Jeff Berlin & Markbass

The bass guitar great discusses his longtime relationship with Markbass and how their amps and strings deliver the sound that has always been in his head

Jeff Berlin & Markbass

The bass guitar great discusses his longtime relationship with Markbass and how their amps and strings deliver the sound that has always been in his head

For over five decades Jeff Berlin has been a champion of the bass. Emerging a mere few beats after Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, the New York City-born-and-raised Berlin was a key part of the bass revolution: a fertile period in the mid-’70s where the electric bass guitar made a broad leap into the spotlight. He played on classic recordings with Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, and Yes, showcasing his dynamic, melodic approach and bebop-informed soloing. Seminal solo records like Champion and Pump It! furthered his legacy as a bass master, and he has since recorded and toured with everyone from Billy Cobham, Mike Stern, Dave Leibman, and Dennis Chambers  to Patti Austin, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe, Bx3, and k.d. lang. Music education became a passion for Berlin with the advent of his Players School in 1996, and it’s a mission he has continued via successive teaching programs. Jeff’s critically acclaimed ninth solo effort, Jack Songs, a rousing tribute to his musical mentor, the late Jack Bruce, was released in 2022.

Berlin’s chance encounter with a Markbass amp in Italy and subsequent meeting with Markbass creator Marco De Virgiliis led to a friendship and working relationship that has spawned a line of signature bass amps and evolved into a family bond. Jeff is also an enthusiastic endorser of the new Markbass Balanced Series nickel-plated stainless steel bass strings. We had the opportunity to ask the Nashville-based Berlin about his love of Markbass products and why his connection to the company extends well beyond music.

What led you to start playing Markbass amps?

I was in Rome on tour and as generally happens, the club or the festival provides some amp options. To this point I’d never taken an amp endorsement because I’d never found an amp that could reproduce the tone that was in my head. The venue I was playing had three or four amps to try out and one of them said Markbass, which I’d never heard of. The second I plugged in and played through this early version of a Markbass amp I was stunned. There was the sound that was in my head! Interestingly, a Markbass dealer was there and he caught my reaction. I must’ve said something out loud like, “What in the world is this?!” About a week later I got an email from Marco [De Virgiliis] asking if I wanted to try his stuff. He sent me a  combo with a 15” and I had the same reaction. I went mad for these amps. I wrote him back and said, “Please let me endorse you.” From that point, I became a dedicated Markbass player and I’ve been spreading the word since. Now Marco has amassed some of the biggest names in bass who use his products.

You were one of the first Markbass endorsers. 

I was first on the roster and it’s my great, good fortune that I was. I went around touting Markbass for years. Obviously, my word wasn’t going to make them the company they’ve become, it’s their product. But I take a lot of pride that I was with them early on. I used to call up Indonesian dealers and I’d tell them they had to carry Markbass, and eventually they did. I did it out of love.

How would you describe the tone of Markbass amps?

I created a mental image of how to answer this question because it’s one I’ve been asked before. My image is that every note has a circle around it that separates each note from the next note. What these amps do is make every note with a circle around its own autonomous little border, and that makes each note distinct from the next note. Every note shares a sonic equality and every note speaks. I record videos using my phone mic and people always ask how I get that tone, and it’s because of the amp. It’s an oddly perfect creation by Marco. I practice all the time—the older I get, the more  I practice—and I plug in and every day ands say to myself, “Just listen to that tone!” I love the fact that this amp doesn’t have its own tone that it imposes on you. Most amps have a particular tone that differentiates it from all the other amps out there. The tone that Markbass amps produce is the sound from the bass, which is exactly what it should do.

You also play Markbass Balanced strings. What was your first impression of them? 

I put the strings on and I noticed that the tone was ringing and they resonated beautifully. The string especially caught my attention because it had just the tiniest bit of extra tension as compared to other Gstrings I’ve played. That slight tension is very important. Every time I try new strings, I play them very softly to really hear them, and the tension instantly stood out. I noticed that each string has a slight, incremental progression of tension from the lowest to the highest string. I don’t know if they planned that, but it’s what I’ve found. These are better for me than any string I’ve used.

What sets them apart from other strings?

They’re simply made amazingly well. They’re totally transparent and they let the character of the sound be dependent on the player, the bass, the pickups, and the amp. They’re neutral in the best way possible in that they allow the bass to provide its sonic imprint. When you hear me, you hear bass and amp. The strings are just the transmitter of the tone. I love that. I’ve played strings that are extra bright before, I’ve played ones that had a certain sonic element that were somehow constructed into the alloy or the hexagonal core that made them do different things. Markbass makes strings that do exactly what they should do. End of story. 

How often do you change your strings?

I put a fresh set on before a tour or before a recording and then I play them for a few days to make them tight and in place, and to work them in with a little natural hand sweat through the organic use of the bass. I practice every day, so I definitely work through these strings. 

What do your practice sessions consist of these days? 

I’ve been emersed in transcriptions I’ve done of solos by Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, and a pianist named Emmet Cohen. Because of my involvement in hearing the notes that these musicians play and then practicing them on the bass, I’m constantly aiming higher than I would if I only focused on bass players to imitate or learn from. The greatest melodic and harmonic players, by and large, are not bassists, so by studying these other instrumentalists I’m gaining knowledge and insight I otherwise wouldn’t have had. So I practice these solos to play-along tracks and I work on music for my next record. These are things I need to do for myself, artistically.

Why Markbass? 

I’ve always heard sounds in my head or certain clarity of tones from basses, amps, and strings, and son of a gun if Marco didn’t nail that. From amps to strings, Markbass creates the sound I’ve always imagined. Marco has always had an unparalleled bass ethic where things are meant to be built simple and uncomplicated for the user, yet they still provide the best tone possible. In short, Markbass just feels like home.

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Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria