Planet Bass Ė The Wanda Ortiz Interview October 2004

Wanda Ortiz is a working bassist who plays with a band called Field Of Vision along side a very busy, all girl, Iron Maiden tribute band called the Iron Maidens. Wanda becomes Steph Harris in the Iron Maidens.  As well as her busy schedule with her 2 bands Wanda also does a lot of freelance orchestral work in Southern California.

www.theironmaidens.com

What inspired you to first pick up a bass and what were your first attempts at playing it like?

Since I was little, I have always loved music so I was very much looking forward to the day when I would get an opportunity to play an instrument. When I was 9 years old the school I was attending had a music program where, one day, we could all sign up to choose the instrument we wanted to study. At that point, my only exposure to music was from childrenís songs I would hear in school (by people like Shel Silverstein for example).  My parents didnít really listen to a lot of music at home so whatever music the school had was it for me.  Anyway, for whatever reason (I canít remember), I was late to music class on ďinstrument dayĒ. By the time I got there, every school instrument had been checked out except for one: a junior sized double bass. I had nothing else to choose from.  It was then that I decided to play bass.

I was pretty small back then and the instrument was a bit awkward but I thought I got around it alright. I donít remember having a lot of problems with it.  The teacher called me ďmighty mouseĒ.

Who were your early influences and what did you learn from them?

My early influences were my first music teachers Cynthia Endriss and Kim Brencik. They taught me the basics. Later on, I would get exposed to bass players like Steve Harris, Geddy Lee, and Chris Squire and learn that the bass was capable of so much more than just the standard ďmeat and potatoesĒ parts. Strangely enough, even though I started on upright bass, I didnít get much exposure to upright bass players until I studied bass in college.

Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?

I took lessons on upright bass but Iím self taught on electric bass.

Whatís the most important bit of advice you were given by another musician?

Well, there are actually a couple things:

I used to play on some pretty bad (cheap) basses until I attended a master class with Francois Rabbath. I was playing this really big Czech bass that was in really bad shape at the time. Mr. Rabbath took one look at that bass and told me that if I wanted to continue playing, I would need to get something better. Well, heís a world-renowned bass player who Iíve admired for a long time so I decided this was serious and got a new bass. Playing was so much easier after that.

Iíve read some interviews with Steve Harris and he stresses the importance of playing a bass line that makes the music as a whole sound good. I keep this in mind whenever and wherever Iím playing.  If there are grace notes in an orchestral piece, Iíll play them and see how they sound with the group of musicians Iím playing with. If they donít sound good for whatever reason, out they go. This same idea also helps me avoid the temptation to over play when there is no music to read.

Whatís the most important bit of advice you could give to new bassists?

Donít worry about being competitive or comparing yourself with other bass players. Just concentrate on your own playing and improve at your own pace. Youíll enjoy the bass a lot more that way.

Where do you stand on the old fingers vs. plectrums debate and why

These are just different playing techniques.  I have always preferred to play with my fingers because that was how I learned to play but I donít see anything wrong with using a pick if thatís what makes the music sound best.

Do you play 4, 5 or 6 string basses mainly? Fretted or unfretted?

4 string basses. Since I play both upright bass and electric bass, I get to play both unfretted and fretted basses.

How would you define your style of playing?

I think my playing is a hybrid of styles of bass players I like.

Tell us a little about the artists you have worked with, and how/if you adapted to playing with each of them?

I did a CD not that long ago with Uriah Heepís former singer Steve Fontaine. The project was called Heartache City and featured a guitarist with some really amazing chops. Both he and Steve liked to be a little over the top as far as their parts were concerned so it took a lot of thought on my part to come up with bass lines that were interesting yet complimented the music. I had to keep it simple on quite a few numbers otherwise it just would have been too much.

One of my busiest projects is The Iron Maidens, an all-girl tribute to Iron Maiden. Since we play cover songs, all I have to do is learn my parts off of CDs. The girls are all great musicians so there is very little adjusting that needs to be done. On occasion it will take a little time to get in sync on a song here or there but it always works out in the end. Much of Iron Maidenís music is intricate with exposed bass lines so you need to always be cognizant of what everyone else is doing.

Who was the most inspirational and in what way?

Stylistically, David Walter for upright bass and Steve Harris for electric bass.

Do you warm up before a gig and if so how?

