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Tony Franklin - Reading Between The Lines

There are few bass players around today who showcase the true versatility of the bass as both a rhythm and lead instrument in the way that Tony Franklin manages to do. Known to his legions of followers as “The Fretless Monster”, Franklin has been pushing the boundaries of the fretless bass for over 35 years, rising to worldwide prominence in the 1980’s as the bass player with The Firm, one of the last supergroups to have existed. With the pairing of Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers, the group was pushed even closer into the supergroup realm by the amazing fretless work of Franklin.

Tony cites Jaco Pastorius, the man known as the “Jimi Hendrix of the bass" as his main inspiration for taking up the fretless. If you’re familiar with Franklin’s work, you immediately understand Jimmy Page picking him because in many ways, with his sliding harmonics in multiple positions and his huge sonic vocabulary, Tony Franklin could be considered the “Jimmy Page of the fretless”. In the tradition of Page, he has been an in-demand session man and has appeared on over 150 albums, in addition to releasing two of his own solo albums, doing numerous television-related projects, and releasing his own instructional DVD.

I recently sat down with Tony to discuss a far-ranging array of topics with him, from his inspirations to his technique and his unique hair styles.

Let’s start right off with Jaco. The movie just came out and you were at the Los Angeles premiere. What are your thoughts on the film?

The movie was amazing. Very inspiring and uplifting. Robert Trujillo has done all of us proud - Jaco, his family, the bass community and all musicians... especially the generations to come. I left there feeling as inspired and motivated as the first time I heard Jaco. The dark and sad aspects of his life were covered well, and conveyed the seriousness of his condition, but the overriding message showed Jaco as a beautiful human being, a dedicated family man, and the musical genius that we all know him to be.

I’m surprised you aren’t in it.

It’s hard for me to be objective about that. The movie was perfect, though I’m sure I could have added a few little anecdotes. There really weren’t any other Jaco-inspired fretless players in the movie, which in hindsight might seem a little strange. But it also shows the universality of Jaco’s influence. Jaco influenced a lot of bassists, many who didn’t necessarily choose to play fretless. Jaco was the reason I play fretless bass. He was the master. I took what he did, and put my own spin on it. It’s very clear that there were many players who were inspired by him.

How do you pull off harmonics in so many positions? What’s your secret?

Jaco opened my mind to the harmonics that are all over the fingerboard. You just have to explore and find them. You have to really hit the strings hard to pull some of them out. You have to use the bridge pickup as well, which is one of the reasons I put that bridge pickup in the P bass.

I also do sliding harmonics, which allows me to create a lot of sounds that you just cannot do on a fretted bass. One trick I use is to listen to the bass without it being plugged in. I’ll do this and then try to pull all those harmonics out and see if I can hear them. Sometimes the bass may not be set up right. If you can’t hear them when you’re unplugged, you won’t catch them with the pickups.

How much does your choice of strings have to do with this? Does the choice between wire-wound and flat-wound have any effect on sliding harmonics?

Absolutely, the string choice is key in creating this sound. I’ve been using DR Sunbeams for close to 20 years now, but prior to that I had tried many different strings. I was using Rotosound for many years. It is harder to pull the harmonics out of flat-wounds. A lot of people don’t recommend using rounds on the fretless but if you want that aggressive sound, you need rounds. I find them a lot more versatile and you can still get that flat kind of sound by rolling off the high end, and plucking nearer the neck. So yes, the strings do make a difference with the harmonics.

The DR Sunbeams seem to last for about a year, and I can still pull the harmonics out of them. Some strings may die more quickly and they won’t allow you to pull out those harmonics, but everything is interrelated; the strings you use, the pickups, and how you hit the strings. They’re all relative to getting the most out of the bass and hearing all those harmonics.

What about pedals? What pedals are you currently using?

I pretty much keep it to the Digitech pedals, they’re simple, effective, and sturdy. I use the bass synth wah for adding a growly octave to my range, plus the bass overdrive pedal, and they have a pedal called the digi-delay, which has a simple, versatile delay on it. I make extensive use of the reverse feature on that. I also use their chorus pedal. I’ve found that all of Digitech’s pedals are great. They’re quiet, they are very well-made, and I find that I can do a lot with them.

It doesn’t seem that a lot of bass players really utilize pedals much.

