Reginald: I recall meeting Colin about 13 years ago at one of the first bass players' gathering near Arab Street. Back then, we had a close knit online bass community that begin with the now defunct E-Circles. It subsequently migrated to Delphiforums, and now to SOFT. At that gathering, Colin's musicianship caught my attention. Being younger than many other seasoned bass players in the room, he was extremely skillful and equally adept across different genres from rock to funk to jazz! Colin even showed his versatility on the flute as well.
Victor and I are very happy to partner Colin in his bass journey, becoming the first F bass Endorser in Singapore! Be inspired from reading this article and learning about Colin's devotion to the instrument, impeccable work ethics and be motivated by his pragmatic approach to music and life!This may be a long article, but I believe that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did. Definitely worth the read!
1. You have been playing bass professionally for many years. What started you on this journey to pursue music as a full time career?
I lost my marbles a decade plus ago? hahaha, no. Fair warning, this segment is going to be a long read, as I believe in being thorough in anything I do, so do skip it if you have no time / are not interested / iphone is running low on batt!
Being a full-time musician was quite inevitable, and, quite frankly, a really reasonable and obvious career choice for me, despite the fact that I was educated in public schools and did my Bachelors in Economics in the local University. You gotta understand, back in those days, it was either public education or the streets. There weren't that many options available to folks in our income bracket. We also did not have any state sponsored Music College in town. That being said, it was actually my Economics background that showed me that this was the most logical career for me! I had a host of "competitive advantage" in music that I do not have in any other field.
As a kid, I was drawn to music, and apparently, aside from the TV, that was the only thing that could keep my attention for more than 5 minutes. I was an active child, could never sit still for a moment, but then at age 5, I discovered the keyboard (more precisely, the yamaha electone) and begged my parents to let me take lessons, which they relented of course. As a kid, that never struck me as anything out of the ordinary, but as I grew older and did the maths of how much that actually costs my parents, I was suitably impressed! I have to say, that was quite a stretch for a lower-middle-income family in this part of the world, and I thank god for such wonderful parents!
Needless to say, I loved it, and spent hours everyday sitting there, just practising the homework that my teachers gave. I went from that to piano, played 15 minutes of scales daily and took the same exams like pretty much any of the piano students in this part of the world. In my teenage years, I discovered the radio, and found another world of music that I have never experienced before, and I started to play along to the tunes on the radio.
I was a nerd in school and pretty much sucked at sports, so I joined the marching band in Secondary School and Junior College, and played the flute. It was also in Junior College that I chanced across this thing called the "stage band", which was sort of like a pop band with singers and a horn section. I befriended the guys there and every now and then, was allowed to sit-in during their rehearsals and to play the instruments. That was the first time ever that I tried playing a bass. I still remembered it was a 4 string Yamaha with PJ passive pick-ups, and the amp we had was the old Roland
"Why the bass and not the guitar?" you may ask. Well, at the end of the day, I just wanted to play in a band, so my answer back then, like all other things in life, was a simple issue of cost and ROI (returns on investment). Guitar strings break easily, and you need to buy a host of pedals and effects, you need to buy picks as well, the bass strings don't snap easily and there are no pedals to buy, hence cost effective! The guitarist in the band gotta play chords and solo lines, whereas the bass player just had to play one note at a time and you could function in the band. It takes a lot less time to learn to do that for sure, so very good ROI! Bass it is! (I know, I know, I was greatly mistaken about a lot of things, but please permit me the luxury of youthful foolhardiness!)
However, I was not an official member of the stage band, so I did not have as much access to the bass as I would like. It was the days where Internet was in its infancy, so information on the instrument was hard to come by and lessons were out of the family budget. All I could do was draw 4 lines on a piece of paper to represent the 4 strings, mark out the 24 frets and write down what notes were on each fret of each string, stare at it and imagine how my hands would have to move in order to play the bass lines of the pop songs on the radio that I have just transcribed.
It went on like that until I turned 19, and like all the boys here, was forced to spend 2 and a half years in the army. My parents were ordinary folks. So as far as the powers that be were concerned, my life was certainly cheaper than their son's, so I got posted to be a trooper. 2 and a half years of full-time military training and service meant I basically stayed in the military base and only got to see my piano one day a week. Coupled with some of the most rigourous military training this part of the world has seen, made sure these fingers of mine would never be able to do the things they used to do on the piano, and that was the end of that.
