Interviewed: Marco Mendoza

Marco Mendoza has a CV that’s the envy of many of his fellow bassists. Having proven himself the safe pair of hands for all things bass, with legendary bands like Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, Black Star Riders, Dead Daisies and Journey utilising his incredible playing in tandem with his own successful solo career.

BGR’s Andy Hughes found Marco at home, getting ready to fly in for The UK Bass & Guitar Show in Liverpool in April.

What was your first bass guitar, can you remember?

Do you know, I get asked that a lot, and I wish I could remember the actual make and model of bass I started with. I had the standard beginning when my older brother got a guitar and a chord book and I learned a few chords and I could play quite a lot of songs. My brother and I got a band, and we got to know another band who were further up the scale, they had a PA and got some gigs. Their bass player left and they asked me to join, because they needed a player who could sing, they did a lot of harmonies. I found that playing rhythm guitar and singing was quite easy, but singing and playing bass was more of a challenge, and I like that, I do like challenges, always have.

My dad and I went to the pawn shop to find a bass for me, and it was a Japanese copy of a Fender bass, it cost around eight dollars. It was terrible! The neck was like a baseball bat, and the action was really high, it was rough man!

My first proper bass was a Kalamazoo bass, it was a copy that they made for Epiphone, a Gibson SG EB120, and then I had a Rickenbacker, and various other models from then. I wish I still had those bases, but when you start out you get a basic instrument, and then you move up and get better ones, and you sell and trade for upgrades, so I don’t know what happened to those basses, but maybe they will pop up some day.

But the great thing about starting with a really bad bass, is that you learn how to play with a high action, and when you get a decent bass that has a proper action, it’s so much easier to play that your learning comes on a whole lot quicker.

When you were first learning, did you have a ‘dream bass’ in mind as the one you always wanted?

In my early career I played with a lot of progressive bands, so the Rickenbacker was always the bass I wanted. I saved up and got one, and then carried on trying lots of other brands, always looking for that one elusive bass that I could form a relationship with and play for a long time. I found a 1969 Fretless Fender Precision that I loved, and played for a very long time. I was really keen on playing fretless, but when calls started coming in for sessions and other work, around ninety per cent of the callers wanted me to play a fretted bass. A lot of artists and producers wanted the standard P Bass sound.

Marco Mendoza

Were you able to carry on with your favourite fretless?

I was because I moved to Los Angles and started to develop a reputation as a fretless player, and that’s how I got the call to join John Sykes in Blue Murder. When Tony Franklin left the band, word had got to John, and he came to see me playing with my jazz trio and he was looking for someone to play fretless bass in his band. I was using a Fernandez Custom six-string fretless that night. That is one of my all-time favourite basses, I still have it. It was custom-built for me, I had a great relationship with the luthier at Fernandez, he put Bartolini pick-ups on it, and a TCP pre-amp. It has a wonderful unique tone to it.

I am fortunate to have been approached by some companies for endorsements, and they build bases for me. Right now, I am in talks with Fender, they are building some basses for me, so I have come full circle after all this time. There are some fabulous companies out there making amazing instruments, but Fender make some of the best basses on the planet. Because I am mainly a session player, the Fender P bass and the Jazz are the models I usually bring to a studio because they will give me the sound I need.

I have a relationship with LTD, they built me a Signature bass, the MM4, and that is a really great bass, it has a wonderful balance to it. I like to use that for my solo work when I sing, because I have to be mindful of the feel and balance to the bass when I am doing my live singing, and that is the bass that works for that.

Because you have been involved in so many different projects with so many varied musicians, do you like to vary your strings and tunings, or do you stick with pretty much the same tried and tested ones?

I pretty much find that the five-string with it’s low B will work for almost everything that I do. Occasionally I have to go to a low A, but very seldom. That’s one of the reasons why I play a five-string, and a lot of musicians went for it to stop having to tune down all the time.

What I am finding now, is that almost all the songs that we all know and love, the bass parts were written and played on a four-string and that’s still where most of the sounds come from. I recently did a run of live shows with Journey, and the four-string was fine for what I needed to play with them.

