There are a handful of legendary West Coast session cats that most of us are familiar with… Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, Leland Sklar, Abraham Laboriel Sr., Nathan East, and Chuck Rainey, just to name a few. Dig a little deeper and you may come across the work of Neil Stubenhaus and the hundreds of records that he’s played on. One of the most well-rounded and musically diverse bassists, his impressive technical ability and mature approach has resulted in a list of recording credits a mile long. A Berklee trained musician, his fortuitous move to LA in the late 1970’s led to recording with Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Larry Carlton, Ray Charles, George Benson, Billy Joel, Juice Newton, Joe Cocker, and countless other legendary artists.
So Who Is Neil Stubenhaus?
Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Stubenhaus began his musical journey at the age of seven by playing drums. He later picked up the guitar and eventually switched to bass during his teenage years. After performing with local bands and then touring with Little Anthony and the Imperials, he took time off the road to attend Berklee College of Music in the mid 1970’s. At the time, his fellow Berklee students included Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith, and Mike Stern. After graduating in 1975, he went on the road with Blood Sweat and Tears, followed by Larry Carlton.
After working with Carlton in the late 1970’s, he moved to LA and began getting calls for records with Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Juice Newton, Kenny G, Neil Diamond, and music for film and television. Throughout the 1980’s, he made contributions to records by Kenny Rogers, Billy Joel, John Fogerty, Olivia Newton-John, Julio Iglesias, Bette Midler, and Randy Newman. His career continued to flourish throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, with an equally impressive list of recording credits with Elton John, Ricky Martin, Joe Cocker, and Boz Scaggs and Hanson.
Let’s Talk Style
With a diverse background in R&B, rock, and jazz, Stubenhaus is the kind of bass player that most of us aspire to be. Not only does he excel at all styles of music, he has the technical chops that would inspire anyone to take to the practice shed. As a trained musician and graduate of Berklee College of Music, there’s no doubt that he’s in the same league as many of his contemporaries who have had successful careers as both session players, solo artists, and technicians. There’s an element of musical maturity to his playing that only comes from being in the most professional recording scenarios, time and time again. He plays with an attention to detail in every way, from note choice and duration to moments of embellishment to choosing the proper tone for the track.
From one record to another, his tone compliments the artist’s sound, the musical era, and the artistic vision of the producer. Varying from the punchy and articulate tones in high-energy 1970’s fusion, to the brighter and assertive pop records of the 1980’s, to the mellow and supportive backbone of theater music, Stubenhaus navigates the sonic spectrum with an inherent sense of appropriateness.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Mellow Out” (Larry Carlton: Larry Carlton Mr. 335 Live In Japan 1979)
While this track seems decisively non-mellow, it grooves hard thanks to Stubenhaus’ playing. Showing off his technical slap and pop chops, he drives the song with his strong sense of timing, his ability to lock in with the drummer, and his attention to dynamic shifts in energy. He provides an active, yet incredibly responsive compliment to Carlton’s soloing by enthusiastically executing the bass line, switching to a busier part at the apex of the solo, and then immediately taking it down a notch as the band returns to the bridge.
“You’re The One” (The Temptations: To Be Continued…)
Beginning with a main theme based on the root, 5th, and 6th, Stubenhaus’ playing exhibits both precision and groove. He plays with an articulate attack during the verses, with short notes to add a bounce-like feel to the song. Opening up during the choruses, he extends the length of his notes, adding slides and accents, and gracefully leads the band through the changes. While the tonality of this record is quite a departure from The Temptations’ classic “Motown Sound,” it certainly isn’t lacking a sense of groovy and dignified bass playing.
“The Lonely Jew On Christmas” (South Park: Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics)
A slightly unconventional record, its satirical take on musical theater and cartoon television proves that there are plenty of opportunities for session players to diversify their musical portfolio. Stubenhaus’ experience and maturity as a player, as well as his resume with other Broadway-style artists, makes him the perfect call for a record that requires subtly and precision. He provides the perfect backdrop for the lyrics and dialogue of this track thanks to his intentional note choices and dramatic dynamic shifts.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Neil Stubenhaus? Please share with us in the comments.