Ironically, it was also because of my army days, that I managed to save up a little money, enough for me to buy my first bass (a black yamaha BBN5, 5 string, passive J pick-ups, rosewood fretboard, alder body) and to take some lessons after I finished my stint in the army and went to university! As a full-time soldier, food, clothing and lodging were all provided for, and since I was in camp all the time, I hardly had a chance to spend any money.
So during my university days, I bought my first bass at a sale, and at the recommendation of some of the guys in the metal bands I was jamming with, went for lessons with Jonathan Sim. The lessons lasted 10 months before I ran out of money. I was pretty much paying all my bills myself with the little that I made giving home tuition, so a few lessons before my last, I asked Jon what's the best way to make money as a bass player in this town. He said, and I quote, "you want to make money, you must play jazz". I was a metal-head and had no idea what jazz was all about, so he showed me his copy of the fakebook and asked me to read that down. His copy had the melody written in bass clef, so the very first time I saw it (the song was autumn leaves by the way), I just read and played the melody, thinking to myself, "Now that wasn't too bad!"
I was an idiot, and he was a patient and good-natured friend and mentor! Subsequently, he showed me how the "jazz thingy" worked and recommended that I went to audition for a spot in a community club big band, called the Thomson Big Band, and encouraged me to show up for as many jam sessions and play with as many cats as I could. I got the spot in one of the big bands, hung out with all the jazz cats in town, and started working with them to pay my way through university. It also helped that my university lecturers empathised with my predicament, so they did not insist that I come for lessons, and did not stop me from taking the exams even though my attendance was a dismal 20%. That way, I got to practice my bass 6 hours daily, do my gigs, and still graduate from school.
After I graduated, I landed a regular 6-night-a-week gig playing in a hotel with a pianist and singer. At that time, I knew that if I were to even remotely consider a career as a bass player, I would need to have a car, so this hotel gig was really timely. It afforded me both time and money to get my drivers license.
Then, there was the issue of my parents (regular folks who just witnessed their son graduate from university, something their own parents could not afford to give them). Giving their active son piano lessons so that he could learn discipline was one thing, watching him graduate with a degree in Economics, destined for a cushy job they could only dream of, only to be a musician was another issue altogether! I knew I had to have a plan (preferably a 30 year plan!) and I needed to show results, concrete proof that a career in music was feasible and not whimsical. I knew that as long as I consistently send money back home to my parents, after a while, they would start to believe in me.
So after 6 months at the hotel, I bought an old beat-up car, took on a day job in the civil service and put my practising on hold. I chose the civil service because their culture was to knock off at 5pm sharp everyday, parking fees at their offices were very low, paid leave and medical leave added up to a total of 44 days a year, and there was also that option of unpaid leave. That suited me just fine as it left me with a lot of time in the evenings to do gigs, and all 44 days of leave were put to good use when I had shows or musicals that required me to turn up for rehearsals or sound check in the afternoons. It also helped that I could play the flute and do the "jazz thingy" on the flute as well, so I had more work opportunities. Of course, this was only temporary. The whole plan was to save up enough money from both pay cheques for me to use as float when I turn full-time.
After 3 years, with a healthy savings account on display, and 3 years of consistent and timely monthly pay-outs to my parents, I left my day-job and never looked back since. I'm also still maintaining my pay-outs to my parents. Let's just say, it's their dividend for investing and believing in me!
2. Share with us some high points of your career? Were there any difficult lessons that you picked up along the way?
Well, I guess the first of anything is always the most memorable, the first regular gig, the first wedding/corporate gig, the first full-length concert, the first musical, the first jazz festival, the first time playing in a particular country, the list goes on.
I do not have a preferred type of work or venue or genre of music or any other such superficialities. I do, however, have folks that I would rather not work with, due to conflicting work ethics and principles. Personally, I think that as a musician, your playing is basically an extension of yourself, so for me, it is all about fellowship with your colleagues. Meeting and working with new people would certainly count as a high point, so does working with old friends and colleagues you have not seen in a while. Heck, basically turning up for work as a session player is a high point in itself I guess!
I wouldn't say I had difficult lessons, I prefer to think of them as important insights to the human psyche. The way we think dictates the way we behave, and that dictates the final outcome of any situation. So once we can get a grasp on our own mindset and work on that, everything usually falls into place pretty well. Life's really how you see it, whether the cup is half-full or half empty.
