Interview: Steve Harris on Iron Maiden's Foundation | Bacon's Archive

Iron Maiden (1983). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer

Steve Harris is the heart of Iron Maiden, which he formed in 1975. Ever since, through the band’s rise to worldwide fame, he’s remained as Maiden’s solid, dependable bass player and the principal songwriter. And it’s clear from what he says in this interview which of those two key roles takes precedence. “I’m more interested in writing good songs,” he explains. “I’ve never been worried about being some great bass player.” Not that he’s in the habit of putting himself down—he just likes to be realistic. And as we’ll see, he still has a lot to say about bass playing.

Harris' pub as it appeared in 2013, when he sold his house.

I interviewed him in 1992, just before the release of Iron Maiden's ninth studio album, Fear of the Dark. We met at Sheering Hall, Steve's expansive mansion in Essex, where the LP was recorded in the on-site Barnyard studio.

I was disappointed when he suggested we do the interview in the pub, as I was keen to see more of the magnificent house. No matter—it turned out to be Steve's personal pub, the Horse & Cart, built into yet another of the mansion's many rooms. It had a full-size pool table, Ruddles County on tap, and evidently no closing time.

We settled down for the first pint of the day and a wide-ranging chat around the role of bass in Iron Maiden.

When did you first get into playing bass, Steve?

I started quite late—I was 17 when I started—compared to a lot of people who tend to start around 11, 12. But then sometimes I think if you start early you can burn yourself out by the time you're 18, 19, and get bored or whatever. Anyway, it worked for me starting late. I didn't have the interest before that. I did in the sense of listening to music and bands and all that, but I didn't get seriously into music until about 15.

Why bass?

Probably because I couldn't play drums, I s'pose. I really wanted to play drums originally. But there's no way I could've played drums—I didn't have anywhere to put a kit and practice or anything. So I thought, well, next best thing is to play along with the drums. I'd always liked the beat and the power of the bass and drums.

Somebody actually said to me: "You've got to learn acoustic guitar before you can play the bass." I didn't know any better then, so I learnt a few chords on acoustic, got fed up with that, thought well, this isn't getting me anywhere as far as the bass goes. So I went out and bought myself a Shaftesbury copy of a Fender Telecaster Bass.

Did that serve you well?

I s'pose I had that for about six months, and then I chopped that in for a Hayman. They got taken over later by Shergold, but they didn't change the name or anything on the guitars when they took them over. I had one of them for a while.

The first Fender I picked up was a Jazz, and then I realized that wasn't what I wanted, so I changed to a Precision, and I've used Precisions ever since. I just found the Precisions were best for me, and I still use them now. I really like the bottom end, the roundness on the bottom end of a Precision. I can get a real lot of top, and real lows, the midrange, everything, and all really solid.

Anyway, in the meantime I tried out loads of different basses. I had a Rickenbacker for a while, I had a Gibson Thunderbird. You tend to try different guitars like that because of people you like. The Gibson Thunderbird was used by Entwistle, Martin Turner, Pete Way, and they're all totally different bass players, all had totally different sounds, and I thought I'd try one out because I really liked their playing and their sounds. But when I got one I hated it. It was horrible, it just didn't work for me at all.

Can you remember the first thing you learned to play?

[Pause.] I can't, actually, no. I remember trying to play along to Free, Black Sabbath, Wishbone Ash, stuff like that. I can't really remember what the first song I learnt was. I remember having trouble with the riff in "Paranoid" [sings the fast "front" bit of the riff], that bit, I couldn't play that to start with. But I'd only been playing 10 months, I s'pose.

My attitude was always not to get bogged down with it, to leave it till you feel that you want to play, you know? And now I don't practice for hours and hours every day, I just pick it up when I feel I want to practice. So that time, I just left it for a couple of days, then went back to it, and I was able to play it. I think if you keep going over and over something you just end up getting frustrated, you get fed up with it.

What did you find the hardest thing about bass when you were starting out?

The action on my guitar [laughs]. I could probably have got my fingers underneath it and played! I didn't know how to adjust the truss rod or anything like that at that time. It's like anything, trial and error, learn as you go along, by messing about with things.

