A ZONE of his Own

Dead Heads call it the Phil Zone-
that unearthly space that Phil Lesh's bass
seems to occupy most of the time.  

The following article originally appeared in the November 1977 issue of Guitar Player.

During the latter half of the 1960's a type of music emerged called "The San Fransico Sound." A blend of blues/jazz/country/folk/rock, it was the product of  musicians living in or about the city that lent its name to this particular genre.  Perhaps the best-known (and certainly the longest-lived) bands born of this style are Jefferson Starship (nee' Jefferson Airplane) and the Grateful Dead.  The latter's longevity as a unit can be attributed not only to their musical commitment, but to their pioneering of non-commercial music and their unique role as social innovators in the vanguard of hippiedom.

     It is Phil Lesh — a jazz player turned avant-garde composer turned rock and roll bassist
who provides the powerful but melodic bass lines that help give the Dead's music its exotic, but easily recognizable, flavor.

     Lesh was born in Berkeley, California, on March 15, 1940.  He first became interested in music at age four, after listening to his grandmother's radio — through a wall — playing Brahms's First Symphony.  His grandmother found him with his ear to the wall and invited him into her room to listen.  "That's how simple it was to get started," he says. Phil started violin lessons in the third grade, latter changing to trumpet. By the time he was ready for college, an interest in composition had supplanted his love of playing. He decided to pursue composition studies, eventually ending up under the tutelage of Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California. "You learn more in one semester hanging around someone like Berio than you would if you were to study and listen to lectures for five years under someone else," Lesh notes.

      After a few years of composing, Lesh became discouraged, since there was no place for his pieces to be performed and little recognition came as a result of his work. According to Phil, "There seems to be a kind of establishment in the academic world. You have to have a certain set of credentials in order to achieve anything, and the politics of it are pretty intense. I was at a musical dead end, so I just stopped being a musician and began driving a truck for the U.S. Postal Service."

       One evening in the spring of 1965, he was invited to a party down the Peninsula in Palo Alto, where an embryonic form of the Grateful Dead performed. Though he didn't especially care for rock and roll, Phil found himself really liking this particular band. "At the time, they weren't quite to the point of playing out," he recalls. "They were just rehearsing at Dana Morgan's, the local music store. Anyway, I mentioned to Jerry Garcia that I would like to learn the electric bass and maybe join a band. From there, we immediately moved on to a totally different subject. Three weeks later, I came down to hear a gig that they were doing and Jerry sat me down in a corner and said, "You're going to play bass for the band." I said okay. He really didn't know what he was in for."

      Lesh practiced more with the group than on his own, because he felt he could get his chops down better if he had to keep up with and receive input from the other musicians. "We spent an aweful lot of time practicing in the back of Guitar Unlimited in Menlo Park — about four hours a day." Today, he spends even less time practicing on his own, though he says he works out a lot of things in his head. Raw ideas are elaborated upon later with the instrument in hand. "Of course you have to work out the physical part of it," he says, "but the mental preparation really makes it easy."

  At the time he joined the band, Phil was listening mainly to jazz and a bit of classical music. His favorite musician then were saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Miles Davis. And, of course, being a modern composer, he was also attracted to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen after hearing some of the German composer's work on local radio station. "Electronic music always seemed like the logical thing to m," says Phil. "It was always easy for me to hear it as music. I gather it is not that easy for just anybody." The only bass influence he admits to is a slight one from the late jazz bassist Scott LaFaro. Among today's players, Phil especially likes the playing of Weather Report's Jaco Pastorius.

 Lesh's first bass, which he bought at the age of 25, was Gibson EB-0. "It was terrible," he recalls. "It had telephone poles for strings. "Despite his distaste for the instrument, however, he made do with it and tried to improve it by adding another pickup. After the Gibson he moved on to a Fender Jazz Bass, which he used for about three years. Then, in 1969, he bought a two-pickup Gibson EB-3

(later stolen), which he modified by adding a Guild pickup and placing preamps inside. An external power supply or a battery powered the preamps. Stereooutputs were also added.

   He played the instrument for two years, replacing it with a Guild Starfire bass that was later altered by Alembic Instruments. Dubbed the "Godfather," it has three Alembic pickups — a quad pickup with four outputs (one for each string) and standard bass and treble humbuckers. The bottom half of the instrument is crammed full of electronics, while the top half is loaded with foam rubber to damp the resonance of the body to eliminate feedback.

   Today the "Godfather" is Phil's spare. His main bass is a custom-made Alembic with additional circuitry designed by George Munday of Pluto Electronics. Phil also uses George's tone-modifying Pluto Pedal, an active filter/boost/cut unit in which two filters can be swept at once. Phil likes it because of its versatility for bass tone modification. Nevertheless, he complains that too many pedals only perform one or two functions. "I still have a dream of a computer-controlled synthesizer/quadraphonic bass," he says, "and the instrument I'm playing now has the capability of being that. All it needs is the proper interface."

      The Alembic has the same pickup configuration found on the Guild: two standard humbuckers and a quad. Though he can get a separte signal for each string, Phil currently is running his signal monaurally. The filters on both the Guild and the Alembic basses allow for 32 tone settings, with a mixing of filtered and flat response signals from the pickups. The filter modules contain controls for Q (resonance), bandwidth, frequency reponse, and filter mode (to allow for lowpass, bandpass, highpass, and notch filtering). The filters are essentially Phil's design, though Alembic built them, and George Munday redesigned them to Phil'specifications.

     His favorite tone settings center around the use of the bandpass filter, though he explains that he generally just tries to blend well with what the other musicians are doing. He usually plays with a pick, though on extremely rare occasions he uses his fingers. The Fender Heavy he has relied on for the past few years replaced a Carpe Plexiglas pick he favored until its manufacturer folded. His string choice is D'Addario Half Rounds, gauged at .045, .060, .075, and .090. He previously used Framus and Pyramid strings. He always puts on new strings before going into the studio to record, but on tour he changes them only as necessary.

     Onstage, his Alembic F2B preamp is connected to a McIntosh 2300 stereo amplifier, with 300 watts per channel, which then drives two Hard Trucker cabinets: One holds four Gauss 12s, and the other contains three 15s. In the studio, he strives for the same tones he gets live, except that he uses less boost. When recording, he runs his signal directly into the mix board. It is then equalized, limited, and finally processed through a Dolby unit.

     Before concerts, rather than run trough set excersises, Lesh simply plays "whatever pops into my head." He will not, however, practice on a 6-string acoustic, becasue it causes him to become too loose, making it more of a strain to play the bass guitar. After practicing on an acoustic guitar before one gig, he developed tendinitis, which laid him up for about two weeks. During the first five years of his bass training, he worked through Louise Guercio's Musicain's Hand Book. "It has about 3,000 weird exercises that you can do with your fingers for different areas of the hands," he explains.

      Lesh returned to his compositional roots, however briefly, in 1975 when he, Ned Lagin, David Crosby, Mickey Hart, Spencer Dryden, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, and David Freiberg performed and recorded Seastones. This fusion of vocals prepared piano, synthesizer, and precussion — all electronically modified — was preserved on the album of the same name. Despite this brush with experimental composition away from the basic Grateful Dead lineup, Phil remains with the band, playing and performing new pieces all the time. He tells us that he finds working with the Grateful Dead so rewarding that he really wants to spend most of his time right now simply enjoyiing playing. •