Bassist Spotlight: Tom Blankenship (My Morning Jacket)

Photo: Jay Blakesburg

There is a path to becoming a professional bass player/musician. Lots of examples come from my hometown. Tom Blankenship from My Morning Jacket started his path like many of us. His musical life began in his parent's basement with friends learning Cliff Burton riffs. I think his story hits home and is so cool. A young punk kid who also went on to play bass for Louisville's biggest band ever: My Morning Jacket.

Tom's played with everyone from Erykah Badu to Bob Dylan to Wilco. He just recently did some recording with country star Miranda Lambert. The world can be crazy, and amazing for bass players. I hope you enjoy Tom's version. 

Introduce yourself to everyone.

Hi, I’m Tom Blankenship from the band My Morning Jacket.

How did you get into playing bass guitar? 

Imagine my giant teeth now in a much smaller head and you’ll understand why I had braces all three years of middle school [laughs]. Our family magician/orthodontist (no, really, he was also a magician) installed all of the metal and assorted goodies into my mouth hole the summer before sixth grade and didn’t rip them out until the summer after Eighth Grade. Thanks, braces and comically huge teeth because the Houdini of Orthodontics office was on wide wide Dixie Highway near Dixie Music Supply. And also thanks to my sweet mom who surprised me with a Samick bass for enduring dental pain. My friends had started a band but needed a singer. I volunteered but would only sing if I had a bass to hide behind. The band had two bass players. We played the same parts.

Did/does your family support your music?

Luckily yes. And realistically too. My mom would allow stinky band dudes in her house at all hours, day or night, making whatever racket we could and would keep us fed. She made vegan brownies when we hosted shows in the basement. Let us hang stolen fast food banners and Christmas lights everywhere. Set out ashtrays for the kid who smoked cigars in high school. And when the band first started she told me, “If this doesn’t work out and you wanna go back to school, I’ll help pay for it”. She’s the best.

At the Tom Petty tribute show we did, you shredded "Wreck Me" on guitar. Can you play other instruments? Do you like playing and singing at the same time? 

The same three years that I wore braces, I also played the trumpet. About once a year I’ll find one at a studio and tell people, “I used to play one of these” and give it a go. Playing the trumpet is not like riding a bike. On a bike you stumble for a quick minute and figure out your balance and then “cool, I got this”. But, after 20 something years of not playing, the trumpet whimpers like a sentient tube of toothpaste caught under a windshield wiper gasping for breath and puking up minty death [laughs]. It sounds like shit but unlike the bike, it won’t get you killed. I think.

Oh right but guitar, yes, I still write songs and play guitar at home. Not trumpet bad. More like maybe-I-shouldn’t-let-anyone-hear-these-songs bad. Speaking of bad if you find a recording of MMJ covering “Highway to Hell” at the Fillmore you’ll know why I also do not sing.

My Morning Jacket (Photo: Jay Blakesburg)

Typically, how do you write your parts for your bands? 

In the moment. There have been some rare occasions where I wrote parts to Jim’s demos and it actually worked. The issue with that is you can get too fond of what you’ve come up with and it might not work with what the other dudes are doing, especially the drums, once it’s fleshed out as a full band. Simpler is almost always better. So doing it in the moment, in the same room as everyone else, while we’re all figuring it out together is the way to go.

At practice, do you generally keep your original parts or do you take it home and work on it? 

Again, this is something I’ve tried to do on my own, playing along with rough mixes or voice memos and expanding the parts I’d written in the moment. And while it may be more satisfying to play, those parts typically sound wanky and contribute very little to the song itself. Keep it simple, stupid.

Photo: Jay Blakesburg

Have you always played with your fingers? 

As long as I can remember. In fact, there’s a video somewhere of 14-year-old me wearing a backwards Freddy Krueger mask and a duck hand puppet with the fingers cut out playing along to “Crazy Train."

What are you doing more of, upstrokes or downstrokes? 

There are a few Jacket tunes that require a pick. Usually when I’m palm muting to get that rhythmic “thunk." If it’s a part where I could play it with one finger (the claw) then it’s downstrokes. But if it’s a faster phrasing that would require two fingers normally it’ll be up and down to simulate what I would do fingerstyle.