It depends. If Iím playing upright bass, I like to warm up for at least 20 minutes. It seems to take that long just to get the instrument to sound good. I usually just play a scale or two and then a piece that Iím working on for fun. I typically donít warm up on the electric bass unless I am uncertain of a part and then Iíll run it before the show.

Do you have any other last minute rituals or habits before a gig?

I tune.

What do you drink onstage?

Water.

Have you ever played while drunk or under the influence of drugs?

No.

Whatís the biggest disaster youíve ever had onstage, and how did you cope with it?

At one venue, there was a bar table that was connected to the stage. Well, I thought it would be fun to run out there on top of that table while playingÖunfortunately, it was wet so I slipped and fell off right into some guyís lap. It was pretty embarrassing. I just climbed back up on stage as quickly as I could and only missed a few notes. I was still playing while in that guyís lap. I hope heís okay.

Whatís the biggest disaster youíve ever had in the studio, and how did you cope with it?

It happened while the girls and I were recording our full-length tribute CD to Iron Maiden. Before recording, I would listen to the originals first on the studio speakers and found that I had learned and had been playing one song all wrong.  I had to relearn it all right then and there and then record it the same day.

Whatís been your proudest playing moment?

Playing well during my juries in college so I could get my performance degree. Many people donít realize how hard it is to be a music major. In addition to all your coursework, you need to set aside ample time for practice. I had to work too so this was hard for me but it was worth the struggle because I learned a lot.

Whatís been the most fun playing moment, and why?

I donít think I have only one ď most fun playing momentĒ. I have the most fun playing anything fun and challenging which I try to do as often as possible.

Whatís been the least fun playing moment, and why?

Playing boring bass lines in an orchestra.  Iíve had a lot of those ďleast fun playing momentsĒ.  Have you ever played Debussyís ďPrelude To The Afternoon Of A FaunĒ?  Itís a great tune to listen to but a total sleeper to play. There are way too many whole notes. Itís not so bad when the bass parts arenít that fun in a rock song because you typically only have to suffer through it for about 3 to 5 minutes.  In an orchestral piece, you are stuck for what seems like an eternity and you find yourself turning the page during rests to see how much longer there is to go.

What equipment do you use live and in the studio and why?

G&L basses, Rotosound strings, and SWR amps and speaker cabs. G&L was the last company Leo Fender owned before he passed away. I had always liked Fender basses but I was curious about this new company so I decided to check out their basses and liked the way they fit and played. Rotosound strings are very reliable and sound great. I donít think Iíve ever broken one of their strings.  As for SWR amps and speaker cabs, well, they have a big warm sound that I really like. Itís a little bit of a challenge to get the right sound with SWR when playing with The Iron Maidens so I may be looking at getting some new gear. Iím still going to keep what I have though.

Are you fairly flexible about the equipment you use or must you always play with the same gear?

I like using my own gear when I can because I know how it works. For out of town shows when I have to use backline, Iíll take anything as long as it works.

What one piece of equipment would you advise all bass players to own?

A back-up bass.

Do you read music?

Yes.

Do you play any other instruments, and how well?

I played clarinet for a while until I broke it twirling it around.  I also mess around on piano and guitar sometimes but Iím not very good.  Iíll only play bass in public.

Do you write or co-write songs and if so do you write on the bass?

Only when the opportunity arises while playing with an original project. Most people want you to play songs that are already written. When I do write, I write mostly on bass. Sometimes Iíll come up with a nice vocal line or guitar riff but it doesnít happen very often. I only have fragments of ideas at this point because I havenít played with many groups where I get to write anything.

Do you ever play cover versions, and if so how do you learn the originals note for note or do you improvise you own parts?

With The Iron Maidens I learn the originals note for note. Itís expected because weíre a tribute band.

Do you sing? Do you feel it is important?

Only back-up vocals on occasion. I think singing helps you develop your ear. I had to learn how to sight sing in college and I didnít like it but it helped me with bass. When youíre singing, there are no frets to look at so you have to know whatís going on in your head. If you know whatís going on in your head, then you know what the music is supposed to sound like on your bass.

If you could nominate one song that youíve recorded to sum up your playing style and feel which one would it be?

Iíve played too many different styles for one song to represent them all.

What have you been doing recently?

Iím keeping busy playing with The Iron Maidens and an original band (Field of Vision). I also do freelance work whenever I can with orchestras and chamber groups in Southern California.

Do you have a personal or band website? Or would you like to recommend any other useful websites?

www.theironmaidens.com

www.glguitars.com

www.rotosound.com