Jessica Pimentel: “Bass is a punch that lingers in the air, a hum that lives in the belly and rattles the heart”

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(Image: © David Williams)

Jessica Pimentel is best known for playing Maria Ruiz on the hit Netflix show Orange Is The New Black, but as she tells us, bass is at the heart of everything she does.

“I started playing bass when someone suddenly quit a friend’s band. They were in a pinch and needed someone to fill in for a show later that week, so I learned their songs in a few days - and played CBGB that weekend.

“Up until that point, I’d been playing guitar in several bands in New York. I continued playing bass in that band and several others, before the guitar player in my original band quit, taking some of his music along with him. I had to write a new bass intro and bass interludes, which was a whole new world to me, because I was always used to having the melody line. It was an awesome challenge to write on bass, harmonise, be in the pocket and deliver the groove element. I loved the challenge of having to think outside my natural wheelhouse.

My first bass was a Cort with a Fender-style body and a thick neck. I bought it for $20 and carried it home in a garbage bag

“My first bass was a Cort with a Fender-style body and a thick neck. I bought it for $20 and carried it home in a garbage bag; we called it the Fell Off A Truck Special. Instead of strap buttons it had nails hammered into it. Instead of having knobs on it for volume or tone, it had just one knob that I would pull off and switch between tone and volume - until I lost it during a show. It would crackle constantly.

“I never got it set up or fixed the pickups, but I still have it. I did have plans to make it into an awesome Frankenstein, but there’s something endearing about it being a total piece of junk. I still practise on it when I’m feeling weak in the fingers, as it’s not easy to play.”

Classical strings

“My musical training started at a young age. I was a classical violinist in several orchestras in New York, and in elementary school I also studied piano, clarinet and percussion. When I was a teenager, I picked up a guitar, because problems with my wrist and hands made it very difficult for me to play the violin for many hours. I then played and sang in several hardcore bands, including step2far, New Faith and Everybody Gets Hurt.

“Later, I stopped playing music to focus on my acting career; it wasn’t until 2010 that I decided that I really missed playing with other people, so I joined two projects, Alekhine’s Gun and Desolate. I was originally going to play bass and sing in Alekhine’s Gun, but I found that I often got a little too carried away and would either drop the vocals or stop playing bass at some point during certain songs. Desolate became the band that I focused on bass with. It was truly a fun, tough-guy project for me; solid groove metal with great breakdowns and bass-lines. It reminded me how much fun I have holding down the low end.

“Aside from music, I play Maria on Orange Is The New Black, a role that I have had the honour of playing since Season 1; we’re currently shooting our seventh season. I studied performance extensively, attending the Performing Arts High School in New York City - well known from the TV series Fame - where I was a music and drama major. I’m also a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where I hold a degree in theatre arts. I’ve played leading ladies in Shakespeare, a hooker on Law And Order - and everything in between, on stage as well as screen.

As bass players, sometimes we feel like we have to do more, when in fact doing more actually makes us less powerful

“Music is still a huge part of my life. It is rumoured that I currently sing in [‘anonymous’ Mexican death metal band] Brujeria as well as Alekhine’s Gun. Both bands are currently working on new albums, and I’m working on solo music as well. I also had the honour of contributing strings to a song on the latest Valhall album, Grimoire, and I’m also a DJ on Gimme Radio.

“I’m fortunate to have endorsements with Spector, Darkglass, Dunlop and Korg. I play four-string basses. There’s no fancy explanation of why I happen to choose a four-string over a five, it’s just what I like. Everyone has to figure out what feels right. Good bass playing is all about fluid breathing with the music. It’s the undercurrent. Never forget that what you’re holding in your hands is a tool that has the power to make people physically ill. It has the power to vibrate from inside in places that they could never see or touch. You can literally make them feel.

“As bass players, sometimes we feel like we have to do more, when in fact doing more actually makes us less powerful. Don’t choke your own sound with ego. You’re a bridge between the percussion and the melody, and you’re in the unique position of connecting audio with the visceral and physical. Bass is more than a low-tuned guitar: it’s a punch that lingers in the air, a hum that lives in the belly and rattles the heart.”

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