As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine, Issue 8
She almost became Dr. Angeline Saris—the degree in this case being Juris Doctor—but upon graduating from UC Berkeley, it became clear that music, not law, was her career path.
Today, Saris is a sought-after bassist and songwriter who has appeared on sessions and onstage with an A-list of artists, from Carlos Santana to Narada Michael Walden. Fans also know her for the years she spent with Zepparella. Saris has recorded solo material, instructional DVDs for Hal Leonard, worked as an instructor at the National Guitar Workshop, and currently teaches via private lessons.
She is also one-half of the duo ANGELEX, which she formed with drummer Lex Razon. Blending a musical encyclopedia of genres—funk, jazz, rock, metal, dubstep, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban, and metal—the two, joined by some of the Bay Area’s top players, released their debut album, Tight Lips, last year.
There is a comment on one of your social media posts: “My happy place will always be with a bass in my hands.” You began playing in high school at age 15. What made it the right instrument for you?
My high school music teacher knew I wasn’t happy on the clarinet and that I wanted to try something different. His bass player in the jazz band was graduating, and he needed someone for the spot the following year, so he asked me if I was interested. I had been an admirer of the jazz band from afar my whole freshman year, so the idea of joining it and getting to play that kind of music on bass was a dream come true.
What I didn’t know at the time was how much I would grow to love the bass itself. My teacher taught me a piece called “Tradewinds” that he had written using chords above the 12th fret. I remember being captivated by the soft and melodic sounds of an instrument that could also be so thunderous and powerful. I love that the bass can be both. I also love its understated role—I’m totally OK just being in the back, standing next to the drummer and laying down the groove for the rest of the band to sit on.
Your roots are in jazz. What was the appeal, and how does it influence and enhance your work in other genres?
I love all different types of music, but I especially appreciate jazz because of the improvisational element. Learning to craft accurate and interesting walking bass lines on the spot requires an understanding of theory and chord structure that has immensely helped me in my career. I can learn songs much faster since I understand how and why a bass player is choosing to craft a bass line. Understanding the theory behind a song also allows me to have fun with the part by changing it up, adding new fills or spins on a groove. I think this is particularly important when you’ve played a song a few hundred—or thousand!—times and want to keep it fresh.
You primarily—not exclusively, but primarily—use Fender basses and amps, and you are a Fender endorsing artist. When did you discover Fender gear, and what makes it right for your music?
I remember going to Gelb Music in Redwood City, California, about 15 years ago and trying what is now my Fender Jazz American Deluxe FMT. I fell in love with the signature Fender sound, the way it played, and the honey flame color was unlike any I had ever seen before. I saved up for six months and went back and bought it. That bass has been my main baby ever since. It was even stolen about two years ago and thankfully came back to me!
About five years after I bought it, Fender saw me in an ad for GHS Strings and reached out to me. Their timing could not have been better because I had just blown up my other amp onstage—smoke and all coming out of it! They brought me on as an endorser and sent me the Super Bassman Pro 300-watt head along with an 810 cab, which has been my main touring rig for the last seven years. The sound of tubes is so warm and powerful; it’s everything I love in a bass sound. Plus the 300-watt head has an LED readout on the back that constantly monitors and re-biases the tubes. Anyone who plays a tube amp knows just how finicky they can be and how helpful this is. I don’t know any other company that has that. It’s great.
I also have the Fender Rumble 500 amp with a 4×10 for smaller local shows. That 500 is so clean and powerful—and only 5 pounds! It’s my favorite amp for slapping. The cabinets all have neodymium speakers, so they are lightweight, which is especially awesome when you are moving all your own gear.
You recently added a Framus & Warwick Custom Triumph Electric upright to your rig. Tell us about that bass, the process of finding exactly what you wanted in this model, and your technique on the electric upright.
I taught two years ago at the Warwick Bass Camp in Germany and first tried their Triumph electric upright there. Some electric uprights can sound thin or more like an electric than I like. I found the Triumph truly sounded more like an actual acoustic upright. This really appealed to my personal aesthetic. I had them add a stacked parametric midrange pot so I have the option of more tonal variety. I also got to design the look of the bass, which was a first for me! I am a classic muscle car lover, so I picked an orange Super Sport double racing stripe on top of a charcoal flame. It came out so slick looking, I couldn’t be happier!
I use the upright mostly when I tour with Ernest Ranglin, for those deep reggae bass sounds. I have also started using it in my own project ANGELEX and with Narada Michael Walden for songs off the new 2019 album Immortality.
In a 2014 video interview for GHS Strings, for whom you are also a longtime endorsing artist, you discussed four techniques of playing bass. When did you discover these techniques, and how do they speak to your original material?
