01 Guitarist interview January 1993 Gibson Keddie
by on November 18, 2023 in Bass Black Sabbath Brian May Career Whitesnake

Too Good To Hurry…

Neil Murray has certainly earned his bass playing colours, but here he tells Gibson Keddie why he can never find a sound he’s really satisfied with…

Playing trombone isn’t the obvious way to start a bass playing career. At least it’s certainly not the method recommended in the current crop of instructional books and videos relating to the subject. But that was how it started for Neil Murray, freelance bassist to some of the weightier names in rock…

“When I was about eleven or twelve I was more into drums than anything else,” admits Neil, “but wasn’t particularly good. I studied piano, too, then trombone, but it wasn’t until someone at school turned up with a guitar which had been ‘converted’ into a bass that I really thought about the instrument. I proceeded to borrow it and, working on the principle that possession was 9/10ths of the law, I made a bass in the woodwork shop at school, ‘borrowing’ some of the parts from the converted one to complete mine. I wanted it to look as Gibson EB3-ish as possible, Jack Bruce being my hero at that point. However, due to a lack of refinements such as a truss rod, the neck was so warped that I couldn’t put any frets on it, and so I was introduced to the world of fretless bass at an early age…”

Additional, and equally radical inspiration for the aspiring bassist arrived slightly later on, in the form of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the unusual bass-playing talents of Stanley Clarke.

*The Mahavishnu thing was such an obvious follow-on from Cream, Hendrix and Zeppelin – exciting and powerful music, very different and difficult to play, I suppose, but certainly challenging.

After leaving school, Neil came to London to join a course in graphic design. Since a youthful Murray hadn’t moved to London primarily to find the bass player’s Eldorado, how had he become involved in the live music scene?

“Although I didn’t have any live playing experience – I’d never done the youth club/dance band/pub/club thing – I still felt that I was technically quite good, having evolved my style from playing along to records. And at that time I rather fancied being involved in something with jazz-rock elements. Just after I’d finished at college, I went along to someone’s party and I remember telling this girl who I was chatting up that I played bass. She seemed most impressed, and said that I should meet her boyfriend who was looking for a bass player, and so I joined his jazz-rock band back in 1973 and we did some touring in Britain.

“Then I went to the States to record and tour with another band, and when I returned, a bassist friend had left Cozy Powell’s ‘Hammer’ band when Cozy was charting regularly, and so I took over from him. So, by my twentieth gig I was playing the Rainbow in Finsbury Park with Cozy, supporting Suzi Quatro, and was more than a bit nervous. Again, although I felt my ability allowed me to play well enough, I think my lack of live experience held me back a bit, and it wasn’t until the gig with Whitesnake that I felt totally comfortable with the situation.”

Assuming that the home-made EB3 had signally failed to cut any jazz-rock mustard, which direction, instrument-wise, had Neil taken after that?

“When I came down to London, I finally got myself a decent bass, a Fender Mustang, then started changing pickups to get a raunchier, more distorted sound. When I played, people who heard what I was doing and liked it recommended that I should get a Precision, which I eventually did, but I couldn’t seem to get enough of my own playing character to come through with it. I thought the sound a bit boring, and still do. Then again, I find a ‘normal’ bass sound rather dull and tedious; I always prefer players with some colour and individuality in their sound, usually with some distortion. As an obvious example, I would cite Billy Sheehan, because he has a distinctive style using essentially a Precision, now a Yamaha, coupled with a slightly distorted sound.”

And what of John Deacon, for whom Neil has deputised on recent occasions?

“A good player, but again he uses a clean sound, which isn’t my thing. Conversely, many players get caught up with the fashionable aspect and spend ages learning how to, say, play slap impressively, then get a gig with a band only to find that there isn’t a context where it can be used. So you have to beware of blind alleys like that; from personal experience, there are loads of these styles that no-one has ever asked me to play.”

After Neil’s stint with Cozy Powell’s band, he changed tack, adopting a more jazz-rock leaning with his next band, Colosseum II. This featured the dynamic talents of a young Gary Moore who, at the time, was involved in a dalliance with Thin Lizzy. Obviously uncertain as to his own musical direction, Moore recorded with Lizzy, but was not a full-time member of the band, which at the time featured Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham. Moore felt at the time that jazz-rock offered a more obvious challenge to his talents, and the Colosseum line up, apart from Neil and Gary, included Don Airey on keys and Jon Hiseman on drums. This line-up recorded a couple of albums and toured successfully in many countries. Did he benefit from that band in terms of technique and ability?

“In terms of Colosseum II, I was required to hold everything in its place, because Jon Hiseman was drumming up a storm, being very busy, as was Gary Moore on guitar and, to an extent, Don Airey on keyboards. So there was no way I was going to be able to step out as well. In terms of actual technique, perhaps I wasn’t up to it anyway.

