The prolific bassist talks about his gear, career, and new album
By John McVarish
Even if you don’t not know his name, you know his work. Heard that funky bass line on Daft Punk’s huge hit “Get Lucky”? That was session player Nathan East on his signature Yamaha 5-string bass, laying down the irresistible groove in support of Nile Rodgers’ rhythm guitar.
Since his career took off in the late ’70s, Nathan has recorded and performed with a who’s-who of contemporary pop and jazz artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Beyoncé, George Harrison to Joe Satriani, The Jackson 5 to Toto.
Though he’s probably best known for his work with Eric Clapton, with whom he’s toured for over three decades, Nathan’s Grammy-nominated jazz group Fourplay has offered a revelatory showcase for his virtuosity on bass. The Clapton and Fourplay gigs alone prove his breadth of musical achievements.
Along with a well-trained ear and infectious bass lines, Nathan has kept his youthful sense of fun and adventure. This might be due to the fact that he started so young, touring and playing bass with Barry White at 16. But more likely, it’s just the way he is.
Nathan’s cheerful spirituality and musical playfulness bring out the best in everyone around him, which would explain why he’s so in-demand. Listen to any song he’s played on and you’ll feel it. He’s holding down the bottom, but he’s interspersing tasty licks that come across like sly winks directed at the listener. He’s obviously having a blast, but without ever distracting from the lead melody.
East’s career is taking on a new dimension with his self-titled first solo album, released March 25. Nathan East is a celebration of his career, packed with performances by some of his dearest friends, who just happen to be killer musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, Eric Clapton, and Nathan’s 13-year-old son, Noah.
You can check out sample tracks from the CD at nathaneast.com. The musicianship is magical and feature Nathan’s accomplished vocals and adventurous bass solos. His version of “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder is a great example, filled with inventive harmonies, key changes, and a 6-string bass solo that shows just how bluesy and soulful a great bassist can be.
Another standout track is “America the Beautiful.” Nate recorded this reverent piece after visiting the Battle of Franklin civil war cemetery with album producer Chris Gero. The lush strings, gospel choir, and heartfelt performance are enough to make any listener grateful to inhabit Nathan’s musical world.
We talked with Nathan just after his return from touring Japan with Eric Clapton:
The HUB: First let’s talk about your early days. You've said that you made the switch from cello to bass when you entered high school and heard the stage band play. Did you get into that stage band?
Nathan East: I did. I got straight into it.
The HUB: Did you get to play any upright bass or was that electric bass?
NE: It was mainly electric, but there was some upright in there.
The HUB: So, was it during the jazz band experience that you decided the bass was going to be your musical voice?
NE: Pretty much. It was solidified from the second I picked up the bass anyway. But yeah, that sealed the deal because I used to stand out by the door and listen to those guys. I'd listen to the bass player. His name is Gunnar Biggs. We still are in touch to this day, but he was my very first mentor, because he was really holding it down on Fender bass there. It's almost like it was yesterday. I can remember hearing that and thinking, oh, man, that's it. There's nothing cooler.
The HUB: So, he was a mentor for you. Did you take any bass lessons at that time, or was your cello background enough to give you some technique and a kick-start?
NE: The cello background was enough to get me through the door with my sight-reading abilities and three years of junior high school knowledge of the bass clef. I had a pretty good ear I always relied on and so I never really had any formal bass lessons.
The HUB: What other bassists influenced you back then?
NE: There were the obvious guys like James Jamerson and Chuck Rainey who were doing everything. James Jamerson was the Motown guy. He was the king of all those records. Chuck Rainey was on all those great Quincy Jones records and Steely Dan. So between those two guys there was a wealth of information. Then I was, of course, paying attention to guys like McCartney and people like Verdine White from Earth, Wind and Fire. I started getting into bands, listening to Peter Cetera and folks like that.
The HUB: Do you recall your first paid gig?
NE: Oh, yeah. One of the first paid gigs was actually one of my first sessions as well. It was at a studio called Studio West in San Diego. I was recording for the Patty Family Singers. Later on Sandi Patty emerged from that family and she became pretty famous in the Christian music world. I remember getting my first check, $14 or whatever it was and thinking, hope nobody's looking, because I did what I love to do and got paid for it.
