An Interview with Jan-Olof Strandberg
by Martin Simpson

 
I got in contact with Jan after seeing his profile on the International Institute of Bassists website. Jan responded positively when I asked him to contribute a few words towards the Why I Play Bass article that Iíve been working on for the last few months so I thought Iíd go one step further and ask him if heíd be willing to be interviewed. Jan agreed and we had an interesting e-mail chat in April 2005. Actually, Jan is one of those guys I just love interviewing as he gave nice full interesting answers to my questions and I didnít really need to send the document back to him with another set of questions Ė although I did ask one more Ė which led to another being asked!! This is an incredibly interesting man who has been extremely busy in the music industry for quite some time and I canít wait for the opportunity to interview him again sometime in the future (maybe after Iíve had a listen to a few of his recordings).

How long have you been playing Jan?

I started quite late I was 14 years old when I started, so I guess I have been playing for some time now. I had some breaks too, but I was always more or less into music.

How did you get started?

I listened to music a lot as a kid and my cousin is a professional guitar player. We often went to see him play with my aunt and my little brother in the late -60`s and early -70`s. My father also played drums when he was young but stopped when I was born. The first record I ever owned was "Abbey Road" by the Beatles Ė to this day, I still think it's the best Pop album ever released. Then I got into Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, Free, Johnny Winter, Emerson, Lake & Palmer..and many more. My mother knew some people from the newly formed Pop/Jazz conservatory that had just opened in Helsinki. I passed the tests and I went there - since I just had bought a second hand bass guitar. The bass was an Aria semi-hollow short scale with flatwounds and it looked like the one Glenn Cornick (Jethro Tull - Mart) was using. At that time, we had our first groups together with school friends. At home, my brother and I also messed around with whatever we could find that looked like an instrument. He later became a movie director and I continued with music.

What's your favourite band / solo artist?

There are so many (tons of them), now-a-days. I really enjoy the Rock music from the -70`s. But letís see...

One of my favourite musicians today is John McLaughlin I usually buy all his albums. He has so much edge in his playing and he is very creative and dedicated. Miles Davis is also a big hero of mine. I just got a new book about his music from the -70`s I will start to read it in a few days in my backyard since the sun is beginning to shine and the summer is almost here. I like to be in the backyard, reading when I have the time. Joe Zawinul is great, John Coltrane, The Brecker Brothers, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra...many more. For Bands besides the 1970`s groups mentioned earlier, I like Brian Setzer & the Stray Cats, I saw them live and I was blown away by their performance, it was really good! The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for their energy, Paul McCartneyís new group is great, the old Weather Report of course, Simple Minds and many more!

I guess I have to mention a few bass players here as well. Stanley Clarke is great I think he has one of the greatest sounds in the bass business!! Richard Bona is interesting as well as Armand Sabal-Lecco and all the new African players. Jimmy Johnson, Louis Johnson, Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius of course. I see new interesting players all the time but I donít know all their names yet. Generally I like everyone that is dedicated to their instrument and is enthusiastic about the music, that gives me inspiration.

What are the amps and instruments you currently use?

I have been with EBS for a long time since the late 1980`s when they started, so I basically use EBS equipment,

Mainly; EBSTD amps or then a EBS Classic Pre-amp with an EPX800 power amp. The speakers that I use are at present, mostly the new EBSNEO-210 and EBSNEO-212 but I might change to any EBS speaker combination depending on the gig and in which country I am. I also have an Alembic FX-1 pre-amp and an old Mesa Boogie Strategy tube Power-amp but these I actually hardly ever use.

For basses, lately, Iíve been using my Fodera 5-string with a Zebra wood top and ebony fret-board. Itís from 1990. The bass plays really well and sounds good. It sounds a bit like a HOT jazz bass with sustain. I also use an Alembic Series-I five string with a Burl Walnut Top and an Alembic Series II six-string with a Burl Walnut top as well and an Alembic Signature four string fretless with a Cocobolo top. Actually the Alembics have been used on all of my recordings. In the future I am planning to use the Fodera more as itís a more flexible bass for studio and live jobs and the sound is more traditional. The Alembic however, sounds incredible when everything is set right, its just a bit more complicated to work with. On the new CD, thereís a track called "Progressive" where I play the low bass part with my Fodera and then solo over that with my Alembic Series II. It worked out really well because the sounds were completely different. Then I have a custom four string bass with Alembic Series I electronics and with a Burl Maple back and Top, an MTD custom Shop five string with a Burl Maple Top and Ebony Fret-board.

