Ashley Reeve: Nailin’ Bass Parts

Serving Triple-Duty in Cher’s Band: Electric, Upright and Synth Bass

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Photo by Tim Vermoens
       

“The space in between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves,” says bassist Ashley Reeve. Whether live or in the studio, she “plays for the song” with that tasteful, less-is-more approach.

Onstage, she’s in tall leather boots, her blonde, asymmetric hairstyle illuminated under the stage lights – wielding a Fender bass as if born with it – anchoring the band in her own special way, with her signature, full bass tone, and (at times) aggressive finger-style pounding out eight-notes with no pick in sight. That’s Ashley Reeve!

And before ever hitting the stage, she was encouraged to select an instrument based on “feel” over appeal. Style and color came later, as did stage presence and duplicating songs note for note – skills that landed her gigs with Cher, Adam Lambert, and CeeLo Green; among others. She also holds down Filter’s rhythm-section with her husband, drummer Chris Reeve.

As far as getting hired for the Cher gig, she was recommended by the icon’s long-time bassist Eva Gardner (who had scheduling conflicts due to touring with Pink). Ashley met Eva when they were students at The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Nowadays, both fill bass chairs for some of the biggest names in the music industry.

“When it comes to pop, I’m a bassist’s bassist,” says Reeve. “I’m not trying to out-fancy anybody. I just play the parts and, fortunately, that’s kept me working – learning the parts verbatim and nailing them.” Her diligence is a real asset in Cher’s band – a gig that requires a lot of versatility for the wide range of musical styles in every show.

In between Cher’s residency gigs, Ashley checked in to discuss all things low-end and fabulous…

What was your first bass and where did you get it?

It was a black-and-white Peavey Fury. I got it at this wonderful little mom-and-pop music store in Covina, California called “The Fret House,” where I first studied bass privately. I was blindfolded, so I wouldn’t pick an instrument based on looks or color and was told to pick which felt the best. That was the one. Of course, I eventually covered it in Garbage Pail Kid stickers

How did you first get into music?  

My first instrument was actually the oboe. When I was 11, I knew I wanted to be in the school band and was told that oboe was a rare choice for kids to pick out. I’ve always liked being a little different, so I picked it up pretty quickly; much to my music director’s delight. He was impressed and asked me if I’d like a second instrument to play as well: the bass guitar. He was recruiting a bassist for his jazz band at the junior high I would attend the following year. He brought in a regular ol’ Fender guitar and told me to ignore the two skinniest strings since the bottom four were just like bass. It was love at first sight. After that, I just knew bass was for me.

You went to California Institute of the Arts, correct? And I understand you studied with Alphonso Johnson (from Weather Report and Wayne Shorter)?

I did! And yes, Alphonso Johnson was one of my mentors there, as well as 6-string pioneer Todd Johnson and upright master Darek Oles. Some of my favorite memories of CalArts were actually my private lessons with Alphonso where he would bring in these old charts from his days with Wayne Shorter and he would have me sight-read them down from start to end, along with the actual live recordings of these tunes. It just kind of blew my mind to read these incredible charts with this legendary bassist who was on the actual recording we were playing along to. I knew it was something magical!

CalArts was so great in terms of really giving me the freedom to explore so many different genres, especially World Music. I largely focused on Afro-Cuban/Salsa music while there. I had actually planned to be an Afro-Cuban/Latin-Jazz bassist.

Did you also explore Jaco’s music in school?

In terms of learning to play like Jaco, not so much. But I did listen to plenty of his recordings and loved hearing stories about him from CalArts Jazz Director (and incredible pianist) David Roitstein who went to school with him at Miami University. I recall him saying, “everything he touched was pure magic.” I believe that.

Growing up, what other players inspired you?

Being exposed to the typical greats like Jaco and James Jamerson in junior high was a huge inspiration. My earliest bass mentor, George Boravich, would have me transcribing Jamerson’s bass lines at the age of 13. I’m so grateful for that! But it wasn’t until I heard D’Angelo’s album Voodoo when I was in high school that I really had my mind blown! Hearing the way Pino Palladino played in such a beautiful less-is-more style was a huge influence on me. His syncopations and groove were really unlike anything I’d heard before. The space in between the notes was just as important as the notes themselves. He’d switch up his groove ever so slightly each time it would come around, and that subtlety was so refreshing to me.

