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The Fast Track To Joes Garage
It would be easy to be jealous of Bryan Beller. For starters, he attended Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music and got hired by Frank Zappa's famous sons barely three months after he graduated. At only 23, he's now the full-time bassist for two cutting-edge rock bands, and he's already played on three CDs. To top it all off, his input was sought by Fender's R&D team when they were creating their new line of basses. It might look as if this guy's had more than his fair share of luck.
"It happened so fast, I almost feel as if I don't deserve it," Beller acknowledges. "I'm deeply and eternally grateful to whatever force had anything to do with it." Despite this modesty, Bryan's just bursting with talent, displaying a musical sensibility far beyond his years. Considering the stringent entrance and graduation requirements for Berklee, and taking into account that the audition for Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa's band Z lasted four days, it's clear he hasn't been handed anything on a platter--he's been thoroughly tested and has earned everything he's received.
Beller was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, but his family moved to Westfield, New Jersey, "before I could develop a Southern accent." He began playing the piano when he was eight, switching to acoustic bass at ten because he wanted the biggest instrument in the school's symphonic orchestra. "My hometown was pretty much a musical wasteland," he declares. "I was playing trombone, baritone horn, bass keyboards, acoustic bass, and anything else I could get my hands on, even though I never got much out of the music classes." After overindulging in the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town" one day and causing his fingers to swell enormously, he switched from acoustic bass to electric and dropped out of school music classes. He then took the usual route of high-school rockers, playing Led Zeppelin, Rush, Van Halen, and Metallica songs in various bands. Eventually he rejoined the school jazz band in his senior year, when he received the school's annual jazz musician's award.
Beller discovered Berklee through a five-week summer course and was admitted in 1989. "Berklee's classes are valuable and the teachers are great, but the real value comes from the playing you do with the other students," he says. While in Boston, he met and performed with drummer Joe Travers, who was acquainted with former Frank Zappa guitarist Mike Keneally. When Bryan graduated in 1993, Travers got him the audition for Z, following the departure of bassist Scott Thunes. Z's current lineup consists of lead vocalist Ahmet Zappa, guitarist Dweezil Zappa, Keneally, Travers, and Beller. Keneally, Beller, and drummer Toss Panos (formerly of the Steve Vai Band) also comprise Mike Keneally & Beer For Dolphins, which released Boil That Dust Speck [Immune] in 1994.
With his background of symphonic music, jazz, and rock, Bryan fits right in with both bands. When pressed, he states that "Z is essentially a hard-rock outfit. People hear the name Zappa and think, Oh, they're going to squirt avocados out of their noses--but it's not like that. It's a rock band. As for Keneally, I would have to say 'eclectic' and leave it at that. I'd hate to classify it as anything else." This could be said of both outfits, actually. The demands the Zappa brothers and Keneally place on their musicians are every bit as exacting as Frank Zappa's ever were, and it's obvious from such tracks as Z's "In My Mind" and "My Beef Mailbox" (from Shampoohorn, Barking Pumpkin) and Keneally's "My Dilemma" (from Dust Speck) that Beller's abilities are used to their fullest. "I try to fit my playing in with everything," he says. "I play harmonically with the chords, melodically with the vocals or guitar line, and rhythmically with the drums, which is the most important thing. I'm not a bassist who can play the most amazing licks you've ever heard; I try to add a subtle yet defining part that makes the song more complete and causes people to say, 'Oh yeah, that's a Bryan Beller thing to do'--whatever the hell that is!"
Beller lists his main bass influences as John Paul Jones, Flea, John Patitucci, Jaco Pastorius, and Scott Thunes. "I learned all my slapping from listening to Flea. Patitucci's phenomenal; for my final project at Berklee, I transcribed the bass solo from 'Scophile,' from his album Sketchbook [GRP]. It's just insane! And Scott Thunes's lines, which I've had to learn, are amazing--he has this great ability to find a middle ground between all the instruments and flow right over them, creating this new harmonic blend." Lacking the patience to sit down and practice with a metronome, the self-proclaimed "huge Metallica freak" says much of what he learns comes from playing along with records. "When I get excited, I'll learn an entire album. Every song you learn is a new musical experience you share with the people who played on the track."
Bryan started out on a 4-string but soon switched to the 5. "I'm so glad I made that transition," he says. "It was painful, but once you make it, it's beautiful to have those extra low notes." He used a Tobias Basic 5 to record his tracks on Shampoohorn and Boil That Dust Speck as well as Z's soon-to-be-released follow-up Music for Pets [Zappa]. Unfortunately, that instrument was stolen from his apartment in December 1994. Nowadays, he plays a new Fender Jazz Bass Deluxe V, one of the instruments he helped to develop. The Official Bryan Beller Rig, as he calls it, consists of an SWR SM-400 head, SWR Goliath 4x10 cabinet, SWR Triad cabinet powered by a Peavey DPC 1000 (used as a subwoofer), a SansAmp PSA-1 for distortion, and a dbx 163 compressor/ limiter.
For now, Bryan seems content. He's reached a point early in his career where he can do what he wants, without the drawn-out "dues-paying" period so familiar to older musicians. "It's pretty weird how it all worked out," he says, shaking his head. "It almost seemed as though I was on the job track: go to high school, straight into college, get a degree, and then go right into what I was trained for."
That, in the end, is the most likely key to his success. Many musicians don't bother to get that kind of training, and as a result they putter around in obscurity for years, wondering why they never got a break. A lot does depend on chance, but it's usually not a coincidence that the plum jobs go to the most qualified applicants. By applying themselves, they often create their own luck.
[BB's note: In the original publication of this piece, the last two sentences were mistakenly put in quotes, when in fact I said nothing of the kind--they were the author's words. Made me sound pretty arrogant, eh?]
By Thomas Wictor, copyright 1995 United Entertainment Media. Reprinted from the September/October, 1995 issue of BASS PLAYER. Reprinted with permission from BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please call (850) 682-7644 or visit http://www.bassplayer.com