Co-founders of the Dixie Dregs, Andy West and Steve Morse met during tenth grade at the militaristic Richmond Academy in Augusta, Georgia. By then, West, born in 1954 in Newport, Rhode Island, was already a seasoned bass player. They formed the four-piece rock band Dixie Grit, which lasted until Morse left to study classical guitar in the music program at the University of Miami. Andy followed him there a few semesters later, and during senior year they put together the all-instrumental Dixie Dregs and recorded the limited-run The Great Spectacular album. In 1976 the Dixie Dregs met Allman Brothers road manager Twiggs Lyndon, who helped them secure a deal with Capricorn Records. Andy played on the band’s Capricorn releases Free Fall, What If, and Night of the Living Dregs. In 1980 the band signed with Arista and shortened its name to the Dregs. Before departing in 1982, Andy played on Dregs of the Earth, Industry Standard, and Unsung Heroes, his favorite Dregs release. He rejoined the reunited Dixie Dregs for 1988’s Off the Record.
During the 1990s, West recorded four commercially released albums with Zazen, which he describes as “sort of a blend of Tangerine Dream and guitar fusion.” His most recent releases are FWAP’s Perfect World with guitarist Joaquin Lievano, and the Andy West album Rama 1, featuring, among others, Mike Keneally on guitar and vocals, and Dregs veterans Rod Morgenstein on drums and T Lavitz on keyboards. (For ordering info, visit www.andywest.com.) Besides being an outstanding bassist, Andy is a self-confessed computer geek and veteran of the software business: “For over 20 years,” he writes on his website, “I have been a coder, developer, technical manager, architect, and CTO.”
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed all of my encounters with Andy West. He’s funny, personable, intensely intelligent, and devoted to his instrument. We first met on June 8, 1978, when the Dixie Dregs played in Berkeley, California. Before the show, I interviewed Steve Morse at length, and afterwards spoke with Andy and Twiggs. A very abbreviated version of the West interview appeared in the December 1978 issue of Guitar Player. Here, for the first time, is our complete conversation.
Let’s talk about what kind of bass you’re playing.
I use an Alembic and various effects and devices. I use a synthesizer, and Steve uses a synthesizer too. He probably told you about that – a 360. Mine is an Oberheim Expander module, just two oscillators. I use it mainly for the low sounds, because it really adds in a nice pedal effect or something. I’ve got the sustain switch – you can play a tone and then sustain it as long as you want and play over it. So it’s a really useful device. I really like it. It adds a lot of body to the band. We don’t use it real blatant, though.
What other effects do you have?
I like to use a phase shifter and an octave box and a fuzz, basically. Everything that I use is Musitronics – Mu-Tron, expect for the fuzz, which I took out of an old Foxx pedal. So it’s just a non-descript fuzz, but it sounds real good with the bass, so I use it.
How do you work your bass parts in with the rest of the band?
Well, a lot of times Steve will come up with a line and just say, “Here, play this line. See what it sounds like.” And we’ll play it and see how it feels. Then I might change the rhythm or a few notes here or there, just because it feels different with the band than you might compose it on guitar or piano or whatever he wrote the song on. So there’s that kind of interaction mainly, and different things happen.
How does the presence of a violin in the band affect your bass playing?
Well, I like to use the bass as a real counterpoint instrument. It actually gives me more chance to do that, because most of the time the violin and the guitar are doubling a line or the violin and synthesizer are doubling a line. So you have two lines happening, and then there’s room for a counterpoint line underneath, which is usually what I end up doing. It works out really good, man. I really enjoy playing in the band because it gives me a chance to play things that most bass players don’t get a chance to play.
What kinds of things?
Just more lines that play a more integral part in the main melody. We use the bass quite a bit as a melodic lead.
Do you play it like a guitar sometimes?
Yeah, sort of. It’s hard to say because I don’t play guitar, so I don’t really know what it’s like to play it like a guitar. I just play the bass like a bass – as I see it. But I like to use a lot of fast techniques and picking techniques and stuff.
