The bassist behind Ten Years After talks about the band's latest album
Despite his unique and virtuosic left-handed, chordal approach to the bass, Colin Hodgkinson isn’t really even a household name within our own humble little community. Like Bobby Vega in America, or Canadian-based Hansford Rowe, Hodgkinson belongs to a subset of highly influential players who seem to fly perennially under the radar. But when someone as revered and well known as Jonas Hellborg lists someone like Hodgkinson among their influences, you know you best prick up your ears.
Colin Hodgkinson was born on October 14, 1945, in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England. He played in his first band, the Dynatones, from 1959 to 1964. From there, his resumé goes on to include rock, jazz, and blues stalwarts like Alexis Korner, Jon Lord (Deep Purple), Jan Hammer and Neal Schon, Cozy Powell (Rainbow), Peter York, and the Spencer Davis Group. He’s co-led his own ensembles, including the cult jazz–rock trio Back Door, which is where his unique, chord-oriented approach to bass playing really began to flourish.
In the early ’80s, he even had a stint in arena-rock band Whitesnake, just before they broke big in the States, performing on the U.K. mix/release of Slide It In [1984, Liberty/Geffen]. To this day, he says that experience is something he “can’t really talk about,” for various reasons. “It didn’t really work for me, to be honest. These things, they have a life, and that’s it.” However, his playing, even in that testosterone-driven, arena-rock environment, is highly recommended for the quirks he applies to fairly conventional, commercial, blues-based rock.
We sat down with Hodgkinson at home in the U.K. on a break from touring with Ten Years After, his latest endeavor. He’s been with them since 2014, and the realigned band seems to provide the perfect foil for his singular approach, as evidenced on their 2017 Deko Entertainment release A Sting in the Tail. TYA also recently released Naturally Live [Deko], which features one of Hodgkinson’s signature bass/vocal renditions of a classic blues tune, this time Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues.” If you have yet to be initiated into the mind-boggling virtuosity of Hodgkinson’s chord-oriented solo bass forays, this is a stellar place to torque your brain … and fingers [see music sidebar].
How did joining Ten Years After come about?
I knew Ric [Lee, drums] and Chick [Churchill, keyboards], and some of the guys, because we used to play a lot of these shows in Germany, which they called “oldies shows.” I was playing with Spencer Davis at the time, and they had bands like the Tremeloes, Suzi Quatro, Ten Years After — all bands from that time [period, the early ’70s]. So, I got to know them, but I didn’t really have any contact with them until Ric phoned me just before Christmas in 2013 and said that Leo [Lyons, bass] and Joe [Gooch, guitar] were leaving to do their own project, and did I want to go have a play with TYA. I wasn’t doing much because I’d been in a band with Jon Lord [Deep Purple keyboardist]. The last thing he did was the [Jon Lord] Blues Project, and then he sadly died. So, I went and had a play with them, and it went okay, and then Marcus Bonfanti [guitar/vocals] came along, and that was the spark that set it all on fire, really. He’s so good, and he’s young [laughs].
Did you jump right into touring, or did you start working on the record A Sting in the Tail?
Once I joined, we rehearsed a bit, but we were more or less playing the classic TYA stuff that Alvin [Lee, original guitarist] had written. We went out and played a few gigs, and then Ric said, “What we should do is just record a live gig, so we’ve got a calling card, so people know what the new band is like.” That was called The Name Remains the Same [2014, Kultopolis] — that’s how we did that first one.
How do you go about incorporating your unique playing style into a band like TYA, where there’s a guitar player? It seems you would be competing for similar sonic real estate.
I’ve always played like that. I started playing bass around 1960, and there really wasn’t much going on with that — everybody played with a pick, and they were the background guys. A lot of my early influences were double bass players, like Charlie Mingus, Red Mitchell, and Ray Brown. But I also loved the early rock stuff, like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, so I wanted to try and play the chords as well. So, I suppose [my playing style] came from those two influences, really. And then, when I worked for Back Door, which was just horn, bass, and drums, it became necessary that I do that — I got deeply into the chord thing, because there was no other chord instrument [in Back Door]. In TYA, we work it out, and I play a lot with Marcus. We get together and try things out, and if it fits, I put a few chords in, but generally I play bass in a more traditional way with this band.
The double-stops and chordal approaches that I associate with you work rather well on A Sting in the Tail, when you do manage to sneak them in.
I really like that album, actually. We wrote individually with Marcus — you can’t really have four people sitting around writing, because it gets crazy. We each spent some time with him because the keys have got to be right, so we did it like that. I think we did four songs each, and it worked out well. I could play the way that I wanted to, which is great, especially on “Iron Horse,” and the very first song, “Land of the Vandals,” which is that thing in [the key of] B where I’ve got the chord part — that was my riff, and we developed it from there. So, I’ve got all the freedom I want. I could do what I want in that band; nobody tells me what to play for the most part.
What was your recording setup like? Did you go direct, or did you use a miked amp, or both?
