Talking Tone With Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris
If you play metal bass, you owe a debt of gratitude and maybe a pint of Trooper beer to Steve Harris. Steve is credited with creating the infamous ‘gallop’ rhythm used throughout metal, and even if his contributions started and ended there, he’d deserve a place in the history books. But he’s done so much more than that.
As Iron Maiden’s primary songwriter, he’s responsible for some of the greatest metal anthems of all time. And his immediately recognizable bass tone continues to influence players to this day. We’ve been making pickups for Steve in the Custom Shop for years, but a few years ago Steve gave us the okay to make these pickups available to the public as the SPB-4 Steve Harris P-Bass model. We recently caught up with Steve for a chat about his pickups and his approaches to bass and to songwriting.
So you’re a long-time Seymour Duncan player with your own signature model…
I’ve always used Seymour Duncans, for many years! I don’t know what models the others are using – I don’t even know much about my own gear! That’s what I’ve got Michael Kenny for!
So what do you look for in a bass?
Just the tone, really. I started using Seymour Duncans because I was having some problems with the original pickups in the bass and Seymour Duncan said they could make pickups that did what I needed – and they did! So now my bass comes with my custom Seymour Duncans.
You have such a distinctive bass tone. You effectively created a style and sound when nobody played like that before. How did you pull that together?
I don’t know, really. It’s just my style of playing. If somebody else plays my rig it doesn’t sound the same. There’s an element of what pickups you use and all that sort of stuff, strings obviously make a difference and of course the amp and speakers but I think you can get six different people to all play the same rig and they’ll all sound different. Funnily enough, I just read Martin Turner from Wishbone Ash’s autobiography and he said the same thing. He’s had other people playing his rig and sounding really different as well. So it’s not just me! I do think it is a lot to do with just the way you play, which is obviously a natural element, so you can’t really analyse it really.
Are you tough on your basses on a tour?
No. I don’t knock them about like Janick knocks his guitars about. I treat mine a little more respectfully! No disrespect to him but I’m not one to be throwing mine about or smashing them up or that sort of thing. I’ve been playing the same bass for many years. Different guises, different colors, but it’s still the same kind of bass I’ve used since the 70s. I like to keep it pretty simple.
Do you collect instruments?
No, I’m not a collector. I’ve got a fair few basses and I get given stuff, which is really nice. I just got given one by a friend, which is a Fender Precision with an Eddie on it and it’s just fantastic. A fantastic gift. But I don’t really collect them. I’ve never really been that interested in that. As long as I’ve got enough basses to tour with, I’ve got all I need, really.
Do you ever mess around with a 5-string?
Nah, that’s one too many, haha. In my opinion a bass player does not need five strings or more. But everyone to their own. If someone feels extra special by having more strings, that’s fine. But it’s not my cup of tea.
Well I like to play seven-string guitars and my theory is: if I break a string I’ve still got six.
Well, there you go!
As Iron Maiden’s chief songwriter, what form are the songs in when you present them to the rest of the band?
If you see a credit with just my name on it, that means I write absolutely everything. Rhythm guitar parts, guitar melodies, vocal melodies, absolutely everything really. The only thing I don’t write is the guitar solos but even then I might suggest one or two things.
It must be really liberating as a composer and arranger to have three guitars on stage then.
Yeah. There were things we’d done before where we did layer up the guitars so it meant we could do full melodies, harmonies and rhythms like we’d recorded. And it does help when you’re writing stuff because you can bear that in mind as well. But I think the early stuff that we played with two guitars, you don’t really miss the other bits too much but when you add them in it does make the band sound bigger and better.
Photos by Sandra Markovic, used with permission.