Bassist Extraordinaire Tony Levin reveals his favorite rigs, shares studio stories, and tells touring tales
Levin's custom Sting Ray wasn't always that color. It wasn't until it was salvaged from a house fire that it took on that orange glow.With thousands of recording sessions under his belt, Tony Levin is perhaps one of the most prolific bass players ever, with a career spanning over four decades. Levin has played on over 500 albums, so odds are you’ve probably heard him, even if you haven’t heard of him. Best known for his outstanding tenure with Peter Gabriel and prog-rockers King Crimson, Tony Levin’s resume hardly ends there.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1946, Levin comes from a musical background. His own musical journey began at a very early age; Levin’s parents believed it was best to study music on the piano first, and to then allow Tony to choose an instrument that appealed to him. At 10 years old, Levin was drawn to the bass.
“I told my parents, I want to play bass; I don’t really know why,” remembered Levin during his visit to the AMS studio this past April. Dressed head to toe in a neat plaid suit, Levin arrived with two basses (one of which had survived a fire), a Chapman Stick, and with his signature Funk Fingers in hand, and proceeded to walk through his different approaches to his various rigs.
At home, his default setup consists of an Ampeg SVT Pro paired with a 4 x 10 cabinet, which he keeps permanently mic’d up in his attic for recording purposes. He’ll reach for his NS Upright Electric Bass when performing with his jazz band the Levin Brothers, or his Chapman Stick when playing with his other band, aptly named Stick Men; but his go-to bass, he says, is his coral-finish Music Man Sting Ray 5.
“I've tried the other [Music Man] models, they're very nice,” added Levin. “I've got a Reflex, which for recording is wonderfully versatile, it'll get a bunch of different sounds, but my default is my five-string Sting Ray, it's a great bass.”
As far as touring is concerned, gear choices heavily rely on which band Levin is playing with at the time. For his smaller bands, like the Levin Brothers or Stick Men, he’ll gravitate towards a smaller amp—usually an Ampeg BA-210. When in need of a bigger sound for playing with Peter Gabriel or King Crimson, he’ll pair an Ampeg PF800 with a rented SVT cab.
In addition to narrowing down gear choices, much of Levin’s career as a session musician has revolved around appeasing other artists and producers—while also keeping true to his own inner bass player.
“I love when somebody gives me a suggestion of something I wouldn't have tried,” Levin said, “but I also love it when someone allows me the latitude to bring my experience into it.”
He recalled an instance where he was recording on a Paul Simon album back in the 70’s. Paul walked over to each of the players, and when he walked over to Levin he began singing bass lines, bass lines that were very melodic, more melodic than Levin would ordinarily play.
“They were wonderful and I'd start playing it and he'd be happy and he'd walk away, but then I kind of needed the low stuff, and I felt that on those albums he let me go low,” Levin recalled. “But I also played the melodic stuff when it was appropriate. Just a piece like ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,’ you'll hear the bass actually doing thirds, doing chords, but it's pretty grounded.”
Levin is always looking for opportunities to learn and grow as a bass player, drawing inspiration not only from the artist whose album he’s playing on, but also from other session artists in the studio as well.
“I've been very lucky throughout the years to have played on a lot of very special records with artists who were very talented, but also sometimes if the artist is just good, the musicians on the session have been inspiring to me. I've learned a lot from drummers and guitar players,” he said, adding, “I don't often get to be around other bass players. I try to learn from and be inspired by other musicians and artists all the time.”
Growing up, Levin attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he also played in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. In the 70’s he began his career as a session musician working with an abundance of artists and producers, but it was his relationship with one producer in particular, Bob Ezrin (with whom he recorded Alice Coopers Welcome to My Nightmare and Lou Reed’s Berlin), that would lead him to Peter Gabriel as well as King Crimson.
“I think if I had to pick one break that was special, it was when producer Bob Ezrin called me to play on Peter Gabriel’s album in 1976,” recalled Levin, admitting at the time he didn’t know who Peter Gabriel or Genesis were. “I remember it was in Toronto in a studio, and I walked in and met Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp (King Crimson) who was playing guitar on that album, and I am still playing with them both to this day, so that was a pretty lucky day, and a pretty special event for me.”
Throughout his career Levin has played at the White House, Wembley Arena in London and major venues all across the world; but some of his fondest memories date back to the 1980s during a three-show run playing with King Crimson at The Pier in New York City.
“I don’t know why, it’s really a miraculous thing that a few concerts would stand out of hundreds or thousands,” Levin considered. “It’s not that the others weren’t good. I've come to believe through the years, what happens that's magical at a concert is not just because of the band … or the music. But that it’s somehow a combination of the band, the audience and the nature of where you are, and other stuff you can't put your finger on.”
Not every concert was quite as magical as that weekend at The Pier, though. Levin recalled one show back in the late 70s where Peter Gabriel inadvertently clonked him on the head with a mic stand, dazing him and cutting his head open. Levin persisted through the injury, and finished the set anyway.
“At first I thought someone had thrown something from the audience, but I was looking back at the other guys in the band and they had a look of horror on their face like I was about to die. That's when I learned that your head bleeds a lot more than the rest of you,” Levin remembered with a laugh.
When Gabriel wasn’t hitting him on the head with mic stands, he was finding other ways to creatively use on-stage accessories. It was Gabriel who inspired the idea for Levin’s infamous Funk Fingers, which are two shortened drum sticks that strap onto a bass players fingers in order to better play slap-bass.
Currently Levin can be found doing what he loves most, which is touring. Summer plans include shows with his jazz band the Levin Brothers, as well as future dates with Stick Men, and then Peter Gabriel shows following that. Once fall hits, he’ll begin extensive rehearsals with King Crimson over in England as they prepare for their winter tour.
“I’m still very happy just playing the bass. I don't need to be the guitar player or the lead guy, I don't need to be a star and I don't need to be rich or anything. I'm just very happy playing the bass, so it was a terrific decision,” Levin concluded.