I also use two acoustic Strandberg signature bass guitars that were in production for a while but nowadays only custom built by Rauno Nieminen. I also have a custom built five string acoustic bass guitar with a high C, built by Lasse Nurmi from Finland. Then there is a German built upright bass called Vektor that I have been using every now and then. I also have a G&L Tribute L2000 that I use for bar gigs and some teaching jobs. What bass I use, depends on the gig and the mood Iím in. Some of my basses have flat-wound strings, some stainless steel and the acoustic bass guitars have Phosphor bronze strings.

You certainly like your Burl Maple on the fronts and backs of your basses. Is this just from a cosmetic angle or do you feel that it helps give the basses the sound characteristics youíre looking for?

This question takes some time to be answered right but I will try my best. To tell you the truth, many of these exotic woods are more for the look, some exotic woods really do sound shit! Iíve often wondered why respected manufacturers actually use them! I worked at the Bass Center in Helsinki (where my wife works at present) for many years which gave me the opportunity to check out many of the great basses and I had a chance to compare what different wood and different pick-ups do to the same kind of bass. I found out that (remember this is my opinion) a bass with lacquer sounds tighter than a bass without, now this also has to do with what lacquer you use and how much! Too much lacquer will kill the sound of a bass. Basses without lacquer donít seem to have such a focused high end and low end. The lacquer, somehow, cuts the highs and lows at some frequencies and makes it sound tighter. The difference is not like night and day but if you play them with the same settings and same equipment you will definitely hear the difference. Now we come to another question - how much will your playing performance get better if you play a bass without the lacquer. Many musicians hate the lacquer. When a manufacturer tells you that it does not really matter, itís also a question of that a bass with lacquer takes four weeks more to produce and itís not always that easy to do it right. On a bass like an Alembic, where the pickups are really strong and the electronics are 36v, the lacquer influences the bass less than a passive or a 9v bass. The top wood of a laminated bass gives a certain character for the high end. In my experience, flamed and birdís eye, gives the tightest sound of the maple woods. Burl maple is tight as well and it looks cool but it does not always sound the best, depending on what kind of piece you will get. Usually the dark woods like Walnut or rosewood have a dark sound, again, if you have these woods and put in Alembic electronics, the sound will actually be very sharp, but on a Fodera it might be too dark except if itís a fretless - then it would probably sound good! In my experience, a five-piece laminated bass also has a bigger sound than a three piece laminated bass from the same brand.
The neck is the most important part of the bass. I like thinner necks but unfortunately bigger necks usually have a bigger sound, here is the part where we have to do our first compromises. My Alembics have a great sound but the necks are a bit clumsy. Once I plug in the bass I forget about the clumsiness, but sometimes it really matters how the bass plays, because you might have to read some difficult music on some sessions or rehearsal and then the bass had better be cool for you! Once you mess it up, it could be gone forever! For my taste, Ebony fret boards give a sound that has the most sustain and growl - this is a must for fretless bass but great for fretted as well. In my opinion, ebony gives the warmth for finger style and the fastness for slap that I need. Ebony sounds almost like youíre playing through a compressor. The best neck material in my opinion, is Rock Maple (Canada) itís a very hard maple.
I know the answer is not exactly what you asked but I felt that I had to answer it like this. When it comes to woods and so on. I think, to get the answer better, I need to spend more days or even weeks to put it into words better. But remember, this is only my opinion. A bass with a Mahogany or Basswood or Ash body with a bolt on Maple or rosewood neck is always good! I also feel that many of the instrument builders that have a name in the ďBass historyĒ are good and trustful, like Alembic, Fodera, Ken Smith and Michael Tobias. There are some more but these ones I know. You must also know that you need to know about woods and where to buy them when youíre a manufacturer. How do you know that the piece of Ebony you buy is old enough? This needs some experience, too fresh a wood will result in your neck twisting after a while.

Seems to me that youíve really done your homework Jan, I can particularly relate to the clumsy neck thing you spoke about. I always wanted to have a Rickenbacker bass Ė until I tried one out Ė the neck was terrible Ė a nightmare! O.K. the sound was AWESOME but I wasnít prepared to play an instrument with such an uncomfortable neck!!!

