Lemmy: "I always wanted to be John Entwistle, but since that place was taken, I became a lesser version"

Lemmy performs live with Motörhead
(Image credit: Future)

Although the world is full of fearsomely talented bass players, few are as seasoned, as opinionated or as unlikely to compromise as Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister.

A genuinely unique character whose taste for Jack Daniels and amphetamines is only equaled by his love for The Beatles, the Ramones and classic rock ’n’ roll, Lemmy has survived four decades in the music business and knows a thing or two about his instrument by now. Brace yourself.

Born the son of a clergyman in 1945, Lemmy (so nicknamed because of his habit of borrowing cash from his bandmates in Hawkwind) was initially a guitarist in Finnish national costume (no, we don’t know why either) in the appropriately-named R&B band the Rockin’ Vickers.

When the psychedelia boom took off in the late 1960s he joined the Sam Gopal Dream before roadieing briefly for Jimi Hendrix, but his career really took off when he joined space-rockers Hawkwind in 1970.

Fired after being wrongfully detained for drugs (the irony of being ejected for this reason from the infamously drug-addled Hawkwind has never eluded him), he formed Motörhead and went on to much better (and heavier) things.

Motörhead are still among the most respected heavy metal bands in the world. However, age has not mellowed the vicar’s son and when we spoke to him on the eve of a London show, Lemmy was on uncompromising form. Readers with an aversion to strong language should probably look away now...

In the Rockin’ Vickers and the Sam Gopal Dream, you were a guitarist. How come you joined Hawkwind as a bass player?

I needed the job. It turned out that I was much better as a bass player than I’d ever been as a guitarist.

You played bass already, presumably?

No, I’d never picked one up in my life. I picked it up straight from scratch, on stage. Didn’t even get to hear any of the songs first.


Yes. It was a free show on the back of a truck. I showed up for the guitar player’s job but they decided not to get a new guitar player as Dave Brock was switching to lead. So they said, who plays bass? And keyboard player Dik Mik pointed to me and said, he does. I said, you c**t, I’ve never picked one up in my life! And then the bass player didn’t show up and left his fuckin’ gear in the van. Talk about stealing his gig, eh?

If you hadn’t had any training on bass at all, how was it that you developed a melodic style so quickly?

It was based on guitar. I found out about drone strings, where you let the A or the D string ring and play the melody on the G. It falls in very well behind the guitar. I used a lot of chords too.

Was it fun playing that droning, ringing style?

Fuck yeah, it was. I mean, I was spaced out, wasn’t I?

But weren’t you a speed freak while the other guys were on acid?

Well, I used to take everything. I used to take their stuff, you know... they just didn’t take mine, ha ha.

How do you get your overdriven bass sound?

I just turn it up really loud and hit it really hard! No effects at all. I’ve never really used any pedals. I tried a wah-wah once but it doesn’t really work with bass. It’s pointless, isn’t it? Effects always fuck up anyway, and then the feedback starts howling and you’re standing there like a dickhead.

What amp setup do you use?

I’ve got two old Marshall JMP Super Bass 2s, with 4x15s and 4x12s on each side. I got the 4x15s in America. We went down to this guy’s house and his wife showed us this summerhouse in the garden. We had to dig our way through all this furniture and shit and there were these two cabs with the covers on. She pulled the covers off and they were Marshalls from the 60s. They haven’t made 4x15s for a long time. They were brand new, never been used. And I got the two of them for four hundred bucks!

What about EQ? You have a lot of middle in your sound.

Oh yes. I’ll tell you the controls, left to right. Presence is at three o’clock. Bass is off. Middle is full. Treble is off. Volume at three o’clock.

Blimey. That must help with the overdrive?

Oh yeah. It gives it a bit of a lift.

In 2000 Rickenbacker produced a Lemmy signature bass. Did they approach you or did you go to them?

They said, do you want to design a bass, and I said yes. I think they bit off more than they could chew, really, ha ha.

There are three pickups on there.

Yes — Rickenbacker finally made a good pickup! The first Ricky I had, I replaced the neck pickup with one off a Thunderbird. I got two of ‘em in the West End. Otherwise I used to use Bartolinis. The three-pickup combination works, that’s what I’m interested in.

Did you create the design for the carved oak leaves on the walnut top?

I’m not that good an artist, they got a professional wood-carver in. I drew it for them but I wouldn’t say they went exactly by my design.

How many basses did they give you?

Just the one so far. They cost about £2000, but it’s worth it because it’s a beautiful bass.

Does it sound good?

It does for me, yeah. It needs to stand plenty of punishment and I like a real discernible difference in the sound of the pickups, you know. I don’t want three pickups that all sound the same, like they do on Fenders. And you certainly get that difference with this bass.

Are you fussy about the weight and the balance?

Well, it weighs nothing, it’s light as a feather. I don’t insist on a light bass, it just turned out that way, it’s great. I find Rickys useful for me because I’m a guitarist turned bass player, you know: I like the skinny neck. And I like the weird shape too. It has to look right.

