Chris Ballew - Success On A Two-String

(Bass Player Magazine, March 1997)
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 rock constituency.

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."
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