The HUB: You've mentioned in past interviews that Barry White heard your cover band perform at a festival and invited you guys to tour with him and eventually you played bass on some of his recordings. Would you say that working with Barry White was the turning point in your career that encouraged you to go pro and become a studio musician, or did you still have other aspirations?
NE: I'd say the Barry White experience was definitely one of the big turning points that made me realize that, if you're good, if you're ready, this is the big time and this is the playing field that you're playing with.
The HUB: Some bass players find a singer-songwriter or a group that they believe in and commit to becoming a permanent member. Were you ever tempted to go that route?
NE: No, I never was really. In other words, I was always trying to make sure that I was well rounded and could do different types of music, and then I always aspired to meet and play with everybody. I can remember thinking I wanted to play with George Benson. I wanted to play with Earth, Wind, and Fire. I wanted it all. [laughs]
The HUB: Can we talk about some of your instruments and gear? How did you become an endorser of Yamaha basses?
NE: Early on in 1980, 1981, I heard Abraham Laboriel who was doing every session and was really one of the top guys here in L.A. I went into the studio and heard him play. His bass sounded so good and obviously it was in the fingers, but when I asked him which bass it was and he showed me his Yamaha bass. That's when I became interested in Yamaha instruments.
That year I went over to Japan with Lee Ritenour and Abraham put me in touch with the public relations guy there. Hagi was his name. He put one of those basses in my hands and I didn't look back. I told him, “I have to go home with this,” and I've been playing those basses ever since.
The HUB: That was early in the '80s. How soon after did you pick up the 5-string, and was Yamaha there with you to begin making your signature bass?
NE: Yes. It was coming up on the mid-'80s when I started experimenting with adding the other string. I used to go to The Baked Potato and watch Jimmy Johnson play. He played a 5-string, and one day I sat in with them and I mean it was almost like I didn't know how to play because the fifth string was throwing me off, as it would. But then that's when I knew I should really get that down, because he had so much low range and it was speaking to me, the fact that you could go lower than the range of bass.
The HUB: So after that you developed your signature bass with Yamaha. Can describe some of the key features of the current Yamaha BBNE2 Nathan East Signature Model, specifically the EQ, which is something unique.
NE: Yes, the EQ is good. When we were experimenting, I remember going to their R & D shop, their custom shop, and we were pulling pickups in and out of the basses, experimenting with a lot of pickups. We were experimenting with string spacing and we were also experimenting with neck length. Then another thing that I liked was I used to have a box called the NE-1 with a couple of knobs on it. That was my mid-frequency box that Yamaha made for me to go along with my signature bass. That sounded so good and I used it every single time. So I said why don't we put it in the bass and then that way I don't have to carry around an extra piece of gear.
That's where the EQ comes in. I basically only use one EQ, so it could almost be superglued to one setting and that's what I use most of the time.
It turned out to be one of those things that we kept trying to make. I wanted a bass that I could use in the studio and live as sort of a one-size-fits-all instrument, and that's pretty much what it has become.
The HUB: Your signature bass is a high-end instrument. How important is it for a bass player to have a great bass?
NE: I think it's very important because it becomes your voice, your fingerprint, your sound. For instance, you listen to Marcus Miller and you can tell that's Marcus Miller from a mile away. He has a very distinct sound and I think that's largely based on his approach, but then his instrument sounds great.
The HUB: About strings, you mentioned you experimented with different strings. Bassists tend not to change strings that often, partially because they're expensive. Someone in your position can afford to change them more often, but do you? Or do you prefer to let them age?
NE: I sort of prefer to let the strings get settled into the bass. I'm not one of these guys that change for every gig or for every session. If they sound good and they feel good, I use them because it's almost like they're played in. It's like a nice pair of shoes that are real comfortable.
But usually when I start a project or start a tour I'll get a nice fresh set of strings on there to have a fair shot at starting.
The HUB: What strings and gauge do you like to use?
NE: I've been using the regular gauge Dunlop Bass strings. Jim Dunlop, they make a nice string. I use from about a 45 to a 130 gauge.
