AMOS HELLER  - ANCHORING THE BAND OF TAYLOR SWIFT

AS TAYLOR SWIFT’S TOURING BASSIST, AMOS HELLER OCCUPIES one of the highest-profile sideman chairs in music—and he’s having the time of his life. That's especially true right now, as the band is in the midst of a world tour for Swift's record-breaking smash album 1989.
Ironically, Virginia-born Heller was a classically trained bassist who loved rock but had little knowledge of country. “I went to college at Miami University, outside of Cincinnati,” he says. “I was playing around town, getting some session work and cover gigs. One day I was talking to a friend about the lack of opportunities, and he said, ‘Man, you should just move to Nashville.’ A light bulb went on over my head, and that’s what I did.”

amos-smallHeller braced himself for the competitive Music City scene, but the challenges weren’t exactly as anticipated. “Yes, it’s competitive here, in the sense that you need to be at your best all the time,” he says. “Your gear, your technique, your repertoire, and your attitude have to be good. Yet the scene is a lot less cutthroat than I’d expected. Almost everyone was friendly. One guy I‘d just met stopped by my house with four CDs full of honky-tonk standards. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to learn these. And here are the names of a couple of guys you should meet—tell them I sent you.’ There are a lot of very kind people here, and the musicians look out for each other.”

Meanwhile, he developed an appreciation for the understated art of country bass playing. “Once I immersed myself, I was surprised how much I flat-out liked playing country,” he recalls. “Traditional country bass playing is a master class in the bass’s role in music. A solid two-feel is a lot harder than you might think!It can be quite technically demanding even when you’re just playing I-V-I-V.”

"MY BB BASSES ARE INCREDIBLY RESPONSIVE—I CAN GET SO MANY DIFFERENT TONES JUST BY STRIKING THE STRING AT A DIFFERENT ANGLE OR PLAYING A LITTLE MORE PERCUSSIVELY."

Nowadays, of course, country is strongly rock-influenced. Is there even a difference anymore between rock and country bass playing?

“Oh, geez,” chuckles Heller. “That’s a hot-button issue! Country is definitely having a rock moment, and there are a lot of songs you’d never identify as country if you only heard the isolated bass track. But I feel it’s a strength of country that it can embrace new influences, and it’s fun to bring a distortion pedal to the gig, sling your bass down low, and play with a pick.” Plus, Heller has an outlet for his rock urges: He also gigs with Spÿderwülf, an original hard rock band.

Of course, the Taylor Swift gig entails more than rock and country—her sound incorporates pop, EDM, and R&B sounds. A pair of Yamaha axes—a 4-string BB2024X and a 5-string BB2025X—help Amos cover all those styles.

“My Yamaha basses are spectacular,” Heller says. “They’re extremely well constructed and set up, and they have great sustain. Remember, a bass, even an electric one, is inherently an acoustic instrument, so the construction quality and materials used are apparent in the signal at the output jack. My BB basses are incredibly responsive—I can get so many different tones just by striking the string at a different angle or playing a little more percussively.”

Amos has advice for aspiring sidemen and session players: “Go where it’s happening. If you think of a music town, you think New York, LA, or Nashville. There’s nothing like getting the call that you wouldn’t get if you weren’t in town.”

And then there are the job skills that aren’t about fingers and frets. “When an artist selects musicians, personality becomes a factor,” notes Heller. “Is this person easy to get along with, or are they a diva? The people who succeed tend to be laid-back and friendly. Your chill needs to be intact.”

But above all, Amos urges players to strive for excellence. “Find ways to challenge yourself,” he advises. “If you’re the best rock drummer in town, then become the best jazz drummer, too. Try to surround yourself with players who are better than you. There are plenty of people in Taylor’s band who regularly humble me with their feel, note choices, and general approach to music. It’s great if you can be the worst musician in the band as often as possible. I still try to seek out situations like that!”