If I remember correctly, the four techniques I discuss are open-hammer-pluck, palm muting, finger funk, and tapping.
I discovered the open-hammer-pluck technique when I first heard Victor Wooten’s album A Show of Hands in college and was like, “What?!” Victor played the bass in a way I had never heard before, and I had to know how. I studied magazine transcriptions, read his book, went to clinics, and was even able to take a lesson with him once.
I learned about tapping when I played in a Flamenco speed-metal band called Flametal about 12 years ago. Uriah Duffy had been the bass player before me, but when he got the Whitesnake gig, I filled in for him. He’s an insanely talented player and had written really cool bass parts that involved hammering on chords and fast arpeggiated tapping lines. Those techniques were new to me at the time, so it was super-fun shedding on them and getting them under my belt.
I don’t think I talk about double-thumbing in the video, but I am a huge Larry Graham fan, and when I started to incorporate palm muting into my style, double-thumbing was just the next obvious step for adding some extra stank in some of my funk playing.
I use all of these techniques when I play shows or write. They are all just tools in the shed for when the time is right.
In addition to funk, you work in jazz, rock, R&B, pop, fusion, hip-hop, reggae, flamenco, and speed metal. Would you say that each genre is distinct to you as a player, or is there a connecting thread in your approach and attack?
It’s a little bit of both. If you look at the history of American music, there are undeniable common threads between blues, funk, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. So with those genres, there are definitely some similarities in my approach on bass. Overall, I do my best to learn the nuances of a genre, though. One example might be tone. If I was playing metal, I’d most likely swap from my usual GHS Boomers to a brighter string, like Super Steels, or conversely use flatwounds and a P Bass if I was playing reggae. My goal is always to honor the song and the genre while also making it my own.
Low end is the universal language and Holy Grail of bass. What does that term mean to you?
When I think of low end, I think of the inherent power of that frequency range to harmonically shape and support a band, to accent a big heavy drop, or to play a funky line and make people dance. Bass also has the unique ability to occupy the realm of both rhythm and melody. I can consider this low end the glue that holds everything together.
Is the musicality of the bass underrated or underappreciated, or perhaps unknown, by people who think of it solely as part of a rhythm section?
Yes. I certainly wouldn’t say bass as a lead melodic instrument is all that common or well known. Jaco Pastorius was one of the first players I can think of who really took bass out of its traditional rhythm section role and wrote tunes like “Continuum” and “Portrait of Tracy,” where the bass functioned more as a lead melody instrument. Since then, people like Michael Manring and Victor Wooten continue to redefine bass. They have had a huge influence on me and my own writing style and, I believe, the bass world overall.
In addition to writing, recording, and live performances, you teach privately, via Skype, and also participate in camps and clinics. What do students want to know, and what do they need to know?
Everything and anything! It varies pretty heavily from student to student. Some of my students just want to learn tunes, others slapping, some reading music, some theory, some groove. Oftentimes they are surprised about the amount of work and consistency over time it takes to achieve small goals. My approach as an instructor is to not only teach the specifics of theory and technique, but also to emphasize the importance of patience, kindness to oneself as well as others when learning, openness to new genres, music, and people, determination and good habits, and honor and respect for the art form in all of its many manifestations.
Of course, we must talk about the new ANGELEX album, Tight Lips. Can you walk us through the recording process?
We were lucky enough to do almost the entire album at 25th Street Recording in Oakland. We used different chains for different tunes, but for the most part it was an Éclair Evil Twin for the DI and FET 47 on the bass cab with Neve Preamps. An 1176 was most definitely in there too. All of that went through the studio’s API Vision Console. As far as instruments, I mostly used my Fender Jazz American Deluxe through either my 300-watt Super Bassman Pro or my Rumble 500 amp, either direct or with my Rumble 410 cabinet. Scott Bergstrom was the engineer on the session and a total master at his craft, so we just let him work his magic.
ANGELEX began as a rhythm section that developed from practice sessions for you and Lex Razon. How did you develop it into what it has become?
I would record our practice sessions to listen back and learn about what I could improve on and what sounded OK. In listening back, I discovered we actually had some pretty cool original ideas in our jams. I remember thinking that it might be cool to hear some of these ideas professionally recorded. We booked a few sessions at our friend’s studio, Allegiant Recording, here in Marin, invited Eric Levy on keys, Aaron Saul on sax, and ended up with our first single, “Space Train.” We were so happy with the way the single turned out, it inspired us to do more. We revisited some of the old ideas, developed them, and realized we had enough material to make a full album, so we went for it. Two years later we had ANGELEX’s first album, Tight Lips.
You and Lex perform as a full band, with sometimes almost a dozen people onstage, and the lineup rotates. How does that challenge you in terms of arrangements, interpretations, and as a rhythm section working with different musicians and their styles and tones?
