As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine, Issue 8
Originally from the charming, musical town of Mullingar, Ireland, Tanya O’ Callaghan moved to Los Angeles four years ago with nothing but her bass and her ambition. Rather quickly, she established herself as a dynamic session bassist, crossing multiple genres.
To date, she’s worked with artists Orianthi, Maynard Keenan (Tool/APC), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Steven Adler (Guns N’ Roses), Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme), The Corrs, Michael Angelo Batio, Westlife, and more.
She says it’s important to “always play for the song, not for yourself.” Whether that’s a soulful ballad or a funky line, she gets the job done with her versatile fingerstyle and a fine Sadowsky bass.
Currently on tour with Steven Adler, she’s navigating original GNR bassist Duff McKagan’s vigorous rock grooves. “When I sat down to learn the songs,” shares Tanya, “I got an instant appreciation for how complex the songs were on bass and what a really phenomenal player Duff is. I didn’t realize there was such power to those arrangements.”
The full-time musician is also a longtime animal rights activist. “Before I even picked up a bass, I spent 10 years of my life working in animal rescue centers,” explains Tanya. “So that’s my foundation and my main passion; it’s a huge part of my being.”
And she’s always venturing on new and diverse projects, like a keynote speech exploring her life as a musician. “It’s about what the corporate world can learn from musicians and the real hustle and grind it takes to survive in this crazy industry and the drive to keep going.”
What have you been up to lately?
I obviously moved here from Ireland, and I’ve had a crazy couple of years jumping between different bands, going from pop to rock, to funk, back to rock [laughs]. I’ve also been touring a lot. The last two years I spent most of my time with Dee Snider, which was awesome. And I just recorded on his newest record (For the Love of Metal), and it is great to be part of the studio side of it. At the moment, I’m touring with Steven Adler (former Guns N’ Roses drummer), so that’s super fun. I do a lot of studio work in between when I’m not traveling.
When did you move to the United States?
I’ve been living here four years now, but I first went out to Arizona eight years ago to record with Maynard Keenan. It was a one-off thing; he invited me to play on a Puscifer record. I went back to Ireland after that and was in so many Irish bands. After working with Maynard, I realized how many big artists I could potentially work with. I got the bug and decided to move out to L.A. about four years ago.
Then, you just started making contacts?
Yeah, I always do everything on a whim. I don’t know why L.A. I just woke up one morning and was like, “I need to go to L.A.” I figured the music industry was there. I had heard about a couple of conventions, ASCAP and NAMM. I didn’t know anybody out there; I just came out on my own with my bass. I went to the ASCAP convention, and I stayed for a couple of weeks. I met a few people; then ran out of money and went home and played in a bunch of bands. I did that a couple of times. Eventually over time, I built up a little circle of contacts, and I went, “OK, I’m going to get a Visa”—and that was a whole other thing. It’s been a process and an ongoing process, and there’s never a dull moment, but if it were easy, everybody would do it.
You’ve landed some great work. How do you adjust your playing and tone from job to job?
For me soundwise, I tend to go in with a pretty blank canvas. I’m not one to overuse effects and gear; I’m not a big gear person. Until you know what the band wants, you don’t want to go in with your sound unless they’re looking for something specific. So, because I’m a session player, and I jump between so many different styles and types of bands, I’ll listen to the music, and if it has an existing bass line, I stay true to that, like try and stay true to Duff’s (McKagan) sound or true to the Twisted sound. But then I just play with it.
Tell me about your set up?
I have the most beautiful bass on the planet, a Sadowsky [NYC J-style]. It’s a plug and play instrument. They already sound incredible and have a warm tone. I use a GK Amp [Gallien-Krueger], which I love. Everything after that, you’re adding to the sound. I look at it as a build depending on what the song wants. Sometimes you’re just playing a ballad, a beautiful, simple ballad with root notes if anything else, and you just want a warm, simple tone. Whereas, if I’m playing Dee’s new metal, obviously I have my overdrive and distortion going. It’s whatever the session, band, or song requires. The most important thing to sustain yourself is always play for the song, not for yourself.
You played with Nuno Bettencourt too?
I play with Nuno all the time. When he’s in L.A., he calls me for shows. He’s a good dude. And it’s a blast to play with him because he keeps you on your toes, and he never picks normal songs.
How does that go? Do you just start jamming?
We do. We don’t rehearse; we just get the list off him, and he picks stuff and rearranges it, and then you just learn it as verbatim as possible and get in and hope the best thing happens on stage [laughs]. But he’s such a fun guy to play with; he’s such a freak on guitar. Anytime I play with him, I have a total blast.
Do you play mostly fingerstyle?
