|Although his role on record is largely supportive, Van Halenís founding bassist aggressively steps out onstage to showcase metallic slices of his considerable skill. He was questioned during the bandís Fair Warning tour for this October Ď81 feature.
Since 1974 Michael Anthony has played bass in one of the worldís leading heavy metal acts, Van Halen. This year the groupís stage shows include an extended bass solo in which Anthony simulates the sound of an airplane flying around, and then leaps upon his instrument. Theatrical stuff. Otherwise, Mikeís main role on vinyl and stage is providing support for Eddie Van Halen, who claims, ďAnthony is a damned good bass player. When my brother Al and Mike are playing, itís an open world for me. I can do whatever I want. Theyíre right there backing me up, feeding me.Ē
Anthony was born in Chicago on June 20, 1955. His father played trumpet in big bands, and at seven Michael began a serious study of the instrument. After deciding to play bass in a junior high rock band, he paid $15 at a pawnshop for a Victoria electric guitar and took off the highest two strings. At 14 Mike moved with his family to L.A. and played trumpet in his high school marching band and concert orchestra. In the early Ď70ís he enrolled at Pasadena City College to study brass instruments and piano. In hours off, he gigged on bass with a local lineup called Snake.
Michael met drummer Alex Van Halen in a jazz improvisation class in 1974, and soon afterwards Eddie invited him over to jam with their already established band. Anthony remembers, ďI went and played with Alex and Ed for like three hours in a little garage they were rehearsing in. I swear, they tried to put me through every beat change and off beat thing they could think of, and I caught them all! Right after we were through
playing, they just said, ĎYou want to join the band?í I said, ĎSure!íĒ Anthony has since toured the world with Van Halen and appeared on all four of their albums.
Guitar Player: Has your formal education in music helped your bass playing?
MA: Yeah, I think in some ways it does. The jumping around and all that, you just get from watching what everyone else does. But the background that I got from playing bass in jazz improvisational stuff helped me a lot, even though playing behind Ed Iím kind of restricted. Iíve got to keep pretty much straight because he gets off real wild at times. Thereís still a lot from my education that I can apply to what
weíre doing, like the harmony classes are helpful when weíre figuring out different harmonies and stuff like that. But basically it was the jazz that helped me get the most out of bass.
GP: What do you think are the most important things for a beginning bassist to learn?
MA: Iíd say take up the piano (laughs). To me, thatís the universal instrument. Once I started playing it, I really began to appreciate music a lot more. It broadens everything out. From there I started dinking around with different instruments, and I play a little bit of guitar, trumpet, some trombone, and a lot of other brass instruments.
GP: Do you play any bass styles that arenít represented on your albums?
MA: Yeah, because the style that I play live is almost completely different than what I play on albums. On albums you need that real solid rhythm, especially when Ed does a solo. Basically everything that we do in the studio is live, and so you donít want it to sound like three different people playing three different songs
when you go off on a solo. Alex and I work out a real solid rhythm thing, so that when Ed does go into a solo and that rhythm guitar drops out, thereís still a solid foundation pumpiní away. Live, I can get away with going off and doing a little more of a lead-type of playing, which I canít do on the albums.
GP: Would you say your playing is constantly expanding? Are you learning new things all the time?
MA: Yeah, I am now. Sometimes maybe for a month or two Iíll get into a rut, like when weíre gigging really heavily and I donít get out and listen to any new kind of stuff. Iím always hunting for new and different kinds of basses. Iím not like Ed - Iím not to the point where I build my own guitar from scratch. Iíll buy something thatís already in the store, then Iíll rip it apart and put my own kind of pickups in it and stuff like that. And it seems like every time I pick up a different bass (depending on its feel) it kind of alters my style. So if I start to feel stifled for a while (letís say playing a Fender Precision) then even if I pick up a Jazz Bass or something like that, where the neck is radically different, I find myself playing a lot of different licks. So Iíll
change by playing that for a while, even if I donít use it onstage.
GP: What is the extent of your bass collection?
MA: Iíve got about 14 basses right now. I just bought an old Ď63 Fender Jazz Bass that I really like. I donít have it out on the road. A long time ago B.C. Rich built me a bass that was everything that I wanted, including having a thin neck. On most of my basses, I have the neck shaved until itís right in between a
Precision and a Jazz width. I like them very rounded, almost like a half circle.
GP: What other kinds of modifications do you usually have done?
MA: Right now Iím using Schecter pickups. I use the one split P-Bass style, and I have that rewound so itís a little more powerful. Live, it gets a nice round, full tone. And you know the bodyís bottom horn when you get up around the 24th fret? I always cut that back. I donít understand why companies build 24 fret basses
and the bodies always start right around the 20th, 21st fret! I like to use every fret and always have a problem playing the high notes, so the first thing I do is cut that horn so I can play all the way up the neck.
