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"Rock and roll started out as dance music, but somewhere along the way it lost its hips and became rhythmically simplistic." — Edge

Adam Clayton: Just One of Us 'Dummies'?

An interview with Adam's bass instructor, Patrick Pfeiffer
Somewhere between Chris Blackwell and Brian Eno, U2 gives thanks to Katie Agresta and Patrick Pfeiffer in the album notes for Pop. Most people would pass by those last two names without skipping a beat, but not Dave Matthews, Lenny Kravitz, Steven Tyler, Jon Bon Jovi, Bon Jovi's bassist Alec Such, nor a long list of other artists. Katie Agresta is a world-renowned vocal coach whose studio boasts the clients listed above, and Patrick Pfeiffer has taught bass at Katie Agresta Studios since 1987. But why the official thanks from U2?

Pfeiffer published his book Bass Guitar for Dummies (available on Amazon.com) last year, and the book cover tells why he was thanked on Pop: Adam Clayton is quoted as saying "Patrick's teaching method showed me how to connect the bits of technique I'd collected into a playing style."

Adam fans know he took bass lessons in New York before stepping into the studio to record Pop, but that has been the extent of the information published on this point of interest. Until now. Questions about where the bassist for the World's Biggest Band goes to get better, and why, are about to be answered.

Patrick Pfeiffer's career has been a diverse one, much like U2's. Not only has he been an instructor for nearly two decades, but he's also a performer, a composer, an author (find out more on his website), and has recorded an album called Fruits and Nuts. In his own words, he's "100% player and 100% teacher." With so much in his portfolio, he still has little problem naming the highlights of his career thus far.

"Teaching Adam Clayton is one of the highlights of my career," he answers without hesitation. "He's absolutely wonderful!" In fact, as I interviewed Pfeiffer, he had nothing but compliments for U2's bassist from the time they spent together between the spring of '94 and '95. This interview covers the year of lessons, Patrick's new book, the role of the bassist, and the benefits of a sturdy umbrella.

What brought Adam Clayton to Katie Agresta Studios, and your classroom?

Adam went to Katie first for vocal training. Little Steven originally recommended him to Katie because Adam had never studied singing before and he wanted to see what it was like! Katie told him he might want to see me about bass. Adam and I sat down together and talked about what I could do for him. He just said, "I could use that," and that's how we started.

Did Adam have a stated goal in mind when the bass lessons began?

It was a general urge to improve. He was obviously already an accomplished bass player, but we tightened up some areas. I don't use the word "brilliant" lightly, but Adam was a brilliant student. I'd give him a monster exercise one week, and he'd have it perfectly the next. It was a pleasure to see how far I could push him. I never did find his limit.

What drives a famous or accomplished bass player to take lessons?

The more you know, the more you realize there is to know! The seasoned players understand this better than anyone else. I've dedicated my life to the art and science of bass, and not a day goes by without me discovering something new about bass and music. It's a never-ending quest to advance the instrument, and our ability to express ourselves on it. The journey is the destination!

What are the differences between a bass hopeful and a seasoned star when they step into your class?

The goal is always the same! Everybody who comes into my studio and sticks it out is going to end up a very well-versed bass player. The only difference is the starting point and the route to get to that advanced level.

I admire a seasoned star like Adam Clayton who doesn't let ego get in the way of his learning process. I think that's absolutely awesome! In fact, if you wonder why some people "make it" and others don't, consider this story: One day there was a monsoon-like thunderstorm in New York City, right around Adam's lesson time. I thought for sure he'd call and tell me to reschedule the lesson. The weather really was ridiculous. Instead, the doorbell rings at his regular time, and as I open the door he stands there, drenched to the bone. I mean soaked. He just looks at me as I stare at him incredulously, and says -- in his Irish accent -- "Couldn't get a cab, didn't want to miss my lesson...can I hang my shirt somewhere?" That just floored me! He would simply let nothing come between him and what he's determined to do. It was a great lesson for me!

Bass Guitar for Dummies begins with "Bass Bass-ics" and covers subjects up to "Buying the Right Bass." Did your lessons cover either of those topics?

As a matter of fact, we did end up buying a bass together, but no, the basics did not apply to Adam. Our focus was on complex rhythms and syncopations, and on mode and chord structures among other things.

Adam has an affinity for Fender Jazz Basses. What model did he end up purchasing with you?

Adam and I went to Sadowsky (web site) here in New York City. I had a "scouting report" from one of my students about an exceptional bass for sale there, and we were not disappointed. Adam ended up buying a white Jazz-type Sadowsky bass [which he then] played on the PopMart Tour. However, he did tell me the last time we spoke that he found a vintage Fender Jazz bass that he loves.

Chapter 2 deals with the alternative playing styles of picking and slapping. Early on, Adam used pick and slap style bass on a number of U2 songs such as "Gloria," "Surrender" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" but has relied primarily on finger style since The Unforgettable Fire. Is there a reason why a bassist would move away from those alternative styles?