Pretty much 99 percent of the time, I’m playing with my fingers. I usually try and play it as the original bass player did. Like last night, I was playing Thin Lizzy (at a jam session), so I used a pick. I’ll start by playing it as the original bass player did, and if it feels wrong, then I’ll play it with my fingers. I’ll really sit down and decide, “Does this sound exactly the same?” And then I’ll play whatever feels better. I did that with Steven; I started playing fully with a pick because Duff (McKagan) plays with a pick. Then I dropped the pick during rehearsals, and I started playing with my fingers. Afterwards, Steven said, “Wow, this hasn’t sounded as close to the record since I played with Duff. Whatever you’re doing there is awesome.” I was like, “OK, fingerstyle it is!” So, unless it’s a very obvious sound, like playing Thin Lizzy, you should use whatever feels the best for the song and for your playing. It’s really important to be comfortable.
Were you into Phil Lynott/Thin Lizzy?
Definitely, because I’m Irish they were there, but it’s funny when you’re from a place, everyone thinks U2 and Thin Lizzy were all over. But because my Dad was such a big music lover, I was totally exposed to Phil Lynott for sure, and he has such a cool legacy in Ireland. There’s a statue of him in Dublin. And people used to joke with me because Phil Lynott died in ’86, and I was born in ’86, so they’re like, “You took it over!” We are very proud of Phil Lynott.
Tell me about where you’re from in Ireland?
I’m from a pretty small town called Mullingar. It’s right in the Midlands—we call it “Middle-earth” sometimes. It was great, and now as a grown-up musician who’s traveled the world and lived in big cities, I appreciate coming from a small town and having that foundation and family around. I’m very close to my grandmother. I just love that I grew up in such a small town and had a simple start to life before we all had cell phones. That is something that I really cherish. And it’s a very musical town. There’s something in the water there.
What kind of music were you exposed to?
We had a lot of what we call show bands—big bands, essentially 15-20-piece show bands. My dad was a kind of booker for small venues in town, so there was a lot of blues and rock bands and loads of my friends played music. I didn’t actually pick up a bass until I was 17 or 18, but I was around it a lot. We had everything: a lot of famous, big band people; a lot of big Irish acts are from there. Famously, Niall Horan from One Direction is from there. It’s across the spectrum of genres; we have a lot of people who came out of there.
You play many styles of music, but as far as articulating, do you incorporate things like pull-offs and different muting techniques?
It totally depends on what I’m playing. For me, like last night was an example, when I listened back to the Thin Lizzy records and was playing with a pick, I realized how many hand-muted, ghost notes he [Phil Lynott] used. So, sometimes I’ll play around and elaborate on that. When I know a gig really well, like I know the GNR set now, I play around with it feel-wise. I love to really dig in on hits and in parts of songs physically with my body and my bass. I love accenting hits, and using dynamics is very important for me live. I think that’s what creates the whole vibe of the song—playing with feel basically. If the song has a quiet moment, you’ve got to bring it down physically and dynamically, and then if there’s an epic hit coming up, you want to put everything into it.
Dee Snider is a high-energy performer. What’s the vibe playing with his band?
I loved playing with Dee. A, because he’s a fantastic person; he’s just a good dude and his whole family, his wife, and everyone in that crew. It was absolutely exhilarating because about a year prior to that I had done a couple tours that were more pop-oriented and really fun and good people, but on some gigs, you’re more in the background. It’s not about performance. I’m a performer first and foremost. I love being on stage, and being on stage with someone who wants you to be present is super fun. Dee would tell us, “Out-stage me. I dare you. “A lot of fun tour photos came out of Dee and me rocking out. All the shows were a blast because you could really go for it on stage. The crowd lives for that. For me, too, I don’t want to look at people standing there. Obviously, it depends on the genre, but I love performance and seeing people perform and be passionate. I want it to look like “where does the bass end, and where does she begin” kind of thing.
Any plans for playing with him again?
Dee is finished up with that tour. I am sure we’ll probably cross paths again in the future; these things usually have a cycle. I spent two years with him, and at the end of that, I recorded on his new record For the Love of Metal. I’m on two tracks. He called and asked me to be a guest, and it was wonderful to play on that, and I was honored; it has some amazing guests.
And then I went straight from Dee to Steven Adler. It was a few days, and then Steven called me. That’s kind of how it works in this game. Sometimes there’s a bigger gap, and sometimes it happens right away, and you have to learn 40 songs really quickly. [Laughs]
It’s cool that your current bandleader (Steven Adler) is a drummer, which is a big part of bass—locking in with the drums.
We became a tight rhythm section pretty quickly. I had met Steven before, but we had never toured, just played at a jam night. When we got into rehearsing and gigging, it was a blast; he’s like a kid in a candy store with the songs. It’s fun because I didn’t grow up listening to GNR. It’s not that I didn’t like them, but I didn’t really listen to them over the years. It just wasn’t on my radar; obviously, I knew who they were. But when I sat down to learn the songs, I got an instant appreciation for how complex the songs were on bass, and Duff [McKagan] is a really phenomenal bass player. I didn’t realize there was such power to those arrangements. I really had to shed.
When did you start playing Sadowsky basses?
The last couple of years. I always wanted to be a Sadowsky player; it’s the Holy Grail of basses. I got to know Roger at a bass convention, and he is just one of the best humans on the planet. Then when I was in New York, I would use his basses for TV shows when I was playing with Jordan Fisher. Then it just evolved, and I became a Sadowsky player. I fell in love with the NYC basses, and I haven’t put them down since.
