Chris Ballew - Success
On A Two-String
(Bass Player Magazine, March 1997)
<scan to be posted soon!>
By S. L. Duff
It may be hard to take a bassist seriously when
he leaps about wildly, flailing away on a two-string
"basitar." But Chris Ballew of The Presidents Of The
United States Of America probably isn't too concerned about it.
His songs--about peaches, lumps, twigs, bugs, frogs, volcanoes, and
kitties--are as personal and unique as the instrumentation that brings
the Presidents to life: Ballew's basitar and Dave Dederer's
three-string "guitbass." Along with drummer Jason Finn,
the combination is a winning ticket; the public cast enough votes to
ring up nearly triple-platinum sales for the Presidents' self-titled
debut, originally released on Seattle indie PopLlama and then on
Columbia. Their newest Columbia record, II, shows a more
aggressive Presidents, hardened by a full year of campaigning to their
And guess what? Despite what other
Seattle-based bands might lead you to believe, success is just as cool
and fun as the Presidents' music. For Ballew, success means his
home studio can be in an actual residential house instead of an
apartment--which means cranked up tube amps and demos with real
drums. Ballew has bees a home recording nut since he was ten, when
after years of classical piano study he discovered boom-box
overdubbing. "Instead of going out and playing with the other
kids, I used to take my mom's tape deck and my own little deck and make
double-track recordings," he recalls. "I would record
into one boom box, and then I'd play the tape and add something wile
recording on the other boob box. I'd do that a couple of times
before the sound got really f#$%^ed up."
Adding parts to his recording projects got
Chris playing different instruments: first acoustic guitar, then
electric guitar, then five-string electric--the beginning of a
trend. "I took off the low E because I could do only
the A barre chord," Ballew explains. "I didn't
want to hassle with learning the others. I've always been of a
disposition to take off strings and find my own way to do things."
Fast-forward to Boston in the early '90s, where
Ballew spent his summers working odd jobs and jamming in clubs with
Morphine bassist Mark Sandman in their immodestly named improvisational
band, Supergroup. Sandman's two-string slide-bass technique got
the always-streamlining Ballew thinking. "I was down to three
strings by the time I met Mark. When he gave me a two-string bass,
it was just the next step." The final revelation for Chris
came when he began to play his instrument more like a bass and less like
a guitar. "All of a sudden, I was suggesting things to the
other musicians by changing the direction of the song with the
bass. It was really satisfying."
While Sandman has a bass rigged for two
strings, Ballew strings an electric guitar with two bass-gauge strings
and plays through a bass amp. "Well, kind of a bass
amp," he clarifies. "It's a Music Man Model 65.
It's got this hybrid guitar/bass sound, and it's set up like a guitar
amp, but they call it a bass amp. I don't know what I would
use if I didn't have that thing." The 65-watt amp--admittedly
low-powered for a hard-rockin' band--drives an old 2x15 Kustom tuck 'n'
roll speaker cabinet. It was originally black, but Ballew
spray-painted it gold. (You can see it in the band's
"Lump" video, and an amazing replica of it appears in Weird Al
Yankovic's video for "Gump.") Simple though it may be,
Ballew finds this setup extremely effective. "I have the
pre-volume set so when I play softly it's clean, but when I play hard it
gets fatter and distorted and mushes together. I don't have any
pedals at all--I just control the sound with how I play." Success
has helped Chris to score an Epiphone endorsement; his latest axe is an
Epiphone Flying V. He also has an SG from the company, which
installs P-90 guitar pickups into all of Ballew's basitars.
"They're really hot, and they're kind of bassy. I use only
the neck position--never the bridge position."
The low strings for both the basitar and
Dederer's guitbass are tuned to the C# below Middle C, traditionally
found on the 4th fret of the A string. The high string is tuned up
a fifth to G#; Dederer's three-string guitbass has the same tuning plus
the octave C# above Middle C. Dave's guitar amp is EQed to accent
the upper mids, while Chris's setup emphasizes the lower mids.
"We kind of split that way," explains Chris, "but a lot
of times we're playing the exact same riff." After truing
several string combinations, Ballew settled on .060 and .036 GHS
strings. Gauge-wise the .060 falls into bass-string territory, but
he gets them from a guitar set.
With the Presidents running their high-octane
machine on a mere five strings all told, and with both instruments tuned
in the same octave register, we had to wonder: Doesn't that throw
the standard distinction between guitar and bass out the window?
"When it's really working well," Chris figures, "it
sounds like one big instrument. We're truing too make this big,
satisfying rock sound without you thinking, Oh--there's the bass, and
there's the guitar. It's all centered around the fifth, which is
the most satisfying interval in music to me. So when we both hit
the same note and Jason goes nuts, there's nothing like it. It's
so simple and pure and clean."