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Broadway and West End bassist Ian King: “Hamilton is an intense gig – I’m playing four instruments in the show!“

Ian King
(Image credit: Mark King)

Sum up your career as a bass player for us, Ian. 

“My career has generally revolved around reading music under pressure, whether that means West End shows in London, or recording film soundtracks. What was your most recent live project before the current pandemic? The London show Hamilton was the last major thing I was involved in; the last performance we did before lockdown was on March 14. 

“I drove home, thinking, ‘I’ll have a bit of time off for a while’ and until it returns, presumably in 2021, I’ve been doing a lot of online teaching. We musicians are quite entrepreneurial, so the industry may have ground to a halt—but we’ll be back on stage when the situation improves.“   

Hamilton has been a major success. What does the gig require from you? 

“It’s an intense gig, for sure. I’m playing four instruments in the show – a five-string bass guitar, a hollowbody for a Paul McCartney sound, a double bass in the string section, and a synth-bass. 

“I’m switching instruments for three hours, eight times a week, which really takes it out of you, especially as I’ve been doing it for three years. What’s more, there are no spoken-word parts in Hamilton – it’s literally 51 back-to-back songs. On a Sunday, there’s not much of me left.“  

Hamilton is literally 51 back-to-back songs. On a Sunday, there’s not much of me left

What gear do you currently use? 

“I endorse Overwater basses, which suit me down to the ground. I’ve been playing them for at least 15 years. They get everything right, from the perfect batches of really resonant lumber, to the pickups. I’ve had four or five of them. The current ones are all 35” scale five-strings with Bartolinis and John East preamps. 

“I also have an amazing Yamaha BB four-string, which is passive, and has the punch of an active, but primarily I’m an Overwater five-string guy. I’ve always used Epifani amps, EBS pedals, and Elixir strings.“

How did you get into bass? 

“I’m from the Isle of Wight, and I started as a guitarist – but while I was at guitar lessons, I couldn’t stop staring at the teacher’s five-string Stingray in the corner. I talked my parents into getting me a bass when I was around 11, and got lessons. Once I’d learned to read music I started playing gigs, initially at a holiday camp on the island when I was 16. 

“They needed someone immediately, so they auditioned my reading and playing skills, and the next minute I was playing what was essentially a mini West End show, six days a week. I was petrified, because we were a small band in a big venue and I was sight-reading stuff every night. 

“It was a great boot camp for me. The hardest acts to play with were the magicians, because there’d be so much sleight-of-hand going on, and the music had to be interesting.“

I’ve played with a lot of people in a lot of different musical styles, all of which massively helps you with your sight-reading skills

Did you study bass at college? 

“Yes, I did a commercial music degree at the University of Westminster in London for three years. Towards the end of it, I asked one of the tutors how to get more playing in, and he directed me to the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, where you’d sit in on a Saturday morning and play through loads of big band charts. Janek Gwizdala was the bass player at the time, so I’d sit next to him, and when he moved on I did it. That was a great way to play and meet people.“

What happened next?

“After that I did all the usual function gigs – weddings and so on – and then I played gigs with the Supremes, the Temptations, Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge, and quite a few of those classic Motown touring acts.

“Then it was Paul Young, with those tricky Pino Palladino bass parts, Huey Lewis, Rick Astley, Ronan Keating, a disco band, a Latin band... I’ve played with a lot of people in a lot of different musical styles, all of which massively helps you with your sight-reading skills.“

How did you get into playing top-end theater shows? 

“At the end of my twenties, I trialed as a dep on the London production of Mamma Mia!, even though I wasn’t really looking to get into the West End thing.

“That opened doors for me in that line of work, and I then did some more deps on Billy Elliot; a Boney M-themed show called Daddy Cool that had some really bubbly bass-lines; Hairspray; Fame; Sister Act, with lots of Seventies slap; Shrek The Musical; The Book Of Mormon; Dream Girls; Jesus Christ Superstar in the round; and it’s basically been back-to-back shows since then, with Hamilton being the most recent one.“

What advice can you give our readers about getting this kind of work?

I was petrified, because we were a small band in a big venue and I was sight-reading stuff every night

“A lot of it is down to being able to sight-read quickly, but at the same time, you have to be friendly and positive and always turn up on time. In fact, those qualities are most of it. Think about being on a show, eating dinner with someone, and then playing with them for three hours.

“You want that person to be reliable, professional, and easy to get on with. If that person is no fun to talk to, or a raging alcoholic or something, it’s not going to work. Just try and be a normal person who’s fairly upbeat, and you’re halfway there already!“

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