Bassist Spotlight: Craig Setari (Sick of It All, Agnostic Front, Rest in Pieces, Straight Ahead)

Photo: Danielle Dombrowski

I wasn't sure how many bass players would agree to the Bassist Spotlight before I started. I've interviewed over 30 amazing musicians since, and I still have more talented human beings coming your way.

When I look back I'm reminded that almost half of those bass players have told me that Craig Setari, aka Craig Ahead, was one of their biggest inspirations. One of the first hardcore 7 inches I listened to was Sick of It All's self-titled Revelation Records EP.

I love the band and have been blessed to play with them in Supertouch. Worlds are colliding with this interview, and I'm super honored to let you hear from Craig on his interpretation of the bass guitar.

Introduce yourself to everyone.

Hello, my name is Craig people often call me Craig Ahead.

How did you get into playing the bass guitar?

In 1980 my brother had music class in high school with Danny Lilker, who was planning to teach my brother to play bass so he could be in the first formation of Anthrax when they were simply a cover band. It wound up that I picked up the bass and obsessively played it every day for hours. 

Did/does your family support your musical endeavors?

100%. We were very poor, it was just my brother, myself, and my mother and she did all she could to help me have the rudimentary gear (bass and cord) needed and ability to get to rehearsals and things like that. I was playing with other older musicians at 13 so I honestly didn’t have money at that point, my mother and brother would give me bus and subway money.

Rest in Pieces, 1989 (Photo: Ken Salerno)

Do you play other instruments?

I can play guitar a bit and have played rhythm guitar in a few bands along the way. I can play drums a little bit although I’m not what you would call a good drummer.

How do you write your parts for your bands? Do you usually keep the original versions or do you take them home, and polish them up?

It really depends… Sometimes something will just pop up but normally I just feel out the song and come up with something. It can be spontaneous or it can develop over time. Normally what you hear on the record gets expanded upon because once you play the song live hundreds of time it just sort of develops a little further naturally.

I write a lot of songs so those will be written usually on the bass and the guitar will just be stripped down comparative to what the bass is doing. Sometimes [Sick of It All drummer] Armand (Majidi) will write a song for example that already has a bass line worked out that I may use or slightly alter.

Ultimately, it's whatever feels right so it just depends on the particular song and how it falls together.

Lots of times I'll hear a riff in my head randomly throughout the day, and I'll hum the part in my cell phone so I don't forget. How do you remember riffs if you're away from your instrument?

Yes, I’ll do that, too. Sometimes, actually, a lot of times, a riff will just be dancing in my head and I won’t forget it because it’s just looping but sometimes you just lose a riff and I really hate when that happens.

Sick of It All (Photo: Bandcamp)

Do you use a guitar pick?

For hardcore, absolutely, I use a pick. I learned to play with my fingers and I adopted a pick in 1982 for playing fast aggressive music. When I’m at home working on my playing it is almost always fingers. If I’m jamming with non-hard-core musicians it will often be fingers. 

If I drop a pick during a show I adapt with my fingers although it is a slightly altered style and sound as I use a lot of pick inflections when I play for emphasis rhythmically and to create aggression and intensity.

When you are picking, are you doing downstrokes or upstrokes more?

It totally varies. I have my own unique style of picking, sometimes it is sharp downstrokes but very often for particular rhythms with particular drummers—Mackie Jayson, for example—I will do what I have termed “pulse picking,“ which is a variation of downstrokes with upstrokes on the snare to emphasize and give a real pushing pocket to a beat that has a strong push.

That technique is basically used like I said when I play with Mackie to meet and emphasize the unique way that he pushes and pulls rhythms. 

Mackie Jayson performing with Cro-Mags (Photo: Gray Muncy)

Are there any songs you've written that kick your ass to play live?

Some songs are extremely busy and you’re working heavy-duty overtime because I’ll set the rhythm to be as impactful as possible which will be difficult if the drummer for example tends to play really fast live when the adrenaline is flowing. The real issue I sometimes face is when I’m singing and playing.