I mainly went direct with that. I’ve got a ’62 Precision, which I bought when I was 16 years old, and it took me about two years to pay for it [laughs]. But a few years ago, I found a sunburst ’63. The back of the neck is very worn up to the 7th fret, and then it’s absolutely mint from then on — the previous owner didn’t like the “dusty end,” as we say [laughs]. We usually refer to the low register as the “farmer’s end.” Both of those basses sound absolutely great if you go straight into the desk. So, that’s how we did it. Marcus probably did some tweaking, but it’s got a pretty great sound just straight through. Some people say I’m crazy to take them out on the road, but I think, if you’ve got something like that, you’ve got to play it. I hate to see these things sold to people that put them in a museum. That’s what they’re there for — to be played.
Any other instruments of note in your collection?
I’ve got an Ashton, which is an Australian bass, an acoustic one, but I just play it at home. It’s got really heavy strings on it, so it’s good for me. When I come off that and go on the Fender, it’s a breeze. And I’ve got a fretless Warwick 5-string, which I haven’t played much. I played it a lot for two or three years and then I just haven’t used it, but it’s got a beautiful sound.
What’s your live rig like? What are you using for amps?
I really like the Ampeg SVT. That’s what I’ve used since 1987 or ’88. I’ve been using the SVT-2 head with Eden cabinets, the 4×10 with a horn. That’s what I’ve been using with the band because the [8×10] Ampeg cab won’t fit in our bus [laughs]. I love the sound of that Eden cabinet — it’s really punchy, really good. The other thing I’ve used on a few gigs, when I’m at home, is a little Markbass combo — the one that’s more like a monitor wedge with 2x10s. That’s good. It’s a nice sound. But I think once you get used to tubes, you’re hooked on them, and that’s it.
I understand you use custom-gauge strings.
I’ve used RotoSounds since the early ’70s. What I liked about them is that they made a lot of different gauges; they weren’t just a standard set, so I got to try out a lot of them. I use a standard E and A, a .100 and an .080, and a lighter D and G: .050 for the D and .035 for the G, which is really light. It’s great for bends, you know?
Any thoughts on singing and playing bass? It’s one of the more challenging musical tasks.
The person I truly admired was Jack Bruce. If you imagine singing “Politician,” and playing that bass line — that’s tricky, man, and I don’t really do that. If I’m singing, I’m playing chord parts, or patterns, pretty much like a rhythm guitar. That’s [also] why I like the light G and D strings — it sounds more like a balanced chord on the bass. I mean, you’ve got to be careful with chords on the bass. You couldn’t play a four-string chord — it would just sound dreadful. It’s really like either three notes or two notes, or maybe using the E and the G, just those two together. I’ve messed around with it for years, trying to work out what sounds good on what part of the instrument, so it doesn’t sound muddy, or it doesn’t distort and break up too much. It’s just a trial-and-error thing, really.
Do you have an overall philosophy that guides you musically?
You’ve got to respect the people you’re playing with and understand when something needs a certain kind of approach. So, that’s what I’ve tried to do throughout my life. I’ve played a lot of very different music — straightahead jazz and blues, and stuff like that, but you have to keenly work out what that music needs with those people. I’ve always tried to do the best I can to make it sound as good as I can, whichever situation I find myself in.
Twelve Bars After
Colin Hodgkinson’s inimitable style is on full display in his cover of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” from Ten Years After’s Naturally Live [2021, Deko Entertainment]. Example 1’s 12-bar excerpt occurs at 2:59, before Hodgkinson’s vocal entrance. Initial takeaways are Colin’s ability to swing the eighth-notes in the shuffle groove at such a blistering tempo, and his ingenious use of 4ths — with the root on top and the 5th on the bottom — to get the B power-chord sound (instead of the more conventional shape with the root on the bottom). This shape enables him to reach bar 1’s rolling, boogie-woogie/honky tonk, piano-like figure in one position on the fingerboard, a key color in the piece. In bar 4 he breaks his 4ths pattern to play a tritone (A–D#) that outlines a B7 chord — something Johnson does on his original version.
Moving to the IV chord in bar 5, Hodgkinson maintains his use of 4ths and the boogie-woogie motion in between, and adds the interesting C#–F# chord (the 6th and the 9th of E) in bar 6 — likely inspired by his love of Chuck Berry. For his V–IV turnaround in bars 9–10, he throws in a cool A chord substitution. This leads to the famous descending figure (bar 10) that Johnson plays on the original, to send the tonic B back to the V chord, F#, for the next chorus. Let the B on the Gstring ring as you play the descending notes on the D string. As for the 16th-notes at the beginning of bar 11, that’s a testament to the quick back-and-forth thumb of Hodgkinson, who plays the 12 bars shown here with thumb plucks, while anchoring his fingers on the body of his Fender Precision. Finally, dig the way he leads into the next chorus at the end of bar 12, implying a passing E7 chord with his G#–D tritone on the last beat.
HEAR HIM ON
Naturally Live, Ten Years After [2021, Deko Entertainment]
Selected Discography (Chosen by Colin Hodgkinson)
Back Door, Back Door 
Back Door, 8th Street Nites 
Back Door, Another Fine Mess 
Schon & Hammer, Untold Passion 
Electric Blues Duo, Out on the Highway 
Ten Years After, A Sting in the Tail 
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