The HUB: Can you tell us a bit about your amplification and effects?
NE: Yes. My amp of choice is the TC Electronic Blacksmith. That's the central part of my rig on stage or in the studio. I discovered that in around 2011. It's a very, very powerful, clear, clean sounding amplifier that has everything that I love in an amp.
The HUB: You have a signature TonePrint on the TC Electronic Corona Chorus. Do you use much chorus or other effects?
NE: I like a little bit of the chorus. I'm not big on effects. Normally when you see me it's going to be straight bass, straight amp, and straight DI. I don't get to use a lot of effects, but I do like the chorus from time to time for soloing and we did put the Nathan East sound in there that we dialed in. Then they have a nice delay. I love some of the sounds that are in that, too.
The thing I use the most is their Ditto Looper that they came out with and I really love that.
The HUB: How do you use that?
NE: What I do is a lot of times, especially in Fourplay, where I’m doing an intro on my own or something, I’ll set up a pattern that I can play to and have four or five different things going on at once. Or, if I’m soloing over a chorus, I’ll lay down the bass part that I’m going to solo over, and then step on it so that hopefully it’s in time. And then I have a bass to solo over without the bass dropping out.
The HUB: Can we talk a little about your technique? We mentioned that you were an early adopter of the 5-string. Your bass line to ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk is a great example and a really big part of that song’s groove.
Many players still prefer to use a 4-string. What would you tell a 4-string player who’s reluctant to make the switch?
NE: I think everybody has to do what they’re comfortable with and not everyone, maybe, feels comfortable on the 5-string. But for me, I like the idea of having the extra range down low.
On that song you can hear some low B’s and that’s amazing to me, that on a record that’s a pop record you can play low B’s and get away with it.
The HUB: And 6-string basses, is that a trend for players to have to be proficient in 5- and 6-string instruments?
NE: I think it’s when you think of the tools at your disposal, for me I’m thinking about range. The 6-string is perfect, because then I have all the low range that I need and the high range, so I can just have one bass that I can play bass on bottom, but then when it’s time to step out and play solo or do chords, I have all of that upstairs as well.
The HUB: On a live performance video of “Bad Love” by Eric Clapton we see you starting off on an upright fretless, and then switching over to electric 5-string. Does being proficient on these kinds of basses, fretless and upright, give you a professional edge? Did it help you in your career as a session musician?
NE: I think so. Again, I never wanted to be limited by what I could or could not do, so I always felt that if you can be that guy that can get called to play upright or fretless, or 5- or 6-string, then why not. It opens up your avenues and availabilities.
The HUB: I have to ask. Do you ever use a pick?
NE: [Laughing] Actually, I do use a pick sometimes. Steve Lukather was giving me some pick techniques, because he’s one of the greatest pickers out there. He was teaching me how to relax my right, my picking wrist. For some of the songs that have those driving 8th-note grooves, especially like some of the Toto songs that were recorded with picks, I like to try to use it.
The HUB: You mentioned, from playing cello and then stage band in high school, that sight-reading music was familiar to you early on. Is that important to being a session player these days, or is it mostly by ear and chord charts or tab even?
NE: No. You get all sides. Guys have made a very lucrative and productive living who couldn’t read a note. Again, my way of thinking is that if you have that at your disposal, then you’re not going to be left out in the cold if somebody puts music in front of you. For lots and lots of years in the sessions that I had done, you were called to come in and read what was on the paper and, without having that in my arsenal, that would have cut out a severe amount of work.
The HUB: You’re also a teacher. You contribute bass lessons to the ArtistWorks website. How do you find time to teach, and do you think online lessons are the future of musical instrument learning?
NE: I think face-to-face lessons are probably always going to be a great way to learn an instrument, especially piano. As an alternative to that, with online lessons I can respond to a student when I get an extra minute. Most of the time, if I’m traveling, or even if I’m home in the studio, I don’t really have time to teach on a one-on-one situation, which is why the ArtistWorks online School of Bass thing ends up working perfectly.
The HUB: What would be your advice to a young bassist? To start with a 4-string or maybe even another instrument, like the cello?
