The Klaus Voormann Acoustic Bass
by Dick Boak, Director, Artist Relations, Martin Guitar Company
On the occasion of Klaus Voorman’s 70th birthday, C. F. Martin’s distributor of guitars in Germany (AMI), collaborated directly with the legendary bassist and graphic artist to create a Signature Edition of 14 special B-28KV acoustic basses.
Loosely based upon the original B-40 Martin acoustic bass, the headstock of each instrument bears an individual and unique circular graphic , personally drawn by Klaus, and bound inside a glass-encased amulet.
The extremely prolific Voormann is perhaps best known as the bass player from John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, but he also provided bass lines for countless other tracks including George Harrison’s ground breaking album All Things Must Pass, Randy Newman’s Short People, and many hits recorded while serving as the bassist for Dr. John and Manfred Mann.
Klaus was a key participant in timeless concerts such as the Concert for George and the Concert for Bangladesh. An accomplished and professional graphic artist, he illustrated the award winning cover art for the Beatles Revolver album as well as being chosen by Neil Aspinal of Apple Records to create the collage artwork for The Beatles Anthology.
Interview by Joerg Kliewe
“Klaus Vormann is an asshole.” wrote Paul McCartney in the introduction to Klaus Voormann’s book. The inspiration behind the quote says a lot about the Klaus. When Sir Paul asked, “What do you want me to write?” Voormann gave him the quote. In fact, Klaus Voormann is a multitude of things.
He’s a humorous and inspiring talker, a highly respected bass player, and artist with two Grammys to his name and a man of musical mystery. And Klaus has been around. He witnessed the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today. His friendship with the Beatles has spanned decades, including some work as a session man. And, Klaus Voormann is a loving father and husband. Voormann’s humble sensibilities and self-confidence allowed him to stay in the shadows while he supported rock stars.
And, in his own words, he was never particularly eager to stand in the bright hot lights that lit up the front of the stage. His musical career began in the early ’60s in Hamburg around the time when he first met the Beatles who were trying to kick start their career in Germany. It’s an enduring friendship that continues to keep Klaus and the remaining Beatles close.
His bass technique and intuitive style, along with his personality helped make him a highly respected member of the L.A. studio scene during the ’70s. And he had the good fortune to have experienced up close the growth and now legendary history of rock ‘n’ roll that pre-dates the British Invasion of the U.S. He played at the Toronto Concert with the Plastic Ono Band in 1969, as well as hammered out bass lines during the Concert for Bangladesh in ’71.
Throughout the years, Voorman has been loyal to his old ’60s Fender Precision Bass, allowing the beast to remain comfortable with a set of strings that he’s never changed for decades. Klaus never considered himself a genuine collector of musical instruments or by any measure a guitar freak. But, he did collaborate with Vox in England in the creation of a prototype he designed called the “Votar.” And recently, he worked with the folks at Martin Guitar on a limited edition Klaus Voormann acoustic bass.
In the summer of 2009 Klaus Voormann released A Sideman’s Journey, his debut album at 71. He was surrounded by friends in the studio that included Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dr. John, Jim Kelnter and Joe Walsh. A share of the proceeds will go to the charity project of “Water is Life – Lakota Environment & Health Project”.
With support from his friend, Paul McCartney, Voormann’s aid project Lakota Village Fund was officially launched in 1999 during an installment of the German Wetten Dass TV show. For nearly a decade, Christina Voormann has played an instrumental role in coordinating support for the project that resides on the grounds at the Pine Ridge Reservation.
uitar International had the opportunity to meet with KlausVoormann at his private studio in the heart of Bavaria, Germany. During our conversation we found out a lot about Klaus Voormann and his world. And despite Sir Paul’s humorous note about Klaus, we can assure our readers that Klaus Voormann is anything but “an asshole.”
Joerg Kliewe: Klaus, for many years you worked as a graphic artist and painter while your main profession was being a bass player. Isn’t it frustrating that the first thing that comes to peoples’ minds when they hear your name is the cover of Revolver, that you had designed in 1966?
Klaus Voormann: Not at all. Yet I’m still very proud of it. I received a Grammy for it and I still consider it a great piece among my work.
Joerg: Did there ever occur any conflict between graphic design work and your musical career?
