Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash released a new album, 4, a while back, with his backing band the Conspirators and Myles Kennedy on vocals. Bassist Todd Kerns, a longtime member of Slash’s band, delivers a powerful performance with Gibson and Orange gear, and has a sense of style that would make the devil himself envious.
He’s dressed head to toe in black when we meet him, rocking every skull-shaped piece of silver imaginable, but despite this demonic look he’s friendly and softly spoken.
“The bass was the first instrument that I related to,” he tells BP. “Of course, I picked up an acoustic guitar as a kid, and my father, in his wisdom, decided ‘Well, you have a guitar – let’s get you on bass.’ So we went down to the shop and he bought me a Gibson EB-3, which I still have. That was when it all began. It seemed like everyone was playing guitar or drums, and you always had some sort of flamboyant character as the singer: nobody really wanted to be the bass player.”
BP readers will recognize this all-too-common origin story. “I was just a child,” continues Kerns, “so I found myself playing in bands with guys who were much older and more advanced than me. That was great for me, because you find yourself playing catch-up. I ended up pushed into being the singer in some bands, and when my little brother started playing bass I moved to rhythm guitar, but bass has always been a part of my life.”
Asked about his influences, Kerns explains: “Paul McCartney is always the one I go back to, because I play with a pick and I can play with my fingers. In Bass Player there’s always this thing of guys with picks versus guys without picks, like a bizarre rivalry, which I find kinda funny. To me it’s not really about one or the other, it’s whatever you started as.
“McCartney was a guitarist – he wasn’t really a bass player until he had to be. He just happened to become one of the most influential bass players in history, with the ability to sing and play his bass parts at the same time. That’s something I’m constantly inspired by, as a singer who plays bass.”
Aggression also plays a part in the Kerns bass approach, he says. “I got really into punk rock when I was young, so guys like Dee Dee Ramone were the basis of the aesthetic of what I do. A lot of what we gravitated towards was the visual aspect of punk rock; the bass is really low, and he’s playing with a pick and hopping around.
“I also like guys like John Entwistle, with that really over-the-top, noisy kind of playing. There’s a lot of different kinds of players that I really like, but it always seemed like I went into the more aggressive area, as opposed to the more jazz area. I have a deep appreciation for all that stuff, but I always found myself in very loud rock ’n’ roll bands.”
Kerns has played with major artists such as Adam Levine, Alice Cooper, and Sammy Hagar. Did his vocal ability help him to get those gigs?
“Absolutely, it really has,” he confirms. “Being able to carry a harmony part is really useful. In this band, I’m singing a lot – there’s a lot of times where I’m up at the mic during the show. When I was really young I was always fascinated by Sting’s ability to play and sing at the same time, because the rhythms in his songs are so complex.
“I find myself doing it all the time: we’ll be in the studio and we’ll record a vocal part, with a harmony that I’ll be singing live, and I don’t realize until I get back to rehearsing that it’s really challenging to play and sing it at the same time. I have to split my brain into the bass part and the singing part.”
Does he have any advice for bassists looking to follow in his footsteps?
“It really is just a case of being in the right place,” he tells us. “You gotta go to London or New York or L.A. and get in with other musicians and show that you can do it. Your life is basically an audition – everything you do on stage or in the studio is preparing you for what’s to come.
“For me, Guns N’ Roses’ music was in my DNA, so when I met Slash, it was like ‘What are we doing? Nightrain? Okay!’ I just knew the songs. If it was a case of coming down and playing with a band like Yes, then clearly I’d have to do a lot of homework, but because GN’R are such a part of my being, it came naturally to me.
“For me, Guns N’Roses’ music was in my DNA, so when I met Slash, it was like ‘What are we doing? whole career aspect of Los Angeles. You hit walls as a musician – but when life presents a wall, and you can’t go any further, you have to find ways around that wall.”
- 4 is out now via Gibson Records/BMG.