When did you move from playing in your bedroom to playing in bands?

I did my first ever gig after I'd been playing for 10 months, it was like a band competition in Poplar [east London], the Aberfeldy street festival. It was before Maiden was formed in '75, so it must have been about '73. The band was called Influence, and we later changed our name to Gypsy's Kiss. We did three of our own songs.

All we had to do was about 15 minutes for this competition, and I remember I was so nervous, because there was one song where I played this bass intro thing. I was so nervous that I buggered it up. The singer thought I was tuning up [laughs]. Once the rest of the band came in, I was all right. The other songs I played OK on, too. But that was the first experience of going on stage. There were quite a few people there, because there was lots of different bands on—pop bands, a reggae band, stuff like that.

Did you win?

We came second. No truth to the rumor that there was only three bands [laughs]. About eight or nine, I think. And obviously quite a good experience. But we only did about another five gigs after that, proper gigs in pubs, the Cart & Horses in Stratford, the Bridge House in Canning Town [both east London], and then split up.

I think I was using the Hayman bass, maybe. We did three or four of our own songs and the rest were covers: Wishbone Ash, Sabbath, Free, Thin Lizzy, that sort of stuff. After that, I went and joined a band through an ad in the paper. They were a bit older than me, all about 26, 27—I was 18.

Early Iron Maiden recordings, featuring former vocalist Dennis Wilcock.

Did you have to audition?

Yeah, I went to a place near Tottenham way [north London]. They were rehearsing in the back of a pub. They were doing more rock-blues stuff, early Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown, that sort of stuff, as well as rock stuff, Wishbone Ash, Free, which was mainly why I joined, because they were doing that as well. I wasn't mad about the rock-blues side of it, but I thought well, it's good experience. And when I got there I got them doing a bit of Montrose and stuff like that, a bit more on the harder side.

What didn't you like about the rock-blues stuff?

I enjoyed playing it, because I'd never really played that sort of stuff before, but I was never really a major blues fan. I like blues-influenced stuff. I mean, Free were obviously influenced by the blues, but they took it somewhere else, and I was more interested in that rather than just the straight blues. I used to enjoy playing the Fleetwood Mac stuff and that, but I wouldn't want to play it all night.

There were two twin brothers playing lead guitar, and they were well into blues stuff. They'd get an album and say let's do something off this, say Savoy Brown, and I'd always pick the most rocky thing on there rather than the bluesy stuff.

I think that's why we parted ways in the end, because when I started writing a couple of songs they were more heavy rock–based, with time changes and stuff in there, and that wasn't really the direction they wanted to go. So I thought, well, I might as well go off and form my own band, and I can do what I want then.

That's when I formed Maiden, that was '75. But I must have done 30 or 40 gigs with Smiler. Not that many, but it gave me a lot of experience. So it was also good that it built up a few contacts at the gigs, which later on did us a lot of good as far as getting a few gigs for Maiden. Because Smiler did have a little bit of a following happening.

Did you feel that your bass style was coming together?

I didn't analyze it, really, and I s'pose I still don't. I didn't sit down and think oh, I want to get a style of my own. I suppose everyone thinks that it would be nice to do something a bit different. It just happened naturally, by listening to lots of different bands.

Our influences in Maiden were so wide, everything from Free to Black Sabbath to Jethro Tull to Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy, Golden Earring and stuff, a lot of different types of music there. There was no rules and regulations, still ain't as far we're concerned. I suppose broadly speaking it's still rock, but it was wide in them days, wider than it is now.

Iron Maiden - "Hallowed Be Thy Name," Live at Long Beach Arena

People might say: "Ah, Steve Harris, yes: that galloping sixteenth-notes style."

Well [pause]—yeah, but that's only part of what I do. There's been I suppose three or four songs like that along the way, "The Trooper," "Evil That Men Do," stuff like that. "The Trooper" was a big song, a lot of people really like that, but that's not just what we're about, there's a lot more to it than that. But the thing is, that type of song is very—you can play it up-tempo and it's quite an attacking style of song. You put two harmonies over the top of it, whatever, and it works.