Klaus Voormann: There were long periods when I would not do any art work. But when jobs came by like a record cover for TRIO I just did it. During my musical time it had always been hard for me when someone would approach me with like, “Now you have to create something graphical for a change.”
If you’re not working continuously in a certain field it takes a while to get back into it. You have to rehearse painfully first to finally get a job done right. In music it’s similar. If you had been off for a while it will take you some time to get back on to be able to accomplish your job. – To be honest, this is a big inner conflict to me – a serious problem. I should either be into visual arts or into music in, I guess. Trying to do it both at the same time has been given me hard times ever since.
Joerg: And vice versa?
Klaus Voormann: That’ s my situation right now: I’m working graphical instead of playing music. If you’d ask me to just play something, I would have to get into rehearsing or more precise: building horny skin on my fingertips.
Joerg: Has the Sideman’s Journey been a coming home to music for you then?
Klaus Voormann: Actually I didn’t wanna do it. But I had been approached from many directions and people kept saying: “Klaus, it’s about time, that you’ll make people aware of what you had accomplished in your life.” This project did develop slowly but continuously and I almost hadn’t got it that suddenly I had become the boss of it all.
Joerg: Had it been clear from the beginning that there would be a full album in the end?
Klaus Voormann: At least we had planned a CD or something to be offered to the industry. Anyway, I didn’t want to make this hard on my friends first just to fail getting to accomplishing acceptable quality in the end. This project had to be thought thoroughly from A to Z to make everybody happy who was involved with it. I didn’t want to make it like sitting next to Van Dyke by the piano just to have something to be filmed – that wouldn’t have been enough to me. There just had to be more to the whole thing.
Joerg: Do you make the song selection all by yourself?
Klaus Voormann: Interesting, Universal accepted everything I had come up with. They must have realized that I knew exactly what I wanted. I made a long list and I worked it bottom down by my own taste.
Anyway, as I knew the fellow musicians who I wanted to draw into this, I had a slight idea of what they might be eager to play. Let me put it this way: I had “So Far” for Bonnie Bramlett on the list, but of course I couldn’t be 100% sure, if she’d really wanna sing it.
But, after we had gotten together in the studio, she said spontaneously: “Yeah, let’s do this one!” – I did reply then, that I didn’t wanna make it like George (Harrison). It had to have more Soul and funkyness to it. She really got fired up on this one and in the end Bonnie delivered a superb version of that song. I do have a problem in general with certain songs, of which I’d say to myself, “You cannot cover this one just like that.” I simply don’t like cover songs if they don’t have anything special to them that makes a difference compared to the original.
Our cover of “Short People” for instance, which I like a lot. Van Dyke’s piano makes a difference and Don Preston delivers it in a very different way than Randy Newman sang it. The song became a little more relaxed and to me it has a different dimension now. Don’t get me wrong, Randy’s original is a fantastic song. In my version the song became another feeling – and that’s the way I wanted it.
Joerg: Were there songs that developed into anther direction than you had planned it?
Klaus Voormann: Yeah, it was a bit disappointing when I so badly wanted Ringo (Starr) to do “You’re Sixteeen.” Ringo said, “No.” But, I could understand it immediately. Of course, he didn’t he feel comfortable singing this song. That kid turned 69 already, old enough to particularly not sing to a girl, “You’re sixteen and you’re mine.”
Joerg: Did you finish your list during the recording sessions?
Klaus Voormann: There’s yet a lot of material left on it. If I’d just wanted to cover all the hits coming to my mind there would probably be three records filled. But, I didn’t want to do hits in particular. You know, Don Preston for instance, who I had been on the same stage with for the Bangladesh Concert, requested to play “Blue Suede Shoes,” It had been on the list anyway, because it’s one of my all time favorites and it had also been on the set list of the Plastic Ono Band’s set list for the Toronto concert. In fact this song had been played in many many clubs over decades. Anyway, if anybody among my friends would wanna do it for this occasion, I didn’t know. Don came up with a great version of that song and in my opinion it really kicked ass.
Joerg: The reception of the album in Germany is tremendous. The vinyl edition itself went to No. 1 on the Amazon vinyl charts in no time. Would you have an answer if – let’s say – the record company would beat the gong for a follow up?
Klaus Voormann: I’m not even thinking about that.
Joerg: Because of the effort of scheduling so many high class musicians to meet in studios around the globe?
