Tony Senatore
A 12-String Bassist Finds His Holyland

Tony and his Hamer B12L

An Interview with Mark Rowe

Tony Senatore discovered the 12-string bass over a decade ago and is now taking it into new territory. While the 12 is usually considered to be best suited for rock, Tony has proven that it works just as well with jazz fusion on his debut solo album, "Holyland". As a seasoned session pro Tony has put together an impressive list of credentials, but it is on his own album that his talent really shines through. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Tony!

You have been playing the 12-string bass for the last eleven years. What first attracted you to the 12?
I became aware of the 12-string bass just like everyone else. The year was 1978, "Live At Budokan" just came out, I was a sixteen year old kid growing up in New Jersey, an entry level bassist and a huge Cheap Trick fan (still am). I wanted to buy one as early as 1987. I had just received the first significant press of my career, landing myself in Mike Varney's Spotlight column in Guitar Player magazine. I figured this was the time to try to expand my horizons. I was torn between purchasing a new Hamer 12-string bass or a custom Carl Thompson 6-string.

I ended up choosing the 6-string which, while it's an awesome instrument, never panned out as far as profoundly inspiring me.

Which songs did you record with the 12-string while playing with your old band, Mary’s Magnet?
I played the 12-string bass for the first time ever with Mary's Magnet live as well as in the studio back in 1994. I used the 12-string on four songs: "Since You've Been Lost", "It's Your Vision", "K9 Affection" and "Descent".

On "It's Your Vision" I started to experiment with layering the 12-string bass with fretless.

Your new album "Holyland" has been very well received in the bassist community. It must make you proud to know that your work is being so well accepted, particularly as it’s your first solo effort. Any thoughts?
I want to clarify this a bit. I honestly feel that the press I have been able to achieve with my debut CD has been amazing, but in reality most of the people that have written about my CD, or have tried to help are not bassists. There have been some exceptions. Players like Paul Adamy, Dann Glenn, Frank Hernandez, Jon Pomplin, Mike Visceglia, Laurence Cottle, Chris Jisi, and Andy Lucibello, all incredible players, have gone out of their way to help me in the spirit of bass brotherhood, but by and large, that is not the case at all. A lot of big name players that are in a position to help (and whose careers I have supported) have chosen, for whatever reason, not to. This in turn has influenced me in regard to who I will support, and spend my hard earned money on.

Some of the players that I have reached out to (the ones that rebuffed me) had the audacity to add me to their emails lists to inform me of their new products and CD's, which I find preposterous, ludicrous and in bad taste.

On "Holyland" you assembled a group of very talented people to perform with you. How were you able to put together such a depth of experience?
I am fortunate to have been able to have access to some of the players that performed on my CD. Many of them are guys that I work with all the time, that's the beauty of living here in the New York City area. In short, the first step in planning my CD was assembling the cast. Every single name that you see listed on the credits to Holyland are  people that I respect both musically and personally.

Having Manolo Badrena perform on my CD was a great honor for me, after all, he worked with Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report in their heyday and was a charter member of The Zawinul Syndicate. It took balls and guts to call him in to add his vibe and essence to my project. I slipped a rough of "Shapla" in Manolo's mailbox, wondering if he would be interested in playing on a nine-minute medley of Beatles songs performed on a 12-string electric bass screaming through a Marshall stack. He called me back immediately and left a message on my cell phone, laughing uncontrollably for about a minute, and called me a "sick, crazy motherfucker" for coming up with the medley. He called me when the CD was out there to tell me that he felt Jaco would have really dug "Shapla". To me, that is the greatest compliment I have (and will ever) receive. I hope that it's true. I guess I'll find out someday.

I am very proud of "Shapla". I hope that someday it rises to the level of Chris Squire's "The Fish", and Jaco's "Portrait Of Tracy". With "Shapla" I tried to connect the dots between the Beatles, King's X, Cheap Trick, Tom Petersson, Doug Pinnick , and how the 12-string bass is the element that ties it all together. I truly feel that the more you know about the Beatles, the more you will appreciate and understand "Shapla".

How important was the contribution of these other players to your music?
The musicians that played on my CD are the best. When you work with people of this caliber, you will be catapulted to a higher level or you will fail miserably. They inspired me to rise to a level that I didn't think I was at. And for that I will be eternally grateful.

Your recorded bass tones are excellent! How did you record the 12? Are there any secrets you’d care to share about achieving a great recorded tone?
I tried to keep it as simple as possible. I used my Hamer Chaparral 12-string bass, but I used the middle pickup only, with the active treble and bass control maxed out.

One signal was run though a Countryman Direct box, which when compared to a Demeter and Avalon, sounded best to me. The other signal was run through a 100-watt Marshall guitar amplifier, with a 4x12 Marshall bass cabinet. Neve preamps were also critical. I also feel the my super heavy gauge GHS Boomers (50-115) and having no loud, distorted guitars on the tracks were important factors, but the man behind the console, Frank Fagnano, was the number one factor for sure.

