our older record and songs that you’ll grow to love from our new record. For us, that’s what it’s about.
MF: Will you continue to work on musicals in your time away from the band?
DB: Memphis is going to open up on the West End of London in the fall. Then the same creative team with Joe DiPietro, my writing collaborator, we have a new one coming out. We’re looking at the fall of 2014. It’s all about the ‘60s songwriters in the Brill Building. It will have original music, like Memphis, where it’s a fictional view of facts. We’re excited about that.
Catch Bon Jovi on tour now and be sure to pick up their new album, What About Now, wherever great music is sold.