People can say what they like about my playing, but I'm more interested in writing good songs, anyway. I've never been worried about being, you know, some great bass player. I mean obviously it's important to me that I play well, but I've never really taken it too seriously if I win polls and that, because it's just the popularity of the band, anyway. Sometimes you get people come top of the polls that aren't particularly great players or good players, sometimes, but because of the popularity of the band. Not putting myself down or anything, but being realistic about it.

"People can say what they like about my playing, but I'm more interested in writing good songs, anyway. I've never been worried about being, you know, some great bass player."

Most people around now are probably technically better than me, but it's whether people like listening to them or not within a song structure. I've always thought it's important that whatever I do is within a song, not going out on a limb and doing some big solo. Loads of people say, "Oh why haven't you done a bass solo?" Because they're bloody boring, that's why! I've only ever seen three bass players in all the years I've been going to see bands that I thought were really, really interesting when they did bass solos.

One was Billy Sheehan, when he was with Talas, supporting us, and what he did was just outrageous. Rinus Gerritsen from Golden Earring, you're talking about maybe 15 years ago [speaking in 1992], and at the time I thought it was brilliant.

And I went to see Nectar and they had a German band supporting them called Kraan, this again was maybe 15 years ago. I'd never heard of them at the time, probably a lot of people still haven't, and the bass player [Hellmut Hattler with his Rickenbacker 4001] did this solo and it was just unbelievable, outrageous. It was that good that he even stopped in the middle of it and said to the audience, "Look, hold on, you're clapping out of time." He got them back in time with him, said, "Ah, OK," and carried on. Confidence, or what?

So for you it's a matter of whether or not a bass player holds attention.

Yeah, you get some people do something interesting, but they go on that little bit too long, that little bit too self-indulgent. I mean, that's boring. It's not just bassists: you get the same thing with drums. I remember when I saw Zeppelin at Earl's Court in '75, they were brilliant, they really were amazing, but there was a keyboard solo for 20 minutes, a guitar solo for 20 minutes, a drum solo, you're talking about almost an hour of soloing. Admittedly they used to play for nearly three hours or whatever, but really I'd rather see either two hours, or three hours of all the songs you want to hear. And that's one of the reasons we've never really done any solos.

We let Nicko [McBrain] do a drum solo when he first joined, on the Piece Of Mind tour, because we thought well, he's a new boy in the band, he should just show what he can do, I s'pose. After that, though, it was no, it's not needed, especially if you've got so many songs. We tried it a few more times, different approaches to guitar solos, different sorts of sound, guitar synths, more Floyd-y sort of stuff rather than a big mad guitar solo, stage effects and stuff—but after a couple of tours we binned that out as well.

It's hard enough a problem trying to fit in the set now with all the songs, as it is, without trying to find a place for a solo. Besides, we've always felt that they can show what they can do during the songs, anyway.

What did you like about Billy Sheehan's playing?

It was such a different way of playing the bass. He played it more like a guitar, really. I suppose he probably was a guitar player before, and it was very much attacked from a guitar point of view rather than a bass. He was transferring what you'd do on guitar to the bass. Chords, yes, but also a lot of hammer-ons and stuff like that. Not only that, I mean technically he was great, but also he was such a great showman as well, playing behind his head, throwing the guitar up, turning around, all this sort of stuff. So you had the best of both worlds, really.

And then of course he went and played with David Lee Roth, together with Steve Vai, and it was just unbelievable. I think he's sort of an exception, in a way. The strange thing is, though, now he's had so much success with Mr Big with ["To Be With You"] where he's playing as straight as you can. Well—it's all down to songs, isn't it, at the end of the day? You have to play what the song needs.

Some people have said to me, "Ah, the songs you're doing now, you don't play technically as much as you used to." But that's because the song's structured in such a way that it doesn't need it. If I was to put basslines in all over the place, it would just be totally self-indulgent for me and ruin the song. So... anyway—another pint?