I find that it seems to be either one extreme or another. Either they use a lot, or not at all. When I’m playing with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I don’t use them at all; the only thing I use is an in-line tuner. I only like to use pedals if the music requires it. If I’m doing my solo work, or if I’m doing certain jam things, then I like to add the low-octave. If I’m needed to do a bass solo, then I’ll have the four digitech pedals and only really employ them during that solo. I’ll use my chorus on some other bits, but otherwise I try to stay away from using the pedals.

Also, I like my sound to be as clean as possible. There’s always a compromise when you use pedals, no matter how clean they are or how straight through, you end up compromising the direct signal a little bit. I find that the Digitech pedals are good in that regard.

Do you use your inline tuner just to get set up, or do you reference it constantly as you’re playing?

I do check pretty regularly, and it also depends on how recently I changed my strings. I try to stretch out the strings as little as possible, because doing that actually breaks down the core and the strings end up dying sooner. So if I’ve recently put on a set of strings that haven’t been stretched, I’ll tend to check the tuner more often. I can go a whole night without checking the tuner once the strings have been broken in. When I’m recording, I’ll have the tuner in line and I’ll check it before every take. It varies and I use what’s needed for each specific moment.

I noticed when you were playing with KWS you hardly looked down at all, but in your instructional DVD you look down a lot. Have you progressed past the need to look at the fret dots?

Oh no, I still need those dots, I’m not up to that point. I don’t like the lines, I play the unlined fretless. Some people rely on those lines, and the secret is that those are just guides and not perfectly in tune because of the nature of the scale is not a perfect tempered scale. So yes, I still need those dots. There are some sections of the music where I need them a lot, and in other sections I’m just holding it down, so I’m in a position where I don’t need to look down so much - it varies from gig to gig.

When you started playing fretless, were you ever compelled to take a fretted bass and mod it, or did you just go out and buy one?

I went straight out and got an unlined fretless. I went down to the Bass Centre in London in about 1978 or 1979. I got on the train with my parents and went down there. I knew the Bass Centre had a few of them and I wanted the unlined fretless. I had played a little bit on the upright bass, but it really wasn’t my thing. With an upright I really don’t have the freedom that I have on the electric. It’s a whole different instrument, it really is. So I picked out an instrument that day, and it’s the one that I ended up using with The Firm - the one I still have and use on session work. It was originally an unlined fretted P bass, not de-fretted. I wanted a P Bass because I already played a fretted Precision and loved it. I don’t own a Jazz Bass to this day! And this era was a time when Fender were still making the unlined P bass. Ironically, once Jaco came along, everyone wanted the lined Jazz Bass, so the unlined fretless Precision went away. I believe they made it from 1973 through 1979. After that point Fender stopped making them, until my signature bass came out in 2006. It filled that void so to speak. So anyway yes, I started out on a real fretless.

How did you end up in partnership with Fender?

I was working for Fender for eight years, not so many people know that. I was handling artist relations for them. I think the signature deal would have gone through anyway though. I was playing at the NAMM show and one of the Fender guys was looking at the bass I was playing, (my bass from The Firm) and remarked “wow, that’s a real man’s bass.” We laughed about it. I hadn’t gone in there with the purpose of securing a signature bass deal, I honestly hadn’t thought about it until then. Without thinking about it too much I asked “what would you think about doing a signature bass?” And he said, yeah okay. Haha.

Just like that?

Yeah, just like that. Having been on the inside at Fender and knowing how things worked there as well, and working with a lot of the signature artists as well, I know that those deals usually don’t just happen like that. One of the things that Fender has to do is look at what’s in the product line, see how the signature bass fits. It’s not just all about the artist, it’s also about the making sure that what they do with a signature piece is going to fit in with the rest of their line up. If it conflicts with another instrument then there’s no point in putting it out there. It didn’t take too long to put the whole deal together with Fender because it was modeled right after my bass; it wasn’t like we had to come up with something totally new. It was something I had been using for many, many years, and they just copied that, and it became the Tony Franklin signature bass.

Tell us about your hipshot drop-D tuner. I’ve noticed a few more players using it, for instance Phil Sousann on his MusicMan bass. I’ve never actually used one. What’s it like?

Back in the Blue Murder days, we played a song called “Billy”, and in the middle of it, I dropped the low E string to a D, and I would do it manually right in the middle of the song. I got it down so that it was perfectly in tune - that’s what you did back then. And then some years later I discovered the Hipshot. I’m not sure where I first saw it - it may have been at a NAMM show. I use it to go down to the low D, but you can tune it to whatever you want (within reason). You could probably tune it down to a low C. You just flip the lever and it will go down to whatever tuning you’ve chosen. You do have to maintain the tuning and set it up properly, the same as you would the intonation of your instrument, so you do have to check it regularly. I find it comes in really handy if I want to drop down to a low D in the middle of the set. It’s really helpful.

