The rhythm man

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Jon E. Gee recounts playing bass for Ted Nugent and John Mellencamp, and shares how to ‘make it’ in the music business.

The bass guitar wasn’t Jon E. Gee’s first instrument. It wasn’t even his second.

It is this instrument, however, that has taken him around the world in a 30-plus year career, backing up artists like Ted Nugent and John Mellencamp.

Fresh off a tour with Mellencamp, Gee sat down with Current at his teaching studio inCarmelto talk music, touring, and making it big.

Current: You picked up the bass in 1974, but it wasn’t your first instrument. How did you find your way to it?

Gee: “I played other instruments before. You know…your basic school instruments. I played tuba for a while, but that was too big for me. I played trombone, but the whole time I wanted to be a drummer.”

“I was playing drums in a band and it seemed to me that our bass player wasn’t playing the parts right. So I picked up a bass and started fooling around. As it happened, a friend of mine asked me if I played bass. I just said, ‘Yes.’ A week later I was playing bass in a band.”

Current: You played with a number of acts through the 70s and 80s, notably Roadmaster and Henry Lee Summers. Your career really took off in the 90s when you joined Ted Nugent. Get us up to speed with that.

Gee: “After Henry, I ended up inFloridaand toured with some bands. None of those bands became famous, but I met a lot of people who worked for famous bands.”

“I was talking to Michael Lutz, who was the bass player for Ted Nugent at the time. I said, ‘If you ever come off the road, you tell Ted that’s my gig.’”

“Well, Mike left to run Tasmania Studio, so they had Ted call me. Back then, I had a friend who always called people pretending to be Ted Nugent. So I hung up on Ted Nugent. He called me back laughing, of course.”

Current: From 1996 to 1999, you toured with Ted Nugent, and then you got another call. This time it was from John Mellencamp’s drummer, Dane Clark.

Gee: “(Clark) said that the bass player was leaving the band. So I went and auditioned for John’s band. John ended up actually hiring someone else at first, but when the smoke cleared, I was the one left standing.

“It was a big adjustment for me, musically. One, we were a power trio in Ted’s band. In John’s band we had eight members. And the music in Ted’s band was louder, rockier. John’s music was more organized. Everyone had a certain role.”

Current: You’ve played with Mellencamp since 1999, and on all of his records since “Cuttin’ Heads” (2001). He’s gotten a lot of press during that time for how his sound has evolved. What’s that transition been like from your end?

Gee: “The band has made a pretty drastic change, as far as musical direction. And for a lot of us, it meant moving into an area that wasn’t our specialty. For me, it meant I had to learn upright bass.”

“People say he’s gone country now, but I don’t think that’s what it is. I call it ‘acoustic roots’ music.”

Current: Off the road, you’ve also been teaching lessons since the 90s. What prompted you to jump into the instructor’s chair?

Gee: “Back in the 90s when I was traveling, I noticed there weren’t a lot of bands. People were trying to be rappers or singer shows. There wasn’t a lot of focus on musicianship. I thought, ‘Man, it would really suck if we looked up one day and there aren’t any musicians.’ I thought, ‘I can’t allow that to happen.’”

Current: Part of your instruction, beyond just musicianship, is teaching bands how to move onto the national scene. What do you tell them?

Gee: “First, nobody can absolutely guarantee you that you’ll be a star. Anyone who tells you that, run as fast as you can.”

“Second, being in a local band and being in a national band don’t have a lot in common. In my program, I teach that if you’re going to be a national act, you have to set your life up to be in a national act. There are some people who are just not designed for that level of success. A lot of them can’t deal with the off-stage presence.”

Current: You’ve already said that you got into teaching because you weren’t a fan of a lot of contemporary music in the 90s. Do you see the industry the same way today?

Gee: “I see it changing now. In the 90s I hated the music industry. The music to me didn’t have any heart and soul.”

Current: Any advice for aspiring Jon E. Gees?

Gee: “Bass players are in demand. Actually, musicians period. There are a lot of ways to make a living. Don’t let people tell you that if you’re not a star it’s a waste of time. It’s not. Go for it with all you’ve got. I think it’s a great life. It’s only a hard life if you’re not supposed to be there.”

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