Mike Chiavaro: Pocket Prospector

Chiavaro Digs Deep Into the Groove with King Canyon

Mike Chiavaro: Pocket Prospector

Chiavaro Digs Deep Into the Groove with King Canyon

Behold the almighty groove. That musical construct created by the rhythm section, upon which countless great songs have taken flight. But what about the essence and vibe of the groove itself? That’s the focus of King Canyon, a nuance-driven instrumental trio featuring guitarist Eric Krasno (Soulive, Lettuce), drummer Otis McDonald, and bassist Mike Chiavaro. On the unit’s self-titled, seven-track debut—which also boasts guest spots by guitar god Derek Trucks and vocalist Son Little—Chiavaro initiated five of the songs with his hook-filled bass lines. The Long Island-born New Yorker, whose credits range from recordings for producers Jack Douglas and Phil Ramone to stints with Richard Marx and Kasim Sulton, explains the band’s genesis. “Otis and I are always sending ideas back and forth, he’s a great drummer and producer in the Bay Area. During the pandemic I sent him ten groove ideas—just my bass lines to a click. He put down drums and we liked what we had and we felt we could turn it into something. Otis had wrapped up producing Eric’s latest record and he thought Eric would be a good addition. Eric dug the music and recorded guitar on all ten tracks, while Otis added keyboards, percussion, and some ambient background vocals. Then Eric started writing for the album, too, and sent us tracks to play on.”

When it comes to King Canyon’s concept, Chiavaro offers, “It’s instrumental music, heavy on vibe. As Otis likes to say, ‘We’re groovers, not provers.’ So no solos, no showy chops, just music that feels good. It’s influenced by everyone from the Meters to Khruangbin.” He continues, “The original idea was bass and drums, and then Eric brought it to a whole other level that completed the picture. From there, Otis and I decided we wanted the mix to be bass and drums forward. On most records the bass and drums are kind of in the background and the guitars, keyboards, and vocals are loud. We wanted the bass and drums to be upfront. Eric’s guitar is in your face at times, but most often he’s playing rhythm guitar, melodies, doubling the bass part, and adding atmosphere. We didn’t tell him to, he just did it instinctively. He’s incredible.”

Chiavaro played his 1976 Fender Mustang Bass strung with old flatwounds on all seven songs—two fingerstyle and the other five with a Dunlop .88 Tortex pick, while muting the strings with his palm. The Mustang was sent into a Noble DI and a miked 1974 Amepg B-15N. He allows, “I tried using my P-Bass initially, but it sounded like everything else I do; I wanted to have a different texture and I got that with the Mustang and a pick, which I don’t use that often.” The other secret ingredient to his tone is a JHS Prestige Buffer/Booster pedal before the Noble. “I saw Sean Hurley using it on a video and I thought, What is that little thing? Now I can’t play without it. I keep it at about 10 O’Clock. At that setting it gives you a little bit of volume boost, a little bit of grit from signal breakup, and a little bit of clarity.”

The record opens up with the mellow-mood-establishing “Keep on Movin’.” Says Chiavaro, “That was the very first bass line of the ten I recorded in my home studio. It’s one of two tracks where I didn’t use a pick; I plucked with my thumb and muted with my palm. It was inspired by the Elliott Smith song ‘Sweet Adeline’ [XO, Bong Load Records, 1998]; I always liked the descending-major-chords progression he uses. As on most tracks, I tried to stick to the written bass line and play sparsely to leave space for Otis’ drum breaks. His feel and his fills are so special I wanted them to stand out.” Another compostional point of note: most songs have three distinct sections, or two at minimum—a welcome addition in an era of one-section songs.

The follow-up, “Stand Up,” is brighter and more aggressive in contrast. “Otis and I wanted to have a few uptempo tunes, and this works well after the laid-back opener” He adds, “It’s a study in ghost-notes. Otis and I always talk about how if ghost-notes are overused or used incorrectly it can result in the least funky groove possible. Here I’m trying to use just the right amount of ghost-notes with a pick to make It feel funky. Picked ghost-notes are different than the meatier ghost-notes you get when you play fingerstyle. They pop out and cut through more, like a hit-hat or snare drum. I used the same approach on ‘Givin’ It Up’ [see music below], in fact, while we were putting that track together I added some ghost-notes after hearing Otis’ drum part.

“Mulholland,” the first of two Eric Krasno compositions arrives next. “This was one where the bass went on last and the guys told me to do whatever I wanted, so there are a couple of variations and fills. Eric had written a long outro and while we didn’t necessarily want a solo, we knew it needed something. A few months later Eric was in Florida working on the most recent Tedeschi Trucks album and he played some of the King Canyon tunes for Derek Trucks. Derek dug ‘Mulholland’ and offered to play a slide solo on the spot, which turned out amazing and so appropriate to the song.” 