NE: I think for a young bassist, yeah, starting with a 4-string probably makes it easier to learn your way around the instrument. I always advise knowing another instrument, so that you, again, broaden your frame of reference. A little bit of piano, cello, anything that’s not necessarily your main instrument, I think, is good to have a little bit of proficiency on.
The HUB: How do you come up with fresh bass lines? You’ve done this for so long, are you listening to the melody and the rhythm, and then something comes to you? Is it random, sometimes, you make a mistake, but that sounds cool? How does it work for you?
NE: It works all of the ways that you described, and there are many times that I do actually make a mistake or do something that I didn’t intend to do, and all of a sudden I’m thinking that works, and I’ll do that. Lots of times for me it’s trial and error. It’s like creating a song within a song. If I listen to a song, the first thing I try to figure out is what’s the best move for the bass to make. I’m usually thinking what is a little song within a song that you can take away with you.
Of course, people like James Jamerson were the kings of being able to play these great songs, but the bass actually wrote the song because of the genius of what they came up with. A modern-day guy like that for me is Palladino. I love the way the guy puts these brilliant bass lines in these pop songs. You end up singing the bass line as well.
The HUB: Let me ask you about studio work and touring. Is your recording signal chain simpler? Are you going direct into the board or how does that work?
NE: Yes. I use the Radial Engineering Firefly DI. It’s a direct box that I discovered a couple years ago. Everything I’ve been recording and playing live has been through that for the last few years.
The HUB: About touring, what are some of your favorite places to play?
NE: There’s a place we play in London called the Royal Albert Hall. I think I’ve played more than 100 concerts in that building, alone. It a magical building, because it’s very royal, and there’s these royal boxes where the Queen comes and watches. It’s a beautiful place to play.
I love Carnegie Hall and some of the concert venues, the performing arts centers. Cerritos Performing Arts Center. They sound amazing. Then again, I played on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the inauguration of Barack Obama. There were two million people in the audience. That was pretty exciting, as well.
The HUB: You go to Japan often. What is it about that audience that is so gratifying to you?
NE: The thing I noticed about the Japanese audience, and I noticed that from the first time I went in 1981, to the 66th time that I just came back from with Eric Clapton, the audience is very knowledgeable, reverent, and in tune to what you’re playing. It’s not like sometimes we’re playing at Madison Square Garden, the entire concert I see people going up and down getting beers and hanging out and giving each other high-fives and partying. In Japan, they actually want to hear everything you’re doing, and they are very attentive. It’s a great audience to play for.
The HUB: How are your ears doing? Do you protect them with anything, or use an in-ear monitor that’s giving you control over your sound?
NE: There were times when I used to use earplugs as protection for the volume. That was more back in the days where it was really, really loud and blasting. Recently equipment has gotten better. The engineers seem to have gotten more of a handle on the sound, and it’s not tearing your head off. So these days I basically don’t use any earplugs, and I prefer to use the floor monitors as opposed to the in-ears, only because having something in my ear seems like I don’t have the connection to the house and the audience that I like to have.
The HUB: I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the artists you’ve worked with. You’ve worked with Barry White to Daft Punk, not to mention the players in your own group, Fourplay. Are there any artists you haven’t played with that you’d like to?
NE: There’s actually a couple on the list, but one of them is no longer here. Miles Davis was a guy that I thought would be amazing to play to. So I won’t have that opportunity. However, Steely Dan is a group that I always thought it would be fun to play with. Pat Metheny is an artist that I’ve had a chance to jam with in a jam session, but I’ve never had a chance to actually play in his band, and I’m a big fan of his music. He’s one of the guys on my list.
The HUB: Can you tell us a little bit how the addition of Chuck Loeb on guitar has influenced Fourplay? Previously it was Larry Carlton, and before that Lee Ritenour.
NE: Right. First of all, we have an embarrassment of riches and blessings in guitar players, because those three that you named are three of my favorite guitar players, period. We had a great, great run with Lee, and Lee decided that he wanted to start a label, and he had some other ambitions. So he left after about seven years and Larry Carlton stepped in, another amazing contributor to the sound of Fourplay. Again, Larry, with many of the projects he was involved with and everything, got very busy after about 12 years.