GP: Do you leave the switching stock?
MA: When I first buy a bass I will. I used to use a lot of double-pickup things because Iíd use the front pickup if I was playing with my fingers, and then switch over to the front and back when I was playing with a pick. But now, with the way Iím winding them, I just use one pickup, which is a lot simpler. Iíve tried a lot of
different basses with all the preamps and stuff like that, and thatís nice for somebody who is playing in a little club. You can hear it really nice coming out of the amp, and youíre not playing loud. But for what weíre doing onstage, just one pickup thatís got the sound is all you really need.
GP: What kind of compensations do you have to make when playing at such high volumes?
MA: Right off the bat, you canít play fast. You lose it. A lot of times Iíll try to do a fast lick, and right away things will start getting muddy, especially if Iím doing something thatís down low. So I find myself playing a lot more slower stuff live.
GP: Do you use a wireless transmitter?
MA: Yeah, I use the Schaffer-Vega because I move around so much. In fact, if that breaks down and I have to use a cord, I feel like Iím in a cage.
GP: What kind of strings do you use?
MA: I like Rotosound round-wounds.
GP: Do you favor using your fingers or a pick?
MA: I use a pick and my fingers about 50% each. I use a pick to get more of an attack and if Iím doing a lot of chords. Actually, I started playing bass with my fingers, so thatís where I can get all my speed from. So if Iím doing quicker things, then I play with my fingers.
GP: Do you use any unusual techniques?
MA: Not really. Just the basic two finger plunk. I was getting into a little bit of funk type playing for a while, so sometimes Iíll slap it a few times with my thumb. The first time I got turned on to this was through Motherís Finest. I met their bassist, the Wizard, and immediately went out and bought all of their albums. I
havenít got a real vibrating fast thumb, but I have a good time and apply a lot of that slapping to what weíre playing. Iíll slap with my thumb and then use my third finger to pluck from under the string.
GP: What does your amp and effects setup consist of?
MA: Right now Iím using six Ampeg SVT heads, which are all modified - theyíre like 400 watts RMS. My rack has a Roland DC-30 Chorus Echo, an MCR flanger, an ADA flanger, an Electro-Harmonix Micro-Bass synthesizer, an MXR envelope filter, and sometimes a DBX Disco Boom Box, which was originally developed to put on your stereo when youíre playing disco. It adds a lower harmonic and can be synthesized. I use that if I have to do something fast, like a one note thing.
GP: During your solo onstage, you create the effect of an airplane flying around.
MA: Right. Thatís a combination of the echo, the MXR flanger, and the Micro-Bass synthesizer. I use the synthesizer because itís got a sub-harmonic on it that sounds really good, and itís really clean. Itís also got
a changeable square wave that can warp the high end. The echo just keeps it going, and I use the flanger to actually make the effect of the plane type thing flying by. Donít ask me how I came up with it, because one night I was just sitting around playing with them all together, and it just came out.
GP: Do you have to be at high volume to make it come out that way?
MA: Not really. But what Iím really trying to create is a lot of low end pumping off the stage.
GP: Do you change your solo around night to night?
MA: Besides the basic things that we all do together, I never play the same thing twice. My solos are always changing, especially when we are finishing up our third night somewhere and a lot of people I see in the front row are probably who Iíve seen the last two nights.
GP: In your bass solo youíre kind of aggressive toward your instrument.
GP: Do you ever wreck anything?
MA: Yeah, all the time. Every time I smack it on the ground. Iíve got a million holes in it. Iím always replacing strap locks. All my keys are bent. The only kind of bass I can jump on is one with a neck that goes all the way through the body. If I used a bolt-on neck, it would snap right in half.
GP: What is the best brand of bass to jump on?
MA: (Laughs) Right now Iím using a Yamaha Broad Bass 2000 that I received in Japan as a present when Yamaha came and followed Ed and me around in Ď79. Out of all the stock basses I was trying, I thought that was the best that had come out at that time. One thing led to another, and I started jumping on it! Itís really weird because in the world of heavy metal or whatever you want to call it, thereís the guitar hero, and thatís basically it. A drummer can do a long solo, but even that starts to get boring. Thatís why Alex does some really nice, compact things. And the bass player is always the one who stands next to the drummer and does nothing. Only somebody who has actually played music can appreciate...well, thatís where all your Jack Bruces and Tim Bogerts and all the other good rock bassists come in. They are only known by other musicians.
GP: The most accomplished musicians arenít necessarily the most famous.