Yes, things like that can happen. I had a similar situation with the Music Man bass that I bought in the early Ė80`s. I was a huge fan of Louis Johnson and I really did like his sound and the way he was playing. Inspirited by him I bought the Music man bass and played it for almost eight years but I never really felt comfortable with the neck. Ernie Ball then bought Music man many years later and the bass felt much better but at the same time the sound was totally gone! (Music man is not a bad bass but the old ones sound much better to me)

I think that a good bass has a certain sound and character like a good musician. Think about all the great instruments Rickenbacker, Fender P-Bass, Fender J-bass, Alembic, Ken Smith, Music Man and some more. We all know how they sound.
Some things are hard to explain, but I am not sure about some builders who build instruments with the ďwhatever you wantĒ attitude. In a way itís great, but most of the time, players are not so aware of what will happen if you just mix all kinds of combinations together for an instrument. If you like a traditional Jazz Bass sound and then you decide that you want to have an ebony fret board on the fretted bass instead of maple to get more sustain you might get it but at the same time you will loose the traditional sound and the bass might sound almost too midrange. I once asked Susan at Alembic, if they could make me a thinner neck for playing comfort. She told me that, sure they can do that but at the same time I will loose some sound, and thatís something I definitely did not want to happen. I mean, there are certain things you can do to customize your bass Ė like, my Alembics have a different body shape and slightly wider necks, but it was done at Alembic by discussing these matters about what you can do and what cannot be done on the bass.
When we think about Alembic players like Jimmy Johnson or Stanley Clarke, they sound totally different, or Fender players like James Jamerson, Geddy Lee, Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius - all very different! Another thing I would like to mention here is that, when you have a 5-string bass that has a 36Ē scale and you put on a string gauge like 40-125, it will sound much tighter on that bass than on a 34Ē scale bass or a 30Ē scale bass. The shorter the neck, the looser the string gets. With a thin string you certainly will play faster but you loose some sound at the same time. Shorter scale bassís play faster, but long scale bassís sound bigger. What is your goal? - thatís how you should chose your instrument! For me, personally, I like 34Ē scale, neck through basses with single coil pick-ups and mostly, ebony fret boards, the strings are 45-130 most of the time but sometimes I use 40-125 on my Alembic six string and with a gauge 30 as a C string.
My basses are also mostly active, I like some passive basses too, but active works better for me. I also discovered that 9v electronics works the best in general (there are a few exceptions) thatís because some 18v basses are too hot for effects and wireless systems also some studios might have problems with too HOT basses. With passive, the problem can sometimes be, that the signal is too weak.

What instruments would you like to have if money were no object?

I would definitely like to have a good acoustic upright bass! I would like to have a great guitar and then a great keyboard. I was thinking about the new Clavia that is going to be available next summer. I could also use the Clavias Nord Lead 2 or 3, but weíre only speaking about the situation where there would be money for thisÖ.so far, its only a dream!

What have you been doing for the last five years or so?

The last five years have actually been quite good, I became a grand father a few years ago and that was cool. I was also a member of Paul Jackson`s Funk Attack in 2002 and then we recorded together with Paul Jackson last year in Helsinki. The record is going to be released through www.schootsrecords.nl and its called "Strandberg Project Featuring Paul Jackson" the CD also includes Mel Gaynor on drums on some tracks. Mel Gaynor and Bass player Dominique Di Piazza also performed on my CD "The Electric City" that was released in 2003. I did a concert together with Dominique in 2002 and that was a great experience too! In the year 2000, my CD "illustrations" was released and I played mostly with my acoustic signature bass guitar on the CD. This led to many great things for me!! I did three tours to Japan 2000, 2001 and 2004 playing solo bass and then (usually) the second set with a Japanese band. I was able to travel more since I discovered the acoustic bass guitar and then being able to perform solo. I also played in Seoul, Korea in 1999 and 2000 as a soloist, it was a great experience and I even did some studio things there.

In 2004 I performed at the European bass Day in Germany and 2005 at Bass Quake in Anaheim.

I am also a member of the new Mel Gaynor Band and we plan to record sometime this year. We did a show together in Frankfurt and it was great to play, the house was packed!

I write columns for a Swedish magazine called FUZZ. I have done it since 1998 and now also for a magazine in Holland called Bass Magazine. I have also been writing for a Finnish magazine called RYTMI since 1990 (on and off). These things are really nice to do, I really enjoy it.

