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Trevor Bolder: “Bowie played you a song and you had one runthrough and that was it. Ziggy Stardust was recorded in a day“

Trevor Bolder
(Image credit: Christie Goodwin/Redferns)

Few bass players have as impressive a pedigree as Hull-born Trevor Bolder, who began his musical career playing cornet and trumpet in brass bands. After switching to guitar and then bass, he hooked up with his guitarist friend Mick Ronson, with whom he played gigs in the Hull area. 

Recruiting drummer Woody Woodmansey in 1970, Bolder renamed his band Ronno, only for the entire group to be adopted the following year by none other than David Bowie, who rechristened them the Spiders From Mars.

They appeared on three seminal albums, including Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, before their association with Bowie ended in 1973. Bolder then toured with Ronson’s band before joining the venerable progressive rockers Uriah Heep in 1976, as a replacement for the departed John Wetton. 

And there he has remained ever since, apart from a brief two-year sabbatical in Wishbone Ash, in which his predecessor was also Wetton. Heep remain immensely popular and regularly tour worldwide, so it’s appropriate that as Bolder talks to us, he has just taken delivery of a luxurious new bass, made by the Brazilian Dalegria company.  

How did the move to Dalegria come about, Trevor? 

“One of the partners at the firm happens to run one of the Uriah Heep websites. He’s a big Heep fan down in Brazil and also runs the fanclub down there. I’ve been trying to get a new bass guitar for years, actually. I play an old Fender, a 1972 Precision, and there’s nothing wrong with it at all – I’ve just been trying to get a new bass so I can leave the Fender at home, because it’s too valuable to take out now. I’ve lost it a couple of times on tour, on different flights, and I’m starting to get a bit panicky about it.“

Bowie was an easy man to work with, but it was difficult when you were doing something like The Jean Genie, which he played you once and then made you record it

Tell us about the new bass.

“It’s a Jazz copy, really. The first week I got it I didn’t put it down. It has a great sound, a bit toppier than the Precision, but you can fix that on the amp. It just felt really nice. I think I can play slightly faster with it. I’ve got one with a dark wood neck, but I’m asking them to make me one with a maple neck, partly because you can see it better on stage.

“It’s pretty standard, although it’s got EMG pickups on it. But we’re going to Brazil this year, so when I’m there I’m going to try and design a special model with them at the factory. The way they’ve put the neck on, I can’t get to the top of it very easily, especially as I’ve got small hands.“

Why didn’t you just buy another Fender?

“I couldn’t find one. I searched and searched and I couldn’t find one that felt the same. I wanted one that felt exactly the same. I couldn’t find a ’72, but I did find earlier ones. They were all battered, though.“

When did you get your original Precision? 

“I bought it when we split from Bowie, and I’ve played it at every venue since then, except for a year when I played Washburns. It’s just a standard Precision, except I put a Seymour Duncan Jazz pickup at the bridge. I don’t use the actual Precision pickup, because it was disconnected for years. I thought, I don’t use it anyway, so I might as well leave it.“

Do you prefer the treblier sound? 

“Yeah, well it’s punchier, you know. I play bass with my fingernails. If you ever look at the Precision you’ll see that I’ve dug a big hole out of it. I reckon that when air can get through to the other side I’ll retire it.“

I don’t like a lot of treble, probably because I played a Gibson EB-3 in the old days and liked that Jack Bruce sound

How do you keep your nails strong? 

“Well, I’m really lucky, they’re just naturally strong. I have to keep the edges cut, because when they get too long, they break all the way down. I keep them filed down to a little point. But you can actually play faster because you don’t have to get your actual finger on the string. If you’re clicking on it with your nail, you can get more percussion and speed up with it.“

Isn’t it difficult to avoid a scratchy sound if you’re playing with your fingernails? 

“No, I adjust it on the amp to the sound I want. I don’t like a lot of treble, probably because I played a Gibson EB-3 in the old days and liked that Jack Bruce sound. Actually, that bass is up for auction at Cooper Owen shortly – it’s got a reserve price of £45,000 on it.“

What amps do you use? 

“I was using big Trace Elliott valve amps, but I lent them to John Entwistle – and when he died, they went into his estate and I never got them back.“ 

So they got sold at auction with the rest of his stuff? 

“Yes! And they’re mine, whoever bought them. Can you put a notice in the magazine for the person to return them? But there’s nothing you can do in that situation, really. Anyway, I’ve been using the new Ampeg Pro 2s, they’re great. I usually use them with a couple of 2x15 cabs and an 8x10. Some Ampegs are supposed to be for funk players, but I don’t find that myself.“

With Bowie I used a 100-watt Marshall bass head and two 12” cabs. That was it. It was like, plug in, turn it up, and away you go

What was your setup when you were playing with David Bowie? 

“With Bowie I used a 100-watt Marshall bass head and two 12” cabs. That was it. It was like, plug in, turn it up, and away you go. I was a huge fan of Jack Bruce so I had a slight edge of distortion on it, but there were no pedals or anything like that back then.“

Did Bowie get involved in writing the bass parts when you were in the Spiders From Mars? 

“No, it was all mine. With him, he played you a song, and you had one runthrough and that was the one you took. That was it. Ziggy Stardust was recorded in a day and mixed in two days. The backing tracks for Aladdin Sane only took two days.“

For budgetary reasons? 

“No, that was just how he worked. He was an easy man to work with, but it was difficult when you were doing something like The Jean Genie, which he played you once and then made you record it. That’s why that cock-up is on there at the end of the first verse, where he says ‘Get back on it’.“

But you didn’t. 

“No. I went down to the B before I should have done, one bar early. He liked it, though, and said he wanted to keep it. I went on tour with a couple of the guys from Def Leppard a few years ago and we played that song every night – and I had to play that mistake every night, because they said, everybody knows it!“

What bass did you start out on? 

“Another Fender. I swapped it for a Mustang when I joined Bowie’s band, because I didn’t know the value of a bass in those days.“

Let’s be honest, it was more important to have a bass that matched the silver suits and platform boots back then, wasn’t it? 

“That’s right, haha! Actually I only swapped it because I had such small hands. The first bass I ever had was a Burns. They were horrible, weren’t they?“

Do you go higher than four strings? 

“Not really. I drop down to D quite a lot and I do play a five-string, but I find that with Heep we don’t really use it that much. The extra string just gets in the way.“

Do you use any effects?

“I use a Boss octave divider and a Boss chorus. I use the octave divider for solos, just to enhance the sound at the top of the neck, just to fatten it out. The lower line just gives it more beef. I use the chorus for more ballady stuff. And I also use a delay pedal to make it sound fretless. I do also play fretless bass, but I prefer not to swap basses on stage if at all possible.

“Talking of fretless, I’ve got a great story. I’m friends with Pino Palladino, and one time in the '80s he was going off to audition for Jools Holland’s band and needed to borrow a bass off me. So I said, take a fretless – and he said, 'Oh no, I can’t play that!' And then a few years later he’d become regarded as one of the great fretless players. Would you believe it?“

Joel McIver

Joel McIver is the Editor of Bass Player 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 and occasionally teaches at BIMM.