Is a fuzz pedal useless

Christopher Wolstenholme on pedals, basses & the muse style

Interview with the muse bass player
by Marcel Anders,


There are bassists who see themselves as team players, experienced technicians who like to shine accordingly, and there is Christopher Wolstenholme, the four-string from Muse. A Brit who commutes between worlds, masters several instruments, describes himself as a reliable musical service provider and likes nothing more than experimenting with new effects and amplifiers for days. In 2009 that was reason enough for Guitar & Bass to take a closer look at the great tinkerer ...

To discover astonishing things: The burly guy with the short-shaved hair, who sits smoking chain in a suite of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Hamburg, is not only by far the nicest of the three Muse members, but also a real luminary: one who comes with his permanent urge for wild experimentation has played a decisive role in the rapid development of the band from Teignmouth, for their transition from the weird, small indie band to the large, stadium-compatible progressive rock formation, and also for the breathtaking quantum leap on their current work, The Resistance 'is partly responsible.

Just drifting into increasingly electronic sounds, but also into increasingly opulent, bombastic rock symphonies that last up to twelve minutes and take the word “pompous” to a completely new, lonely point. Whereby the three thirtysomethings are not self-loving, arrogant and megalomaniac, but still have both (or all six) legs in life. Because they don't consider themselves rock stars, but musicians. Because they take their art seriously, but not themselves, and because they like to think outside the box when it comes to group dynamics.

First and foremost Christopher Wolstenholme, who likes to laugh a lot in conversation, raves about his collaboration with other bands and does indeed pursue some unconventional approaches - especially as a bassist.

Chris, you supposedly started out as a drummer. Is that correct?

Christopher Wolstenholme: No, I was first a guitarist, then a drummer. So the first band I played in had two guitarists - and I was one of them. Until they decided they didn't need two guitars. (laughs) So I got out and went somewhere else.

Until the drummer of my old band left and they asked me if I wanted to come back and take his place. Which I found so funny that I did it for two years. And I still play the drums. So especially at home. A year ago I temporarily helped out in a local band that are good friends of mine. They had lost their drummer and needed someone to accompany them on a TV recording in London. Then I jumped in, which was great fun. Especially for me - because I hadn't drummed in a band in a while.

May I ask what their names are?

Christopher Wolstenholme: It's a band from Teignmouth, the same place where I live. And their name is Hey Molly. But they are not really known. Which is likely to change now. (laughs) And my performance with them can also be seen somewhere on the internet. That was pretty funny, really. And I still have a lot of fun playing the drums - even if the bass has long been my main instrument.

Has the drumming affected your bass playing in any way? Does it make you more rhythm-oriented?

Christopher Wolstenholme: I think so. Simply because I've always seen it that way: The best rhythm groups are those where the bass and drums come across like an instrument. As if they were being played by the same person. And I guess switching from drums to bass, or acquiring exactly this knowledge, is definitely very helpful. Simply because it makes it clear to you how both work - and what is important when it comes to interaction.

So you have the ear of a drummer?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Definitely. Especially since Dom (Dominic Howard) and I talk about drums all the time. When we're in the studio, I always make a lot of comments about how his drums should sound. And so we are all - we talk to each other about our instruments all the time.

Well, Dom, for example, always has some ideas about how the bass or the guitars should sound. And, in principle, we are very open to comments and suggestions. In other words: We have very specific ideas and are not afraid to express them. Nobody feels trodden on their feet or something. Of course, it is very useful if you have a background of different instruments. Clearly…

Do you remember your very first bass?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Not really. I just know it was pretty junk, but no longer by which company or something. I think his name was just Mustang. By which I don't mean a Fender Mustang, just a Mustang. And I got it from a girl who went to school with us. She sold it to me for £ 50 or something. So it was extremely cheap, a really bad part.

But I've used it for years. Until Matt's mother found someone who played bass and gave me a washburn. This part from the 80s that I used for a while. But as soon as I had a bit of money, I got myself a bass collection bass and used it regularly. Now I play a lot of different things. So everything I can get my hands on.

So you have collected a lot of equipment over the years?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Of course. I mean, I also collect a lot of guitars. And I've been hoarding an incredible amount of stuff because I'm constantly on eBay. When I see something there, I usually say: “I have to have that!” And I buy it. (laughs) Which makes my house one spare parts store. Like walking into a guitar shop. And I mainly collect vintage stuff. But not the typical, common things, but rather unusual parts.

For example?

Christopher Wolstenholme: For example a really nice BurnsVista Sonic 6-string from 1963. And recently I've bought a lot. Because I'm more and more into Gibson basses, which are not really popular. Not at the moment, anyway. Although I have only just bought four of them. An EB0, an EB3, a grabber and a ripper. These are my latest achievements and I use them on the album. I also got some old Fender Jazz basses.

