Skip to main content

Michael Manring: “I’ve come to believe the bass may have more capacity for altered tuning than any other instrument“

(Image credit: Michael Manring)

I’ve always loved the idea that being an artist is all about observing what’s happening in the society around you and responding in some meaningful way. 

I get the feeling this notion went out of style in the tumult of the 20th century and art became a kind of anything goes proposition, but I just can’t seem to let go of it. 

I have the privilege of travelling a good bit, seeing some interesting parts of the world and meeting lots of people. I’m not sure if I have any special perspective, but I always look for themes and patterns around me and those ideas motivate me in the creative process.  

For many years I had wanted to experiment with bass design in some specific ways, but it was difficult to find a luthier willing to undertake some of the bizarre concepts I had in mind

From what I can see, life in the early part of this still new century is increasingly technological and globally inter-connected, complex, and full of both possibilities and problems. It continues to be a time of dramatic new conceptions in physics, information, and philosophy of mind with remarkable implications for epistemology and society.

I find these ideas recur in my thoughts and compositions as I try to make sense of the world around me, and they are reflected in Small Moments. 

Let me introduce some of my bass guitars to you. First, the Zon Michael Manring Fretless Hyperbass: I’ve had this bass since 1990 and it has been a dream come true.

For many years I had wanted to experiment with bass design in some specific ways, but it was difficult to find a luthier willing to undertake some of the bizarre concepts I had in mind. I had the great fortune to meet Joe Zon in the late 80s, and he and I have been collaborating ever since.

For the Hyperbass, we decided to try out a whole set of unusual ideas on one instrument and see what happened. It has several unusual features. First, it has a very long fingerboard – just shy of three octaves. We did this because we couldn’t see a reason not to.

With a fretless instrument, it seemed to make sense to extend the fingerboard as far as possible – in this case to the sole pickup. We also included an unusual electronics arrangement in the Hyperbass. Underneath the standard pickup cover there are actually four separate elements, one for each string.

This allows me to output the sound of each string separately and if you listen carefully to the pieces Tetrahedron and 23 Oktober you will hear each string has its own place in the stereo field.

If you’re really paying attention, you can hear separate audio processing for each string on these pieces as well. In addition to the four magnetic pickups, there are four ceramic pickups built into the body of this bass.

One is in the top of the body, one in each horn and one in the headstock.  Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we designed the Hyperbass for dynamic tuning. I’ve always been fascinated with the capability of the bass guitar for various tunings and have come to believe it may have more capacity for altered tuning than any other instrument.

As I got into unusual tunings I realized a really exciting direction to go would be to be able to move through tunings while playing—what I refer to as ‘dynamic tuning’.

The Hyperbass has levers at both ends of the instrument to allow for this. The ones at the headstock give me the opportunity to change the tuning of each string separately; those at the bridge allow me to change tuning on groups of strings with a single lever move. 

Then there’s my Zon VB4: This fretted instrument was designed to replace a bass I got in Japan in the mid-80s. Although the strings and neck were the standard length, the body and headstock were minimized, making the instrument easier to travel with.

Since I love experimenting with and sharing all the various sounds and colors the bass is capable of, I like to travel with as many basses as I can. This is not an easy proposition and much planning and worrying has gone into the process of transporting my instruments all over the world.

Having a bass a bit smaller has been very helpful and allows me to travel with as many as three basses by myself. Joe built the first prototype VB4 in the 90s, and the one I’m currently using is an updated design built around 2004.

As for my Zon Legacy 10-string prototype: One day Joe brought a prototype 10-string bass to my house.

He had been experimenting with special hardware for five two-string configurations and wanted me to check it out. The bass was strung with the string pairs in octaves, which is the standard, but I swapped them out with other gauges that allowed me to tune the pairs in many different ways.

I was engrossed with this setup and have been having a wonderful time experimenting with this bass ever since.

Finally, the Zon Sonus Elite Special is my main bass – the one I use for almost every session and gig I do. It’s a four-string fretless with the extended cutaway and dynamic tuning keys as on the Hyperbass. It’s simply the finest instrument of any kind I’ve ever played.

I’m astonished at Joe’s skill in building instruments that are almost like living things with soul and passion. In fact, I sometimes feel my job is to simply get out of the way and just let these instruments sing.

The songs on Small Moments are solo bass pieces, recorded live with no overdubs and minimal editing. Although I use electronics to expand and extend the sound of the instrument, almost all this processing was done on the fly during the performances.