Not referring to any particular event that happened to me, but here are some truths that I hold very dear: The first is that opportunities do not come your way very often, so we have to make every single one count. No one owes you a job, so the day you stop acting like they do, the day you stop whining, the day you stop bad-mouthing a fellow musician, is the day that doors open for you. For me, once I take on any job, I would deliver my due diligence, perform my duties to the best of my abilities or to the full requirement of the job (whichever is the lower of the 2), fulfil, and hopefully, exceed the expectations of my client. Once you give them no professional excuse to not hire you (bigotry issues notwithstanding), you have done your level best and the rest is up to the good lord.
Secondly, to further expound on the bad-mouthing thing. We are what we eat, and our words represent our thoughts. It does you no good, reflects badly on you, and is really not good for your career; so if you really have nothing good to say about someone, don't say anything, please!
Lastly, we are all human, so we all have our own preferences, bias and agendas, and often, there is nothing you could do to change anyone's point of view, no matter how hard you try. You can't expect others to treat you fairly, or to treat you the same way you treat them. Yes, it's sad, but it's true. Coming to terms with this as soon as you can, meant less time wasted on futile attempts to move any immovable mountains, and more time to focus on those that matter.
3. What are some values and disciplines that are essential as a bass player?
I think that depends on what kind of bass player you want to be.
I guess the regular practice regime discipline would apply to all, so does basic work ethics and principles. Aside from these, I think the way someone plays the bass reflects that person's true personality. I use the word 'true' here because often, for some reason or other, people feel a need to
hide behind a particular facade, but the way they play the bass often reflects their inner most being.
For example, someone who pretends to listen but in fact did not even consider other people's opinions, is unlikely to be the attentive bass player that listens out to other players in the band.
With that in mind, I guess it goes to follow that what we really need to ask ourselves is what kind of person we want to be, and subsequently, that translates to the kind of bass player that we become. Like I said earlier, the career in music really is an extension of your own self. Once you put yourself out there, there is really no way to hide, your co-workers would immediately see through you, see through all the facade the moment you play.
In that sense, I have to agree that it really takes courage to be a career musician, especially a session player. Every time you turn up for work, you are exposing your true self for your colleagues to see, how scary is that! Which is probably why there are some musicians that I would prefer not to work with, because I really don't fancy getting naked in front of them hahaha!
4. What are some of your current favorite albums that you are listening to?
That's a luxury folks like me can't afford. I need to protect my hearing, it's all that I got, and I need it for another 20 years at least! So unless necessary, I would rather listen to the sound of silence, so I can hear myself think. That's how I practice anyway, I like to practice in silence, to just sit quietly and think of new lines, think of new harmonies and how they all fit together and what it would sound like if I were to actually play it. I let my brain work in peace.
5. In addition to playing the electric bass, you are also equally proficient on the double bass. What made you learn the double bass? Were there any challenges mastering both instruments?
Well, I started my career playing jazz, and folks in that circuit often preferred the upright to the electric bass. I worked hard at my jazz chops and finally landed a 6 month gig with Jeremy Monteiro, one of the most prominent jazz pianist in town.
I knew of his preference as far as playing straight ahead standards were concerned, so when I got the offer, I immediately went to buy a fretless and practised fanatically in the hope that I could simulate the vibe of the upright. I even went as far as to hunt down a set of flat wound strings so that I could make the sound a little more dull and have a bit more thud. Towards the end of the contract, Jeremy came up to me and mockingly threatened that the next time he called me for a straight ahead jazz gig, I had better be playing an upright. That sealed the deal for me. I immediately went to buy a half-sized upright, got a set of fishman pickups and went to the library and borrowed all the books on playing the upright that I could find. One of the books that proved most helpful was "The Evolving Bassist" by Rufus Reid.
I think the most useful thing I did when I picked up the upright, was to treat it as a totally different instrument, and not as a larger, more cumbersome fretless bass, an insurmountable mountain to short folks with small hands. This paradigm shift really helped me define my upright playing as a stand-alone entity, as opposed to it being a clumsier version of my fretless playing.
Once I started looking at the instrument that way, I no longer lament that I'm faster on the fretless, but rather, I think of ways to let the true character of the upright come through, blemishes notwithstanding. Be it the way I strike the strings or apply pressure on the fingerboard, it is quite different from the way I do it on an electric, and it is not only a matter of strength.
