Born in Detroit, Michigan on October 27, 1949, Tallent moved around the South with his parents and six siblings, before the family settled in Neptune City, New Jersey, in 1964. By then Garry had tried flute, clarinet, violin, guitar, tuba, and upright bass, while keeping an ear to early rock & roll. With the British Invasion of self-contained groups underway, bass playing quickly became a commodity in Jersey Shore bands. Garry, who was playing guitar in one local ensemble, borrowed neighbor Southside Johnny Lyon’s Hagstrom bass to join another band. Soon afterward, he bought a Framus Star bass and began relating to the radio rumble of Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman, Chas Chandler, Duck Dunn, and James Jamerson.
Tallent’s true music school, however, was Asbury Park’s legendary Upstage Club, where he teamed with drummer Bobby Williams as the house rhythm section. “It was great on-the-spot training to get up there with an artist you’ve never met and figure out how to entertain for a set,” remembers Garry, who played the club’s Silvertone bass (or a Danelectro he put together while working at the manufacturer’s Neptune City factory). Future bandmates Little Steven Van Zandt, Clarence Clemons, and Danny Federici became regulars at the club. So did Bruce Springsteen, who started a band with Little Steven on bass; when Steven switched to guitar in January 1971, he recommended Tallent. Within a year, Springsteen’s E Street Band was in place for the recording of his debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
How has the E Street Band changed over the years?
Musically, everyone has gotten better—more adept at their instruments and more knowledgeable. Personally, I’ve pared down my playing over time. When the band gets together, we all play a certain way that we would never play anywhere else. If I played at a Nashville session the way I do with the E Street Band, I’d never be invited back! It’s just a different, more aggressive way of playing. Still, we hadn’t played together for four years, so on the first day of the Magic sessions it took a minute to get back to that place.
Have you changed any classic Springsteen bass parts?
Oh, sure. We have over a hundred songs to draw from. I wouldn’t be able to go back and learn all those bass lines; even if I could, they were just my initial parts in the studio, which often changed a week later when performing them live. There are certain parts that have to be there, but generally I’m playing something different every night. This constant state of evolving is what keeps the band fresh.
What was it like working with bass-playing producer Brendan O’Brien on the last two Springsteen albums?
Well, I had the impression that nobody ever really listens to the bass, which gave me a sort of freedom [laughs]. But Brendan has given me notes and ideas; he’s really hands-on. A good example is “Radio Nowhere” [from Magic]: I was playing with my fingers, resulting in more of a Motown feel, and it wasn’t working for him. I suggested a pick, which gave it the edge he was looking for. That’s a decision I never would have thought to make on my own. Brendan has us record basic tracks first, with myself, Max, Roy [Bittan] on piano, and Bruce on acoustic guitar. It really lets us focus on the rhythm section, and has resulted in the best-sounding record we’ve ever made. Before Brendan, we had always recorded as a band, and the focus would immediately go to overdubs and solos. If I messed up but it was decided to be the best take, I was out of luck. I’ve had to learn more mistakes over the years . . . . [Laughs.]
You sound busier with drummer Vini Lopez on the earlier records than you do on discs with Max.
We were what I would call wild and innocent then, listening to Cream and the Allman Brothers, and throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick. Vini had a naturally busy, loping style, so I was more active to keep up. Plus, I was a bit of a rebel. Producer John Landau was always trying to get me to lock with the bass drum. Even later in Nashville, Steve Earle would tease me, saying, ‘I love your bass lines—you have no regard for what the kick is doing.’ My approach was always to go along with the kick without being married to it, to find my own part in the song.
When Max came into the band, we kind of molded him into the drummer we wanted him to be. We gave him records with everyone from Keith Moon to Roger Hawkins, and he absorbed it all. We’ve created our own way of playing together, with a less-is-more focus that’s second nature.
How do you typically come up with your parts for Bruce’s songs?
Bruce usually introduces a tune by singing and playing it on guitar, so I have complete freedom to come up with a part. I watch his hands, listen, and react; that’s what adds excitement and freshness to the part. My first inclination is often melodic, but the role of the bass is to bridge the rhythm and melody. I figure that my part is there to make the song more reachable; I’ll do whatever it takes to make it feel good, sit right, and get the listener to respond.
What are your favorite Bruce tracks?
As time goes on and I get more distance, I like them all. On the other hand, I’ve always been my own worst critic, so I’m not totally satisfied with any of them. It’s really about the song, not the bass; to me, the better songs had the better bass lines. When pinned, I always name “Point Blank” [from The River]; it’s a very emotional song and it stirred those emotions in me. The bass and Bruce’s voice are the predominant elements of the track, and with a band as big as ours I don’t get to play that role often. I also like “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in New York City” [from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle]. I’ve been asked about “Hungry Heart”; I kind of heard it as a staccato tuba part when I came up with the bass line. Ultimately, you wind up liking the ones you don’t do as often.
Let’s talk about your technique.
I pluck with two alternating fingers, or sometimes just one. I use a pick about ten percent of the time, if the sound is called for. I’ve also been muting the strings since hearing that way back on Eddie Cochran records. I mute with my left hand and with my right palm, if I’m using a pick. And I like to move my plucking hand between the neck and the bridge to get various tones. When I first got into the studio with Bruce and realized how under the microscope everyone’s playing was, I felt I needed some help with my technique—so in the late ’70s I took some lessons with Jerry Jemmott, who had an ad in the Village Voice. He was great; he gave me right-hand warm-ups and exercises to make my playing even and consistent. From there, I practiced with a VU meter, making sure I could keep the needle in a steady range. But I’m no great technician; I never took to slapping or to 5- or 6-string basses. I did get into fretless after hearing Pino Palladino all over the radio in the ’80s.