You’ve spent many years working in the studio, and by your own accounts have done pretty well for yourself. What do you see as the future of recording and album marketing?
I am sort of a niche guy here in the NYC area. These days people carry around LINE 6 bass pods with all the great sounds of all the classic bass gear. I prefer to bring the actual gear. I lug around vintage Ampeg, Sunn and Kustom amps, as well as a massive collection of the greatest basses ever built. Session work is scarce for everyone, no matter where you live and who you are. Whatever work I still have, it's because I steadfastly have stuck to my guns and have chosen to stay true to who I am, and stick to old school approach and mentality.

My advice to anyone thinking about recording and marketing a CD is to do it now, and do it without any intervention from any record labels, major or Indie. Create a finished product that you are proud of and can live with for the rest of your life. Finance it yourself: do what you want to to, without a record exec worrying about how many copies your CD will sell. Make art and an audience will surely follow.

Have you ever had anyone ask specifically for the 12-string sound for their recording projects?
Since the release of my "Holyland" CD, I have been getting tons of calls from open minded bands and producers to experiment with the 12-string bass on their tracks. So far everyone has been elated with the results.

Do you think it’s still possible for a musician to survive and prosper strictly by playing music? Do you have any advice for players who are just starting out?
This is an excellent question, very important to all aspiring musicians, and I hope to provide a provocative answer...

First off- Can you survive and prosper strictly by playing music. For the answer to that, you must ask yourself what kind of a lifestyle do you aspire to have. Do you need that yellow Hummer in your driveway? I have made a living for 25 years with a bass guitar and my pager. Most of those years were spent struggling and starving, but I designed my life to be simple in construction. I didn't need a lot of material possessions to be happy. I got to a point where I started to do significantly better financially, but at a cost: An endless barrage of journeyman gigs, weddings and other types of gigs that paid well, but drained my soul and spirit took a big toll. The antidote was embarking on my "Holyland" CD project.

If you believe that innovating and creating art through music (or whatever your mode of expression) is what you are interested in, you may have a tough time paying your bills, but if you have no standards and William Hung / American Idol is ok with you, then that Hummer just may be in your future :)

Here is my advice to all the young players out there now contemplating a career in the music industry: Go to college and get a degree in something. Expand your mind in directions other than music and keep working on your music craft. If you discipline your life and time you can do it, especially in you have natural talent. I have nothing against studying music in college but I want to point out that the greatest innovators of music (Hendrix, Miles, and Zappa to name a few) do not have a music degree... GOD, I really have become my father. When I can start borrowing his underwear I'll know that I am finished. :)

You give a lot of bass lessons. Do you think everyone should take lessons? If so, why? And should everyone be able to read music? How important is being able to play by ear versus playing with sheet music?
I believe that everyone can benefit from proper instruction because you can get into some bad habits that are tough to break. But for me, the greatest gains in ability were realized by listening to a lot of different kinds of music with an open mind, and never becoming so enamored with one particular player so much that I became a clone.

When it comes to reading music, most of my students are scared away and insist on reading tablature, which doesn't make sense to me. My reading is not as good as it should be but I do work at it, but not because I am interested in going into the studio and blowing out the latest jingle for some toilet paper company. Whether I am trying to learn a Bach Partita or a Charlie Parker solo, I always go by ear and only go to the music when I just can't hear something.

When I was just starting on the bass, I ran through scales, intervals and arpeggios every single day, and sang every note that I played in pitch. I was rewarded with perfect pitch, which is a great thing to have, whatever instrument you play or style of music you are into. Being a proficient music reader will never hurt you, it can only help, but don't neglect your ear.

To sum the question up, I know some monster musicians that can't play "Jingle Bells" without the sheet music. That's BAD! I also know many players that would break out in a cold sweat if you stuck a chart for "Jingle Bells" in front of them. That's bad too!

The E strings on your bass are tuned down to D. Do you do anything special as far as set-up to accommodate the heavier 115-gauge string?
Phil Petillo resurfaced the frets on my Hamer to his patented Pyramid shaped frets, but didn't do much else as far as neck adjustment.

Since you play the 12 fingerstyle, does that present any particular challenges?
I initially thought that the Hamer 12-string spacing was way too narrow but it has become integral in my fingerstyle approach. I urge everyone out there to put down their picks. Fingerstyle on the 12-string bass opens up so many new possibilities, like detuning the low "E" string, using the thumb to keep the low open string droning while playing melodies and chords with the first and second fingers...

You recently gave an interview with Bass Inside in which you stated, “I really feel I have taken the art of 12-string bass to a new level.” That’s certainly the kind of statement that’s going to generate some controversy! What exactly do you mean by this? Do you think you have surpassed players like Tom or Doug on some level?
Well, I tried with all of my heart to make a CD that would be the definitive 12-string bass recording to date. The jury is still out on whether I have truly done so. It's only because I have such great love and respect for Petersson and Pinnick that I tried to do so.

Any musician worth his salt always tries to raise the bar.