“Ice and Fire,” Krasno’s second contribution, is a bit of a departure as it includes a lead vocal by Son Little. “Eric had an instrumental demo of the song and felt it could work for us. I used my thumb and palm mute and got to stretch a little in the outro. What happened was Eric had a gig in San Francisco and he stopped by Otis’ studio with Son Little, while Otis happened to be mixing the song. Towards the end, Son asked if he could try a vocal over the track. He was writing a melody and lyrics in his head while he was listening! So he went in and did two passes, and we used the second take.

The closing tracks, “To the Moon” and “Laurel,” were conceived by Chiavaro in a hurried, last-minute writing session while his wife gave their kids a bath. The former rides a call-and-answer bass riff while the latter takes advantage of the ear-grabbing tone of his Mustang in the upper-register, and a dramatic mood swing between the A and B sections.

The 39-year-old Chiavaro credits his mom for his route to bass. “When I was 10 she told me that she wanted me to learn an instrument. So I went to my school band teacher and relayed her request. He said that my choices were tuba or string bass. Horrified at the options, I told my mom and she said, ‘If you play string bass and work hard at it for a year we’ll buy you an electric bass, and you then you’ll be able to play in bands with your friends.’ That was a game-changer and sure enough a year later, when I was in sixth grade, we went to Sam Ash and I got a black, single pickup Yamaha electric bass for $129.”

Photo by by Shervin Lainez

Chiavaro’s mom enlisted her friend’s husband, Johnny Mac, a professional guitarist/vocalist to provide bass lessons. That soon morphed into Chiavaro and his band-minded friends making a weekly visit to Mac’s gear-filled garage where he would teach them all their parts on classic blues, rock, and R&B songs—from Muddy Waters to Motown—followed by songs they wanted to learn by bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, and Rage Against the Machine. “Johnny also got me into jazz through the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.”

Remaining true to both upright and electric, Chiavaro started playing in big bands and entered the New York State School Music Association [NYSSMA] annual jazz competitons, where as a high school senior he was selelcted to play bass in New York’s All-State Jazz Ensemble. The drummer that year was Otis McDonald, from Rochester, and the two became fast friends. When McDonald chose Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, Chiavaro applied, not expecting to get into a “legit” school, but he was accepted.

Upon graduation he moved to Brooklyn with some Eastman classmates and began the grind of an ad-answering, auditioning Gotham sideman. Five years later his career path changed dramatically when a friend who was working at YouTube hired him part-time to work on music rights issues, which eventually led to a full-time job in music operations. One of Chiavaro’s first assignments was to help create a library of royalty-free music for video creators who post to YouTube. He tapped into his network of musicians, commissioning them to create music for YouTube’s Audio Library. “Of course I reached out to Otis and he was a natural. His music took off and was used in tens of millions of videos. He blew up as an artist and has gained a real following from it.”     

Chiavaro has also contributed hundreds of songs to the library under the provider name TrackTribe. He laughs, “Creating those songs was like a grad school crash course in how to write and record music in all styles, from bluegrass to hip hop to classical. I put together a group of close friends and we all came in with ideas—a guitar part, a melody, a drum groove, a chord progression.”

Currently, Chiavaro manages a small ops team at YouTube and continues to write and record music with his TrackTribe production company, which has created music for The Tonight Show, Google, Meta, Walmart, and the Bruce Willis movie, Paradise City. Front and center, however is King Canyon’s debut. “I’m looking forward to sharing these songs with listeners and eventually getting to play them live.”


Basses: ’76 Fender Mustang Bass; ’66 Fender Precision (with flatwounds); ’78 Fender Precision (with roundwounds); ’68 Gibson EB-2; Harmony H-22; Kay M1 upright (with the original strings, a Gage Realist pickup, and French bow)

Strings: D’Addario Prosteels, Half Rounds, Chromes, Tapewound, all medium gauge [.50-.65/.70-.85-.105]

Picks: Dunlop Tortex Standard .88 or Dunlop 8011 Felt Nick Lucas

Amps: Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head with DB 410 cabinet; ’74 Ampeg B-15N

Pedals: JHS Prestige Buffer/Booster pedal. “And a wide assortment of effects pedals, especially for the ambient projects I do.”

Mustang Rally

Mike Chiavaro’s resounding Fender Mustang Bass is the secret ingredient on King Canyon, but whatever bass you have, grab your pick and ready your palm. Ex. 1 contains the A and B section bass lines on “Givin’ It Up.” Advises Chiavaro, “Keep all of the notes short. I think of this bass part as another percussion part, like a tuned drum. Feel-wise, it sits in the middle of the pocket and Otis’ drums are back a bit.” 

Ex. 2 shows Chiavaro’s bass line beneath Derek Trucks’ solo on “Mulholland.” “I wanted it to sound like a through-composed part to enable it to be interlocked with the other parts, so I focused on sticking to the line. This sits back in the pocket, I wanted it to be a little swampy.” 

Watch Chiavaro demonstrating his part here:



Chris Jisi   By: Chris Jisi

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