I’ve heard this referred to as the “poor man’s five string”.

I’m not a fan of 5 strings. The hipshot gives me that flexibility I need. If I’m going to need to hit those lower notes, I’d much rather de-tune it than have a fifth string. I’ve been known to tune the low E to a B, or lower. That’s just my thing; I’m not a fan of the five. I really respect people who use them, who use them well. I just don’t like the spacing of the strings, and I find that the strings sound more natural when I de-tune the E string rather than having a dedicated low B string. I find it more natural without the fifth string, but that’s just me.

I have both four and five string models. I find the 5’s much more versatile, but also more confusing. I suppose if I’d been playing 5 strings as long as 4’s, this wouldn’t be the case. But I also find a range of notes that allow me to go below the “proper” notes in a scale. But I find it more unnatural and of course you have to deal with a bigger neck.

Jaco [Pastorius] used to say about a five string: “Why”? (Laughing). And as I see it, the role of the bass within the band has evolved with that low E, and the register and range of the bass fits perfectly into the sonic range of the band. When you start adding low range, and active pickups as well, you start conflicting with things like the kick pedal, perhaps the low notes on the keyboards. So to me, keeping it within that four string range, and making sure it cuts through in that sound register is most important. If you have instruments that go way beyond their range… think of an orchestra - all the instruments are designed to perfectly complement each other and cover their own range without overlapping too much, and if they start to overlap, the sound becomes muddy. There’s something about a bass having only four strings that gives the instrument it’s clarity, as it stays “within it’s range”. Every time I listen to someone playing a five string and I hear it going down to those low notes, I think to myself “ewwww, it’s starting to go out of it’s range, it’s stepping on other things”. (Laughing). That’s just me.

That’s quite a cooperative approach. Is it because you play so many other instruments?

I think it’s a little bit of all of it really. Yes! I do play many other instruments, which I think helps. I’m a big fan of songs, and the whole creation of music, so I like to listen to the big picture. To me, my favorite musicians to play with, are the ones that listen to each other when they’re playing.

Sometimes as bass players, that means that we have to play the most simple, repetitive part. When you listen to everyone else, and listen to the song, then you want to do what’s right for it, regardless of what “you” want to do. The song is the most important thing. That’s what I try to do. If I overplay, it’s going to spoil the experience for the listener and for the other musicians.

When I was watching your DVD, I think I heard a snippet of you playing some Glenn Miller or George Gershwin. Are you a fan of their works?

Absolutely, especially Rhapsody In Blue. My Dad used to have them on vinyl and I loved them. Maybe this is a part of my preference for the 4 string as well but we had a lot of classical music around when I was young, and we had all these miniature scores, so you could follow the entire orchestra, and I used to love doing that. I still do. I find it fascinating to see the structure and the spread of all the sounds, so yes, I have a lot of broad musical influences. I really recommend that people check out a lot of other genres, it makes you a better musician - whatever your instrument is.

How old were you when you started playing? I’ve read you started at 5, is that true?

I actually started playing before five. I was doing my first gigs in my parent’s band at five and I’d already been playing for a couple of years, so I guess as early as two or three years old I started playing, banging around on the drums and singing. I was just having fun; I wasn’t focused on one particular thing. My parents would have me come out and sing a few songs or maybe play a little bit on the Glockenspiel, or the Xylophone. At one point I even played the Bagpipes - there was a really big cross-section of stuff. I could read music by the time I was seven years old. And I did it for fun. It wasn’t a case of having to practice every day, it was done for the love of the music. All I ever wanted to do was to play music.

How have you managed to maintain an ability to read music through all of the years? Reading music is definitely not something you commonly see in the world of rock music. I saw you doing it at the Whisky, and it stood out like a sore thumb, in a great way of course.

It’s easy for me to downplay it because I take it for granted as it’s just what I do. If you want to do a really good job, and reading is one of the requirements, then you have to know it. My first audition for my first pro gig was with a 10 piece Dance Band. I arrived about ten minutes before we were due on stage as I had gotten into a car accident on the way there, so I had no chance to look through three sets of music. So I just read the whole thing straight down, and people were amazed by that. I suppose it is amazing that I can do it, but I just don’t think about it like that. It’s just what you do if you want to be a great musician, and I want to be one! Do you read music?