It is so important to have incredible relationships with the companies that you use. It can be overkill out here; the more known you get, people are throwing you gear left, right, and center. But you want to have a genuine relationship with your companies and really love the instruments and gear. I am lucky to work with such a high-end company like Sadowsky.
The big Sadowsky player I recall is Jason Newsted [former Metallica bassist].
I believe he has 12 of them, if not more. I think I first noticed them with Jason Newsted. And then I saw footage of the Paul Simon tour, and I was like, “Wow, he builds for everyone!” because at first, I thought they were only jazz players’ basses. Then it’s like, “Oh wow, everybody plays these.” That’s a great thing about Sadowsky. Colin Greenwood from Radiohead just got one built. He’s one of my all-time favorite bass players; he’s incredible. And you see metal dudes with them. A lot of times when I walk out playing my bass at heavier gigs, people are like, “Is that a Sadowsky?” I’m like, “Yeah.”
And you definitely rock it!
Yeah, and that’s where I got my name, TKO. I got that on the Dee Snider tour—I kept blowing amps up. Dee christened me TKO last year, and it stuck. And now people in all gigs seem to call me that; it’s just pretty funny.
You actually blew the amp out?
I blew many amps up, many. After about the sixth one, Dee was like, “OK, that’s it, you’re TKO.” It was funny; people were like, “Why are you blowing so many amps up?” But we were on tour in Europe doing these big festival circuits, and a lot of the time, the backline has been used to death, and maintenance hasn’t been done. If there’s one valve or anything gone with that amp and you plug in a powerful bass and turn on the distortion, chances are pretty high you’re going to fry something. [Laughing]
That’s so Spinal Tap.
It was totally Spinal Tap. I would be up at 10, and Dee would be like, “Louder, louder!” He’s one of my most fun tours so far. He is so cool. I love that he’s always evolving. He’s going more metal again; the last time I was talking to him he was doing Broadway. I had the best run with him, and he had Jason Sutter (Marilyn Manson, Chris Cornell, Cher) on drums. He is a close friend of mine and to have that rhythm section, I had such a blast. We had a killer lineup, Julian Coryell on guitar from Alanis Morissette, and it was like hell, this band is serious.
I love your style, and image is a part of the whole package. How did your style evolve?
Well, it’s something I get asked and told all the time, and the easiest way to describe it is that it’s just me. I’ve had dreads longer than I’ve been at the forefront of the music industry. I’ve never liked to be mainstream, and I really love all forms of art and design; my eye is attracted to asymmetrical, flowing shapes. I didn’t consciously think, “I have to get a stage image”—it’s what I like clothes-wise and feel comfortable in. I’m not a very girly girl, but I like to be feminine but with an edge. It was funny the first time Rudy Sarzo saw me play—and now we’re good friends—but his quote that I will never forget was, “When I saw you play, I looked at you on stage and thought, “Where did she park her dragon?” I laughed my ass off. Like I flew in from Game of Thrones on a dragon. That’s brilliant!
[Laughs] With a bass over your shoulder, but he’s got a point…
He’s right. For me, again back to performance, I don’t want to walk out in my yoga gear. You’re putting on a show; there is an audience watching you. I just fell into my own style, and this is stuff that I wear anyway. I’m not afraid to be a performer and go out there and be the package instead of half a package. It’s important to be true to yourself stylewise and not necessarily copy, but just take influence. You eventually get more and more comfortable on stage and in yourself as you get a little bit older and wiser.
As far as performing, were you nervous in the beginning?
I always liked being on stage, but at some of my very first gigs, I’d hide behind the bass amp because I was still learning. I was in my first band six weeks into holding a bass. It was my cousin’s metal band in my hometown, and they needed a bass player. They were like, “Here’s a bass and a pick, and we have a gig in a few weeks.”I was nervous because I was still figuring out how to even play the bloody thing. Of course, like everything and everyone, I became more and more comfortable with my instrument and on stage. I have always loved the role of being a bass player because you can perform, but you’re also a little in the background, and you can do your thing and don’t have to worry about being a front person. I have definitely come out of my shell, that’s for sure [laughs]. That’s what happens after thousands of shows.
What do you love about what you do?
What I love the most is obviously having the platform and freedom of expression. What I do takes me around the world, and I get to interact with incredible humans that I never thought I would play with or see outside of a poster on the wall. It’s so far beyond music. You just grow so much as a human, traveling and being in different cultures, playing with different musicians from all walks of life. Overall having that ability to travel as your job and play music. When you’re on stage, it’s the greatest escape of all.
Basses: Sadowsky NYC J-style
Rig: Gallien-Krueger MB Fusion 800, GK Neo 212, GK Neo 810
Pedals: MXR Bass Fuzz Deluxe, Bass Chorus Deluxe, Bass Envelope Filter, Carbon Copy, Bass DI
Strings: Dunlop Marcus Miller Super Brights, Sadowsky Stainless Steel SBS45B (.045-.130)
Accessories: Warwick RockBoard Pedalboard