Devin Townsend is known as many things - songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, producer, heavy metal puppeteer. From his debut major release as vocalist for Steve Vai’s Vai band project to extreme metal with Strapping Young Lad, acoustic space folk with Casualties of Cool and progressive rock and metal with the Devin Townsend Project, he’s covered a huge amount of musical ground. I’ve interviewed Devin many times over the years, and something that’s always stood out to me is his passion for the bass. Devin is always professing his love for the instrument and has said many times that he’d be perfectly happy playing bass in a band. I asked him about his relationship to the guitar and bass, and how the two instruments complement each other in his mind.
“I’ll start by saying this: all I do right now is play bass,” Devin said. “I don’t play guitar at all. All I do is play bass, all day! Like, really, my fingers are shot. I play bass all day. And I think that leads me to, what do I see guitar as? Well I see it as a bunch of things. I see it as a tool. I see it as a weapon. I see it as a bunch of blocks. I see it as a bunch of patterns. I see it as a bunch of baggage as well. And because I’ve been in this weird tuning for so long (CGCGCE), I see it as almost exclusively a writing tool as opposed to anything else. Inevitably someone will put a guitar in your hands and be like, “Well, play something.” But I use it to write songs, y’know? I’m a guitar player, of course."
"I saw an interview with Steven Wilson where he’s like, “I’m not a guitar player,’ but I mean, he is a guitar player! I’m a guitar player. I love the guitar. But I agree with him in the sense that I’m not a guitar player in the way of my identity being invested in my ability to do things on it. I’ve got a certain capacity for technique that allows me to articulate pretty much anything that comes into my head, and a lot of the things that come into my head are rarely the types of things that require acrobatics. But when people put a guitar in my hand and they’re like, “Solo!,” what am I supposed to do? So I’ve got a reservoir of ten or twelve shapes that I’ve been playing for 30 years that I’ll pull out. But the reason why I have those in a place technically that allows me to perform them marginally well is that those shapes I can apply to almost any idea that I have, whether it’s the sweeping or the tapping or the string skipping or the riffing, those shapes allow me to play any thought that I have. And that’s what I do! So when I sit down to record I’m always in shape, guitar-wise. Whether I’m playing bass or guitar, regardless, I’m in shape. It’s been years since I’ve not played. So in that sense, yeah, I’m a guitar player in the same way that Steven Wilson or anybody is. But it is truly a vehicle for me to articulate my emotional or artistic process, and that’s where it ends.”
“So for me, bass is much more interesting because there’s something about it that’s just really, really soul-satisfying to me. The lack of need for it to be in the spotlight, and there’s a certain zen in being able to be disciplined enough to play the same thing for five minutes. I’m into Massive Attack, y’know, being able to play an awesome riff without it deviating for five minutes, I love that! And now, guitars... I’m infatuated with the actual physicality of it. And I’ve been fortunate to work with these brilliant companies recently, like Framus and Sadowsky in particular. Unbelievable instruments, right? And because I’ve got that opportunity I’m like, “Dude, let’s just put lights on ’em!” Like, I’ve got a Tele – I’ve got my writing guitars, a Tele and a Strat and a Les Paul and I’m good to go, so my stage guitars? Dude, let’s just make these things audacious!”
If you’re looking for particularly cool bass moments in Devin’s music you should check out his Terria album, which features Craig McFarland on fretless bass. McFarland has played with M.I.R.V. and Ronnie Montrose, and currently plays in Red Camel. The more lyrical, flowing nature of the fretless bass provides an interesting counterpart to Devin’s washes of guitar and drummer Gene Hogland’s punchy, snappy drum sound.