Klaus Voormann: Look, the majority of the proceeds from that album go to a charity project for the Lakota in South Dakota. These people are forced to live under really bad conditions, in the middle of the richest country of the world. My wife Christina puts a lot of effort into helping these people to have clean water at least. She takes action by herself. It’s not like giving money to some anonymous organization and you don’t really know where it goes. Christina travels to South Dakota a lot and invests money in providing clean water in the Pine Ridge Reservation. She finances the testing of water and wells. With the horrible proof of contamination they’d found she and her organization are now able to put pressure on the authorities and will hopefully help changing the conditions of life for the Lakota.
“Safe Water is a Human Right,” is their motto. To make it short, my friends who made contributions to my album felt that they were up for the right thing and I would not want to compromise that spirit with yet another project.
Joerg: You paid everything upfront and produced this record on your own risk?
Klaus Voormann: Yes, I did, including the film documentation, crews, flights, studios and everything. I did spent a lot of time on that project and Christina and I did invest a lot money, as well. Most of the musicians didn’t want any payment at all. Yusuf [Cat Stevens] called a friend immediately and received a two day studio voucher – great! But, not everybody is able to work for free, people need to make their living. But, I have to say that all studios gave us the best deal possible to support the project.
Joerg: Martin Guitar created a Klaus Voormann bass together with you. How did that collaboration work out?
Klaus Voormann: Very well, I’d say. Wolfang Niedecken [Ed - leader of the German band “BAP”] who had received a signature guitar himself called me. He had brought up my name at Martin and suggested to get into this.
First I met with the German distributor for discussing appointments and options for the instrument. I came up with the idea of creating a special scratch plate, but that was difficult to fit into the Martin design standards.
After that I suggested to apply an original painting on the top of every bass. It was intended to cover it with a final finishing coat. Sure enough we got into making tests and it looked great. Anyway, Martin made more intense tests with combinations of different woods and lacquer. In the end the idea was given up. The final finish didn’t make the art work predictable, to last.
Finally, I suggested to give the headstock a special inlay. Now there are 14 basses and each one carries a different piece of art done by me. Anyway, I heard they’re sold out.
Joerg: I guess you got one of the instruments yourself. Is there anything special about that example in particular?
Klaus Voormann: The bass is as nice as the official series. But, it is, however, the only one with a fretless neck.
Joerg: How about your other instruments?
Klaus Voormann: As I said, I hardly play at all these days. What I kept from the old days is my “Votar,” also the very first one I created with VOX in 1965, but which I had changed constantly over the years; different body, different pickups. Of course, I still own my old Fender Precision bass from the sixties.
My friend Bernie [Ed - Berhard Paul, founder of the Roncalli Circus] got me the exact same Hofner President bass I had bought from Stuart Sutcliff [Beatles early bass player] once. It has the same age and is from the same run my old bass had been, except this one is in mint condition.
This old new bass can be heard on the Sideman album, by the way. I’m playing it on the track with Paul McCartney called “I’m in Love again.” To be honest that bass is much better than the old one Stu once played. On Stu’s bass I’d messed around with a different bridge. Anyway, the instrument is on display at the museum of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Joerg: And the Precision bass is the same one you played during the Bangladesh concert?
Klaus Voormann: Yes, and Leon Russell had also grabbed it for the set he was playing with George and Bob. I had played this bass most of the time. I was always having several instruments handy and when it was right I switched to a different bass with a clearer sound or more twang. George once gave me a Precision with a fretless neck, which I used a couple of times. But, as I’m not a collector, I don’t own that instrument anymore.
Joerg: What’s the secret behind the Votar?
Klaus Voormann: Basically, the Votar is like a guitar. It’s lower two thick strings are tuned like a guitar – just an octave deeper. Combined like this you’re having a complete guitar on hand – with the same notes. You can play all your chords as usual, plus the option of the extension down by two more bass strings. Maybe a little uncommon to play, but the neck isn’t really much wider than the one of a classical guitar. Bass and guitar strings are separated by a stereo output which enables you to play one instrument in two different amps. Like this you’ll receive a true bass sound, but you’ll also be able to use a fuzz pedal for the guitar section.
Joerg: When did you have the initial idea for that instrument?
