Amos Heller On Being A Professional Musician

Amos Heller is a gentleman who’s “paid his dues.” Starting in the classical world on upright bass, making the jump to electric, moving to Nashville and playing for Josh Gracin, Mindy MacCready and currently Taylor Swift, he brings a love and appreciation for the bass as well as the entire craft of a musician. Always looking to stay busy, we caught up with him and asked him a couple of questions.
As someone that worked his way up from the bottom, what would be the one thing you see young bassists – or musicians – doing to harm their chances at just getting their name out?
I think the best thing you can do to become a professional is to behave like a professional until you are one. Music is a lot of fun, and most of us get into it because we love it and enjoy doing it, and that love can certainly take you a long way; if you love something you will find a way to be excellent at it. Where I see some folks stumble is in melding that love and passion with a sense of professionalism. There are plenty of folks who still approach the music industry like they approached their band in high school, and they get about as far as that band ever did. Be on time, with gear that works, with your homework done, and your ego in check.
What’s the biggest piece of advice that you can give that you had to learn “the hard way,” and how has that impacted you today?
Go where the action is. I don’t necessarily regret moving to Nashville as late in life as I did, but the amount that I learned in the first year alone dwarfed much of the rest of my experience. I was surrounded by professional players with long and substantial rosters of artists under their belts, and I learned a lot by just watching them, picking their brains, and doing what they did. Smaller towns are a great place to discover and develop your voice as a player, but to make a career out of music, you have to get to where the work is. Success in a field like live playing will rarely come and find you – you have to chase it, and hard.**Cliche warning** If you want to hunt tigers, you have to go where there are tigers.
I also started in the classical string bass world. Do you think that gave you an advantage when transitioning to electric over just starting on the electric bass?
I do! I was lucky enough to come from a town with a well-funded and passionately led orchestra, and just being in a musical context where a lot was expected of me was a great jump-start to my musical experience. I appreciated the experience of getting to hear the part written out in front of me blend with and support the other players in the room. It was a beautiful artistic moment, and that kind of thinking is especially beneficial for bass players. Classical upright is also so physically demanding, particularly on the left hand, that I found the transition to electric to be a respite from the upright. I taught electric bass lessons for a while, and I was thankful for my classical background every time a beginner student commented that the strings were hard to push down.
What are your thoughts on being a doubling bassist, as opposed to just playing one or the other?
Sadly I must admit that I have let the upright chops rust to the point that I wouldn’t call myself a doubler. I didn’t own one for a long time, and the upright bass is a jealous lady. Even when I was putting in the time on the upright, I rarely delved into bluegrass or jazz, and believe it or not there’s not a lot of call in Nashville for someone with rusty classical chops.
As someone that grew up playing rock, how is playing country music now different from that? And, how is it similar?
My largest hurdle when I moved to Nashville and hung out my shingle as a sideman was repertoire. I played in the honky tonks on lower Broadway for a while, and to function in that circuit, you need to have 200-300 songs on speed-dial. So I did a LOT of homework. The more “classic” country songs were more of a transition for me, and getting your mind and hands around a solid and laid back 2 feel is indispensable in this town. The more “modern” country repertoire was a natural fit for a rock player like myself. The bass tones are a little dirtier, and you find yourself playing driving 8th notes in the up-tempo tunes and some more lyrical, searching lines in the ballads. A lot of the guys doing all the session work these days are rock players; Mike Brignardello, Glenn Worf, Jimmie Lee Sloas… these guys all bring a pretty wide vocabulary to anything they do, so the country rock songs feel like rock songs. I’ve drawn on Jimmy Eat World and Thornley as much as George Jones and Dwight Yoakam playing around Nashville.
Tell me about your current tour set up?
I run three different signals, all direct. Signal #1 is a direct line off of my Shure wireless. Line #2 is the mighty Avalon U5. Line #3 runs through the pedalboard, which currently features a Radial distortion and an old purple Ibanez chorus (for the song “Holy Ground”) and into an active Radial DI. I have an Xotic Effects RC Bass Boost that stays on all night.
I’m proud to be endorsed by Fender bass guitars. The current arsenal is a ’62 Reissue Precision, an American Standard Precision with the Seymour Duncan SMB-5A humbucker pickup added in the bridge position, a Gretsch Broadkaster, A Fender Cabronita (a new, precision-style single pickup bass) and a ’71 Orlando. I use Fender nickel bass strings.
It’s an interesting choice, pairing a P-Bass pickup with a SMB-5A. How do those two tone complement each other?
In a word? Spectacularly. The bass came off the assembly line with a beautiful warmth and roundness, and I wanted to make sure that the tone path of the original piece would stay intact. Some of the songs that we’re playing on this tour require some very precise placement of notes on the low B string, and that can be a challenge with just the split-coil pickup. My guitar technician Stephen Uncapher is a very creative guy with a fantastic ear, and he suggested that adding a humbucker to the bass would not only give me another place to anchor my thumb, but would add a bite and presence to the sound of the bass.
We added a volume knob to give the bass a Jazz-style control scheme, and I love having the ability to blend the SMB-5A with the precision pickup. It brings a whole new life to the tone, and gives me the presence and definition when I need it. I love the sound of Music Man-style humbuckers with the massive pole pieces, but it can be difficult to get a warm tone out of them. With this pickup configuration I can cover a broad range of tones and styles without changing basses.
I’ll just throw this out there: our front-of-house engineer called it one of the best-sounding basses he’s ever mixed.
What’s new and upcoming?
Right now we’re about halfway through the U.S. leg of the Red tour with a run of stadiums coming up in the U.S. We’re looking forward to playing in Australia and New Zealand this winter. This tour has been an amazing experience for all of us; we get to do what we love in front of thousands of people every night. When I can, I do some session work in Nashville studios as well as remote sessions out of my home studio. I’m trying to stay busy and always be working on something new, whether in approaches to playing the show live, in my personal practice, or learning some new material.

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