Mo Foster

Mo Foster

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Mo Foster playing fretless bass guitar

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Mo Foster playing fretless bass
Mo Foster playing fretless bass

Fretless Questions: Mo Foster

FB: How long have you been playing fretless bass?
Mo Foster: I started experimenting with fretless when I was 31, having played bass on and off since I was 16. When I first started I couldn’t find a bass guitar in my local music shop – they were unobtainable – so I built one (see my book Seventeen Watts?). I’m now 61.

FB: What influenced you to play fretless?
Mo Foster: In a way, the sound was in my head already: I loved the upright bass and the cello and the emotion generated by their use of vibrato. I already used side-to-side vibrato on my fretted Precision.

FB: Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
Mo Foster: When I started there were no serious bass teachers – and certainly not for fretless. In an attempt to rationalise some sensible fingering I learnt Simandl from the Ray Brown book and guitar-like ideas from Carol Kaye’s series. I also started the very first bass class in London at Goldsmiths College which is part of the University of London. You learn by teaching.

FB: Who are your main fretless bass influences or favorite players?
Mo Foster: My main influences for fretless are not so much the players, more the sound of other instruments such as cello and upright bass for their glissando and vibrato, euphonium and French horn for their envelope, bassoon for its nasal quality, and the human voice. My favourite fretless player has to be Jaco because he helped to crystallise my thoughts. His sound is warm and inviting, and his vibrato makes me cry. I must add Steve Swallow who I saw playing upright with Gary Burton’s Quartet at Ronnie Scott’s club in 1970. He had the ability to make his instrument sing and – along with Ray Brown – demonstrated that you could play beautiful melodies on the instrument.

Mo Foster 01
Mo Foster playing fretless bass with Phil Collins

FB: Do you play upright, electric, or both? Which do you prefer?
Mo Foster: I have played all of the bass types at different times – they each have their uses – but I am most comfortable on bass guitar. It’s me.

FB: FB: What was your very first fretless bass? Do you still own it? Have you had or played others?
Mo Foster: In early 1976 I was working in Paris for singer Veronique Sanson. Simon Phillips was on drums. One day a journalist friend invited us round to his flat for a drink. He put on a record and said “I think you’re going to enjoy this”. Understatement – it was Jaco’s first album. I was mesmerised. I had to find out how to make these sounds and – back in London – I had discussions with Neville Whithead, a bass repairer for the main orchestras. He suggested ripping off the fretboard of my Jazz Bass and replacing it with an ebony board from a 100 year-old upright. He went through three plane blades to make it fit. For six months the neck was pure black and then I saw a photo of Jaco’s bass – with lines! I asked luthier Dick Knight to put on some white markers – he thought I was crazy – but it helped me with intonation, although it took me many years to learn how to play in tune. Now I love it – it’s my voice. (see the full story here updated 2015)

FB: What types of strings and fingerboards do you prefer?
Mo Foster: I use Rotosound round-wound standard guage. They work perfectly.

Mo Foster 02
Mo Foster playing fretless bass

FB: What playing styles do you use?
Mo Foster: For plucking I use either one or two fingers, and very occasionally three (inspired by Neils Henning Orsted Pedersen). It’s amazing the tonal difference you can achieve just by rotating your finger, or playing on different parts of the string. The fingers of the left hand totally command the shape of the note envelope, the growl, and the vibrato (which I learnt on sessions by watching and talking to cellists – it stems from the elbow).

FB: What bands or projects feature you playing fretless bass?
Mo Foster: Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Gerry Rafferty, Gil Evans, RMS, Gary Moore, Judy Tzuke, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Rod Argent, Frida (ABBA)

FB: Do you have a favorite song you played fretless bass on or some notable songs or experiences?
Mo Foster: ‘On Frith Street’ from my CD Time To Think and ‘Grand Unified Boogie’ from my CD Southern Reunion.

FB: What would you say is unique about your fretless style?
Mo Foster: I try to convey emotion with as few notes as possible.

FB: Are you still actively playing fretless bass?
Mo Foster: Still playing.

FB: Do you have any basic advice for bass players looking to take up fretless or those who are currently playing?
Mo Foster: Don’t just pluck a note – you have to learn to coax it – and there is your sound. Learn consistent fingerings that work. Use your ears. Play in unison with other bass instruments.

FB: Do you have websites or social media sites you would like to share?
Mo Foster: Yes!

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