Bass Players To Know: Tony Garnier

Tony Garnier

I’m a firm believer in keeping good company. Entrepreneurs need a solid team, Presidents need a strong cabinet, and songwriters need a great band. After Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize, I figured it was time to revisit his catalog, do a bit of listening, and gain some insight on the players that bring his music to life. Certainly, someone of his stature will seek out the best of the best. Of course, he played with The Band and bassist Rick Danko back in the 1960s, but who has taken over the bass chair as of late? That person happens to be Tony Garnier, a particularly soulful upright and electric player holding down the low end with Dylan since 1989. Doubling as musical director, he has toured and recorded with Dylan longer than any other sideman. Having also worked with Asleep At The Wheel, Tom Waits, Loudon Wainwright III, Paul Simon, and many others, he’s a master of American roots music, a brilliant interpreter of song form, and our latest Bass Player To Know.

So Who Is Tony Garnier?

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Garnier began playing both upright and electric bass in junior high school. Coming from a long line of musicians, including his grandfather who led the Camelia Brass Band of New Orleans, he and his siblings took to a variety of instruments and musical styles. After moving to the Bay Area to attend U.C. Berkeley, he began performing live and got a call to join Asleep At The Wheel. A few tours and records later, he ended up in New York to pursue jazz, rock, and rockabilly, landing a gig with Robert Gordon. During the late 1970s and 80s, he developed his chops as a session musician playing on records by Tom Waits, Buster Poindexter, and Marshall Crenshaw.

In 1989, Garnier was asked to join Bob Dylan on tour in Europe and has maintained the bass position ever since. Featured on most of his records since 1990, including Time Out Of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times, and many others, he has also served as Dylan’s music director. Known for his impeccable upright playing and “for the song” mentality, he has also recorded with Paul Simon, Iron and Wine, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Guy, Jim Lauderdale, and continues to tour with Dylan.

Let’s Talk Style

As listeners, writers, and musicians, our familiarity with what has become known as “The Great American Song Book” serves as insight into the past and inspiration for the future. As bass players, we can listen to Garnier’s playing as an authentic approach to the diverse styles of this songbook. Beginning with his long time association with Asleep At The Wheel, Garnier demonstrates mastery of old-time country feels, “tic-tac” bass, bluegrass, western swing music, jazz, and traditional folk. Comfortable on both upright and electric, he’s able to switch back and forth between classical and modern technique in order to best serve the song. He constantly exhibits great tone and intonation whether he’s bowing on the upright, walking through changes, or playing a busier electric bass line.

One of Garnier’s gifts is his ability to interpret a song in a variety of ways. With Bob Dylan, an artist notorious for changing arrangements on a whim, Garnier is able to adapt and refine his approach to what we know to be classics. His attention as a listener and player, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of various styles, makes him the perfect fit for playing with a chameleon of an artist. This creative and flexible approach also makes him an ideal session musician; whether he’s playing up-tempo rockabilly and blues or melancholy ballads, his extensive knowledge and flawless execution makes him an easy first call.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Sugar Baby” (Bob Dylan: Love and Theft)

Boby Dylan: Love and TheftProviding a beautifully simple bass line to anchor this song, Garnier acts as both the rhythmic and harmonic foundation of the band. During the verses, he mimics the guitar pattern of 1-1-6-5 and follows it up with a gentle arpeggiation to add rhythmic movement on the minor chords. He takes a smart approach to the octave, jumping from high to low on the upbeats during the bridge. This serves as a welcome departure from the original bass line and lower register, consequently highlighting his fantastic upright tone.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Jumpin’ At The Woodside” (Asleep At The Wheel: Asleep At The Wheel)

Asleep at the WheelA diverse sampling of American roots music, this record features Garnier as the backbone of the band, showing off his mastery of traditional country, bluegrass, and big-band inspired swing feels. On this tune he briskly walks through the changes, often doubling the notes on the one chord, walking chromatically from the two to the five, and becoming slightly more complex as solos continue.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

Reason To Cry (Lucinda Williams: Essence)

Lucinda Williams: EssenceA heartfelt ballad with a quintessential country feel, Garnier moves gracefully between the chords. While he mostly adheres to the root-third-fifth approach, he sneaks in chromatic notes and sparse rhythmic fills. His playing is stripped down, complimentary, and exactly right.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Tony Garnier? 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!

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  1. Mats

    I have seen and listened, live and in albums, with Dylan. He is just brilliant, the driving force at stage, staying in the rear, but musically in the front. I Modern Times, he owns the tempo and comments discretely what is going om in the lyrics.

  2. Marcello

    What about his bass line in “Cold Irons Bound”? He sets the melody and the tone to the song. Saw him playing with Dylan back in 98, and mr. Garnier became one of my favorite bass players since then.

  3. Tom

    Dylan’s current band remains the best backup with whom he has played.