Watch Tony Levin demonstrate his signature ‘funk fingers’

Tony Levin live in concert with Peter Gabriel
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Since emerging on the New York studio scene in the 1970s, Tony Levin has forged a reputation as a modern master of the bass guitar. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have played with so many great musicians,” he tells us. “To have played some great music, and just to have been able to keep playing the bass – the thing I love to do – for all of my adult years.”

Aside from a remarkable career as a sideman, playing on landmark recordings for the likes of John Lennon, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Lou Reed and David Bowie, Levin’s preference for prog rock led to his taking up the Chapman Stick, joining the envelope-pushing King Crimson, and becoming a permanent touring member of Peter Gabriel’s band. He’s worked closely with Peter Gabriel since 1977, and will be a core member of the group’s 2023 i/o tour.

"With Peter, it’s great music," says Tony. "There’s a lot of fun within the band, so everything still feels good to us. Peter’s a great performer, as ever, and the material is a pleasure to play, even after all these years.”

Peter Gabriel In Concert At The O2 Arena, London, Britain - 21 Oct 2013, Tony Levin

Tony and his 'funk fingers' (Image credit: Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

One of the most innovative bassists working today, Tony invented a system of striking the strings with two small drumsticks attached to his fingers. “I call it ‘funk fingers’, he says. “When I was working on Peter’s song ‘Big Time’, I asked Jerry Marotta to drum on the bass strings while I fingered the notes with my left hand. It took hours for us to do and the track wasn’t really used in the final mix, except in one place after the first chorus, but I had grown very attached to it. I just liked the percussive sound."

Using them live was a whole other level of real-time learning experience too, as he explains: “I tried to reproduce the performance live, with a drumstick in one hand, but it wasn’t working. One day at soundcheck, Peter said, “Why don’t you attach two sticks to your fingers?” I turned around to my tech and asked him, “Can we do that?” He pared down two drumsticks and found a piece of surgical tubing to attach them to my fingers." 

"We gradually refined the system and now I use two percussion sticks, which are thinner than drum sticks, and they have scoops cut out of them to fit my fingers. I’ve also wrapped the ends of the sticks in various materials to soften their attack; the bright sound can be too much for most record producers. I try it a lot in the studio, and often I’m told to “put those things away.”

As well as the i/o tour with Peter Gabriel next year, Tony has announced new dates with his Stick Men trio, which features Markus Reuter on guitar and King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto. "The Chapmen Stick is a great instrument. Its unusual tuning helps me to come up with unusual lines, which is something I'm always trying to do, and I'll take whatever help I can get."

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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.