Bass Players To Know: Tom Hamilton
Since Bill Wyman was the focus of the previous Bass Players to Know column, I’ve suddenly found myself excited by the timeless tradition of rock and roll. Whether it’s the loud guitars, eccentric front men, or iconic songs, the great rock and roll bands embody the sound, image, and appeal of “cool.” As a child of the 90’s (when music videos still accounted for the majority of “music television” programming), there were few things cooler than the latest Aerosmith effort. Though Steven Tyler and Alicia Silverstone dominated most of the screen time, the powerful rhythm section and piercing guitars certainly inspired the air drumming, mock guitar wailing, and, for the special few, pretend bass plucking. Bringing rock solid root notes and energetic, overdriven riffs to one of the most classic of rock bands, Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton is a bass player to know.
So Who is Tom Hamilton?
Hailing from Colorado Springs, Colorado, Hamilton took up the guitar at age twelve and switched to electric bass two years later. He found himself on the East Coast and joined a band with Joe Perry named “The Jam Band.” While playing in New Hampshire, Perry and Hamilton met Steven Tyler at a show and decided to combine their respective musical projects and move to Boston in 1970. After a few personnel changes, the group officially formed the band “Aerosmith” and signed a record deal with Columbia Records in 1972.
With a record deal in place, Aerosmith released a self-titled debut album in 1973, followed by Get Your Wings a year later. 1975 marked the release of Toys in the Attic, which featured the band’s first hit (and Hamilton composition) “Sweet Emotion,” as well as “Walk This Way.” The band officially took off and has since won multiple Grammy Awards, MTV Video Music Awards and Billboard awards (just to name a few), and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After many years of recording, touring, platinum albums, Wayne’s World appearances, ups, downs, and everything in between, Aerosmith continues to sell out arenas and stay on the cutting edge of popular culture.
Hamilton, a consistent member of the group, hadn’t missed an Aerosmith performance until 2006 when he was diagnosed with throat and tongue cancer. He has since undergone treatment and was able to rejoin the band for various tours and recording endeavors. Currently, he continues to deal with health issues and has taken a break from touring with the group.
Let’s Talk Style
Listening to Hamilton, I can’t help but recognize the “perfect storm” that is his playing—it’s the ideal combination of bold, confident, and creative note choices with keen attention to musical form and arrangement. Much of the early Aerosmith material derives from blues and 60’s rock and roll: the rhythm section drives the song with stops, quintessential pedaling 8th notes, passing lines and traditional blues patterns. Some of his most creative and distinctive bass lines, including “Sweet Emotion,” play with range and suspended chords. He uses open strings to create a low drone and jumps to the higher register to allow the notes to ring out. Rather than sticking to just the 3rd, 5th, and octave, he creates melodic lines that favor the 4th, 6th, and 2nd (or 9th) scale degrees. His bass lines allude to the strumming of a suspended or altered chord (as if it were played on guitar) and, in addition to being the “hook” to the song, establish an atmosphere and feeling of space.
Amidst his lofty, multi-range bass lines, his thumping quarter note feel, and driving 8th notes, Hamilton is a master of transitions. He clearly dictates the arrangement of the song, perfectly in sync with the drummer, and pinpoints the ideal place for a fill or transitional line. Without overshadowing or competing with the other instruments, he slyly asserts his creativity with melodic riffs and register changes.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Cryin’” (Aerosmith: Get A Grip)
One word: Tone. Hamilton supports the song with strong, ballsy root notes that provide the perfect amount of “umph” to drive the band. With flawless note choice and impeccable timing, he provides the ultimate foundation to make this a true power ballad. Finally, I would argue that it’s hard to find better bass tone on a rock record.
“Uncle Salty” (Aerosmith: Toys In The Attic)
Kicking the song off with a creative, high register melodic line, Hamilton jumps into the verse with a quarter note driven groove that acts as an extension of the theme. He effortlessly locks in with the drummer both rhythmically and dynamically. It’s obvious that the band worked together on the arrangement of the song, as Hamilton provides intensity to compliment the snare at the end of the verse before the song opens up with the ride cymbal, sustained notes, and vocal harmonies.
“Walk This Way” (Aerosmith: Toys In The Attic)
Arguably the most popular Aerosmith song, Hamilton has a striking and aggressive tone to compliment his energetic bass line. If you’ve never listened closely to some of the fills in between the phrases of the chorus and guitar solos, I urge you to do so. Hamilton sneaks in intricate and athletic fills that are easy to miss as we casually listen to the song over the radio, so keep your ears sharp and attune to the sweeping minor pentatonic lines and chromatic triplets.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Tom Hamilton? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!