"Van Halen's Michael Anthony"
By: Jas Obrecht

Guitar Player (October 1981)

Although his role on record is largely supportive, Van Halen’s founding bassist aggressively steps out onstage to showcase metallic slices of his considerable skill. He was questioned during the band’s Fair Warning tour for this October '81 feature.

An Introduction

Since 1974 Michael Anthony has played bass in one of the world’s leading heavy metal acts, Van Halen. This year the group’s 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, Mike’s main role on vinyl and stage is providing support for Eddie Van Halen, who claims, “Anthony is a damned good bass player. When my brother Al and Mike are playing, it’s an open world for me. I can do whatever I want. They’re right there backing me up, feeding me.”

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 ‘70’s 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, “I 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, ‘You want to join the band?’ I said, ‘Sure!’” Anthony has since toured the world with Van Halen and appeared on all four of their albums.

The Interview

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 I’m kind of restricted. I’ve got to keep pretty much straight because he gets off real wild at times. There’s still a lot from my education that I can apply to what we’re doing, like the harmony classes are helpful when we’re 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: I’d say take up the piano (laughs). To me, that’s 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 aren’t 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 don’t 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, there’s still a solid foundation pumpin’ away. Live, I can get away with going off and doing a little more of a lead-type of playing, which I can’t 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 I’'ll get into a rut, like when we’re gigging really heavily and I don’t get out and listen to any new kind of stuff. I’m always hunting for new and different kinds of basses. I’m not like Ed - I’m not to the point where I build my own guitar from scratch. I'’ll buy something that’s already in the store, then I’'ll 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 (let’s 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 I'll change by playing that for a while, even if I don’t use it onstage.

GP: What is the extent of your bass collection?

MA: I’ve got about 14 basses right now. I just bought an old ‘63 Fender Jazz Bass that I really like. I don’t 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 it’s 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 I’m using Schecter pickups. I use the one split P-Bass style, and I have that rewound so it’s a little more powerful. Live, it gets a nice round, full tone. And you know the body’s bottom horn when you get up around the 24th fret? I always cut that back. I don’t 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 I’d 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 I’m winding them, I just use one pickup, which is a lot simpler. I’ve tried a lot of different basses with all the preamps and stuff like that, and that’s nice for somebody who is playing in a little club. You can hear it really nice coming out of the amp, and you’re not playing loud. But for what we’re doing onstage, just one pickup that’s 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 can’t play fast. You lose it. A lot of times I'’ll try to do a fast lick, and right away things will start getting muddy, especially if I’m doing something that’s 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 I’'m 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 I’m doing a lot of chords. Actually, I started playing bass with my fingers, so that’s where I can get all my speed from. So if I’m 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 I’'ll slap it a few times with my thumb. The first time I got turned on to this was through Mother’s Finest. I met their bassist, the Wizard, and immediately went out and bought all of their albums. I haven’t got a real vibrating fast thumb, but I have a good time and apply a lot of that slapping to what we’re playing. I’'ll 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 I’m using six Ampeg SVT heads, which are all modified - they’re 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 you’re 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. That’s a combination of the echo, the MXR flanger, and the Micro-Bass synthesizer. I use the synthesizer because it’s got a sub-harmonic on it that sounds really good, and it’s really clean. It’s 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. Don’t 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 I’m 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 I’ve seen the last two nights.

GP: In your bass solo you’re kind of aggressive toward your instrument.

MA: Yeah.

GP: Do you ever wreck anything?

MA: Yeah, all the time. Every time I smack it on the ground. I’ve got a million holes in it. I’m 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 I’m using a Yamaha Broad Bass 2000 that I received in Japan as a present when Yamaha came and followed Ed and me around in ‘79. 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! It’s really weird because in the world of heavy metal or whatever you want to call it, there’s the guitar hero, and that’s basically it. A drummer can do a long solo, but even that starts to get boring. That’s 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, that’s 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 aren’t 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, “yeah, 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!” And I said to myself, “Hey, this is one of the typical kids.” I’d love to get out there and show all my chops, but I think, “This is what we’re playing to, and this is what they appreciate.” And since I’ve 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. It’s fun; I’m having a good time doing it. I’m 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 some friends.

GP: Do the limitations of rock bother you?

MA: Sometimes they do. I know I’m helping Ed sound good. There’s a lot of times when I’'ll get frustrated because I can’t play what I want to play. The other guys'’ll say, “Why don’t you just sit back and play this,” and I’'ll kind of grit my teeth and go, “Well, okay.” But for the most part it’s really good. It’s 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 Dave’s father’s house in Pasadena. We’'ll get like a case of beer and a tape recorder, and just start playing. We'’ll 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 he’s almost like a fifth member of the band. he'll come down and listen to us play and put his suggestions in. We’'ll throw in different pieces from old material that we haven’t used. We’ve 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 we’re onstage, there’s no rhythm guitar. Even though we’ve got all the wonders of the studio that we could use, that’s the way we do it. And if we don’t get it on the first two or three takes, we see no point in it. We don’t want it coming out sounding perfectly in-tune after playing it so many times. We don’t 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: Let’s 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 we’ve ever done before. But it’s still got the Van Halen flavor. When we first heard it back, we’d just go, “Wow!”

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. I’m starting to really get into fretless stuff now. There’s 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 don’t even really think about stuff like that. I thank God that we didn’t 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 didn’t really affect anybody in the band.

GP: Is success what you expected?

MA: Yeah, and more! It’s everything I’d always dreamed of wanting to do, and now we’re 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 can’t even think of any negative things, really. It’s all in everybody’s head. It’s how you pace yourself. As far as the playing goes, I’m having the time of my life. As long as I can keep doing it, it’s just great for me.

GP: Do you play outside of the band?

MA: No. Sometimes when we’re off the road I’'ll 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 I’ve never actually wanted to go out and play with anybody else. I’d just like to keep doing what we’re doing now.

GP: Do you have any advice you'd pass along to young bassists?

MA: Yeah, just stick with it, no matter how hard it gets. We’ve hit some really bottom times, times when we thought that we’d always be playing in a club and have to always play other people’s 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 that’s where the money’s at. I painted house numbers on curbs and stuff. The main thing is just to stay with it.

Interview 1981 Guitar Player Magazine