I lost the ability to read music many years ago; coincidentally right around the time I became a bass player.

I love reading music because it opens up worlds that you would not necessarily go to or discover, if you’re just relying on your ears or muscle memory, or just playing something that you already know. It’s like reading a book; it opens you up to avenues that you wouldn’t necessarily go down.

Tell me about your main influence, Jaco. How did you come to know his music?

I was about 16 years old and was playing in a big band, and I was kind of taken under the wing by the musical director. He was a session guy, a bandleader, and a phenomenal jazz musician, a man by the name of Johnny Patrick from Birmingham England. I was quite young at the time and he gave me a leg up. We did a bunch of stuff together, sessions, and some TV stuff. One night over at his place, he put the headphones upon me, and put on Jaco’s solo bass album from 1976 and I was just floored. I had no idea that bass could even do this kind of stuff; all the harmonics and the presence of it driving the music like that. And it was at that moment that I decided I had to have a fretless bass, it was as simple as that. So I have Johnny Patrick to thank for that. I realized that Jaco was on a totally different trajectory. I’m not a jazz bass player, but I can walk and play over changes for days without a problem, but when it comes to soloing, I’m not there. From Jaco I got that the groove is the most important thing. Even when he was soloing he never lost sight of the groove. The groove is number one. To me he was like a rock player but had all these amazing jazz licks. I took a lot from him, the groove, holding down the low end, and the aggressive style of playing I have. Jaco is the reason that I play fretless.

I believe I’ve seen that meme on the internet: “Thy shall not F*** up the groove”. I’ve read where you also cited James Jamerson and Paul McCartney as influences. Tell me about that.

To me, players like John Paul Jones and McCartney owe so much of their style to Jamerson. I got into Jamerson a bit later in my playing career; he wasn’t such an apparent influence to me initially. John Deacon from Queen - who to me sounds like a rock version of Jamerson - was actually a bigger influence, and then McCartney, and finally Jamerson. When I finally got into Jamerson I appreciated it a lot more because of what he was doing in what was essentially a pop context. He would explore a lot within the song, he would never repeat lines, his groove and his sound were so amazing. What he did within the context of popular music was just phenomenal. It’s an endless source of inspiration to me. I honestly believe that if you listen to almost any great bass player, you’ll hear some Jamerson or Jaco in there.

Do you think McCartney’s notoriety as a Beatle overshadows his bass-playing abilities? I’ve always thought that McCartney and Bill Wyman were overshadowed by the groups they were in. They weren’t as obvious as say John Paul Jones.

The Beatles were appreciated by a very wide audience, and musicians appreciated the musicianship of them, and I think most bass players really appreciated McCartney for his skills as an instrumentalist. There were a lot of different types of listeners who appreciated different things within The Beatles. You had singers, songwriters, musicians, and just regular fans. But I think most bass players agree that he was a great bassist. It’s easy to overlook that if you don’t know about music and you’re purely a music fan. A lot of McCartney’s bass lines were very bold and melodic, and it’s hard to picture the songs without them. If you listen to “A Little Help From My Friends” the bass line defines the entire song. Those songs would have still been great with just a “hold it down” bass line, but McCartney really pushed the envelope. To have that kind of awareness while you’re writing, and performing and singing the songs is something very special.

Bill Wyman was definitely overlooked, mostly because the songs weren’t the perfect vehicles to let the bass really shine, and the bass was buried on a lot of those Stones songs as well. They weren’t as prominent as McCartney’s lines were, so you really have to listen with The Stones. Of course it wasn’t always Bill Wyman, sometimes Keith Richards came in and overdubbed a lot of Wyman’s bass parts later on.

Let me read you a quote that comes straight out of Wikipedia regarding The Firm: “The Firm’s songs were heavily infused with a soulful and more commercially accessible sound, courtesy of Franklin’s fretless bass guitar underpinning an understated guitar structure”. What do you think of when you hear that? You are after all being referred to as the single-most influential musician to work with Jimmy Page since the breakup of Led Zeppelin.

