Alum Profile - Michael Manring '79:
Michael Manring recalls being completely captivated at the age of nine by the sound of the electric bass break in a TV theme song. In the intervening three decades, his enthusiasm for the sound of the instrument has only intensified and Manring has earned an international reputation as one of the most creative and unusual electric bassists in the business. He has played on over 200 albums to date, and in 1994, Bass Player magazine voted him Bassist of the Year. Despite all of the acclaim, he finds it remarkable that the audience for his virtuosic solo bass concerts and recordings is growing both domestically and abroad.
"I was always interested in solo electric bass playing, but I didn't think anyone else would be," he said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "It's been a fascination for me since I was young, but I thought it would always be something I'd do only in my living room and that I should learn how to be a real bass player." In fact Manring worked very hard to become a "real bass player." During in the late 1970s he learned the traditional role of the bass in the rhythm section by playing with local top-40 and fusion groups in his native Washington, D.C. and at Berklee. Like many other Berklee students, he found the extracurricular playing opportunities to be as valuable as the time spent in class.
"Berklee was the perfect place to learn," he said. "I remember spending so much time in the rehearsal rooms. I'd start early and go from one room to the other, sometimes until 2:00 a.m. I'd play bebop with a group, then play with a fusion or rock band, and then work with someone on their original songs. It was so great to play with so many different people."
After finishing his studies at Berklee, Manring went on the road for about six months with a group he'd met at school. The pieces of his future career started falling into place however, after he returned to Washington. There he met the late, legendary acoustic-guitar innovator Michael Hedges, who had been studying composition at Peabody Conservatory in nearby Baltimore.
"It was such good fortune for me to run into Michael before anyone knew who either of us were," said Manring. "He was developing his style at that time, and we kicked around the Baltimore area playing various gigs. It was a great thing for me to see him develop and really blossom musically."
Manring played on the demo tape that Hedges sent off to Windham Hill records. After Hedges signed with the label, his 1981 debut Breakfast in the Field album became Manring's recording debut as well. The two continued working together until 1997 when Hedges died after a car accident.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Windham Hill used Manring extensively on many of their recording sessions and offered him a recording contract in 1984. In addition to his own four albums on the label, Manring played on a total of 50 Windham Hill records and toured with many artists in the company's stable. He was also a member of the label's popular group Montreux.
"It was interesting getting involved with the Windham Hill artists," said Manring. "Some of them are not schooled musicians. Many can't read music and some don't even know the names of the notes they play. That was different for me. Coming from Berklee, I could sight read pretty well and I had always loved theory. It was good for me to think in a different way and to approach music from another angle. Most of those artists worked a lot with alternate guitar tunings, so I learned a lot about that from them."
Before relocating to Northern California in 1986, Manring was living in New York, commuting to California for the Windham Hill sessions and taking bass lessons from Jaco Pastorius. "He was a huge hero to me at the time," said Manring. "I followed Jaco around like a puppy dog and finally talked him into giving me some lessons. I had listened to him so much and transcribed his music, so I already understood a lot about what he was doing.
"Back then, I wanted to play just like him. I didn't even think about having my own sound. But after spending some time with him, I realized that I am a very different person than he was and I was hearing other musical things in my head. I'd try to play his pieces just like he did, but there would be these other things here and there that sounded different. After I realized that those were my things, I started going for a more individual sound."
Manring states that while he still "respectfully carries Jaco's influence," he has developed a readily identifiable musical voice of his own. His astonishingly complex solo bass pieces involve use of an E-bow sustain device, radical retuning of his bass (sometimes mid-song), sprays of harmonics, and percussive double-stopped chords tapped on the bass neck with his right hand while he sustains higher and/or lower notes. Sometimes Manring plays multiple basses at once.
"After I heard Eddie Van Halen tapping notes with his right hand, I saw a lot of potential. It occurred to me that I could play more than one bass at a time if I used a tapping technique. I tried it and got really excited because I could use two different tunings that made it sound like I had a bass with eight strings. I could use one fretted bass and one fretless and pass motives from one to the other. I play polyrhythms by tapping on the two instruments, and it sounds really different than doing it all on one instrument. There is more separation. I eventually went to using three and even four basses.
"I have put things together gradually," he explained. "I hear sounds and then try to figure out a way to get them out of the bass. Many times, I will try something and fail to get the sound I want, but I will discover something that sends me off in another direction. It's like having a dialogue with the instrument; I try something and the instrument reacts."
Manring's solo bass act was a reaction to working with a wide variety of artists as a hired gun. "Over the last few years I have played with so many different people and worked in so many different styles that it got a little crazy. I would be playing totally free, avant stuff one night and new-age music, songwriter material, or jazz another night. I felt like I wanted to focus on solo playing."
Manring is on the road about half the year as a soloist and sideman and in the studio the rest of the time. He plans to make a new solo recording this year. The ready acceptance of his unusual approach to the bass has taught him some important lessons. "I have been lucky to get all of the calls for work that I do because I have never sold myself as a session musician. I never thought I'd be very good at it. I don't see the bass as limited or having only one function. If there is any pearl of wisdom that I have found in all of this, it is to follow your dreams and see what happens. Sometimes the doors aren't as closed as they seem."