Oh, yes thanks. What about Rinus Gerritsen, the Golden Earring bloke, what was he like?

I'd always liked his style, I've been a fan for years. Every album they make I still go out and buy, and they still write great songs. First time I saw them was '74 at the Rainbow—they had Lynyrd Skynyrd supporting, and it really pissed me off, because although I like Lynyrd Skynyrd and they were very good, the reports tended to give them a better write-up than Earring. And there was no comparison. Not being biased, but when Earring came on it was just amazing. Skynyrd were great too, but the reviews pissed me off.

What was Gerritsen's solo like back then?

He just did stuff that I'd never seen before, really out there. He used some different sound effects, which I'd never really heard too much before, but just his style of attack, it was really different. The sound he had was sort of toppy, a sort of grunting sound [laughs], with a lot of top. I liked that. In a way that's the sort of sound I go for live—not the same as him, but along the same lines.

Iron Maiden - "The Trooper"

Do you have a good memory for bass parts on stage?

Do I forget them, you mean [laughs]? You do tend to get a mental block now and then, I s'pose. That usually happens at the start of a tour, and quite often it can be with stuff that you've been playing for years, as well. You might go running across the stage and forget where you are—"Ah, shit!"—but obviously it comes back, you manage to blag your way out of it. Everyone makes mistakes.

If I was to stand in the corner and just watch what I was playing, I probably wouldn't put a foot wrong. But it's not really about that, it's about adrenaline, the feel of going out there and going for it. I'd be bored if I just stood in one place. It's like a physical thing as well as a technical thing.

There are quite a lot of sections and changes to some of the songs, so there's quite a lot to remember.

Oh yeah, that's the influences coming in from Yes, Genesis, Floyd, Tull, that sort of stuff. That's what we wanted, to incorporate those time changes with the heaviness of Sabbath, Purple, a bit of Zeppelin thrown in, and the harmony guitars of Wishbone Ash as well. So yeah, there's a lot going on, but you get to the point, specially with stuff you've been playing for some time, where you don't even have to think about it. That's actually when you sometimes make mistakes—when you start thinking about what you're doing, believe it or not. Strange. Normally you do it without thinking about it.

If you start thinking Oh blimey, what's that bit coming up next? then it's already gone and you've buggered it. Everybody makes mistakes. Bruce [Dickinson] sometimes goes out and forgets, and the worst thing for him is he's out front, so if he forgets the first word of a line, that's buggered him for the whole line. Quite often with our stuff there's not time to get back into it.

It's all very well saying you'd like things perfect. But I think we are consistent as a live band. With the live stuff on record, there's been a couple of bum notes on live stuff we've put out—there's a couple on Live After Death [1985 live album and video]—but it's nothing that bad. I'd rather put out something that's representative of what we are rather than do loads of overdubs.

Where's your technique at now?

I've always played with my fingers. There's only been a couple of occasions when I played with a pick, when I wanted to play something really outrageous—doubling up rhythm, say. On the new album [Fear Of The Dark, 1992], on "Childhood's End," there's like a chord thing where I play single notes on one bit and I overdubbed a bass chord as well. I started using a pick at first, but then I got rid of that, didn't like it, and I played it with four fingernails, almost like a scratchboard, which got the sound I wanted.

It almost sounded like a pick, but actually I was playing downstrokes across all four strings, strumming with my four fingernails. That was mixed in—playing like that, obviously I'm not gonna get so much weight on it, so I actually put single notes on played with fingers, and mixed them together, during the choruses.

If we do that song live, I don't know what I'm gonna do [laughs]. I'll probably have to play the part with the fingernails. I've found over the last few albums I've been playing more bass chords than ever, to get the weight. Like when the guitars break out into a harmony-guitar section, it leaves things open, so to get the weight I tend to play a lot of bass chords, usually barre chords, like strumming downstrokes, playing the four strings.

Do you use the first two fingers of your right hand? And what about nails?

Those two, yeah. When I'm recording, I tend to keep the nails longish, to get that treble attack on it. But I can't do that live because they just break off. You just naturally hit the thing harder. There's no point, so I tend to trim them right down. Otherwise I'd just split them and it makes things worse.