“In the case of Colosseum II, and early Whitesnake, in order to even be audible, I went to using flatwound then groundwound strings, which are physically very hard to play. I don’t have the hand strength to play really fast things on them, and so that would have slowed me down anyway.

“My contribution ended up as a very defined, but audible sound. If you listen to early Whitesnake records the bass is quite light in the mix, but it’s a very definite sound, and the strings had a lot to do with that. If I’d wanted to really zoom around the fretboard I would’ve opted for a medium/short-scale bass with really light, roundwound strings.

“In general, I think it’s slightly unfair when you’ve got someone who’s considered a virtuoso player such as Mark King – he’s obviously very talented, but his basses are so incredibly easy to play that it seems a bit of a cheat to me. And you can’t get a big powerful sound out of a bass that’s fitted with 30-95 gauge strings, because it’s actually more of a tenor guitar. My bass, for instance, has a .040″ 1st on it and I can bend it quite easily. Don’t get me wrong, I like flashy bass playing and it would be wrong for me to sound as if I didn’t approve; it’s just that these kind of situations are always a trade-off. I also like simple lines if done with feel and melody – McCartney being a prime example of that type of player – although the context is equally important and McCartney’s style was exactly right for The Beatles.”

The jazz-rock element became more “progressive’ with Neil’s next band, National Health, which featured Bill Bruford and Dave Stewart (the other one!). National Health may have been jazz-rock, but it wasn’t the searing explosion of sound that described Mahavishnu at its best. Was that the situation Neil wanted to be in?

“The bands I ended up in at that time were very English, and a bit too cerebral. It seemed, too, that the fusion thing had run its course and become ‘fuzak’, which made for too easy listening. The sort of things I was doing seemed to be difficult for difficult’s sake; it was like, ‘If anybody likes it, then it has to be crap!’

“And that’s why I was pleased when the Whitesnake opportunity came along in ’77, because there was more feel to their music then. It offered the chance to be melodic and even funky within the context of the group, but still powerful and aggressive.”

The late ’80s saw Neil join Brit-based Japanese metallers Vow Wow, followed by Murray moving into the somewhat more credible Black Sabbath camp, alongside Sab mainman Tony Iommi, Cozy Powell on drums and vocalist Tony Martin. This line-up recorded Tyr, and an international tour ensued. However, with record companies realising the appeal and financial benefits of bands like Sabbath having a lineup as close to the original as possible, Neil found himself out in the cold after Geezer Butler was reunited with his former partners.

By 1991 Neil was involved in an increasing variety of projects, including a stint with former Whitesnake sparring partners in the Moody/Marsden Band.

“I’d have liked to have done more with M/M because they’re out on tour now. But, as ever, it never rains but it pours and typically I had to say ‘no’ to that in order to do Brian May’s gig. I’ve done various things like that with Bernie Marsden on a casual basis; we do the gig at the Hard Rock Café every summer when they have the Wimbledon tennis players’ party where McEnroe and Cash get up and play. Bernie’s in charge of that band and it’s a really fun thing to do”.

Neil was also drafted in on bass for the Guitar Legends festival in Seville, alongside Brian May, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai et al, not to mention ‘doing’ The Stonk, the charity single which went to No 1. The association with Brian May’s solo endeavours has proven particularly fruitful. At the time of rehearsals for Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert at Wembley, former Queen bass player John Deacon strangely opted to go off on holiday, leaving Neil to dep with the band. Thereafter, having performed on Brian’s ‘Back To The Light’ LP, Neil was pencilled in to do the tour…

“After Brian’s album had been recorded, a tour had been tentatively planned, but to have a band sitting around doing nothing until the album came out wasn’t realistic. Nothing was confirmed until recently, and even these gigs we’ve just done in South America were only a testing ground to see how Brian would feel being the lead singer and mainman in general. It’s gone well, and so there are plans to do quite a lot of touring next year, starting in March, as Brian’s album doesn’t come out in the States until January or February. A few months ago Cozy put a solo album out, and a band together which I’m also part of, with a few gigs coming up in Germany now, and then more round Europe in January.

“The band includes the singer who we played alongside in Black Sabbath, Tony Martin. It’s combining forces really; with Cozy’s thing it would have been mostly instrumental, including Cozy’s ‘Greatest Hits’, but with Tony involved we can legitimately do some Sabbath songs which he co-wrote, as we effectively have three quarters of the line-up.

“But it’s been a complicated situation; we’ve had to cancel or reschedule gigs with Cozy’s band because of Brian’s thing, and there was a further complication… Tony was supposed to have been singing in a Black Sabbath ‘reunion’ in the States, which didn’t happen for him in the end, but that gave us some breathing space. At one point we were going to have to travel straight from Rio to Germany – a technical nightmare with equipment, not to mention the fact that it’s physically shattering.”