What led to your move to Nashville, in 1989?
The E Street Band had just been put on extended hiatus, and my feeling was that rock & roll was stagnating. It seemed like country was poised to take the creative mantle, so I made the move. My friend [guitarist] Kenny Vaughan taught me the ropes and the rules, and got me going on sessions; one of my first was filling in for [Elton John sideman turned session player] Dee Murray, who had become pretty ill by that point. I learned the Number System and worked my way into demo and master sessions. Nashville is an amazing city, chock full of great musicians; on bass alone, that includes talents as diverse as Michael Rhodes, Joey Spampinato, and the late, great Roy Huskey Jr., all of whom I became close with. I initially told my family we’d give it five years, and we ended up staying for 18.
How did Nashville tie into your producing career?
That actually started in New Jersey; I was always fascinated by recording, so I put together a studio in the mid ’80s and began by engineering sessions for bands. Before long, I was working on the arrangements, too, and that led to producing. When I got to Nashville I only produced pet projects that were outside the norm, like rock-edged records by the Delevantes, Kevin Gordon, and Dwayne Jarvis, or Greg Trooper, whose album hit No. 1 on the newly formed Americana chart. I enjoyed being on the other side of the glass and I still do, but it never replaced playing for me.
What lies ahead?
The tour with Bruce goes through the summer. We have another album’s worth of material recorded, but no word yet on a release or future tours. Since moving to Montana two years ago I’ve been hired to do some bass tracks via the Internet, although it’s not my favorite way to work. But life is good; I’ve had a blessed career. My lone regret is not having had more serious musical training. I’m trying to do that now, playing more piano and guitar and studying theory. If I had to offer one bit of advice, it would be to take advantage of the many resources out there and learn everything you can about music. It will help you to become the best you can be.
Other Bass Tallents: Garry’s Personal Pantheon
James Jamerson “There’s James and then there’s everybody else. When I was doing my track for Allan Slutsky’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown book, he sent me a cassette with a lot of the other guest bassists playing Jamerson lines. I kept it in the car, and my wife, who is not a musician, would drive around totally digging on it—no vocals, just bass! That shows you how engaging his playing was.”
Jaco Pastorius “Jaco was a musical genius. We became close and hung out a bunch of times. One night we were at the Lone Star in the Village, watching Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry decided he wanted to play guitar, so Jaco went over to the piano and I got on bass and we played for quite a while. It broke my heart when he died; he was such a sweet guy.”
Rick Danko “In Nashville, I was in a five-piece rhythm section called the Long Players. We would learn a classic album start to finish, and then hire singers and go to a club to perform it one time only. We did over 20 albums, from the Beatles and Stones to Van Morrison and the Who. The biggest surprise was learning Rick Danko’s parts with The Band. I’d always loved him, but I thought of him mainly as a singer. Well, he was a fantastic bassist, from his note choices to where he put them.”
Basses with the Boss Spector NS-2J custom short-scale (main bass); ’07 Gretsch Thunder Jet; fretless ’65 Guild Starfire; ’60s Guild M-85; e-size unknown 19th-century German upright
Basses on Magic ’63 Fender Jazz Bass, ’63 Fender Precision Bass with flats, Jerry Jones Longhorn, Brendan O’Brien’s ’64 P-Bass
Strings Pyramid Gold nickel flats, La Bella 0760M “Jamerson” flatwounds
Picks Dunlop Jazz 3XL, felt ukulele pick
Live Shure UHF M4 wireless from each bass into Ashly LX-308B line mixer, then Radial J48 DI to sound system, monitored through Sennheiser wireless in-ear monitors; Hartke HA4000 head and 4200 Professional Series cabinet (used for soundcheck and as monitoring backup to in-ears, but turned off for shows)
Studio Aguilar DB 680 tube preamp, Demeter SSC-1 Silent Cabinet (1×12), Ampeg B-15S 60-watt combo amp
With Bruce Springsteen (all on Columbia)
Ghost of Tom Joad
Tunnel of Love
Born in the U.S.A.
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Born to Run
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J
With Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul
Men Without Women, EMI
With Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes
Messin’ With the Blues, Leroy
Better Days, Impact
With Steve Forbert
Mission of the Crossroad Palms, Giant
With Ian Hunter
You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic, Razor and Tie
With Gary U.S. Bonds
Dedication/On the Line, Gott Discs
With Emmylou Harris
Brand New Dance, Reprise
Long About That Time, Rounder
With Randy Scruggs (and Johnny Cash)
Crown of Jewels, Warner Bros
With Steve Earle
I Feel Alright, Warner Bros
With Billy Joe Shaver
The Earth Rolls On, New West
With Robert Earl Keen Jr.
A Bigger Piece of the Sky, Sugar Hill
With Sonny Burgess
Sonny Burgess, Rounder
With Paul Burlison
Train Kept a-Rollin’, Sweetfish
With Solomon Burke
Nashville, Shout Factory
With P.F. Sloan
With Sass Jordan
Get What You Give, Horizon
With Jim Lauderdale
Honey Songs, Yep Roc