Snarky Puppy's Michael League: “I’m a 4-string guy. I just play better when I have less to work with”

Snarky Puppy performs on stage at Ahoy at North Sea Jazz Festival on July 12, 2014 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
(Image credit: Photo by Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns via Getty Images)

Having picked up a fifth Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2023, Snarky Puppy’s recorded catalogue grows more impressive from album to album, each one inspired by the earth-shattering bass guitar playing of Michael League.

Rarely seen without his 1959 Fender Precision Bass, League attests to being a 4-string player. “I play better – simpler, more rhythmically, more like a drummer – when I have less to work with. I feel like I have too many options with a 5-string!”

According to League, who also happens to be the group’s composer, arranger, producer and bandleader, it’s a creative decision. “It’s crazy, but it’s just about knowing myself and my tendencies. Also, my favourite bassists – James Jamerson, Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, Pino Palladino and Tim Lefebvre – are all 4-string guys. That’s just the sound I hear in my head.”

Aside from his 1959 Fender Precision, Michael has also turned to a number of other bass models over the years, including a fretless F Bass with PJ pickups, various vintage Precision basses (among them a ‘slab’ bodied model from 1952), a D’Angelico EX-Bass and a Nik Huber Rietbergen bass.

“I own lots of different basses,” said League. “I have my workhorse ’59 P-Bass, a 1965 Hofner, a 5-string Alleva Coppola, which I used on our Family Dinner albums, and a Bacca Amrita bass from Italy. I play each instrument when the music calls for it. Sound is everything, and each of these basses is very specific."

As the creative mastermind behind Snarky Puppy, League always brings a composers mentality to his bass playing. “The bassline is almost always the last thing I write. I try to focus on the stuff that doesn’t come as naturally to me first. I know that I’ll always be able to create a groove, so I leave that for last.”

Having soaked up the influences of James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins, it’s difficult not to be impressed by League's outlook, as he told BP. “The majority of the time I just try to keep things low and fundamental, but within that, there’s so much room to create interest through different tones, doubling the left hand of the piano, swinging while the drums are playing straight, leaving space, using pedals; I try to explore as much as possible, and if it feels good I go for it.”

Members of the band Snarky Puppy perform on stage during Love Supreme Jazz Festival 2013 on July 6, 2013 in Lewes, United Kingdom.

(Image credit: Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images)

What pedals does he use? “My main sounds are octaver, envelope filter and analogue delay. For high-octave solo stuff, I've used an Electro-Harmonix Pog 2. For groove stuff with sub octave, I alternate between a 3Leaf Audio Octabvre and the MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, which is super deep and warm. It shakes windows, for sure.”

Snarky Puppy’s Grammy-winning album, Empire Central, is available to buy or stream.

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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.