As with all instruments, there would always be challenges involved trying to get around it. At the end of the day, what we want to do is to literally work our instrument to make our thoughts a reality. That will always be hard. Firstly, the instrument is an external entity, so we have to first get around the actual functions and mechanics of the instrument, how sound is produced, how pitch is varied, the different sound options, and the list goes on. Then we have to somehow map all these information to the ideas that are forming in our head and set to work to make the instrument produce exactly what we hear in our head.
In a sense, we are trying to make the instrument an extension of our body, so that it complies and bends to the will of our brain, pretty much like the rest of our body. That is why I don't fancy using different basses every other day. I find that I would be spending too much time on the gig "getting to know the bass" rather than doing what I was supposed to do, which is to play my ass off.
6. Unlike many bassists who have numerous basses, you have been using F Bass exclusively for many years. How different is F Bass compared to other basses that you have played?
Actually, when I got my first F bass about 7 years ago, it was one of those rare single piece neck BN5. It was at a point in my career when I was juggling flute gigs, upright gigs, along with gigs on the electric, so I really had no time to keep tabs on the battery life of my Yamaha basses. The pickups were active so any change in potential difference of the battery resulted in quite a drastic change in tone and the signal starts to get fuzzy and all. The BN5 came with passive stacked J pick-ups, with a bypass switch to the preamp, well grounded to give me a good clean consistent signal, it was a dream come true for me, no more hassle! The maple fretboard and ash body gave me all the natural lows that I needed, with just enough definition and bite, it was exactly what I was looking for. The sustain and headroom that the single piece neck offered me was amazing, it was truly a bass that could bend to my every nuance and desire, especially when you strap on the F Bass String set from La Bella. Not only that, I managed to get a healthy clean signal all the time, even when I am standing pretty close to the lights on stage! Then I took it into the studio and the bass just sat in the mix so effortlessly, and I could play through the whole fretboard and all the notes were perfectly balanced.
I never liked the bass tone to stand out brilliantly in the mix anyway, I much preferred a subtle presence, great clarity and a whole lot of natural bottom end that could lend great support to the rest of the band.
That was when I decided that I don't ever need to waste my time trying out different basses. Instead I could spend the time doing something else, like maybe get married and have a kid! Sadly, the single piece neck does not travel too well, so I had to let it go and got a couple of 3 piece neck BN5 instead. Slightly more compressed tone, but 3 years with the single piece neck BN5 has gotten me hooked to the sound and feel of the F, not to mention the scale-length, and so, subsequently, I got my F bass fretless BNF5. The fretless is another monster of a bass. It sealed my deal with F for life. After all, all I wanted was to have a bass that could do what I could dream up.
7. What are the basses/effects/amps you are currently using?
Currently? Hahaha, I think I have been using the same set-up for ages!
For pre-amps, I am not too particular, as the F comes with a great onboard pre-amp that I use from time to time, but other than that, I do request for a BSS Audio AR-133 active DI for live gigs, simply because I really like using the F just as it is, passive pick-ups and no pre-amp, so I just need a decent active DI that most equipment rental companies would have. Of course, the Avalon U5 is great too, but not everyone carries it.
The only other pre-amp that I use, and have been using for the past 12 years was the Fishman Pro-EQ Platinum (back in the days when it was still made in US), simply because it is really great for the upright, and works fine as an active DI in bypass mode when things go wrong on the gig. I have to admit, now that it's made in China, it probably would have a shorter shelf life, but the price has fallen by half anyway, so I guess it works out to be the same in the end.
I hardly use any effects, though I have a boss chorus pedal, just for the heck of it. The only 2 other pedals that I have are purely functional. I have a couple of Korg DT-10 pedals, which are your basic tuner/mute switch, and I use Visual Sound volume pedal simply because it was the only volume pedal that came with lights.
My amp choice with the F would be the SWR SM 900, with 4 x 10 and 1 x 15 cabs. It is versatile enough and does not lean too much to any particular genre of music.
Finally, I really only use the F and nothing else (I have 2 identical BN5s and 1 BN5F). I also have a regular spruce top, maple back, ebony fretboard 3/4 sized upright, with realist pick-ups, and I have an Eminence electric upright bass for travelling purposes.