Klaus Voormann: In 1965, but you know what’s interesting? There’s this jazz musician, Charlie Hunter, and he owns an instrument almost just like mine. Since I already owned it during my time in L.A. I don’t know if he had been peeking on some occasion. We had both been part of the L.A. studio scene and many session guitarist I’d met at the studios were intrigued by the Votar. Anyway, most guitarists seem be kinda afraid of it, even the finger pickers. And that amazes me again and again. To me the construction is absolutely logical.
Take a slap bass player for instance [Klaus mimics bass playing and makes slap sounds with his voice]. I can’t see why it shouldn’t be appropriate to throw in a guitar chord simultaneously: Pow! – I did however notice that most guitarists are not bass oriented – maybe not all of them , there are yet good bass players among them.
Joerg: Got me, I can’t play bass at all. I always found the strings to be too fat.
Klaus Voormann: Really? To me, in general, it is a matter of feeling to play the right bass figure. But, you’re right it is different from guitar playing.
Joerg: In your book I read that you were able to play a little piano and knew written music when you entered the music scene in the ’60s, but you hadn’t been connected to a certain instrument yet. Why bass?
Klaus Voormann: Hmm, I don’t like to brag and I must admit that I played classical piano very well. Indeed, I had been quite a good pianist. I played classical music very well. Of course, that was a solid foundation. After I had learned some guitar during a vacation on the island of Teneriffa, bass playing hadn’t been difficult at all for me – zero problem.
Joerg: When I used to listen to Westcoats production in the 70s I was stunned about the relaxed playing and the high quality of production. Among my guitar buddies in Germany, L.A. and its studio scene seemed to be out of this world. How did it feel to participate as a German in recording milestones like Randy Newman’s Little Criminals?
Klaus Voormann: I was well accepted on an international level, not necessarily as a German. Anyway, I became the victim of German jokes occasionally. Another time some guy asked me with an reproachful overtone, if I’d heard of the Holocaust yet. Yes, I then said, I have heard of it. But, episodes like that didn’t happen too often. You also have to think about that in the U.S. there are many folks with German ancestors and relatives in Germany. I never had any problems with acceptance. It had always been a matter of music and not nationality.
Joerg: German bands in the ’70s didn’t really have self-consciousness. To me it is still remarkable that a German bass crack left his mark on records of that time which still sustain.
Klaus Voormann: And I’m proud of it. On the other hand, many people in Germany didn’t realize that it was a German who was pulling his bass out there. Most people know that I’m friends with the Beatles, that I played with Manfred Mann or that I had been part of the Concert for Bangladesh. My contributions to the solo projects of Carly Simon, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman or George Harrison are not so well known. I had also been doing quite a few productions with Larry Waronker and Russ Titelmann for Warner Brothers.
Joerg: Did these bookings come in through Jim Keltner?
Klaus Voormann: Not quite, it had been more likely Richard Perry in London who asked me if I was available after my projects with John [Lennon] and George [Harrison]. That was the initial kick for moving to the US. Back then all my colleagues went to L.A. or to New York. John, for instance, used to fly me to New York frequently. At some point I thought to myself what a drag it was to fly back and forth from London and decided to stay. I lived in L.A. for eight years and worked session jobs.
I was lucky enough that after a while many inquiries seemed to come in because of my reputation and not just because Jim was my friend. But, yes, I must say that for many years Jim had been my main buddy in the way of rock ‘n’ roll. Just recently I became aware that Jim had stressed in a few interviews that Carl Readle and me had been his favorite bass players over the years. This comes from a person who had literally played with all the stars. It really blew me away and I’m particularly proud of it!
Again, I don’t think this chemistry grows on your playing abilities only, but more on trust and feeling. Same with Jim. Jim has a hell of a playing technique, but when you’re playing together as bassist and drummer it all comes down to feeling and taste.
Joerg: But, shouldn’t drummer and bass player always be united by common taste and sympathy?
Klaus Voormann: You bet, but that should be the case among musicians in general. I consider myself exceptionally happy because I played and met so many different people in the studios. But, there has never been an asshole among them! All of us considered the other ones as their friends. Also, there had been no gap between Pop and Classic or Jazz and Pop.
No matter what you were into, you were not put a label on. In the studios you happened to run into famous jazz musicians all the time. Even if cracks like Larry Carlton were present. You had a constant atmosphere in which musicians got along perfectly with each other. In the U.S. there is no looking-down on musicians if they’re playing a different genre. It’s all music. Everything melts together.