It's really an individual choice, and depends on the sound a player wants to create. However, finger-style playing gives you the most dynamic versatility, the control of the volume from note to note. I believe when you get deeper into dynamics, you'd gravitate toward the finger-style technique.

Chapter 7 is titled "Creating the Groove," and in it you quote a former teacher as having said, "With the right groove, a good bassist alone can move a whole roomful of people." Do any Clayton grooves come to mind as "room-movers"? And beyond U2, what other popular songs would fit that bill?

I have to tell you, I may be biased, but when you listen to the bass lines on Pop, you can tell that they are really sophisticated. I love Adam's bass lines on that! All That You Can't Leave Behind shows some beautifully understated bass lines. They seem straight forward, but when you transcribe them you realize the lines are full with syncopations and weave very gracefully from chord to chord. [The bass lines are] beautiful, perfect for the songs! I also like a lot of his earlier bass lines. Adam seems to know exactly what a song needs.

Besides U2, what comes to mind is the driving bass on "Every Breath You Take" by the Police with Sting on bass, "Come Together" by the Beatles with Paul McCartney on bass, and "I Was Made to Love Her" by Stevie Wonder with James Jamerson on bass. The list goes on and on, but I thought your bass and non-bass playing readers would be able to relate to these tunes.

What words of advice would you pass along to someone reading this interview who has recently been inspired to start playing bass -- inspired perhaps by Adam Clayton, Sting or Prince?

My advice to anyone picking up the bass would be: Enjoy it! Practice, but make sure you're having fun. Play exercises as well as songs...and pick up Bass Guitar for Dummies so you don't have to listen to everybody else's advice on how to play bass.

Returning to Dummies...many people learned to dislike textbooks in school, associating them with collections of dry facts and footnotes. Your book, however, is punched through with a sense of fun, enjoyment and humor.

My books are not meant to be read like textbooks, which is the problem with a lot of the other books that are out there. My books are meant to be read with a bass in your hands! They are books that show you how to apply this knowledge, and apply it right away!

Before Dummies you wrote In Search of the Groove. What interests you in writing for the bass market?

In Search of the Groove is something very close to my heart, and it's actually part of a series of books I'm writing for bass. I started this book because there was a desperate need for it. Bassists aren't taught how to create grooves; they're just supposed to magically "feel" it. It doesn't work that way! I came out of school with a Master's degree in Jazz, and all I could do was copy other people's grooves; I still couldn't create one myself. So I've analyzed literally thousands of great grooves by great players, and found what they all had in common. Then I put it all together in a book with exercises to help develop the necessary skills, and that's what In Search of the Groove is all about.

Is learning to play the bass something anyone can do, or does it take that certain "gift" to become a professional?

Can anyone do it? Yes, I believe so! When someone gravitates toward the bass as a chosen instrument, the gift is usually already there. Bass is not the typical instrument to choose when you just want to make music. It's the instrument you choose when you want to make music with others; when you feel the power that emanates from the rhythm and the harmony that you can create with your grooves.

In the Introduction you note that as a bassist one tends to leave "center stage to the other musicians." What drives a bass player, if not the aspect of stardom?

Bass players are a very special breed of musicians...and people. After over a quarter of a century of teaching them I can tell you about a few of the typical traits of bassists. They seem to be very selfless; into playing for the sake of music rather than fame; very intellectual, and generally very nice and pleasant to be around. When I do my Bass and Drums clinics the bassists always have a great time hanging out with one another. It's not a competition or an ego game. It's just about the music and how to contribute to it in a positive way. Once you've captured the absolute joy of locking into the perfect groove, you're hooked.

In the rare case of a student of Adam's stature, you have an interesting opportunity to see what a student does with the tools he learned in your class. How would you compare Adam's technique on tunes recorded before and after his sessions with you?

That's a hard question to answer. U2 is an incredibly diverse group and they can cover a wide range of styles, so it's a little like comparing apples and oranges. However, I would have to say that Adam's bass parts became more complex. He has an incredibly creative mind, and he uses it! Just listen to his version of "Mission: Impossible" and check out his syncopated bass line. It's excellent. To take the most famous tune in 5/4 and come up with a cool 4/4 version, man, that's creative!

To come full circle, the Author's Acknowledgements includes this line: "Adam Clayton (who put his trust in me)." What was his reaction to Bass Guitar for Dummies, and what led to his quote that appeared on the cover?

Adam put his trust in me to teach him more about bass. He could have picked anyone, but he picked me, and I'm forever grateful for it! He checked out the book as it was going into the final editing process, and he called me from Dublin to congratulate me and tell me how much he liked it. He was incredibly encouraging, and as usual super, super nice. I really can't say enough good things about him. He really is a wonderful human being and it's a privilege to know him!

And it was a privilege to speak with Mr. Pfeiffer, whose personality is bigger still than his impressive 6'9" stature. His kindness and good humor never wavered, even after countless follow-up discussions during the writing of this story. However, there is one question that only time may be able to answer. Will Adam soon be taking his turn on lead vocals and give Bono and the Edge a break? "Your Blue Room" might have been the beginning of a new career for Sir Clayton...

Or not.

© @U2/McCarty, 2004