California Report: Dave Berry talks with bassist Lisa Burns

This month we talk with California Bluegrass Association member, bass player, teacher, and four-time winner of Northern California Bluegrass Society’s Bass Player of the Year award, Lisa Burns.

DB: Hi Lisa, you’ve been in the middle of this CBA scene since I met you years ago. Tell us how that evolved.

LB: I got involved in what was then the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society. I began by writing stories for Bluegrass By The Bay, the SCBS newsletter. Over time I joined the board, then became president. There’d been some issues between the CBA and the SCBS, especially when it became the Northern California Bluegrass Society. I was asked to be an emcee at Grass Valley, which I believe was a public way to say that the issues between the two bluegrass organizations were over. Then I was a CBA board member for nine years. I’m currently the corporate sponsorship coordinator for the CBA, which amounts to begging for instruments, beer, wine, and other forms of sponsorship. 

DB: Tell us about the bands you play in.

LB: I’m currently in several bluegrass bands: Sidesaddle & Co., the Goat Hill Girls, and Pick-a-Boo (the Staninec family band). 

DB: Sidesaddle has been around quite a while. You probably have some good memories there.

LB: Yes, Sidesaddle & Co. started as an all-girl band. In fact, we’re mentioned in the book, Pretty Good for a Girl, by Murphy Henry. This was long before the Handsome Ladies began their important work. I’ve been in the band for only(!) twenty years, so I don’t know the early history, but my favorite gigs are still at Sam’s BBQ in San Jose. I remember playing the employee picnic on July 4th for Industrial Light and Magic at the Skywalker Ranch for several years. Probably my favorite Sidesaddle memory though was playing Strawberry. I’d attended the festival for many years, and to be on the main stage was fantastic.

DB: The Goat Hill Girls are also an all-girl band too, aren’t they?

LB: Right. The Goat Hill Girls are relatively new, and I’m very lucky to be the bass player. I’ve been with the band, which was started by Suzanne Suwanda, about two years now. The amount of talent in the Goat Hill Girls is amazing. We do a lot of originals, and we’re developing a good fan base. It’s great to be in an all-girl band. Other members are Sonia Shell on banjo, Lee Anne Welch on fiddle, Kim Elking on mandolin, and Linda Maki on guitar.

DB:  Tell us about the Staninec family band.

LB: Mike Staninec, who plays guitar and sings, started the family band Pick-a-Boo with his two kids Katherine on fiddle and Matthew on ukulele, and I’m the bass player. The kids are really good – they’ve been playing for about three years now. We did very well at Hickstival, and the kids also participated in Kids on Bluegrass at Grass Valley this year. Maybe they’ll follow the footsteps of their famous sister, Annie Staninec, the fiddler with Kathy Kallick.

DB: How would you categorize your bass playing?

LB: I’m a pretty sparse player. I was heavily influenced by Missy Raines and by Andrew Paddock of the Witcher Brothers. 

DB: Do you do all those fancy bass runs?

LB: I do some, but I tend to play only on the first and third beats of the measure even when I’m playing runs. I’ll play a descending scale sometimes – the whole scale – but only on the first and third beats. 

DB: Timing is an ongoing challenge for many players. Do you have any good tips?

LB: The metronome is your friend. Use one on your phone so it’s always with you. I like the Tempo app. Also, go slow to go fast – get those parts down and then speed them up. Don’t play faster than you can play cleanly. I use the Amazing Slow Downer app to work out solos, then I speed them up to where I can play faster than I need to. Then when I play them at the speed of the band it seems easy. 

DB: Many people find it hard to play at slower speeds. Any thoughts?

LB: Don’t play too slow. Just play at a speed that you can keep steady with the metronome.

DB: How do you know when to move up to the next speed while playing with a metronome?

LB: When you can play the song perfectly – and I do mean perfectly – and in time with the metronome, then move up maybe four to five beats a minute. If you’re using the Amazing Slow Downer to play along to a recording, move up maybe 5% until you get to 100%. I wanted to do a solo with Sidesaddle on the Grass Valley stage, so I worked with the Amazing Slow Downer until I could play it at 120% speed, then it seemed easy at the target speed. 