I notice you use a pick.
Yeah, just a regular nylon pick. It’s one of those Dunlop picks – it’s medium. It works real good, though. I don’t know if this is the kind of stuff you want to talk about, but it’s got just the right amount of flex because if you get ’em too fat, you can’t play too fast and strings start flapping real bad. And if you get ’em too thin, you can’t get any sound out of the string. So I’ve experimented with a bunch of different picks and came up with this one I like a lot. You know, a pick that I can just take and play brand-new. Steve keeps his picks a long time. He has to break ’em in. I usually give him my old picks so he can wear them down to where he likes to have them.
Do you play with bare fingers too?
Yeah, yeah. Lots. Not too much live, but on the records, when I play fretless bass I use fingers because it doesn’t sound right with a pick. And then I did a couple of things with my fingers. But the thing is, the pick gets a much clearer sound. It’s more identifiable as my kind of sound, I think, and I really like to do that. Although I have been learning some other finger techniques, man, after seeing these bass players out on the road, these guys that can really play with their fingers great. Like we saw Billy Cobham’s band – this bass player Randy Jackson was unbelievable! And Jaco and Stanley Clarke and people like this all play with their fingers, so there’s a lot to be said for it.
How does your studio playing compare to your onstage playing?
As far as I’m concerned, what it is for me is the amount of precision versus energy, almost. Onstage, I can get a lot of energy happening and be a little bit less precise, but it’s more feeling. It’s something that you’re trying to communicate instantaneously and spontaneously with the audience, trying to say something with your notes. So it’s different in that respect than studio playing, in which case you try and get every note exactly, completely perfect for the sound and the sake of the note itself, as opposed to the feel you might get when you’re playing live. I mean, it’s pretty obscure, but that’s about how I see it.
I understand that your producer, Ken Scott, influenced your bass playing.
Ken knows how to guide people in the direction they need to go for the best possible utilization of their talents. He was really into the band simplifying a lot for the studio, because he could sense a power in the music that would come across with the notes, but the musicians would feel more comfortable playing. So he would get us to play simpler-type stuff with more heavy rock leanings. In that sense, he’s influenced it a great deal. The biggest influence on my bass playing is Steve Morse, for sure.
In what respect?
We’ll come to practice, and he’ll say, “Here, try this line.” And it’s some ridiculous line that goes all over the neck and has a million different rhythmic variations. And you go, “Man, I can’t learn this!”
Does he show it note-for-note on his guitar?
Right. Usually he’ll say, “Here is the lick that you’re going to learn how to play,” and he’ll play this thing as it’s supposed to be played. And then what I do then is decide how I want to learn it. I always want to take it slower, but do I want to learn this section at once, and then this section, and feel the time here and there? It’s a weird process learning a line that someone else has come up with that you’ve never even approached playing before. In that sense, he shows me a new way to approach the instrument every time I learn a song. So that’s what’s real good. In that sense, I have an advantage of playing, I guess.
What kind of strings do you use?
I like these GHS Bright Flat strings. They’re the half-round strings. They sound better to me than the D’Addario half-rounds or anything else that I’ve tried. They sound better than the round ones. And they just last a long time. They have a lot of good bend to them and they sustain their tones really well. I’ve experimented with a bunch of different strings, man, and I always end up putting these strings back on and keeping them on for like three or four months. And with the other strings, I have to pull them off after a week or two because I can’t stand the way they sound. It was funny, too, because I went to the Alembic factory today, which was real neat – you know, where they make the guitars and basses and hung out with those guys. They showed me how they made the guitars and everything. And I was talking to a guy, Rick, who asked me what kind of strings I was using, and I told him. He said, “Yeah, we put these Dean Markley strings on the bass,” and he said they were the exact same strings as the ones I’m using. I guess by natural selection you come to a thing that matches the sound of the instrument and the way you want to feel.
What controls do you have on your bass?