Do you get much damage to the fingers themselves?

Yeah, the first couple of weeks I get blisters. Then they burst. They're really, really sore for a few days, then they go really hard, and that's it. They stay like that for the rest of the tour. The only bugbear is that when you play somewhere really, really hot and get really sweaty, your hands go soft, and that completely changes your sound. Your fingers tend to sort of sink into the strings, almost. And there's nothing you can do about that, it's the temperature of the place.

That's why I prefer to play in places that are a little bit colder. Also, that maintains your treble output, and the attack is more even, the fingers stay hard and solid. Very big difference: It's like someone put a muffler over your speakers. So, you just have to add more top-end to try and compensate, but there's not a lot you can do.

With the blisters, have you tried putting stuff on to harden them?

Yeah [dismissively], tried that. Doesn't work. I tried that Nu Skin stuff, when I've had a blister that's come open, when you're through to the skin underneath, that's really sore. But once you get out playing, get the adrenaline going, you tend to be alright anyway. It hurts a bit, but sometimes the pain—you just grit your teeth and get on with it. Weird.

Do you use all four fingers on the left hand?

Oh yeah, all four. Obviously I bridge a lot between the first and the last finger, and I do play a lot of bass chords, as I said. I tend to get quite hard skin on the little finger just on the outside edge, because I'm barre-ing a lot.

Still using Rotosound Jazz Bass flatwounds?

Yeah. I originally used roundwounds, and if I played a quiet section it screeched so much as I moved my fingers along the strings, moving up barre chords or whatever, that I ended up using the flatwounds, for that reason. Plus you don't churn your fingers up so much. They were interested in me endorsing them, so I said yeah, I'd love to, if it works.

How do you feel about endorsements?

I don't put my name to anything I don't use—it's pointless. I'm not a guitar collector, I don't want loads of guitars for nothing just because I know I can get them. There's no point if I'm not going to use them. No point putting my name to something in an ad, and I don't use it, and then someone goes out to buy one because he thinks I use them. It's what I did years ago, the Gibson Thunderbird; the Rickenbacker because of Chris Squire.

I do have a deal with Fender now, and I don't know why it hasn't come together before, really. I'm really happy about it, because I've always used them. They know that—it's not just me trying to get some free guitars [laughs]. There's a lot of talk at the moment that looks pretty good about me doing a signature series for them. [Fender would issue Steve's first signature Precision in 2001.]

The Custom Shop just did a couple of jobs for me. I had a Fender before, had it sprayed black-and-white check, really liked that, so I got Fender to do me one, and they did a brilliant job. I might do that for the signature, though of course my blue one is the one I've used most.

I use the blue Precision mainly, and then depending on whether the strings go, the sound starts to go—it really depends on the temperature at the gig and stuff—and I might have to change the guitar halfway through the set. Sometimes if it's colder I can get almost to the end of the set, and there's been cases where I've used it for the whole set. I use the blue one first, the black-and-white-check one for backup. Originally, the blue one was white, and I had it sprayed black, used it in the early pub gigs and stuff, and then had it sprayed blue, and it's been like that ever since.

On this new album [Fear Of The Dark] I used about five different Precisions that I've got, for different songs, because they've all got different qualities to them. Some are a bit more middle-y, some more bottom-y. They do vary.

Why do you think that happens? Is it the wood, the pickups, what?

The pickups are pretty much standard. Seymour Duncan does those, he tries to make them the same as the pickups in the blue one. We thought about getting a graphic to tweak so that they all sounded pretty much the same, to even the sound out, so that if I changed guitars live it wouldn't be too much of a difference in sound. But although they're all Precisions, they all sound different. Not vastly, but enough.

I think a lot of it's down to the wood, yes, the density of the wood. The blue one in particular is so heavy and dense. The Custom Shop took all the measurements and weighed it and everything and built me another one, and it does feel the same, but it still doesn't sound the same. I'm not one of these people who thinks, Oh, old guitars are best. If the guitar's well made and everything, I don't care if it was made last week. That one does sound the best out of all of them, though. If I lost that I'd be well pissed off.