MA: During our second year out, I was doing a thing with a fuzz (all sorts of weird stuff) and the New Barbarians had just finished playing before we did. Some chick came running up to me and said, ďyeah, yeah, Stanley Clarke did like this ten minute bass solo, but jeez, when you got up there, you made them sound like shit! You sounded like World War III!Ē And I said to myself, ďHey, this is one of the typical kids.Ē Iíd love to get out there and show all my chops, but I think, ďThis is what weíre playing to, and this is what they appreciate.Ē And since Iíve been jumping on my bass this year, I swear I cannot believe the compliments that I get from people. It kind of throws me for a loop, too. Itís fun; Iím having a good time doing it. Iím not out to jump after any kind of #1 bass player poll. I can sit at home and play what I like to play - just jam with
GP: Do the limitations of rock bother you?
MA: Sometimes they do. I know Iím helping Ed sound good. Thereís a lot of times when Iíll get frustrated because I canít play what I want to play. The other guysíll say, ďWhy donít you just sit back and play this,Ē and Iíll kind of grit my teeth and go, ďWell, okay.Ē But for the most part itís really good. Itís a little restricting playing behind a guitarist like Ed, but it feels good because of who he is.
GP: How does the band arrange material before recording?
MA: Ed usually starts out with a basic lick. We rehearse in the basement of our singer Daveís fatherís house in Pasadena. Weíll get like a case of beer and a tape recorder, and just start playing. Weíll play a riff over and over again and it develops out of that. Ted (Templeman), who produces our albums, has gotten so close to
us that heís almost like a fifth member of the band. heíll come down and listen to us play and put his suggestions in. Weíll throw in different pieces from old material that we havenít used. Weíve still got tons of unused material that we did on our first work tape.
GP: Has your method of recording changed over the different albums?
MA: No, not at all, except that the new album (Fair Warning) took a little longer to record - five weeks. We always write our stuff to be played live because when weíre onstage, thereís no rhythm guitar. Even though weíve got all the wonders of the studio that we could use, thatís the way we do it. And if we donít get it on the first two or three takes, we see no point in it. We donít want it coming out sounding perfectly in-tune after playing it so many times. We donít want to burn out, so we stop right there and go on to something else or take a break and drink a beer.
GP: What are your favorite recording with Van Halen?
MA: Letís see. From the new album, I like "Mean Street" for a straight-ahead rocker. And I really liked doing "Push Comes to Shove", because Ed turned me on to Percy Jones, the bassist in Brand X. I really got into his style of playing, so at the very beginning of the song I cop a little of his stuff. Playing that was really fun, real different from anything weíve ever done before. But itís still got the Van Halen flavor. When we first heard it back, weíd just go, ďWow!Ē
GP: Are there any other bass players that you admire or have been influenced by?
MA: Shoot, I grew up listening to everybody. When I first started playing, I listened to a lot of blues and session people, like Harvey Brooks with Electric Flag. From there I just listened to everybody. I played in a band for a while that did a lot of Blue Cheer, so I listened to their bass player, Dick Peterson. Then I got into Cream. Between them, Jack Bruce and Tim Bogert influenced me the most for my rock style. Iím starting to really get into fretless stuff now. Thereís so many different harmonic sounds that you can get with one. I always listen to Jaco Pastorius.
GP: What are the pressures of becoming so famous so fast?
MA: I donít even really think about stuff like that. I thank God that we didnít happen real quick, like a Boston, where all of a sudden you just zoom right there. With us it was more of a steady thing, not really fast. I think that was great for us because it didnít really affect anybody in the band.
GP: Is success what you expected?
MA: Yeah, and more! Itís everything Iíd always dreamed of wanting to do, and now weíre there.
GP: Most young players have ideas of the good side of the rock lifestyle. What are its disadvantages?
MA: Not getting enough sleep (laughs). I canít even think of any negative things, really. Itís all in everybodyís head. Itís how you pace yourself. As far as the playing goes, Iím having the time of my life. As long as I can keep doing it, itís just great for me.
GP: Do you play outside of the band?
MA: No. Sometimes when weíre off the road Iíll jam for a set with friends that might be playing in a little club or bar. I like to get a different input from playing with other people. But Iíve never actually wanted to go out and play with anybody else. Iíd just like to keep doing what weíre doing now.
GP: Do you have any advice youíd pass along to young bassists?
MA: Yeah, just stick with it, no matter how hard it gets. Weíve hit some really bottom times, times when we thought that weíd always be playing in a club and have to always play other peopleís material. We just decided to make the break and play original stuff. A lot of bands do it and lose a lot of money, so they go
right back to playing clubs because they think thatís where the moneyís at. I painted house numbers on curbs and stuff. The main thing is just to stay with it.
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Interview © 1981 Guitar Player Magazine