Well, a standard Alembic setup is volume, tone control, and a notch filter selector for each pickup. You have three capabilities of the tone control having a certain sound. It just changes the graphic pattern of the resonances. He showed me this bass that was unbelievable – I really wanted it! It had about ten different switches on it and about eight knobs, and it did the most incredible things you could think of. It’s sort of weird to explain, but first off, you had a control-reach pickup of the straight sound and the volume of just the straight-through sound. Then you could mix that with the filtered sound – the volume of that. And then you had a control for the point on the band at which you wanted the filter to peak. And then you had another knob which changed the way the tone control acted. So this was for each pickup, you know. Man, the variations you could get were just beautiful! It was really neat. Those guys are crazy down there. They’re into some really weird stuff. I was real excited to hang out and see all the basses. They make some great things.
Do you have other basses that you play with?
Well, I use a Fender Jazz fretless, simply because it was the best bass I could find for the money. I don’t play fretless enough to warrant me getting another Alembic at this point, because they’re just too expensive to have a bass that you’re gonna leave at your house and it might get ripped off. So I just have a Fender fretless, and it’s a pretty nice ax. I use it every now and then.
What kind of amps do you use?
I use an Alembic preamp and a Crown 300 with a Vega bottom and a custom-built double-12” Gauss cabinet on top. And that’s crossed over electronically, so I’m running it like a mono bi-amp setup. I find it gets a great full-range sound. When I’m onstage – I don’t know what it sounds like out front, that’s up to the sound man – but onstage if it sounds really good, you can play great. This thing just has a sound that’s real heavy.
You have an unusual pedalboard setup.
See, I’m really into this, man. I spent about a whole month building this thing. First off, the first thing I did was I had all these effects, and they were just getting out of control to set up every gig – like a million wires to plug in and a million things to set up here and there, pedals on the floor, and all this stuff. I said, “Man, I’ve got to consolidate this thing in a really rational way, so I asked Twiggs. I said, “Okay, if you were gonna design this thing, it’s gonna have to have about three or four shelves to hold all these devices. I can get over that. How would you build a case for it?” Then he recommended having the pedalboard be part of the case that holds all the effects, the whole rig and everything. So we decided we could do it by taking a case and making it take apart really weird. Instead of just having a case where the top comes off, you have a case where the front comes off, and then the top comes off, which is the pedalboard.
So I made the pedalboard. I put all the pedals down that I wanted. I said, “What am I going to want?” because I’m spending a lot of money on this thing. I arbitrarily chose. I have just a little space left for expansion. So I made it like that, and spent all this time wiring it into the snake. Twiggs helped me make the snake. We spent all night long, man, soldering a snake. It was incredible. That was one of the most tedious jobs I’ve ever done, but I had to do it to just do myself a favor. And then on the rack I built I put in space for about two more synthesizers because I had ideas I might want to use them later, and for a delay also, because I’d really like to get into that.
The synthesizer things is real neat, man, because I’ve developed it where I’ve got control in my foot. You can go to the back of the Oberheim and tap any one of the functions. So at the control at my foot, I have oscillator, vibrato, a filter sweep pedal, a volume pedal, and a pitch pedal. And then I can also push other buttons where I can sustain a tone as long as I want – as long as I’m holding this button. Then I can sustain a tone by pushing a switch which will stay on until I push it off again. And then I use a program with the synthesizer also. I have a switch for that so I can have one of eight programs pretty fast, just by tapping my foot. It changes the sounds really fast. So that’s what I use for the pedals. And then for the bass I have just volume control and a phase shifter pedal.
Oh, yeah. It’s worth it though, man. You know, most people don’t really hear it in the music, unless they’re just paying close attention to any one player where you’ll see everything that he does. But for the bass, I like to use these effects real subtly as part of the music. Like sometimes things will be playing, and if you’re listening, you’ll say, “What is that?!” It might be the bass, it might be the keyboards – you never can tell. It’s just a sound that’s in the music. We like to use it for that effect. As a matter of fact, we use more effects live than we do in the studio. That’s weird to me, but that’s the way it seems to turn out. Because in the studio, you just overdub a lot – at least we do. We just stack on the tracks, because it sounds so good.