Joerg: You think there’s more tolerance for different kinds of music than you’d find it in Europe?
Klaus Voormann: In America a lot of music is simply considered folk music. In Germany we don’t have that kind of culture. When you’re in the American countryside and happen to watch how people get off on bluegrass music, that’s unique. We don’t have that here. Among musicians in the U.S. it may be quite common to improvise just for fun over a 12-bar blues theme for hours. Even pros are enjoying the simplicity and the fun of it.
Joerg: I watched that before myself. Many Americans are able to sing songs on the spot at a camp fire or on their porch. But, here?
Klaus Voormann: Well, maybe in Bavaria, but in the North it’s pretty dull. Maybe you’ll meet someone with an accordion occasionally.
Joerg: How did you connect after you had gotten back to the Old World in the later ’70s?
Klaus Voormann: First I said, that I wouldn’t play anymore. But, I moved on to work with a record company quickly, to Phonogram [Ed - merged with Universal] . I had suggested to work as a link between artist and record company. In the U.S. that position was well known, but not in Germany. In America there were guys like Ahmet Ertegün, for example. He had himself written songs for Ray Charles, produced him and was also the boss of Atlantic Records.
You had the impression that in respects of creativity, those two had actually connected. Or think of Russ Titelman, who played piano himself on the records he produced for other artists. Anyway, in Germany it was really bad. There was a guy who had switched from BMW and pretended to be the big time manager of a record company, but he didn’t have a clue about selling music. Again, at the U.S. labels many of the owners were actually musicians, like Herb Alpert or Lou Adler. So, I thought it could be cool to have someone with that background at a German label too, who would negotiate between the artist’s creative interests and the marketing of his product. Then, one fine day TRIO landed on my desk. I started to develop ideas how this could sound best and pretty soon the band asked me to become their producer.
Joerg: Well, I’d say that must have been right during the overture for the [NDW – Neue Deutsche Welle] New German Wave movement?
Klaus Voormann: Right, and I really liked it. I remember that moment when I thought to myself, “Hey, finally here’s a style that fits the Germans.” Kraftwerk for instance: disciplined, stiff – German! Sorry, but this is what German’s are: stiff. And the lyrics these bands wrote were great. Ideal, Rheingold or Joachim Witt – who I like a lot and whose album I’d produced – great, big deal! But – and this is yet happening today – the media destroyed that movement. Under the pressure of that media hype some record companies would sign 40 acts a week – all crap. And simply because they were afraid of leaving someone out.
These people didn’t have any clue. They just couldn’t tell the difference between crap and candy! Look at TRIO. The media reduced them to a musical comedy act. Just listen to the first album. It’s phenomenal – no da-da-da at all! They were great players. The lyrics had depth and it was a fabulous concept all together – wonderful.
Joerg: I remember a photo shoot when I was an apprentice at a local newspaper and TRIO was giving a promo concert at our record store…
Klaus Voormann: …I was probably there too and Stefan [Remmler] sang through a megaphone!
Joerg: Did you do art work for TRIO too?
Klaus Voormann: Again I really liked TRIO and their humor. The cover idea had been created by the band. Who else would have published his own address and phone number on a record cover? If I remember it right, the second cover idea had also come from Stefan, but all band members shared the same kind of taste. The cover was sold in little squares as advertising space. Greenpace and Karl-Heinz Böhm and his humanitarian organization received their spots for free. Everybody else had to pay decently. I did however provide a single cover for TRIO’s My Sweet Angel.
Joerg: One last question: Listening to A Sideman’s Journey bears a bit of melancholy though – the pals from the past meet for a musical resume. Maybe there is yet an encore to come a little later?
Klaus Voormann: Of course there’s yet enough potential left in all of us. Speaking in general, something might of course work out. I did this production to present my friends and the songs we all love. If it were to make an album, that I would consider a Klaus Voormann album, that would be something completely different. More work and effort would have to go into it, more thought and thinking about how to approach songs. Should I write new songs? Who would it be to sing? You know, it would be a completely different project. But in my mind I’m not ready. I’ve got other things to do.
Joerg: Got an example?
Klaus Voormann: I have to finish a Beatles painting for the Hard Days Night Hotel in Liverpool. That’s my current assignment, which is pushing me. Yet, I really like to do jobs like that. I still love to create record covers and I still enjoy to create and perform if people ask me to.