Allegedly a Rickenbacker was there too ...

Christopher Wolstenholme: Yes, and I now have three of them - one new and two from the 70s. Only: I didn't use them on the album. You were there on the last one, but not this one. Because the thing about the Rickenbackers is this: They only work for very specific purposes, because they sound so high on the treble that it's almost like you're playing a guitar. Seriously ... (laughs)

And what about amps?

Christopher Wolstenholme: I'm a Marshall type. (laughs) But I only use them for the distorted things. I like Marshall, and I've been using the amps for nine years now because they are so reliable and they never give up. In any case, it has never happened before that someone has let me down. They are really loud and extremely reliable. I only have one problem with them - for a nice, clean sound, they lack a bit of character.

That's why, before we started recording this album, I went to a few music stores and tried a lot of different things. What I realized is the following: I am into this new Ampeg reissue head. This part is just great, and I immediately used one of them in the studio. Exclusively for clean sounds. I just can't use the amp live because it doesn't always work properly at the moment. It makes a lot of humming noises, which doesn't really work well on stage.

So what do you use on stage?

Christopher Wolstenholme: The Marshalls! But I've tried a few other things. For example, a few days ago I experimented with loads of bass amps to see if there was something for me. I've tried them all and ended up going back to the Marshalls. There was simply nothing there that really convinced me and came close to her.

I just know they work and I don't have to worry about them going out while I'm playing or something like that. Which is just important - one more thing not to worry about , and which saves you a lot of trouble.

But the bigger the halls, the more equipment you can use, right?

Christopher Wolstenholme: That's right. But you still have to be a little careful. So, you can't take things with you that you can't rely on 100 percent. Otherwise it will cause nasty surprises. I mean, of course: Since we've had more than one truck with us, I've also been taking replacement devices with me - or things that you just want to test or try out.

But it is like this: even if you have a replacement device - if the amplifier fails on a certain song, the music is irrevocably ruined. And it always takes a certain amount of time to swap things. In addition, that is extremely annoying. In this respect, it is important to know that you have something reliable, something that really works - come what may.

And my marshals have only let me down once in nine years. That is really an impressive result - especially in view of the many concerts that we played during that time. So you can rely on it and don't have to worry. Which significantly reduces the stress factor when playing. And, the marshals are insanely loud. That's why we have a separate room in the studio just for the bass, which nobody dares to go into because it is almost painfully loud there.

And a lot of the distortion sounds that I use are immensely powerful. For example, I have a big muff pedal and this other part called the Woolly Mammoth. If you turn them up and play really loud, it's just impossible to be in the same room. (chuckles)

Why all the effects? Do you really use them all, or is it just a collecting trick?

Christopher Wolstenholme: (laughs) It's the case that we approach each song differently when we record - in other words, that we try not only to set it up differently, but also to use different equipment. Quite apart from the fact that it's great to have a bit of variety within a song instead of a single, constant bass sound that may even run through the entire album.

In addition, some things work better with certain songs than with others, where they may seem completely out of place. So it's important to have some choice. I mean, of course I have more pedals than I might need, but it happens again and again that we are on tour, doing sound checks and tinkering with a few new ideas. Then it's great to pull out a pedal that you've rarely, or perhaps never, used and see how it works in that context.

If you're lucky - and that's often the case - it even fits very, very well. So it's great to have a lot of different options. And I have around 25 pedals in my rig. Anything like that.

Of course, some of them are purely toys, things that are fun to play around with. For example, I have a couple of pedals that are great when you just want to tinker around a little for yourself, but they just don't fit into the band context or would be completely pointless.

So most of it is pure fun - I just like to play around with things. And among ten pedals that are completely useless, you can always find one that is simply great.

Sounds like this is something that you deal with very intensely. How and where do you find pedals and other accessories - apart from eBay, of course?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Oh yes, eBay is a real addiction ... But I also go to music stores regularly, look around, and if there are things that I don't know yet, I try them out. We also know several people as a band who have a guitar shop or work for the British bass magazine. For example, they are constantly being sent new pedals to review. And quite a few of them end up with me. (laughs)

In earnest? What can I say? I'm friends with the editor-in-chief and he keeps lending me some. For which I either return the favor with a short telephone comment, or I discuss it myself. Even if under a different name ... (laughs)

And if I find something really, really exciting, he calls the manufacturer and says: “Can you please send us another copy? The type of muse would like to use it for something. ”And it almost always says:“ Sure, no problem ”. Which is why I get a lot of stuff there - which is great.