You’ve played in straight rock bands . . .
And you’ve played jazz . . .
Club date jazz!
What kind of special demands does the type of fusion you’re doing now create? Well, the main thing that it does is you have to have your chops up. You have to be able to play fast and accurately. That’s the first thing. The second thing is you have to be able to feel time really well. It’s constantly developing – both of those aspects of your playing, your speed and accuracy. And your time feel, because we do a lot of meter changes that are supposed to not even sound like meter changes. You know, they’re just real subtle variations in the music. Unless you’re sitting there really counting, you wouldn’t even notice, because the music seems to flow like that. And the only way you can get that kind of flow, man, is to feel the time real solid and to know exactly where you’re at, because otherwise it starts sounding real choppy and jerky, like, “What are these guys doing?” That’s how that is.
Well, I would like to be able to develop my soloing ability. Like when we hung out in L.A., I got to talk to Jaco for a long time and just hang out with him. And this guy’s like the best bass player in the world, as far as I can tell. He just burns all the time. He can sit down with a drummer . . . He played me some tapes he had of him and Tony Williams. It was just the two of them playing, and it sounded great! It freaked me right out. They just sat down there and played, man. He’s one of the few people that can just make music on a bass. So I’d like to learn how to be able to solo a lot better. We use the bass as a solo instrument in sort of a simplified rock vein. It’s usually a one-note-jam kind of solo, where there might be two or three chords, but there’s not a lot of changes happening real fast. Steve’s really the only one that solos really well over all those weird changes.
You were pretty effective tonight.
It was good. It was good, man. California has been real nice for us. I’d like to play out here a lot more – it’s just so far away.
Do you live in Georgia?
Yeah, Atlanta, which is a really neat place. I like it.
Did you learn how to read music?
Yeah, I went to college for a couple years, man. I started off as a music student at Augusta College, and I wanted to learn how to play cello. So I took cello there, which was real easy for me to do since there weren’t any people playing cello there. There was not competition – I got to do it then. I learned about theory and stuff like this, and learned how to play to some degree, and then went down to the University of Miami and started playing down there. So I took about two-and-a-half years of college music studies and playing the cello.
Do you think it made a difference?
Yeah, in a way. But most of it was wasted. There was a lot that could have been done, and there was a lot that got done. There’s value in being able to envision music in a way that you can relate it to another person who knows how to read, as opposed to saying “Here it is. I don’t know what this is, or anything, but this is it.” You know that you’ve got something that’s solid, that’s real. Plus, being able to read music, having a visual understanding sometimes of how the notes relate to each other, really helps your playing. I’ve played with a lot of people that can’t read any music, and it’s strange when you try and relate to them how to do a certain time thing of something. If they can’t feel it right off, they can’t visualize it and they have no idea of what you’re doing. And so it’s real hard for them to relate to it in that respect.
What advice would you give a young person starting out on bass?
God, that’s a good question – real good. To me, I can’t believe that I am where I am at as a result of what I have done. The thing is, I couldn’t even tell you what I did to get to where I am, but I can see where I would like to be and I can see where it’s at.
Just like I said, I would like to feel totally free on the instrument. Totally free to the point where I could play the most complicated dictated stuff, whatever parts I would have to play, and then just also be able to feel to the point of just total freedom. I mean, everybody’s restricted in a sense by their minds and their distractions, whatever you might be thinking about when you’re playing. You might be thinking about what this person is thinking about, or you might be thinking about when you’re gonna get paid or whatever. It’s real easy to get distracted. And I think that people develop their mentalities to a point where they tune everything out except the music, and the music is everything. And when you’re at that point, you can really play from the soul. I think that’s where I want to be. I hope that makes sense – it’s real esoteric sounding, but to me it’s just the way I feel.