These pieces were written to be played live using only the equipment the airlines will allow me to take with me when I travel. The basses were recorded direct using Markbass DI boxes plugged into the preamp of an old Soundcraft board, then sent to a MOTU 828 converter into Logic.

In addition to the direct sound, for many of the pieces I used two Rode microphones very close to the instrument

In some cases, the VB-99 was plugged directly into the laptop using its on-board USB converter for the recording. In addition to the direct sound, for many of the pieces I used two Rode microphones very close to the instrument.

I do this to pickup the acoustic, transient sound of the bass in my recording space as well as the sound of the Markbass amp I use for monitoring. I find this helps create a sense of acoustic ambience that otherwise can be missing in recording direct alone.

One of the songs, The World Is Everything That Is the Case, was recorded with the Zon Hyperbass, tuned CFBbEb, with Roland VB99 effects and an Ebow. This is a little improvisation I’ve been playing in my solo shows for the last several years.

I suppose the sole drawback to the Ebow is it’s really only designed to play one note at a time. If you’re playing with others this isn’t a big deal, but it is a little tricky to come up with interesting single line, monophonic solo music, so I’ve had fun over the years devising methods for creating more complete music with it.

ne of my passions, like dynamic tunings, is dynamic effects – using the power that new technology gives us in ways that are changeable and expressive.

One of my favorite ways to do this is by using harmonizers. A harmonizer is an electronic effect that does just what it says – it generates a harmony to whatever you play.

If you just switch it on and play, the effect is interesting, but can get a bit tiresome eventually. One of my passions, like dynamic tunings, is dynamic effects – using the power that new technology gives us in ways that are changeable and expressive.

Thanks to the Roland VB-99 and the Keith McMillen SoftStep I’m able to work with the technology in ways I find inspiring and do it all live in real time. In the case of this piece, I set up four harmonies to the note I’m playing. I programmed a patch so I can fade the harmonies in and out, change them, and sustain them as I wish.

This is a sound environment I love to explore and I thought it would be a nice way to introduce this set of music. Those of you who are philosophy nerds (I’m a wannabe!) may recognize the title as the first words in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein was one of the most important philosophical thinkers of the 20th century and certainly among the boldest.

In the Tractatus he sought to organize and describe the nature of the world in a unique, precise, almost mathematical framework. The result is somewhat mystifying, but I can’t help but be moved by his audacity, intellectual depth and creative courage.

Another song, ‘Tetrahedron’ featured these temporary tunings, created pulling the key: CEbBbEb, DbFBbEb, AbEbBbEb, DbFBbF, CEbBbF, AbEbBbF, DbFAbEb, CEbAbEb, AbEbAbEb, DbFAbF, CEbAbF, CFBbF, BbFBbF, BbFBbEb. BbF#BbEb*, BbEbBbEb, BbEbBbF, BbFBbF#.

A few years ago, Hipshot came up with a design with an intermediate position allowing for three notes per string. Of course, I had to have them!

I never get tired of searching for new ideas to explore on my Hyperbass. Its dynamic tuning capability is especially inspiring and I love being able to make tuning changes part of the compositional process.

The tuning keys are made by a company called Hipshot, and a lever on the side allows me to move between two notes on each string. However, a few years ago, Hipshot came up with a design with an intermediate position allowing for three notes per string. Of course, I had to have them!

They’ve been quite a mental adjustment, as with two positions on four strings there are 16 possible tuning configurations, but with the three position keys that number goes up to 81. I love the challenge, and I’m pretty sure this piece has more tuning changes than anything else I’ve ever written. 

A tetrahedron represents to me the tuning capabilities of the Hyperbass. The four faces are analogous to the four strings with the triangles corresponding to the three possible tuning positions of the Hipshots. I think of the bridge tuning mechanism as changing the size of the tetrahedron.

I never get tired of searching for new ideas to explore on my Hyperbass. Its dynamic tuning capability is especially inspiring

I don’t have synesthesia, but when I play this piece I sometimes like to picture a moving and changing tetrahedron dancing in space; I feel this image helps me to better visualize the tuning possibilities of the Hyperbass.

I feel I owe a debt to my literary hero, Jorge Luis Borges’ wonderful story Death And The Compass for this piece. In it he describes the Tetragrammaton, a concept in Judaism that has deep significance in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah.

The idea is that the name of God is a word of four letters that has special power and must not be spoken aloud. The word comes from the Greek ‘consisting of four letters’. As someone who spends his life searching for something meaningful and beautiful on four strings, I found this idea had a deep resonance with me...

  • Micheal Manring's new album, Small Moments, is out now.  This article is excerpted from its extensive (and excellent) liner notes.