DB: Are there any secrets to locking in the rhythm with the mandolin player?

LB: Work with a really good one! Kim Elking has one of the best mandolin chops in the business. I’m very lucky. 

DB: But if the band doesn’t have great timing, how can a bass player guide that?

LB: A good bass player can help the mandolin by providing a reference point – hey, the downbeat is HERE. But the mandolin player and others have to LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to the bass player and to one another. It’s very revealing to record and listen to rehearsals and gigs. It’s so easy to do that now with the voice memo tool on your smart phone. This will help any band to improve.

DB: I find it hard playing on the E string on a bass. What technique can one use to make that easier?

LB: I try to play with the whole side of my finger – putting it parallel to the string and up to the second knuckle to strike the string. I’ve never gotten a blister!

DB: Do you play other styles of music?

LB: I’m in two other ensembles, the Tiki Tones, which is Hawaiian, and Swingitude, which is Western swing. I’ve played a little bit of jazz as well. I like jazz standards like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and All of Me, but really out-there modern jazz is not my thing.

DB: Do you play other instruments?

LB: I started on guitar when I was 12. I now play ukulele, some clawhammer banjo, and folky fingerpicking guitar. 

DB: You teach at a lot of camps and festivals. Which are most memorable for you?

LB: I love them all, but RiverTunes is probably my favorite. Joe Craven makes it really fun and somewhat silly! I’ve been teaching there since 2007. 

DB: As a camp instructor, how do you handle students of widely different levels?

LB: This is a challenge – you don’t want to bore the advanced folks, and you don’t want to overwhelm the beginners. I’m lucky that RiverTunes and the CBA camp have beginner and intermediate bass classes. But I also frequently prepare an easier way to play the tune and a harder way so that folks can choose. The easier way might be two beats to the bar, and the harder way might be walking and bass runs. 

DB: What’s most rewarding for you as a teacher?

LB: I’ve had a few students really take to the bass. They play with various jazz ensembles. That is very rewarding, to have your students take on music that you yourself consider difficult. My most famous student is probably Max Schwartz. I taught Max when he was seven!

DB: Do students ever drive you crazy?

LB: Mostly they don’t make me crazy, but it’s tough when you recommend things and they don’t do it. For example, playing in front of a mirror is a huge help. Folks don’t want to do this for some reason.

DB: How do you find time for students and keep a full-time day job?

LB: I teach music, play gigs, do my day job, and don’t do much else!

DB: Is there one particular thing that keeps you in the bluegrass fold?

LB: The community. Bluegrassers will give you the shirt off their backs. When I broke my leg and my arm – yes, both! – in 2007, some music friends organized daily delivery of food to my house, and others built a wheelchair ramp for me. I tell this story to people outside the bluegrass community and they don’t believe me. They say, “Are you Amish??” I didn’t know the meaning of the word community until I started playing bluegrass. 

DB: Do you have any shows of interest coming up?

LB: Sidesaddle & Co. are at Sam’s every second Tuesday of the month. The Goat Hill Girls are at the Summit Bar and Grill in San Jose every first Thursday of the month. 

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to say or plug?

LB: RiverTunes camp is great – check it out on RiverTunes.net. 

DB: What makes RiverTunes so great?

LB: Several things. It’s all ages, so we have both kids and adults. There’s lots of silliness, like costumes and band scrambles. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re very eclectic – blues, folk, bluegrass, Hawaiian music. We have a loan-to-own program for beginners who want try out upright basses, autoharps, accordions, etc. Right now I have six upright basses in my van ready for RiverTunes beginners. And of course, we have Joe Craven as the camp director, teacher, and impresario. Need I say more? 

DB: Thank you Lisa. This was very informational.

LB: I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org. He is forever indebted to copy editor Jeanie Poling for cleaning up his act.