It’s funny, because with The Firm, and with any band, I’ve always just tried to do what the gig requires. I went into the gig with the Firm without any preconceptions. I really wasn’t that familiar with Zeppelin at that point, that came later (and that’s a whole other story unto itself). I had been playing fretless for a while and had been doing some gigs with Roy Harper, and the fretless was the only bass I took with me to, I’ll call it the rehearsals, but it really was an extended audition. Everything just flowed for me, I wasn’t really thinking “oh, I’m gonna make this different, I’m gonna do this or that”, I was just playing for the music and the moment. The gig with The Firm was really just a “happy accident”, which just turned out the way that it did. It wasn’t really too much by design; it just kind of evolved that way. You don’t often realize these things until many years later, in hindsight. But looking back I can definitely see how my bass playing added a different kind of personality and flavor to the band. I probably wasn’t the obvious choice on bass, it just kind of happened.

So you essentially went from playing fretless in 1979 to playing in a supergroup within a few years? The Firm got started in 1984, so after five years on the fretless, you find yourself playing in a group with two of the world’s most famous musicians; Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page. How did that affect you? You were only 22 years old…

Well, even though it seemed to happen very quickly, I’d already been playing on stage for almost 17 years at that point, so I was very comfortable musically. Everything was very relaxed, natural and organic. I didn’t really feel any pressure. Jimmy and Paul were simply working up songs for the album, and I just wanted to do a good job. I’d been recording and gigging with Jimmy alongside Roy Harper for a couple of months prior to that, so I was very comfortable with him. It feels quite surreal when I look back at it now.

You said earlier that you thought the pairing of your work with Jimmy Page may have been somewhat unusual. I think it’s actually a perfect pairing, especially if one really listens to what you’re laying down. With all the harmonics, sliding harmonics, chorus and other effects, you sound like the perfect match for someone like Jimmy Page from a purely sonic standpoint. If Jaco is referred to as the “Jimi Hendrix of bass”, perhaps then you are the Jimmy Page of the bass.

Well, thank you very much; I’m humbled by that kind of remark. It may have looked a little strange on paper, a twenty-two year old kid who’s virtually unknown, with wild hair, playing these crazy sliding harmonics, with Page and Rodgers - it may not have seemed like the obvious choice, but I do really think I complemented the music.

So if you weren’t that familiar with Led Zeppelin, I’m assuming you weren’t very intimidated to be playing with Jimmy?

Not at all, I was very comfortable. I knew much more about the work of Paul Rodgers at the time than I did Jimmy’s, through Free, much more so than Bad Co. Bad Company really didn’t have the impact in England that Free did. I was very aware of all those great Free songs when I joined the Firm. Paul Rodgers was amazing, just so on it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sing a bad note. A lot of the studio recordings we did were done on the first take, he was just that good. I was very comfortable and it was a very relaxed environment. They had me on an extended audition, even though it wasn’t called an audition.

I’d done some recordings with Jimmy before that, with Roy [Harper] as I’ve mentioned. It wasn’t so much about seeing about the playing; it was about seeing how we all gelled together, seeing if I could just hang with them. By the time that was figured out and we all decided that “yeah, this works”, we were straight into the studio. Everything we did was done by the first or second takes, it was very special.

So you really preferred Free’s sound over the more commercial sound of Bad Company?

Oh yes, I always thought that Free was a lot more raw sounding, gritty, and stripped down. Bad Company sounded a little more slick to me, but still some pretty amazing stuff. There was just something about the raw emotion of Free that was very inspiring to me, and still is to this day. And let’s not forget Andy Fraser’s bass lines. He was younger than I was in The Firm. Wasn’t he 17 years old or something when they recorded “All Right Now?” Simply amazing. I don’t think that Free ever broke as well over here as it did in the UK.

It was the same thing in Canada. Free was very big there. But in commonwealth countries, we’re exposed to quite a bit more music than they may be in the U.S. Ian Dury for example. That was huge in Canada and he was virtually unknown in the U.S. save for perhaps “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll”.

Exactly. Be Bop Deluxe is another example of that. Do you remember them?

Yep! Still have the old 12” singles in my garage. Quite the collection in there you know.

I loved Be Bop Deluxe, they were also a big influence on me. Maybe the next time I’m in the neighborhood I’ll come over and have a rummage through your vinyl.

So one final question Tony. How did you get all that hair to stand up in the 80’s?

L’Oreal #5 extra “firm” hairspray. And bleach, there was a lot of bleach involved, and I could never wash it on show day. I would let it go for two or three days, and with all the sweat and grime, if I washed it it would go flat as a pancake. It’s funny, but I never used to spend more than five minutes on it….It was the 80’s, what can I say?

Not much Tony, I think we covered a lot. Thanks for your time!


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