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Interview: Marcus Miller

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Interview: Marcus Miller


Miller’s primary bass for the last 35 years is a 1977 Fender Jazz model outfitted with a Badass bridge and a Bartolini preamp. Photo by Michael Sauvage

Has your plucking-hand technique changed much over the years?
I attack the string with my thumb pretty much the same way I always have—just beyond the end of the neck—because that’s a really sweet spot on my particular instrument. Some guys do it more on the neck, which creates more false harmonics. I’ve always hit just in front of the end of the fretboard, because I need a sound that’s strong on the fundamentals. But it’s changed with my plucking fingers, and it’s pretty fluid—even when I’m doing the thumb-style playing. When slapping, I used to only pluck with my index finger, but I started incorporating my middle finger, as well. And when I’m using the thumb more like a pick, moving up and down the strings, I have to move my thumb away from that sweet spot to make sure I can get even strokes going up and down.

When I was doing sessions all the time, I’d pluck in the standard spot for a Jazz bass, which is just between the two pickups—where that meaty sound is. When I started making solo records, though, I began to address the fact that I never liked the transition from fingerstyle to slap and plucking style. So I started doing my fingerstyle strokes really close to the neck, using a really heavy attack, so that it almost sounded like a full pluck even though it was a finger stroke. That way, when I switched over to a thumb and a pluck, the sound was more consistent. On my own albums, you’ll almost always hear me using that style.

Over the last few years, I’ve started to move my right hand back and forth a lot more, all over the bass, and it’s helped me realize that I don’t need to fool around with my tone [settings] as much if I just choose a different placement of my fingers—and that allows me to play in very different ways.

What sorts of ways?
You can play way back by the bridge, and another great spot is just about an inch and a half to the left of the back pickup. It still really sings, but you also get a little more of the meat that you don’t when you’re all the way to the back pickup.


Miller onstage with a sunburst Fender J and an EBS TD660 head driving twin EBS 4x10s. Note the Bionic Man ... er action figure sitting atop the EBS rack. Photo by Andrea Scognamillo

What do you practice these days—is it still mostly scales and arpeggios?
I start by just warming up, which is really important. A lot of younger players don’t realize that. I’ll just play scales really slowly, usually when I’m talking with somebody and going over the set before soundcheck—just to get everything moving. And then I’ll find scales that involve all the fingers—for instance, whole-tone scales in different permutations—just to get all my fingers moving. For example, I might play the notes Bb, Db, A, and G using a 4–2–3–1 finger pattern on the E and A strings, and then move that pattern—and variations on it—up and down the neck. I’ll use both scales and arpeggios for that.

Then I’ll move into some bebop-based stuff, because I’m always trying to keep that connection between my imagination and my technique. I’ll improvise and try to play exactly what I’m hearing in my head. And if I get stuck, and I can’t play what I’m hearing, I’ll make a little exercise out of it and work on that until it’s happening. That type of practicing takes me all over the place, and that’s necessary, because I do a lot of improvisation, and I really need to be sure I can get to where I need when I want.

Sometimes, I’m running standard jazz-tune changes. Other times, I may be superimposing harmony over a single chord, like I was talking about earlier, to really get a sense of working the melody, harmony, and rhythm all at the same time. I’ll usually end up playing with different rhythms—keeping the beat, but flipping it around and turning it upside down, while making sure it’s steady and feels good. Because, in the end, if you don’t bring together all the stuff that I’m talking about in a rhythm that feels good, it’s kind of meaningless.

Marcus Miller's Gear

Basses
Various 1977 Fender Jazz basses, Fender Marcus Miller Jazz signature 4-strings, Fender Marcus Miller Jazz V 5-strings

Amps
SWR Marcus Miller bass preamp and SWR Power 750 power amps driving SWR Marcus Miller Golight 800-watt 4x10 cabs (live), EBS Fafner II head driving EBS NeoLine Pro 4x10 cabs (live)

Effects
MXR Blow Torch, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, MXR Bass Compressor, MXR Phase 90 (“for whenever I want to play “Money, Money, Money” by the O-Jays”), MXR Micro Flanger, Dunlop Cry Baby 105Q wah, Fulltone OCD (used on the ballistic third chorus to the new album’s “Detroit”), a Rodenberg GAS-808, Electro-Harmonix POG, Ernie Ball volume pedal, Sanford & Sonny Bluebeard Fuzz, dbx 166 compressor (studio)

Strings and Picks
DR Strings Fat Beams Marcus Miller 4- (.045–.105) and 5-string (.045–.125) sets, DR Hi-Beams

In the ’80s and ’90s, you played and recorded with everyone from Peabo Bryson to Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, David Sanborn, and Paul Simon. You even played on Donald Fagen’s 1982 masterpiece, The Nightfly. What were those early days as a session cat like?
As a studio musician in New York, there are two types of players. There’s the musician—more of a chameleon—who’s good at finding the sound that’s necessary for a particular record, and then there’s the guy who you don’t call unless you want his unique sound. I was somewhere in the middle. I’d get to the session and see what was required, and if it seemed like they were looking for the kind of sound everybody knew me for, I’d break that out. But other times, it was clear that my regular style wasn’t going to be appropriate.

Donald Fagen, for instance, wanted a straight, clear fingerstyle Jazz bass sound. That was my first time working with Donald and his producer Gary Katz. All the studio musicians in New York were warning me about Fagen. “Man, he’s going to have you playing that thing over and over until you get it right!” He was famous for that. So I came in ready to spend lots of time there, and I did four or five songs, two takes each, and he said, “That’s great!” and sent me on my way. I was like, “Hey, that didn’t hurt at all!” Now, I did hit him with a little thumb [playing]—but he took it off. I hit “I.G.Y.” like a gospel shuffle—like a Luther Vandross “Bad Boy/Having a Party” funk style—and he was, like, “No! Way, way too exciting—thank you very much!”

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