What about your choice of bass for your own solo projects?

For my own albums, and I am on album number three, now, the last one I did was Viva La Rock, I always use my five-string because I really like low-end notes. I record everything in E Flat, and that’s how I like to record, it gives me a fat sound. The trick is, the right tool for the job, the right bass for the right song. I write with Soren Andersen, a great guitarist and producer, and I have left a few bases at his studio. So, when we came to record, he put out the five-string bass without thinking about it, and it’s the one I used, it was just instinct, which is always the best way to work.

Marco Mendoza

Your CV is one of the most impressive of any bass guitarist, have you pinned down what they need?

I think it would be pretentious of me to say that I can do anything, but I do know that I make it my business to get the right sounds and techniques for the role I am playing. Phil Lynott had a distinctive and unique way of playing bass, and when I got the call, I listened to everything I could find, and practised for a long time to give the guys the sounds they wanted. I think the reputation I have, and again I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I believe it is that when I get the call, from whomever it is, I will get the job done. I am very open to ideas and suggestions; I will take on-board anything that will get the band I am with the sounds from me that they want, that work for what we are doing.

Quite a lot of the major bands I have worked with have songs already recorded and that they have played live, and they know that I will come in and give them the same feel and sound, and I will also add something of myself into the sound at the same time.

When I was younger, I had something to prove, now I don’t have anything to prove, so I go and enjoy myself. I will turn up with a good attitude, no ego, and I will do the job.

Is it tricky to emulate other players?

The trick is to establish the parameters, work out what goes where, and nail that first, and then make sure you can expand it with your own style. Bands expect you to work the stage and have a presence, so you can’t simply play and blend in to the background, they want the lines, but they want something else, some additional personality, and you have to learn how to do both of those things without doing too little, or too much.

Given the choice, is your comfort zone in the ‘less is more’ approach, or do you like complex bass lines?

I can honestly say I have reached the stage now where I don’t mind at all, I am comfortable with whatever is required, either for a band where I am covering existing bass parts, or for my solo work where obviously I can do what I want to do.

I think earlier in my career I played a lot of complex bass lines. I worked with some amazing fusion bands when I first came to LA, and I learned a lot and practised a lot to get those chops down. But the further on in my career I go, the less it matters to me what the particular style is, and it’s more a case of being able to play it properly, in context, and make it sound right for whichever situation I am in.

The role of the bassist, and the drummer, is to create the support, make the vibe, and that’s coming back more and more as time goes on.

Are you a self-taught musician?

I am! I learned entirely by experience and I am OK with that. But that said, if I had my time over, I would have invested some time in being able to read music and charts better, because those skills open a lot of doors. I have had a wonderful career and these days I get a lot of calls for sessions where they will send me the music, and then ask me to come in and play what I think fits, and that is perfect for me, I love to do that. A lot of the bassists that I admire and look up to are self-taught, and they have developed a sound and a tone and a technique that is unique to them because of that. If I have a signature style and tone of my own, it is in my fretless playing.

What will you be bringing to the UK Bass & Guitar Show in April?

Well, at the time I am talking to you, I’m not sure if it’s just me, or if my trio is coming. If it’s the trio, then I will bring my five-string with me and play that, and if it’s just me solo with my computer and some tracks, then I will be playing my four-string, and doing some songs from my Viva La Rock album.

Whatever it is, I am so excited to be coming over the UK, I have some dates to catch up on which were cancelled because of the restrictions, and I am delighted to be coming and playing at the Show, it’s going to be great.

Will you be shopping for some new basses?

I will certainly be looking, because I know they will have some amazing things there to look at. As far as buying, that’s tricky because I have my endorsement and of course as part of that, it’s not really right to play other basses, so I tend only to buy something if I am going to use it. I will have a look though, because that’s just fun to do, and part of the Show experience. It’s gonna be great, see you there!

Catch Marco Mendoza at The UK Bass & Guitar Show at 17.15 on Saturday 2 April at ACC Liverpool. Tickets available now: HERE