With Atlanta-based rock quintet Blackberry Smoke returning with a new album, You Hear Georgia, we jumped on the phone with bassist Richard Turner to ask him the the thinking behind the big tones.
Did you get the new album recorded before lockdown, Richard?
“Just before. We cut the record at RCA in Nashville and then shot up to Canada, and then a couple of shows into Canada, we had to escape or get locked in up there. So it was crazy. It’s been odd to be sitting on a record for a year.“
How many tour dates do you think you lost in 2020 and ’21?
“Oh my God. Maybe 200, although a lot of those shows are going to be rescheduled.“
The upside is that You Hear Georgia is a great album.
“I love it. It’s clean as fuck, recording wise, and the bass is well thought out. After all this time as a band, everybody plays the part they think should be there. You know exactly where you want to go, and if you want to put a little signature doodle in there, then you can, or you can leave it super clean. It’s done without even speaking, a lot of the time. We think with each other’s brains now.“
Some of your bass playing reminds me of AC/DC.
“Well, Charlie [Starr, bandleader] is a huge fan, so that’s probably where it comes from. I totally hear how they do it, in the structures of their songs. It’s extremely complicated to sound so simple. It’s a tangled web of intricate playing over there in AC/DC, despite the fact that everybody thinks it’s so simple.“
How did you get into bass in the first place?
“My father was an Air Force colonel, but before that he was playing saxophone, clarinet, and all kinds of woodwinds in high school and college. I was born in 1965, and he had retired from the Air Force by that time, but he gave me one of his clarinets. And then my cousin, his nephew, wrote a song that was on CBS News one morning, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s all these musicians in my family. I think there might be something to this – and I would like to do this too’.
“It seemed natural, so I begged my parents for a bass, but they were like, ‘We can’t sit around the campfire while you play the bass, because we can’t hear it’, so I woke up Christmas morning, and there was a regular Les Paul-shaped electric guitar there.“
Did you take to it?
“Well, I went to guitar lessons, and I tried to do it, but I thought, ‘This is just not what I hear in my head. It’s not what I hear in my soul. I don’t hear the pitch of this instrument’, because I definitely have something going for the bass guitar. Eventually, I traded that guitar for a titanium racing BMX bicycle and won a bunch of races, and then I traded that bike for a bass and got on track with what I wanted to do.
“Later, I worked security for clubs all around Atlanta, so I got to watch a lot of bass players. Who’s the crazy bald-headed player that plays with the little sticks on the end of his fingers?
“I stood right next to Tony Levin and watched him play in this little club that holds 1300 people in Atlanta. I was like, ‘This is definitely what I want to do. This guy’s playing the craziest shit!’ I watched hundreds and hundreds of some of the greatest acts, standing on the side of the stage, working security. I was totally cheating, because I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on in the crowd. I was totally dialed into the band.
“I saw Chris Squire, Trevor Bolder, Tony Butler, Tom Hamilton from Aerosmith... so many killer players. I started to really dig into what those people were doing, even though there was no Bass Player magazine when I was growing up, or any kind of media that was focused specifically on bass players.
BP started in 1990.
“Okay, so that would have been later. I found a bunch of bass players by reading guitar magazine articles. I’d pick out little pieces in Guitar Player magazine where the guy would be like, ‘My bass player does this, and it helps me do that’, you know. Carol Kaye’s playing with the Beach Boys really influenced me, along with Trevor Bolder from the Spiders From Mars and Johnny Colt of the Black Crowes and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“There’s a long list of great bass players that I admired in my youth – Berry Oakley, Chris Squire, Dusty Hill. I also think that Scott Devine and Mark Smith out of the UK are excellent teachers, and I want to give a shout-out to Bob Harris at BBC2 for spinning us.“
What’s your preferred bass gear?
“Man, I’ll tell you what, Orange has been really good to me for live gear: I use their US-made amps for shows. My absolute favorite mind-blowing gear is these two Acoustic 360-361 rigs that I have. Whoever bought the rights to that name is hand-making them to order. They’re expensive as hell, but oh my God, that is the most incredible sounding rig I’ve ever heard.
“For bass guitars, man, Joe Hamilton down here in Georgia built my first custom bass. The dude worked on it for about six weeks and it’s the best bass I’ve ever played. You can feel its vibration all the way through the whole structure of the thing. And there’s another cat out of New York City named Robert Mondell who deserves a shout-out: He makes some pretty neat custom basses that I keep here at the house. My strings are Thomastik-Infeld flatwounds, and I also use an Avalon U5 DI and an Ampeg V9 amp.“
Any effects in the chain?
“I’ve got a ton of effects at home. A lot of them are prototypes that came from makers and hobbyists and kit guys and boutique guys, and they don’t even have any writing on, just knobs and switches. I get into experimenting with them, and it’s killer. I have a great time with them.
“I love loopers, I love delays, I love playing with envelope filters, but I’ve never taken them on tour. I don’t want to dilute anything when I play live. Something about me wants to go direct out of the bass into the console. I watch everybody with an effect in my band do that constant tap-dancing on those damn things.“
Are you strictly a four-string guy?
“I play a four-string, but I’ve got a drop tuner on it. I don’t care for the weight and the width of the fretboard on a five-string. I don’t care for all that extra bulk.“
Would you say your playing has matured over time?
“Oh, absolutely. A while back I started digging real deep into Carol Kaye’s lesson kit. I dove into it, and I was like, ‘She completely knows what’s going on, all around the fretboard. She knows what everybody else is playing, and can probably play what everybody else is playing’. Whether it’s the guitar line or the bass-line, hands down, any song she’s ever played, she can play both of those.“
What’s the format of her lesson kit?
“You can get a DVD, or a CD accompanying a book, or you can book her through Zoom or Skype and get a one-on-one lesson, but you have to complete her lesson first because she wants you to know some of the theory. It’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever taken.“
Did you have a one-on-one lesson with Carol?
“No, I was too intimidated. She’s just too damn cool. You know, Billy Sheehan took a lesson from her, and all these other great bass players did too. I’ll just keep looking at her lessons...“
- You Hear Georgia (opens in new tab) is out now via 3 Legged Records.