As far as advice to bass players, just practice. Play as much as you can, as many different kinds of music as you can, and practice scales and patterns. Get you chops happening. See, the worst thing in the world is to be constrained by lack of technique, to where you can hear something, but you just physically can’t do it. That’s the most frustrating thing in the world, you know, and to develop the feel that I was talking about takes a lot longer than to develop the technique. So you should always be working on the technique so that you’re ahead of yourself as far as that goes.
How old were you when you first started playing bass?
I guess I was about 12 or 13.
What got you interested in it?
Of course, the Beatles, you know, because when I was a little kid, that was when that was happening. I was in third grade when the Beatles came out in ’63 or whatever. I listened to the Beatles and dug that, and then I got into the Dave Clark Five and Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Ventures. Whatever.
Were you listening to the bass when you were young?
More the guitar lines. But then I remember picking out Beatles tunes – the bass lines and stuff. See, my first connection with a musical instrument was a guitar. But I only hung around with that for about a year. And then it was like the typical kind of thing where you break strings off your guitar and play bass because there’s only four strings left. [Laughs.] That’s what happened to me. After I got into playing bass, I got a real bass – it was a Univox violin-shaped bass. I was delivering newspapers. My old man said he would buy me a bass if I bought an amp, so I made money to buy an amp. This is real funny, talking about this shit. But anyhow, that’s what happened. It went on and on. I can tell you exactly at what points my musical career changed each time.
The first time I totally changed when I heard Cream, because Cream freaked me out totally. The bass in that band was just great. And the whole feel behind Cream, I loved it completely. I just became an instant fan and got all their records. That stuck with me for a while, because that turned me on to a whole bunch of other different kinds of music – Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead and all this kind of stuff. I was into that for a while, and then rock and roll just seemed to get stale, man. And suddenly Mahavishnu Orchestra came on the scene – I heard “Meeting of the Spirits” on a little promotional thing Columbia had sent out. When I heard that, I said, “This is what everybody has been trying to do! This something totally new. It’s at the peak of its own form.” I just loved it. Mahavishnu [John McLaughlin] – I’ve got just about every record he ever played on, because I was just so into it. That was it, you know. Those two points in my life – McLaughlin and Cream – were like the biggest things. So it was great. And then Steve got into all different kinds of things, and when I went down to Miami, that’s where I heard Jaco Pastorius play when he was totally unknown, and Michael Walden and all those people. There were just these guys that could play their instruments unbelievably well. It freaked me out.
Yeah. Definitely. Because like back in Georgia, man, there was no competition, no real progress, it seemed, in terms of the music. Really, there was nothing there. So seeing people like Jaco was amazing. I saw him play in this club in Miami called the Lion’s Share with about thirty people there. It was just a jazz band. I came to this club – this guy said, “Oh, you gotta hear this bass player.” I said, “Yeah, sure,” you know. Went to the club and sat there like this [stares with his mouth open, then laughs].
One last question. How have your two albums and touring changed things?
Man, everything is changed! Before you have a record, you feel like, “What are we doing?” Having an album just gives you credibility. It gives credibility to yourself. Bands that don’t have an album out and are just trying to make it have it worst than anybody, because they have to fight not only the industry but the audiences and themselves in trying to figure out what they’re doing. It’s just so neat when it happens, when you finally get a deal and you feel good. You feel credibility. When I got to do the album with Ken Scott, it was like, “I’ve done something with my life now.” I’ve reached a point where other people have reached, and that’s a pretty far step. It’s changed my head a lot.
It’s changed everybody’s head, to feel better about themselves, in a sense. But it’s also given us a sort of responsibility that we feel we have to keep to ourselves and everyone to always get better, because with the life on the road, you can fall into this rock and roll trap of just forgetting everything. It’s done that. It also gives you a certain degree of financial security, which is something that musicians don’t know, and it’s just so hard. When you’re growing up, you don’t worry about it, and then finally you’re old enough to where you should have something together. It’s hard to realize that you’re trying to do something that’s different, that’s not in the same realm as a businessman who just goes into business. You know cats your age that are making a lot more money than you, and you’re just playing guitar. It’s real hard to handle at first, but everything changes when you do do something.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.