Before starting ANGELEX, both Lex and I spent our careers as hired guns working for other artists. Through that, we met so many musicians in the community. When it came time to pull people into our project, it was easy. We had a pool of amazing, awesome friends to work with. While we do occasionally rotate members, we have actually formed a more regular cast now that consists of Luq Frank on vocals, John Varn on keys, Lindsay Ferguson on percussion, Aaron Saul on alto sax, Chris Brown or Ryan Scott on trumpet, Cam Perridge on guitar, and Chris Burger, Michael Blake, and Jeremy Claw as MC. It’s a huge band and can be a lot to manage, but when we get cooking onstage, it’s contagiously electric and totally worth it.
The album is pretty varied in terms of genre, but we decided in the live setting to stick more to a dance/funk/jazz vibe. It’s what Lex and I grew up on, and we like that direction for keeping people dancing at shows. We are still in the early stages of nailing down arrangements and interpretations, so things grow a little bit every time we play. It requires some openness and patience on everyone’s part, but our band is down for the journey, so we just have fun learning.
From first playing bass until now: What has changed, and what has stayed the same?
What has never changed is my love for the bass and for music. I may have had discouraging moments in my career, and moments where I questioned the viability of making a living at this, but I have never questioned my love. My heart sings when I get a free day to practice, or when I am in the studio at a recording session. I have a natural high for days after a killer show. I love teaching bass because I love meeting people who are equally excited about it. A good friend once said to me, “You’re a lifer.” I laughed because I knew exactly what he meant.
What has changed are my tastes over the years. I go through phases of what I listen to, what inspires me, and what I tend to create or write. In the beginning I used to be into more flashy technique and songs that showcased that. Now I’m really into a well-written song that has interesting parts and production, but doesn’t necessarily have to involve fancy playing.
Do you have words of wisdom and/or caution to share with young women who aspire to work in the music industry?
Big inhale and exhale …
I wish I didn’t have to say this, but it’s hard at times. That being said, if you truly love music for music’s sake, it will be worth it.
I don’t know if I’m in a position to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do, but I can tell you what I’ve experienced.
In my career, I have loaded gear in the rain, in the snow, in 100-degree humidity, up two flights of stairs, down to a basement—sometimes for decent money and sometimes for terrible money or no money. I’ve stayed up all night charting out 30 tunes for a last-minute gig, or charted over 80 tunes in a week for four different gigs with four different bands.
I’ve not gotten gigs because I’m a woman and they don’t want a woman in the band. Conversely, I’ve gotten gigs because they really want a woman in the band. I’ve also just gotten gigs because of my musicianship. Yay!
I’ve had a first-time “student” bring a boa constrictor to a lesson in a pillowcase—yes, scary!
I’ve wondered if I’m going to make rent some months, especially in the beginning of my career. I’ve also learned to value my skills as I’ve grown and choose gigs that honor that.
I’ve fielded nasty comments on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube from total strangers who create fake profiles so they can troll around the internet anonymously. I’ve been doubted by my peers and even my “friends,” which particularly hurts. I’ve also received kind words of encouragement from friends, family, fans, and total strangers. I’ve had hundreds of women come up to me after shows, thanking me and telling me how inspiring it is to see a woman onstage. I’ve had just as many men, if not more, tell me the same.
I’ve said yes to just about any gig in any genre of music for the sake of learning. I’ve played disheartening gigs to three people in the audience. I’ve also signed autographs and played to 10,000 people. I’ve been fired from a gig, and I’ve played with my heroes. I’ve been lied to about money and business by people I thought I could trust. I’ve also made lifelong friends with others.
I’ve practiced till my fingers had blood blisters and loved every second of it. I’ve also been frustrated by not having enough time to practice, but thankful that the reason is because I’m too busy with gigs. I’ve seen people in the audience cry, make out, laugh, flash me, throw underwear and flowers onstage, and beam with an ear-to-ear grin. I’ve also seen audience members yawn, shake their heads, whisper curiously to their friend, or fold their arms across their chests with unimpressed pursed lips.
Finally, I’ve cried tears of joy—my first tour to Japan—and had moments of such deep satisfaction and chemistry onstage playing that I wish the whole world could know what it feels like when you are part of something bigger than yourself. I think we would be a more peaceful planet. I’ve also cried tears of frustration, embarrassment, and exhaustion. I’ve even wondered, during a few dark moments, if I made a mistake trying to be a musician. But I’m still here, a bit like a cockroach who can survive anything, hungry and ready for whatever is next.
So, my advice? There are ups and downs like you can’t imagine. Your love for the music must be the constant thread that sustains you through it all. Be ready for anything.