As far as women, a lot of female bassists were coming up during the mid-90s to early 2000s, including D’Arcy (Smashing Pumpkins), Melissa Auf der Maur (Hole), and other players. Any memories or impressions of that time period?

Yes!! I totally recall seeing D’Arcy in the Smashing Pumpkins videos (back when MTV was king) and thinking, ‘Wow! She’s the best part of this band!’ Melissa as well. They were some of the first rock bass queens to set the stage for the rest of us.

Another great bassist from that time is Sean Yseult from White Zombie. She has a commanding, rhythmic attack. I always loved her playing and look. I feel like you have that kind of speed and control, but a funky groove, too.

Any comparison to her is a total compliment; so, thank you for that! Honestly, nobody had stage presence like her. She gave a whole new meaning to “headbanging,” especially with that amazing yellow-green hair of hers that she’d whip around like she’d never heard of whiplash. Remember the “More Human than Human” music video that was all over MTV? That was soooo badass! When I think of White Zombie, I just picture that wild hair of hers getting thrown around like crazy and that insane crunchy bass sound.

What type of bass player do you consider yourself?

I’ve always identified myself as a less-is-more player. I’m not a shredder and I find myself just wanting to be the glue that binds – the kind of bass that you feel almost more than hear. My spirit animal is a sub-woofer or maybe an 808 bass drum. I just want it to be fat, groovy and felt in your gut. I think that’s always been my goal. When it comes to pop, I’m a bassist’s bassist. I’m not trying to out-fancy anybody. I just play the parts and, fortunately, that’s what has kept me working – learning the parts verbatim and nailing them.

Do you prefer playing with a pick or your fingers?

I’m definitely a finger player. Using a pick is a great tool, but for me, it’s just never felt natural in my hand. So, I began to get that sound using a back and forth flamenco style (using my two plucking fingers) with acrylic nail overlays. Since it’s adhered to your nails (not the press-on kind), they can survive an entire tour. It looks like I’m playing quarter notes, but I’m actually playing eighth-notes due to the back and forth motion. You double your note yield that way and get a pick sound because of the acrylics. That’s been my go-to technique with Filter since most of the songs were recorded with a pick.

You seem partial to Fender Precision and Jazz basses. Lately, you see a lot of basses with shorter scale necks like 30” – what’s your take on that? 

I think of Fenders as regular scale. I played long-scale Thunderbirds years ago before I was endorsed by Fender. I’m not a fan of them now since I feel like that extra length slows my playing down. And yet, I’m not a huge fan of short-scale because it just feels small to me (especially after you’ve been playing upright). Classic Fender Jazz and P-bass necks are my preference, but that’s just what happens to work for me. Power to all short-scale and long-scale players!

Photo by Tara Arseven

As far as your look/style, to me, it feels “punk meets runway.” Once you got your awesome playing skills down, did you think about style?

As far as the direction my personal look has taken, I think I’ve always had bouts of influence from Marilyn Manson’s stage attire (I was a teenage goth who never fully grew out of that phase really). Karen O with her sort of superhero air about her, and maybe a little Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation meets Cat Woman; put those styles in a blender and I think you end up with an outfit I would definitely rock onstage. Makeup-wise, I totally stole my signature rocker smoky-eye from a billboard I once saw for that movie Black Swan.

Even your guitar straps are cool. What straps do you use? 

All of my spike straps were custom built by my friend Jakob Liszko. I wanted the longest spikes he could find. I told him that I wanted one to look like Gwar meets Lady Gaga. I also have this great strap that’s made out of baseball leather (I’m a huge baseball fan) that was gifted to me from The Guitar Strap Co. I think I need a bass with a custom LED light at the 12th fret in the shape of the Shake Shack burger logo. I love Shake Shack!

How did you approach the Cher gig?