Because let's face it, most music stores just have the standard repertoire while there is so much out there that is really interesting. And in my opinion, the unusual stuff is always the better. So that's what I find really exciting.

How would you describe your style and how has it changed over ten years and five album productions?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Because I started out as a guitarist, that naturally influenced my bass playing in the first few years. So I actually handled it just like a guitar. Simply because it takes a while before you realize that the bass is a completely different instrument. For that reason alone, it has to be approached very differently.

Over the years, so the longer we've played together, my style has changed more and more to the way Matt works his guitar, because he's one of those guys who doesn't just play chords. His style is very melodic, and now and then very relaxed, in the sense that he acts above everything else. And to enable him to do that, in other words to give him the freedom he needs, that is my main task.

So I am responsible for keeping everything together accordingly. And that's why Dom and I form a very, very constant rhythm section that gives Matt exactly this freedom.

Does that mean you provide the basis for his extravagant solos?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Definitely. I guess Dom and I stick it all together. While Matt is just another thing. Just as far as the melody and the harmony are concerned - that is, what he is playing there.

The way we approach the guitar and bass melodies is often reminiscent of the way a string quartet works. Because instead of just delivering the keynote all the time, we create harmonies with guitar melodies. Not all the time, but especially on this album.

And I think it's nice to make the bass the lead instrument and let it lead the song. Which is why the bass line in "Hysteria" and "Time Is Running Out" is almost the hook line of the song. And that's rather unusual. Because with most people the bass is only there to fill in the base and to hold it together accordingly. It's great to sometimes use the bass as a melodic instrument.

In the manner of Peter Hook, the longtime New Order bassist?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Exactly. And there was a song on the last album that followed this approach. Namely, to play really strong melodies on the bass. We definitely took that to heart on the last two records than in previous years. That much is certain. I'm also a big fan of the Beach Boys. Because I really like Brian Wilson's bass lines.

I mean, I know he didn't play it himself, but his arrangements in pieces like "God Only Knows" are just insane. Precisely because they are so unusual. He hardly tries any basic grades. Instead, he uses the bass as a very melodic instrument, and doesn't focus so much on the rhythm.

So I think he wrote some of the most interesting bass lines ever. But do you know who I really like as a bass player? Flea! It has an incredibly good balance. In the sense that there are an unbelievable number of bass players who have amazing technique.

But that's exactly what I don't really find musical. Because the focus is - as I said - far too much on technology. It's all about how well, how fast and how hard you play something. Which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it doesn't affect me emotionally at all.

While Flea conveys a lot of feeling?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Right. That is its great strength.He can do all this hard stuff too, because he's absolutely tech-savvy. But first and foremost, he does what is best for the song. It plays very melodically and with a lot of feeling. Whereby this is probably even extremely simple for his standards.

Well, I'm sure that he will often be tempted to just get started and improvise freely. But he's got himself well under control. He knows exactly what is important and he manages a great balance between the technique and the melody. He's unbeatable for that - and he plays with an incredible amount of feeling.

Any new bass players you've seen or heard from somewhere that caught your eye?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Well, the last concert I went to and where I saw a really good bass player was Mars Volta. The guy downright blew me away. Because he really has what it takes and is incredibly tight. So technically very, very talented, but without doing any nonsense that doesn't have to be. I think that's really good.

Although I've been concentrating so much on muse lately that I don't listen to much new music anyway. Even if I'm sure that there is definitely a lot. Only: I was way too busy last year. And - I have to admit that - maybe a little lazy ... And: I just enjoy playing our own songs most of the time. It's really like that.

When you're not sitting in a hotel room giving twelve hours of interviews, do you still practice every day?

Christopher Wolstenholme: Mostly yes. But not just bass. When I'm at home, where I have my own little studio, I play bass, drums, and guitar, all the time. I'm really in the studio most of the day - as long as my wife and children let me. And even if they keep me on my toes - I reach for the bass at least once a day. It has to be easy.

Your singer and guitarist Matt is known for his special relationship with his instruments. For example, when it comes to the Manson Signature models. Can you understand that

Christopher Wolstenholme: I think that's great. And that's why there isn't anyone out there who sounds like Matt. That's the point when you use signature stuff: You want something unique and original, something that only you use. Which creates another problem with all this vintage stuff.

I love to use it, but there is always the danger that you will sound exactly like the person who used it before you. That's why I try to combine old with new stuff.

For example: I use vintage basses, but at the same time extremely modern pedals, and that is exactly what creates a completely new sound. Quite simply because these pedals weren't invented when the bass was around for a long time. So it's great to combine different - if not contradicting - things and to use different elements from different times.

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