Then Chuck stepped in, and we’re having the best time with Chuck, only because he really has studied the essence of Fourplay over those first 20 years. Then he came in and it was almost like he said, “I know what to do with this band. This is what I will bring.” We are loving his contribution. He’s a great writer. Some of his compositions have fit right into our style, and we enjoy playing those live, recording them. He’s also an amazing soloist. He’s a fun guy. We absolutely love Chuck.
The HUB: You’ve toured on and off with Eric Clapton for over 30 years. What is it about playing with him that pleases you so much? Is it the man, his music or both?
NE: It’s absolutely both. He’s a generous boss. He’s a dear friend. He’s obviously a musical icon. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, I was in my room with a black light poster with Cream posters and listening to “Sunshine of Your Love,” learning those lines and listening to Jack Bruce and thinking, “This is it.” To be able to stand next to The Guy 30 years later is a joy.
The HUB: Guitar players are great, but bass players need to get along with and be in synch with the drummer. Who are some of the drummers you most enjoy playing with?
NE: That’s a great question. Again, I’m a lucky guy. I’ll tell you one guy that you probably wouldn’t think of, but it’s Phil Collins. He’s one of my favorite drummers to play with. I love his time and where he puts the beat. Steve Gadd. I just got off the road with him. He’s amazing. It takes your playing up a notch when you play with a guy like Steve Gadd.
Steve Ferrone is another guy. I mean, he’s like a brother to me and we’ve played in many, many situations together, including Eric’s band. Ricky Lawson. The late, great Ricky Lawson. He’s all over my album and he’s probably one of my favorites of all time. I could name Harvey Mason, John Robinson. Jeff Porcaro, I think, is my all-time favorite drummer. I’m so blessed to play with all these great guys. Teddy Campbell. Keith Carlock. It’s amazing.
The HUB: That brings us to your first solo album, which is entitled Nathan East. It’s in stores March 25th. Congratulations. How did the album come about? Was there a predetermined concept? What role did Yamaha Entertainment have in making it happen?
NE: Thank you very much. Yamaha Entertainment was really the catalyst for this album that I’ve been talking about making for many, many years. I’ve never really had a label come up to me and offer a deal like Yamaha Entertainment Group did. That was the first thing that got the ball rolling.
If it hadn’t been for Yamaha Entertainment Group, it probably would have been a series of demos that I would have made and then approached, obviously, labels that I’m familiar with. Fourplay’s on the Concord Group with Heads Up International, so I probably would have approached those guys, or I know the guys at Warner Brothers. Don Was is at Blue Note, David Foster’s at Verve.
These are people that I probably would have gone to with demos and then said, “Will you sign me?” In this case, Yamaha Entertainment Group came to me; Chris Gero, who started the company. He’s actually a label head, but he’s a producer. He had songs, he had ideas, and we basically started about a year ago, talking about ideas for a record, and we finally got her done.
The HUB: The songs are a mix of originals and covers. Did you demo the new originals by yourself first, or was it more collaborative?
NE: It was pretty much a collaborative effort. There were only a couple things that got demoed. What we decided early on was that everything was going to be recorded live. There wasn’t going to be anything that was pieced together, or synths and drum machines. The next idea was what were the songs going to be, what were the arrangements going to be, and then who the players were, and so on and so on. It was a thought-out approach to recording the record.
The HUB: The album features Bob James and Chuck Loeb from your group, Fourplay. What other artists worked with you; was it hard to decide whom to work with?
NE: It was a little difficult, only because I have so many friends that I want to work with. So I made a little list of people that were going to be in my core section, and that included Ricky Lawson, Michael Thompson on guitar, Jeff Babco on keyboards, Tim Carmon on Hammond B3, and then Rafael Padilla played percussion.
That was my core section. And then it was enhanced by people like David Paich on keyboards on a couple things. Ray Parker Jr. heard I was recording and called me and said, “I want to be involved.” So Ray Parker Jr. came in and played on a few things.
