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Behind The Curtain: Bob (Omar) Tunnoch

By Erin McCallum. Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

Bob Tunnoch is an accomplished bass player and songwriter, who most people in the Blues Music Collective know as his alias, “Omar”. Truthfully, I didn’t know his given name wasn’t Omar for about the first 20 years I had known of him, so, for this feature, it makes sense to refer to him by his most recognized name – it will likely make any reader’s personal investigations via Google search much easier too. Although this column focuses on members of the Canadian Blues Collective who are firmly established (to avoid writing a biography), it also makes sense to offer enough information to demonstrate why a featured artists has piqued the interest to investigate. It is always recommended that readers of this article seek out more information – it can be found, via internet search, music catalogues, and in most cases, live performances.

Prior to going ‘behind the curtain’ via a direct conversation, it is worth noting that Omar Tunnoch is probably best known as an accomplished bassist and songwriter. His professional record includes 2 JUNO Awards, multiple International Songwriting Competition Award acknowledgements, a Maple Blues Award – and multiple nominations, Jazz Report Awards, a Canadian Indie Award, and a West Coast Blues Award. He is a founding member (and significant creative contributor) of the long-reigning successful Canadian Blues band Fathead, and has shared the stage with notable Blues artists such as John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. Tunnoch is likely most easily identified, however, for his creative playing style on his electric fretless bass. For this month’s instalment, Omar discusses his unique creative approach, how he arrived to be a Blues player, and what led him to making the unconventional electric fretless bass his instrument of choice.

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

The decision to play an electric fretless bass is one of the most identifiable features that offers a point of difference when considering Tunnoch as a player, so, the first item in conversation was geared toward finding out how he arrived at that choice. When asked, Omar Tunnoch tells the story:

“When I was in my early twenties, I drank a bottle of Silent Sam vodka. When I woke up the next morning, I discovered that I had ripped all of the frets out of my bass…I had a gig to go to that night, so I had no choice but to play without frets. It’s a different experience, playing without frets – the intonation and approach are quite different – and I found that out in real time. I stuck with it after that.”

It is also worth noting that years after making the decision to stick with playing fretless – and mastering the fretless approach - Tunnoch’s bass has been notable enough to be replicated outside of his personal collection. This information came to light through a source during investigation for this article, which I did confirm with Tunnoch to be true; it serves as further evidence that there is a point of difference to his approach that people find captivating.

Readers of this article have likely heard Omar Tunnoch’s playing – it is widely recorded, and is probably most recognized on the live music scene via his tenure in the band Fathead. As previously noted, Tunnoch is a founding member of the band, and is responsible for lending many creative contributions in the project as a songwriter. Fathead had a successful tenancy on the Blues scene for decades, until the passing of lead singer John Mays. For those who are looking to discover more about Tunnoch’s creative approach, I would suggest they investigate the Fathead catalogue first – it is accessible, and there is a substantial body of recorded works to listen to. For those who are already familiar, it is evident that Omar Tunnoch’s style of playing is just as unique as his instrument.

Tunnoch’s approach to playing the bass has been described as easily identifiable; he often plays with the overlooked or underutilized opportunity that musical structure provides - flirting with the bar line, sometimes bordering flamboyant, often melodic, but always maintaining the groove. When asked if this was a fair assessment, Tunnoch accepted the analysis, and offered his general philosophy, respecting his approach:

“I know I don’t fit into the ‘norm’ as a bass player, but my primary focus is to stay in the groove. To me, that is always the foundation, and the most important thing. There is room for expression within that, but the groove is the starting point – and the most important element – with respect to how I approach playing.”

Understanding that Tunnoch’s approach does indeed differ from the ‘norm’ with respect to the Blues genre, and that his playing crosses the typical genre lines, it made sense to find out how he arrived at the Blues. The curiosity in conversation was whether he found the Blues, or it found him:

“The Blues found me. Growing up, I was listening to primarily Rock music and the more commercial music of the time – everything from bands like The Beatles to the Monkees. One day, a friend of mine introduced me to Paul Butterfield’s music, and it just went from there; I started listening to more Blues, and I got deeper into it.”

Those who are already familiar with Tunnoch’s musical offerings may not be surprised to know that his creativity reaches further than the Music Collective; although this column is offered as an exclusive focus on musical artists to provide readers with knowledge and insight that isn’t found in a bio or press release, it is worth noting that Tunnoch’s creativity reaches more expansively than the medium of music. Tunnoch has found success as an artist in the field of the Visual Arts as well – this is worth mentioning because the unique creative approach that identifies him as a bassist and songwriter is also evident in his creative works as a painter. It is justifiable to investigate whether there are creative similarities with respect to Tunnoch’s approach to creating music and creating visual art – in both mediums, his work is easily identified as unmistakably his, thought provoking, and stylistically inimitable. When asked if there are similarities between the process of creating music and creating visual art, Tunnoch does draw comparison:

“My process is the same, in the sense that I always have ideas floating around all the time, but the best ones – in both my music and art – seem to be the ones that spontaneously come out of nowhere, like lightning bolts. Sometimes, I’ll be driving or something, and it hits me (the idea), and I know exactly what I want to create next. I joke that it’s a bit of a ‘blessed curse’, because once the idea is there, I have to go with it – and the ideas never stop.”

With evidence that Tunnoch’s creative process has a theme that crosses mediums, there’s merit in learning what advise he would offer to those who have aspirations of following a path similar to his. He offers this:

“Always stay true to yourself and to what you believe in. Never stop believing in yourself, and never take criticism too far to heart. Keep plugging away at it, and never give up.”

Omar Tunnoch’s original sound and creative works (both musically and visually) prove that his advice is likely worth heeding – the diversity, longevity, and acclaim attached to his offerings also serve as strong evidence. As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires them to investigate further. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café Magazine, with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

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