Do you have other basses too?

I used to have a Gibson Thunderbird, but the neck’s a bit long on them, you have to be a fuckin’ contortionist to play ‘em. And I used to have an old Hopf bass when I first joined Hawkwind. They were real good.

Have you ever dabbled with five- and six-string basses?

No. I don’t see what you’d use ‘em for, unless you were bent on being a superstar, which I’m not.

We asked Jack Bruce the same question.

Oh yeah? What did he say?

He said that if you’ve got the extra strings, you just play them, whereas if you’ve only got four you’re forced to be inventive.

Exactly! It’s much more fun. I played a Fender VI when they were around, but I never really fancied it much. I did try one of the Rickenbacker eight-strings. It was fuckin’ horrible! It had a neck like a fuckin’ tree trunk. Tell you what I have got — one of those Hagstrom eight-string basses, the same one that Jimi Hendrix had. And that’s really good. It’s much better than any of the others.

When you play, you hit the string with the pick quite close to the neck pickup.

Yes, I use the arm rest. I play around that, the Arc de Triomphe. The Bridge Of Sighs!

Don’t the strings flap a bit when you hit them there?

Well, I don’t use small-gauge strings. I’m a great believer that there should be heavy-gauge, medium and light and that’s all. Otherwise it’s just too fuckin’ confusing. There are so many different bloody gauges, and people use all the wrong strings all the time. Like when Clapton came out with the banjo fifth tuning. You don’t remember that, do you? You could only get one gauge in them days — medium! Ha ha. So to get more bend, Clapton used a banjo fifth string as a guitar first. And they lasted a damn sight longer than these light-gauge strings they give you now.

What strings do you use?

I used to use Rotosound all the time and I may be doing again, apparently. I’ve been using Dean Markley for the past 10 years. I don’t really mind what make of strings I use as long as they’ve got some growl to ‘em. I don’t give a shit. I come from that generation when you used what you had. There was none of this, oh, I must have these strings or I can’t go on! You know? Bollocks to that.

Motörhead has a huge guitar sound. How do you stop the bass getting lost in the mix?

Well, you see I don’t mind the bass getting lost, because I think a band should sound like three or four guys playing together. It shouldn’t sound like four fuckin’ solo instruments. I don’t understand why you’d want to hear just one instrument. I just see the wall, I don’t see the bricks on their own. I like it to sound like a band, like the Beatles always did. Even Hendrix, you couldn’t tell what the fuck was going on with him. There’d be so many guitars on there. I like to hear a band, that’s the idea of being in a band. You play together! 

Do you write songs on bass?

Well, it’s very hard, that. You sound like a twat sitting there on your own. The only song I wrote on bass was Iron Fist. Otherwise it’s mostly on acoustic guitar.

Did you ever play slap bass? I realise that’s an incongruous image.

No, not really. I can make it recognizable, but it’s not really my thing. 

What did you think of Jaco Pastorius?

Well, for me that’s dilettantism. You can only do so much soloing. It’s like the Joe Satriani and Steve Vai albums: I mean, I like a good solo, but not for the whole fuckin’ album. I like songs with verses at each end.

But Portrait Of Tracy was amazing! All those harmonics.

Oh, fuckin’ hell. Boring!

He was great to watch if you’re a bass player, though.

Well yeah, that’s all very well, but it’s like, one more time, look at what I can do. It’s kind of tedious.

When you were a guitarist, who influenced you?

Clapton, of course. And Beck. But I could never do that shit, I was no good. A really fuckin’ indifferent guitarist. I was lucky I found bass.

People admire your bass playing, don’t they?

They’re quite right. I think I’m original, at least. I think I play like nobody else does. I always wanted to be John Entwistle, but since that place was taken, I became a lesser version.

Do you practice much?

Exercises and so on? No, I can’t be bothered with all that. I get enough exercise on stage.

Can you read music?

No. What for? I’m in a rock ’n’ roll band, not a fuckin’ orchestra!

The select team of bass players that Lemmy respects

1. John Entwistle

The best bass player on the face of the earth. He was the best for me, no contest. He was so in command of his instrument. You never saw him flicker. Never a bum note that I ever heard. And he was so fast, both hands going like hell. The bass solo in ‘My Generation’, you still tie yourself in knots trying to do it now. You can work it out, but it was another thing thinking it up. And that was back in 1964!

2. Carol Kaye

I liked her. She was a housewife who used to do all the Motown stuff. She was great, a fuckin’ outstanding woman. She’d clock out of the house in the morning, play a bit of bass and then clock back in for teatime and feed the kids! Fuckin’ amazing! 

3. Bill Wyman

I thought he was very good. Unlike most people, apparently.

4. Jet Harris

Very innovative for his time, given the band he was in. He gave me the idea that the bass player didn’t have to stand at the back.

5. Flea

I think he’s very good indeed. Excellent. He’s an innovator and what he does stands out.

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.