It’s stating the obvious to say that Brian May could probably open doors to any country he wanted to play in. So why was South America the choice for his initial gigs?

“Queen were the first big band to really plunge into the South American market, back in 1981,” explains Neil.

“They’ve got many contacts there and it was quite easy for the management to arrange gigs. We played a couple of club dates, one of which was filmed as the next video for ‘Back To The Light’, and then we did three smallish stadium gigs with Joe Cocker and the B-52s, and they went very well too.

“If it is full steam ahead for next year, I’d predict that it won’t be a marathon slog, although we’ll probably try to do as many countries as possible. In the States it would be preferable to do a set number of smaller theatre-type places, rather than slogging round for ever as a support band. But I don’t really know exactly what is planned.”

Another session Neil played on recently was with Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers…

“There’s a film which will be released here soon, a Hitchcock-type thriller called ‘Doctor Giggles’, and we did a remake of an old song for it written by Moon Martin, called Bad Case Of Loving You. Simon Kirke was on drums and the guitarist was a guy called John Staehely, who’s American and lives over here. That was good fun – another item for the CV!”

Known for being something of a perfectionist when it comes to his equipment, Murray had Martin Petersen, whose work has been favourably reviewed in Guitarist, build him a bass last year. Is this still Neil’s main guitar?

“Certainly. The Petersen bass is the one at the moment, and I’m fairly happy with it, although when you get to work with something you realise what its strengths and weaknesses are. As I mentioned earlier, when you get something that plays really easily and fast you won’t necessarily get the best sound, and so on. At the moment the EMG pickups on the Petersen have a good clean sound, if a little clanky on the top end, but my ideal would be where you had a bass with a thousand different possibilities and you could just slot them in in two seconds flat!

“Various Arias are my ‘second string’ choice, and then there are always situations where a P-bass sound is perfect, particularly with Brian, as we do some Queen songs and that’s their bass sound.

“I always feel I’m getting near to my ideal bass sound, but it never quite transpires. The only alternative is to butcher the basses around, which I have done with various instruments in the past, like my BC Rich – a real mess!

“But it gets to the point where I can’t wait any longer and I’ve got to try out whatever mod I have in mind. At the time it might be great and five years later I think, “Why did I do that?’ but sometimes it’s the only way of finding something out. You can’t always wait until someone else tries it. Plus, you’re in the best place to know exactly what the modification is that you want.”

Because Neil plays very hard he produces a lot of power through the pickups, and he has recently realised that he can’t just put any pickup with any EQ system, otherwise the signal from the bass simply overloads things…

“What I’ve been doing in the last few weeks, long overdue, is to match up these various components. On a couple of my basses I’ve got Alembic pickups and ideally they have to go into Alembic circuitry. The same with Bartolini pickups, they work best with Bartolini circuits, so that’s brought back into service a couple of basses that were sitting leaning up against a wall in my house.” 

In spite of all the obvious agonising, has Neil ever experienced a time when he was totally happy with his sound, and could he quote a recorded example of this?

“Hmm… At the time, I was happy with the sound on ‘Ready An’ Willing’, with songs like ‘Fool For Your Loving’. In some ways that was the classic sound that I had with Whitesnake, but that sound wasn’t usable in later, more AOR versions of either that band or even other things that I’ve done; all you can say is that it was right for that particular music. If the sound is right for a certain combination of musicians, or a certain style of music, then obviously you play better, but I don’t think there are very many people who have their sound, and go from one band to another just using that sound.

“And there are other factors. If I want to do some slap bass or play some very fast, light jazzy stuff, I’d probably have to wear the bass quite high up, almost Mark King height, to really be comfortable. Even to play with a pick I would have to do the same thing, like Phil Lynott did, whereas to play with my fingers in a heavy metal kind of way, as I normally do, I have to have the bass quite low or else my wrist gets mangled up and I start having problems with tendonitis. It’s all very well having lots of different combinations of pickups, but many players don’t realise that factors such as the height of the bass and the thickness of the strings all affect playing style.”

At the end of the day, Neil has had to come to terms with the fact that he plays in a certain way…

“I also have to accept that maybe I’m not that versatile, so I have to make sure that I’m in the right situation to show myself off to my best advantage. Early Whitesnake was good, because I was pushing the limits of a fairly simple kind of music – probably being a bit over-busy through trying to be not just a standard rock bass player. I gave in to that later on in the ’80s, by trying to be more conventional and blending in a bit more, and actually I shouldn’t have done that.” 

Neil Murray has often had to come into bands and reproduce another player’s bass part, or even their bass sound…

“That can be very frustrating. You feel as though you’re a Xerox machine: Today I’ve got to sound like such-and-such, next week I’ve got to sound like so-and-so…’ Of course it’s a great challenge, but you can end up losing your own personality, because you’ve got to ‘be’ somebody else if you’re playing these old songs, or maybe just following someone else who played on a particular album…”

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