Playing in Cher’s band was the first time I’d ever been asked to do triple-duty: electric bass, upright and synth bass, which I have seen become a common prerequisite for bigger gigs. I’d never played synth before, but when they asked if I could, I said “yes” since I figured I could learn pretty quickly (and how could playing one note at a time be that hard)? So, when I got the music, I did nothing but play those key parts every hour of the day, rehearsing in my sleep. I knew I had to have the three synth-bass songs down so cold that they’d think I’d been playing much longer than three weeks. And now, those songs and the couple of upright tunes are some of my favorite moments in the show.

It must be inspirational working with someone as legendary as Cher?

She’s a total inspiration. When she isn’t singing, dancing and being fabulous on stage (at the age of 72), she’s off fighting to free imprisoned elephants dying in zoos and standing up for other great causes. She’s a powerful woman with some bold opinions about what’s happening in the world. She’s very active on Twitter and is for sure worth following.

Her catalog is so diverse, how is it adjusting your style and tone during the set?

It’s all over the spectrum genre-wise. It’s been really fun figuring out how to pull all these different personalities out of a single passive P-bass (Fender American Professional Series Precision Bass). For some of the songs that have a super vintage sound, I have my tone knob rolled way back and play with my right hand just over the neck. For the ballads, I use a left-hand muting technique that gives notes a very warm almost upright sound. Then I turn my tone knob about 3/4 of the way and play closer to the bridge for a brighter tone in the disco tune, “Take Me Home.”

For the more rocking tunes, I keep my hand just left of the pickups with the tone knob all the way up for a super clean, bright rock sound (“Found Someone New” and “Turn Back Time”). I even get to use a jumbo fuzz effect for the dub-step intro to “Believe.” Also, there are no amps onstage; so, all my amp tone is coming from the Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 DI/Pre-Amp, which is by far my “deserted-island” pedal. If I could have just one it would be that one.

Some dance songs and classic disco tunes have awesome bass lines and grooves like Abba’s “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie” and Chic songs.

Totally! Those songs are so catchy, and I love the movement in Abba bass lines. There’s all sorts of funky and melodic action tucked into those tunes. 

You also play electric upright. What songs do you use that on?

In the Cher set, I use it on “Circus,” a fun, circus-themed dance interlude that allows her to do a costume change backstage as well as on the song “Burlesque.” I look forward to those two tunes every show. I’m absolutely in love with that NS electric upright. It’s a bit of a secret weapon to be honest. That bass is just so easy to play. You can take months off from playing it and when you come back, it doesn’t sound as though you’ve taken a huge break. I wish I had the opportunity to use it more often.

As far as 5-string, do you prefer it for certain songs?

I’m a 5-string player at heart. I just like the versatility. It’s nice to have access to those beautiful low notes that you would need to drop-tune a 4-string to get to. They’re just there when you need them. One of my first music teachers instructed me to not over-use the B string, to treat it more like seasoning for flavor. I liked that analogy. There’s just no denying how good it sounds, especially on the last note of a song. You just hit that low note and your guts rumble – Ugh! I love it!

What’s next on the Cher schedule?

We will be heading to Australia and New Zealand for a tour (Cher’s first time touring Australia in 13 years). Then, we have another November residency in Las Vegas. [Cher has since announced additional North American tour dates for 2019]. 

You also play in the band Filter with your husband. Tell me a little about your musical bond…

Oh man, where do I even begin? Well, we met in Filter rehearsals and just had such great onstage chemistry. That chemistry really transferred offstage and it wasn’t long before sparks were flying. But we really wanted to keep things professional, so we actually waited until the tour was over to make things official. We also got the blessing of our singer, Richard Patrick, who had one caveat, “just don’t ruin my band.” Being a couple actually just made our on-stage bond that much tighter. I feel like that drum/bass bond is super important. My first junior high boyfriend was a drummer. Hah! He ruined me!

Ashley’s Gear

Basses

Fender Blacktop Jazz Bass
Fender American Professional Series Precision Bass
Fender American Elite Jazz Bass 5-string
NS Design CR5M electric upright

Rig

Aguilar DB 751 head, Aguilar DB 412 & 212 cabinets

Effects

Aguilar Tone Hammer DI
Moollon Bass Drive
Way Huge Swollen Pickle
Markbass Super Synth

Synth:

Moog Sub 37

Strings:

DR Strings Pure Blues

Connect with Ashley Reeve via Instagram & Twitter: @ashleyreevebass

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