At that point we had a core section. From there, we had a couple tunes that we thought would be great to feature somebody. Michael McDonald said he was in from the very beginning. Sara Bareilles, we were able to get her. She heard one of the tracks and said, “I’d love to sing this song.” I had worked with Stevie Wonder and there was a song that we were fooling around with that he said, “If you ever go record that, I want to play on it.” So that was “Overjoyed.” He played harmonica on it.
Of course, Eric used to have me sing “Can’t Find my Way Home” in the show. That was a no-brainer to record for this album, and then he was gracious enough to play on it. You got little collaborations with friends that I’ve had over the years.
The HUB: Where did you record the album, and over the course of how many weeks or months?
NE: I started the tracking, basic tracking, in Oceanway, Los Angeles. We started in July for about 10 days of straight tracking. We recorded probably about 26 tracks in that time period. Then we started overdubbing. We overdubbed the orchestra in Nashville, at Oceanway Nashville. And I was going back there because that’s where Yamaha Entertainment Group headquarters are located, and their studio. So I was going back to Tennessee recording a lot after that for the overdub process.
After that, nine months, I think, we were mixed and mastered.
The HUB: Will you be promoting your album with a tour?
NE: Absolutely. At the moment, we have a Guitar Center Clinic Tour booked. Then I have offers in Japan and some of the festivals in Europe, already. Now we’re formulating a time where I can go tour, because between now and then, I’m actually going to be touring with Toto back in Japan, and Fourplay in the States and in Japan.
The HUB: Wow. All good stuff.
NE: [Laughing] Yeah. Pretty good.
The HUB: Let me ask you a couple more questions. These are a little more general. Bass players lay down the groove for dancers. Do you like dancing?
NE: I do. It’s fun [laughing]. I’m not a great dancer, but I do enjoy it. Just the other night my son and wife and I were all in the kitchen dancing.
The HUB: OK. That doesn’t surprise me.
The HUB: You’ve played every style of music. Is there one style that you prefer to play?
NE: That’s a good question. I love so much different music. I love playing jazz. I love playing R&B. I love playing rock ‘n’ roll. I love playing pop. I’m not really sure, if I had to decide which one. I love jazz. That’s probably where I spend most of my time practicing. But I’m a music lover in general, so as long as it’s good music, I’m happy.
The HUB: How has your playing changed over the years? Are you able to express more musically with less notes, and is there any mystery left to uncover for you on bass?
NE: Another good question. There’s tons of mystery for me to uncover. Spending time on the instrument always gives me reason to believe that the more time I spend, the better player I will become. I feel like back when I was younger, I was all over the place in my ambition, but I could hear in my playing, that spirit of fun and adventure. I feel as I get older, I try to do more with fewer notes, but at the same time, I still look for that spirit of high adventure. When I start digging deep when I’m practicing, I realize that there is so much to learn, it would take two more lifetimes to try to do everything that I would want to do. In the meantime, I’m having a great time trying to figure it all out.
The HUB: I’ve got one more for you. If you could go back in time to the start of your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
NE: I think that would be to invest your money wisely [laughing]. No, I mean, that’s from the standpoint of I see so many musicians that have these careers and they’ve made a ton of money, but they spent it on cars or whatever. I know guys that have invested wisely in real estate and things that will keep them going. That’s one of the things I see from a career standpoint.
Musically, I would say that in the beginning, if I knew what I know now, I would have practiced more. I would have put more hours in per day so that I would have a much larger repertoire of things at my disposal. If I could go back, that would be the thing I would do. I would definitely increase the amount of time that I spent practicing.
The HUB: Thank you, Nate. It’s been a great pleasure, and I can’t wait to hear more from your album.
NE: Thanks. It won’t be long now. It’s a pleasure talking to you.
Nate’s gear available from Musician’s Friend:
Yamaha BBNE2 Nathan East Signature Model
Radial Engineering Firefly Tube DI
TC Electronic Blacksmith 1600W Bass Amp Head
TC Electronic Corona Chorus TonePrint Series Guitar Effects Pedal
TC Electronic Ditto Looper Guitar Effects Pedal
TC Electronic Flashback Delay TonePrint Series Guitar Effects Pedal
Dunlop Nickel Plated Steel Bass Strings - Medium 5-String
Get into Nathan East’s groove techniques and career wisdom with these two great tutorials: