Ida Nielsen is one of the funkiest bass players to ever pick up the instrument. Holger Stonjek is the founder of Sandberg, one of the hottest names in bass design right now. Both have a lot in common, not least being an appreciation for the nuances and flexibility afforded by bass and a love of the music of the past and the possibilities of the future.
They’re also both interested in more than just bass for bass’ sake; Sandberg also makes beautiful six-string guitars, and Ida is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist whose new album Turnitup is full of great songs, melodies and lyrics that far transcend ‘bass for bass’ sake.’ And let’s not forget her brilliant stint with Prince, for whom she provided the crucial low-end in 3rdeyegirl and The New Power Generation. We caught up with Ida and Holger during a recent joint clinic tour of Australia.
Ida, let’s start with how you started playing Sandberg basses.
Ida: It was a long time ago. Six, seven years ago… maybe more! I tried the Masterpiece at the 2009 or 2010 Musikmesse in Frankfurt, and when I tried it I was like ‘This is my bass! I need to have this bass!’ It felt and sounded completely how I wanted it to.
Holger: The funny thing is the bass was sold to a store before Musikmesse. I called the shop who had bought the bass and I told them ‘Ida wants the bass…’ They said ‘Build me a new one and we’ll be even.’
You can always spot a Sandberg bass from a distance, whether it’s a vintage or modern-style model. They’re very identifiable. How did the design style evolve?
Holger: Well the four-dot logo was designed by a friend of mine 25 years ago. Before that we only had the name ‘Sandberg’ written in a kind of modern typeface. Then I asked him, because he’s a very good designer, if he could design a… what is the word? Distinct. And then two weeks later he came in with about 50 different ideas and he said ‘That one is my favourite.’ My first impression was ‘It’s boring! Just four dots! I paid a lot of money for four dots?’ But it’s so clear and everybody can recognise it and you can put it easily into a body as an inlay. He was right.
Any product that does well in the market has to do something that nobody else does. What do you think you’re able to bring to the bass that nobody else is doing?
Holger: I think it’s the combination of a lot of details. It’s not only one thing. Just lots of details. It starts with our own-designed hardware. Our own bridge, our own pickups. The string retainer for the California basses is a good example; it’s very fast and easy to change the strings. Our own machine heads are made from aluminium, which of course is very light and gives the bass much better balance. The neck profile is very important. Over the last 30 years we’ve done a lot of experimentation with different materials and shapes. And the zero fret; when we started with the zero fret every music shop in that time was disappointed: ‘You can’t do this! A cheaplooking zero fret!’ But then everybody realised it was so much better.
Ida, what’s your approach to bass tone?
Ida: It depends on which style of music I’m playing. If it’s my own stuff, that’s straightup funk so I like a ‘70s kind of sound, that old-school funk sound. But I feel like the signature bass we built can do that – but it can do a whole lot of other things, so it’s not limited to that. It has a really very broad variety of sounds.
And there’s so much sound in your fingers, you obviously need a bass that will allow all of that to translate.
Ida: Yeah! I feel like you can’t get everything in one instrument. So the bass we designed is definitely for the style of music I play most, which is funk and rock, but I also love to play melodic stuff, chords and stuff like that. I feel like the sound of that particular bass fits me very well for how I play. Sometimes you can get a bass in your hand and it’s like ‘It’s just not workin’,’ even though it’s a great bass.
And what’s your approach to effects? I know you’ve done some great things with TC Electronic.
Ida: I see effects as a fun addition, and you play differently with your fingers when you have different sounds. They can add something else, and I love my effects. Right now I have a little travel board which basically has a little tuner, compressor, octaver and touch wah and that’s it. But normally if I play in a bigger venue I also like to use a fuzz and all the stuff you can do to bring some colour to the sound without taking it over, if that makes sense. And if I play a solo I love to add octaver just to have a little more punch because I always feel a little jealous of guitar players because they can take one long note and sing on it, which you can’t really do as a bass player because it doesn’t have that sustain, so I use the octaver to get a little help for that, just to help out what is already there, to add some stuff.
This might sound like a weird question but at what point did you realise you were really good? Ida: I think when I got asked to demo stuff. And then when Prince called! But I feel like you keep on learning though. Being in the States there are so many great players. There are dozens of really great bass players so it’s a constant learning process.
What were your early bands like?
Ida: Cover bands. I did have one band where we were writing our own music together, which was cool. Nowadays I write all my music on my own but in those days everybody had their input.
Do you guys do a lot of these clinics?
Holger: We first started in Germany in May this year. In the same weather as this! It’s been the Raining Clinic Tour! The clinics that we do are more like a concert. We always play with a drummer and two basses, and it’s not a teaching clinic, like scales and things like that. It’s more like a concert, and between songs I explain to people the main things about different woods and pickups, assembly, truss rods and things like that.
Ida: People can ask questions, because I’m not good at just starting to talk, so people can ask me questions and I’ll explain stuff. I’m very happy to answer questions, and if you just see us play it’s maybe easier for you to say ‘Ah! What did you do there?’ and it makes more sense to explain it.
Sandberg is distributed throughout Australia via themusicconnection. For more information visit themusicconnection.com.au.