Do you have a specific bass player that influenced you a great deal growing up?

When I first picked up a bass it was Stu Cook from Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cliff Burton of Metallica, and Simon Gallup of the Cure. My first guitar teacher would run over Creedence songs with me every week. She also had a Christmas tree in the room she gave lessons. It was up all year long and covered in dust and I was always afraid that those bubble lights would eventually melt or explode and burn the tree down while we played. Anyway, I just loved Stu’s counter melodies and tone and simplicity. My Eighth Grade year I watched Metallica’s Cliff ‘Em All VHS every weekend. On repeat. Especially the Live on the Green “For Whom the Bell Tolls." Rewound and re-watched his bass solo/intro to the point where the tape got fucked up whenever that part came on. Cliff was and still is the best.

Are there any drummers who have changed the way you play?

The first drummer for MMJ, J Glenn, once stopped a rehearsal pointing at me: “Watch my right foot! When you see it hit, you play your note!” and it was the greatest lesson I’d learn. Stick to the kick drum like your foot is tied to it in a three-legged race.

What is your current amp, bass guitar, pedal combination? 

'70s Ampeg V4B head and 6x10 cab. The main studio and touring bass is a pawnshop find which we believe to be a ’64 neck on a ’66 body. It’s a beautiful mess. On the touring pedalboard: Wampler Low Blow, EHX Deluxe Bass Big Muff, Walrus Plainsman, and the big silver box era EHX Bass Micro Synth.

Photo: Eric Mayers

You have toured everywhere, so is there any other city you would like to live in? 

Totally happy with where I am now. Being on the road means you’re usually only seeing the part of all these cities that are directly located around the venue, which is never indicative of the neighborhoods folks live in or what the city really feels like. We’ve seen a lotta industrial areas or the no-man’s land outside a city where an amphitheater was placed. That said I’ve discovered some epic walks on my morning search for coffee. Anything to not sit in a depressing dressing room staring at my phone all day pre-show. The touring life is fucking glamorous.

Growing up in Louisville, I always felt blessed to be around young talented musicians. There were great punk/hardcore bands of course, but we also had Slint and Will Oldham. Do you think Louisville had an influence on your style? 

Oh yeah, also feel incredibly lucky to have grown up when all those bands were playing. Rodan’s Rusty is still one of my fave albums of all time and has aged so well. Honestly, it was probably more the kids I grew up with that influenced me the most. The ones that organized and played house shows together and sold and traded tapes in the hallways at school. Feels like the older I get the harder it is to hold onto that sense of musical community. Or maybe I’m just romanticizing it. That’s easy to do in your forties.

Do you have anything personal going on in your life you'd like to talk about? 

The older I get the more I prefer the company of cats to people. Dunno if anyone wants to read me having a convo with myself dissecting why that is. So let’s just all assume that everything is okay in my world and it’s a totally normal thing to prefer hanging out with furry purring wonders instead of humans.

Photo: Jay Blakesburg

Is there anything new musically for you that you can talk about?

Hmm, not too much. When I have time off the road I take full advantage of it by not stacking it up with more work, tending to only do so when friends call. I did my first country session a couple of months ago, on a Miranda Lambert track (no, really). I’ve been helping my friend Jackson Badgley mix and engineer here in town. And I’m still slowly working on a lil EP of my own. But I feel like the more I talk about it the less likely it is to come to fruition.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for someone picking up the bass guitar for the first time?

Watch the drummer’s right foot and keep it simple. Also, keep your mouth shut and listen to folks. Pay close attention to what your bandmates are playing, choosing the notes you play that best suit what they have to say and above all else what the song is saying and the feeling it’s trying to get across. And seriously keep your big fat mouth shut. Not all of your opinions need to be heard. Sit back and listen to what others have to say and you’ll better know if or when your opinion will count and make a difference. Plus you’ll keep yourself out of trouble and keep your job longer.


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Tagged: bassist spotlight, my morning jacket