What recordings that you've played on would you recommend for listening?

The new one I think is quite good "Strandberg Project Featuring Paul Jackson". I have not heard the mastered version yet but the music is OK. The thing is that one week after the record is released I am usually pissed off, because I find some things where the sound could have been better or I could have been playing better! But I guess these things have to be called progress because if your old record sounds better than your new one, then something is wrong! At least you have to have the feeling that the new one is better, then if you discover you like some of the old ones better later, its OK because at release time you need to feel that the new is the best! But records are also like a biography of what you have been doing over the years and a nice memory to have.

The record "Great Moments" have a few things I like, like the track Stanley & Sofi where I played my 6-string Alembic Series II and then the song Rollercoaster is OK. Then my "acoustic" CD "Illustrations" has some things I like. Even my first record "At The Music Box" has things I like. My new band just started to rehearse some songs from that record.

What's been the low point in your career so far?

The Low points? Hmm..I guess my low points are mostly coming from the music-industry industry part. I am talking about manufacturers and some agents. I hate dishonest people. Life is hard as it is, so I like people that are honest and open and are telling the truth. When it comes to money, people tend to loose their minds - all the promises are gone and friendship doesnít matter when money steps in. I want to stay away from those people as much as possible. Most of the musicians I meet have been great and the bass players are always the nicest people in the world.

And what have been the high points?

High points are many. I think one of the most important high points was the first professional gig I ever did. That was in 1975 with the late Finnish Rock legend Rauli Badding Somerjoki that was the first time I got paid for a gig!! I thought ďwhat a lifeĒ, you do what you love and get paid for it! Another high-light was probably in 1979, when I got a chance to record for the first time (a single) with my own group The "Funky President" we also had a chance to perform at several TV shows during that time. All that, was so new and exiting, that single is going to be for listening at my home page at some point, just because itís my history.

Another high-light was my first LP recording in 1983 it was done with an African artist called Abdel Kabirr. The music was Reggae and Funk. Then I recorded in 1984 with Bianca Morales. That record was actually quite good for that time, I think. We also performed on several TV shows and toured a lot until 1987.

My first solo record in 1995 is definitely a high point. We recorded it on and off during the first 8 months of that year. I had a long break without playing so much, when I decided that now it's time to change the direction in my musical carrier, I picked up the bass again and started to play and compose.

I must say that a high point was also the project I had with Rauno Nieminen and Erkki Noromies to put together my signature acoustic bass guitar. It was distributed worldwide for a while. The instrument is really good and I hope we can continue to produce it again sometime.

The first time I was invited to Stanley Clarkeís house was also something to remember he showed me his studio and his wife made a great dinner for us.

It was also an honour to play and record together with Paul Jackson. High points are also playing together with Mel Gaynor.

Have you visited the South African Bassists website www.bassplayers.co.za yet?

Yes, I checked it out recently. Great page!! Good to know that there are people dedicated to the bass worldwide!

What do you get up to in your spare time?

I like to meet my (grown up) children as much as possible and our grand child but other than that, I like go to the gym at least 2-3 times a week. I like to jog every now and then. I like to read all the Bass magazines and music magazines in general when possible. I have been studying the computer for the last six months because Iím not too good with them. Iím also planning to take lessons in some foreign language like Spanish. But Iím not sure yet, it depends on the time.

What are your goals currently?

My goal is to stay in shape and hopefully be able to make records every now and then. The goal (for the near future) is to get the "Strandberg Project" CD to see the light of day, then to record the CD with Mel Gaynor and to start work on my next CD in July this year. Hopefully I will be able to travel in the future as well, I love to travel and meet people and see new cultures.

I will definitely practice more bass guitar and become a better musician and hopefully I will have the time to study some keyboards and guitar as well. My goal is to grow and become a better musician and a good grand dad. I would also like to perform and record with my son Jan "Jysky" Strandberg who is a bass player as well. I asked him to play at my record release party a few years ago but he refused and told me he would love to do it but a bit later. He wants to do his own thing first, which I think is cool!

I am also constantly working on my bass sound both in the studio and live and trying to make it sound better all the time, finding new ways to record the bass and so on....

Thanks very much for answering my questions Jan, I really enjoyed it. Expect me to come back at a later stage for another interesting interview with you.

Thank you Martin! The pleasure was mine. Take care, and good luck with your great site

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