I will have to alter my lines a little bit sometimes during extended vocal spots where I am singing, heavy inflections on picking will be dumbed down so that the vocal line can be concentrated on and nailed.

What bass players have influenced your style of playing?

James Jamerson, Geezer Butler, John Entwistle, Daryl Jennifer, Steve Harris, and obviously, Danny Lilker who introduced me to the instrument.

You have played with lots of different drummers in your life. Have any of them changed the way you play the bass?

You adapt to every drummer you play with but I will certainly say that Mackie has made me a much better player. My concept of playing bass is able to be realized when I play with him as he sets the bar very high. I am able to do all kinds of things that I have in my arsenal that often don’t get used due to other drummers not filling the space in quite the same intense way.

When Mackie and I are rhythm playing hardcore, it is very intense and the fact that he requests playing with me when it’s hardcore music is an honor.

What is your favorite amp, pedal, bass guitar set up?

Different situations require different setups but just to keep it old school I’m gonna say a red hot old Ampeg SVT Classic with good screaming tubes, a vintage 8x10 cabinet. when those two pieces of equipment are right and I plug my red bass into it, its the standard.

I will use an old single switch Sans Amp bass driver as a shaping tool in some instances and live very recently I adopted a Darkglass 900 V2 which is a very nice head that sounds great and is convenient and very reliable on the road.


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Do you have any gear horror stories from your years of touring?

[Laughs] A million… Back in '85, playing the Showplace Theater in New Jersey, when I was in a band called NYC Mayhem, playing with Mental Abuse, the bass player for Mental Abuse refused to loan me his amp so I would just plug right into the PA.

I didn’t really own a proper amp till 1987 when I joined Agnostic Front because I had no money for one and was too young to drive one around to gigs, so I would use whatever was available. I’ve been stuck using practice amps, guitar amps, No amp, and all kinds of craziness.

NYC Mayhem insert from Hells Headbangers Records

Is there any city you would like to live in other than New York?

Ultimately, there are many places I could live, too many to mention but I am rooted and own properties in New York, so I have lived here primarily. 

Are there any bands you would love to fill in for, past or present?

Again, too many to mention, bands I like I would love to play with absolutely. I mean to try and sit in on a session with the Funk Brothers would be the ultimate test, which I would probably fail in a lot of spots [laughs]. But boy, to be a fly on the wall…

How are you, and your family dealing with COVID-19?

As best we can.

Is there anything new musically you are working on?

I play bass every day for hours. I am working on my theoretical knowledge and improving myself as a player in varying styles so yes, I am constantly trying to evolve now that I am not playing shows. I didn’t work on my technique as much for the last bunch of years as I was constantly on the road and when I’d come home I just wanted to relax and unplug.

Now I have re-discovered my love for the instrument. I’ve taught myself to read music, which I knew but never drilled into automation.

I recently did a track with a couple of guys from Stone Sour and Craig Silverman from Agnostic Front, and I plan on doing more collaborations in the future. I would also like to do various styles with different musicians as I don’t know when/if the live element of playing music will come back.

Rest in Pieces (Photo: BJ Papas)

Bryan Garris singer of Knocked Loose) said he spent lots of time with you playing cards, and board games on Warped Tour. What did you think of that band?

Yes, we played cards almost every night and those guys are awesome! They added in a lot of camaraderie and fun on a long and grueling tour along with the guys from Stick to Your Guns.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for someone picking up a bass guitar for the first time?

Go for it and have fun, don’t be afraid to play shows just get in and do it. Throw yourself right into the situation and don’t sweat it just do it. Keep an open mind learn your basics and continue to expand on your knowledge of the instrument and ability no matter what type of music you choose to play.

The more you open up the instrument's endless possibilities the more you will enjoy it and continue to find it challenging.

Sick of It All (Photo: Facebook)


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Tagged: agnostic front, bassist spotlight, rest in pieces, sick of it all, straight ahead