“It's a disgrace to the bass player in me, but it's hard to write on the bass. Playing power chords on a guitar is much easier”: Melissa Auf der Maur looks back on a life in rock

Melissa Auf Der Maur performs at Highline Ballroom on March 3, 2011 in New York City.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You probably know her as the bassist from Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, but Melissa Auf der Maur’s career has extended far beyond the rock songs of the 1990s. Luckily, in Courtney Love and Billy Corgan she had two dedicated role models. “Courtney and Billy were both very different,” she told BP. “But I have so much respect for both of them. My time with Hole was more character definition, creating me as a person, and then my crash course in music, one on one, was with the Pumpkins, who refined and defined my musicianship.

“Billy in particular: his level of efficiency and musicianship and his commitment to art was pretty remarkable. He was a real mentor in that way. With Courtney it’s a different female bond, simply because there aren’t that many women in the rock landscape, so we have a real unspoken loyalty to each other based on that fact alone. We’re on a similar mission to put a female perspective out there. With Courtney it enhanced my commitment as a woman to keep on rocking!”

Interestingly, Auf der Maur never wrote songs or riffs on the bass. Instead she'd pick up a Gibson SG, run it through a Fender Blues Deluxe, and write using a clean, slightly effected sound. “It's a disgrace to the bass player in me, but it's just hard to write on the bass. Playing power chords on a guitar is much easier.”

Auf der Maur spent five years with Hole, but it wasn't all wild parties and arena tours. In fact, two and a half of those years were spent in the studio, writing and recording the band's swansong; Celebrity Skin. It was a vastly ambitious – and vastly expensive – album. “I was there for every minute of every day. It was a very demanding process. We ended up spending millions of dollars.”

The album emerged, eventually, to modest success, and there was the inevitable tour to accompany it. But by that time, it was clear to everyone that the whole thing was running out of steam. “It sort of felt like the time to go. Courtney was getting into films and I didn't really know what the future was gonna be.”

Within a week of leaving Hole Auf der Maur received a phone call from Billy Corgan, telling her that his bassist D'arcy Wretzky had quit the Pumpkins and he needed a replacement. “It was just a very dramatic coincidence. Billy said, ‘You're gonna be in my band!’ And I couldn't say no, because it was a dream come true. It was fulfilling a teenage fantasy, but it was also the best music lesson of my life. I knew it was only for one year, because they told me they were splitting up. And knowing I was going to be taught their back catalogue was incredible.”

When describing her own music, and specifically her use of chorus and reverb effects, Auf der Maur likens it to “a beautiful liquid poured over a thorny, rough-edged base.” She thinks of her bass playing in similarly imaginative terms. The bass, she suggests, is an intrinsically feminine instrument, since it performs a nurturing role at the heart of every band: “I call it the mother of all instruments, because it has to be sensitive to everything else. It has to respond to everything equally – the drums, the vocal melody, the guitar part. It has to be the glue. Females play that role in families, so it's natural for them to do the same in bands. It's about being sensitive, putting your ego aside, and picking up on the subtleties. Women are good at that. Do I play bass better because I'm a woman? No. But I think I honour the role of the bass player more naturally.”

Those who saw her live with Hole, or the Pumpkins, will know that Auf der Maur won’t take to the stage with anything other than a Fender Precision. “I have about nine of them! In the years with the Pumpkins and Hole, the Pumpkins especially, we’d use up to four different tunings each gig and you’d have to have a backup for each one. Other than my first bass, which was a Squier Precision that I still have and love, all my others are vintage remakes from the Fender Custom Shop, with necks that match the neck of my worn Squier.”

When it comes to her backline Auf der Maur is equally as devoted. “I’ve only ever played Ampeg SVT Pro 2s. It’s a very simple gear list, but in terms of the foundation I will never need anything more than a Fender Precision Bass and an Ampeg for the rest of my life.”

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Nick Wells

Nick Wells was the Editor of Bass Guitar magazine from 2009 to 2011, before making strides into the world of Artist Relations with Sheldon Dingwall and Dingwall Guitars. He's also the producer of bass-centric documentaries, Walking the Changes and Beneath the Bassline, as well as Production Manager and Artist Liaison for ScottsBassLessons. In his free time, you'll find him jumping around his bedroom to Kool & The Gang while hammering the life out of his P-Bass.