When (saxophonist) Coleman Hawkins burst onto the scene he set the standard, but players like Charlie Parker, Lester Young and ultimately John Coltrane soon followed and changed the face of music forever.

Tom Petersson truly is the archetype Rock bassist- he is maintaining standards and carrying on traditions that make those of us the grew up on 60's and 70's rock music proud. Do you think the young people know (or care) what TP is going for when he lugs around those Transonic amps? It doesn't matter to Tom, he certainly is his own man. I am fiercely loyal to my heroes, guys like Jaco, Jack Bruce, Chris Squire, John Entwistle, Chuck Rainey and James Jamerson. In my eyes these men have no peers and never will, so when the next big bass gun comes down the road, I am sometimes a little closed minded, not giving new players the chance to shine. I am hoping that the readers of 12-string bass will listen to where I am coming from with an open mind.

On another note, I agree with TP when he says that Ron Wood is a killer bassist. His playing on "Jeff Beck Truth" and "Beck Ola" is just awesome- he is a very inventive bassist within the strict confines of rock music.

To be clear, Tom Petersson is a hero of mine, someone that profoundly influenced my life and someone that I look up to.

How frequently do you use the 12 as a songwriting tool? How have the pitfalls in your personal life translated into great songwriting opportunities?
I compose all my music with my 12-string bass in hand. In regard to the pitfalls in my personal life, every single note on my "Holyland" CD has been influenced by the some of the more painful moments in my personal life, in particular my divorce.

You are working with a luthier in New Jersey to develop a new 12-string bass. Can you give us a ‘sneak preview’ of what it will be like? What other 12’s have you drawn upon for inspiration in its design? Did you approach any established 12-string makers before deciding to “blaze your own trail”?
I sent my "Holyland" CD to Hamer in hopes that they would work with me to create an instrument that would rectify the things that I didn't like about my Chaparral bass (set neck, active EQ, mono wiring), but I never heard back from them, for whatever reason. There is a guy at Hamer named Kim Keller that has been most helpful to me whenever I need it, and I would like to acknowledge that.

My new 12 is being built by a dear friend, Andrew Rothstein of Rothstein Guitars. I currently own about 30 bass guitars. For this reason alone I feel super qualified to have the knowledge necessary to come up with an innovative bass. One of the basses in my collection (it's not a Gibson, Fender, or Rickenbacker) has the most nasty tone and I have hired Kent Armstrong to custom build these pickups for me for use in my new 12-string.

The instrument will feature a Quartersawn maple bolt-on neck. To me, the greatest bass tones of all time were realized with basses that had passive pickups and bolt-on necks. And it's great working with Andy, because he builds you what YOU want, not what HE wants.

This instrument will be available to all very soon. By the way, Andy and I have come up with a name for my 12-string bass. It's going to be called the Andromeda 12-string bass by Rothstein Guitars. I came up with that. I am an outer space nut, I actually wanted to be an astronaut most of my life.

I understand that my Reign Of Terror as the sole fretless 12-string (4x3) bassist is about to come to an end. Tell us about the new fretless 12-string bass you are having made.
I am dying for a fretless 12 now. I think that for my style, the fretless will really bring out the Indian / Sitar vibe. I just put in my order with Andy of Rothstein Guitars to start on it. It's going to have a fretless bird's-eye maple fingerboard and, like my fretted, will have a 10- or 12-position varitone for each pickup, and mono-stereo wiring. I'm looking forward to joining the Fretless 12 club with you, membership... 2!

Do you have any specific musical mountains that you’d still like to climb? What’s next for Tony Senatore?
I hope to assemble the amazing ensemble that I had for "Holyland" and utilize it behind some new, up and coming talent. In short, I want to get into more production. Performing live the material from "Holyland", whether solo or with a band, is in the planning stages, as well as some clinics for Rothstein Guitars displaying the merits and the sonic possibilities of 12-string electric bass.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
When I am not playing, I am doing lots of reading. Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" was an inspiring book to me when I was in high school, and it's even better today now that I am a little older and wiser. I am a huge Hunter S. Thompson and William S Burroughs fan. Other favorites include Edgar Allan Poe, Alvin Toffler ("The Third Wave") and Noam Chomsky ("Hegemony or Survival").

One more great book is by Dann Glenn, the book is called "Almost a Proverb". The book is fantastic, and Dann is very responsible for inspiring me to do my "Holyland" CD. Dann saw combat in Vietnam, and took all the horror and pain that he endured and turned into art when his time in the service came to an end. He's a guitarist / composer and author.

Finally, if you could have dinner with anybody in the world, musician or otherwise, who would it be and why?
That's easy- HALLE BERRY! Do you need to ask why? Halle, if you are reading this, I will sign a Pre-Nup! :)

What did you think I was gonna say, John Coltrane or Frank Sinatra? :)

Tony, congratulations on your very fine debut album, and we look forward to learning more about your new Andromeda 12-string basses in the near future!
Thanks so much!
Tony S

Be sure to check out Tony's new DVD, Tony's bass Rig and Tony's website














Published August 1, 2005