What else have you done to it?

I took the tone pot out, from the early days. When we used to play smaller places, the fans would lean forward and touch the controls. I'd be thinking, Cor, where's all me treble gone? Oh, they've bloody turned it down! So we de-wired it—but obviously I couldn't de-wire the volume because I have to be able to turn it up and down during the gig. And you'd know if someone turned your volume down. But with the tone just moved a bit, you'd wonder what was going on.

So now, if I want to change the top-end, I look at my bass tech and point to my shoulder and a thumbs up or down, our little system. For bottom, I pat myself on the arse. I s'pose everybody does that sort of thing?

Er, maybe [laughs]. It's unusual for a bass player to be the leader of the band—I presume you do see yourself as the leader?

Yes and no. I do make a lot of decisions, but when there's anything major we all get together and decide in the band. But someone has to take the bull by the horns and make decisions. For some things, if we're in far-flung places, it's just impossible to get five people in the same place at the same time, so someone has to make decisions on behalf of the band, and that's usually me. I don't think it really matters who it is, so long as someone does it. Doesn't make any difference.

Davey [Murray]'s been in the band longest, other than me, and he wouldn't be interested in doing any of the stuff I have to do—he's never been interested in it, never will be. He's a muso in the real sense of the word. All he wants to do is get up and play. And that's all he's ever had to do. So he's happy. Sometimes I think Wouldn't it be wonderful to do that? But I know I wouldn't be happy. I wouldn't be able to rest unless I knew I was involved in something, knowing it's going to get done right.

Doesn't that create business problems? Iron Maiden must make a fair amount of money, and if someone's doing more of the work, surely they should get a bigger cut?

No, we all get an equal cut. The only difference is with the publishing, the writing. In the early days, I used to write everything, so the pressure was on me. So the attitude was, if I'm getting that pressure—and even now, whoever's writing is spending time writing while the others are, I don't know, down the pub or on holiday or whatever—then it's only fair that people get paid who do the work. But as far as tours and the album and everything, then that is the band.

Iron Maiden - "Infinite Dreams" (Live)

Speaking of tours, what do you like to have coming through your monitor live?

I don't have any bass coming through the monitors. In the side-fills, we have just drums. We have two sets of side-fills, one pretty much at the front to reach across the catwalks, with kick, snare, and a smattering of toms. In my wedges, I have my own vocal, kick, and snare drum. There's no guitars whatsoever in the side-fills, just vocals, in the big side-fills at the back. Davey and Janick [Gers] have their own guitars through their own wedge.

Some bands like to have loads of guitars through the side-fills as well, but it just becomes a mess, I would have thought. How the vocalist can hear himself with all that going I just don't know. Our backline is fairly loud—but there's pockets of areas. Stand in front of your own stack and you'll hear yourself good, obviously. And that's good, because everyone has their own little area. That's why at certain times in certain songs I have to go back to an area on the stage where I can hear myself more.

Do you still get nerves?

Oh, I always get nerves, yeah. Time to worry is when you don't. It's only half an hour beforehand, sometimes I feel a bit sick, the old butterflies going, and then once you hit the stage it goes. No problems once you hit the stage. The only time it lasted longer was Donington [Monsters Of Rock festival, 1988], when it lasted about four songs into the set. Just the occasion, I s'pose. Really nervous. I ended up giving myself a talking to. "Get yourself together, otherwise you're going to blow it!" I settled down after that.

What happens when you've got nerves as you go on?

You play faster! You play faster live anyway, because of the adrenaline, and because it's very difficult to pin it down to how it should be. But we play best when we're on the edge, anyway. If you go over that edge then you lose it, it becomes a bit messy, no light and shade. But it's good when it's right on that edge and really fired up, really exciting. You've just got to be careful you don't go over that edge. It's an instinctive thing.


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Bass Book, The Ultimate Guitar Book, and Electric Guitars: Design & Invention. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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