"I love my current main bass, a '54 Fender Precision," Sting said in March 2000. "There's no finish on it; it's just a wreck. Something about that really appeals to me. An old instrument is something to be cherished. I think instruments absorb and retain energy -- it sounds mystical, but I really believe it."
He loves the Fender Precisions. Chicagoans saw him play a similarly battered one when the reunion of the Police stopped at Wrigley Field in July 2007.
Since then, Sting has been through Chicago three more times hawking various revamped, refurbished and rearranged versions of his catalog, including last summer's two-night stand at the Ravinia Festival as part of his marathon world tour with a symphony orchestra. This weekend, he's back yet again, but this time he's looking at his songs through his beloved bass.
• 8 p.m. Nov. 5
• Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
• Tickets, $49-$129; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
The current Back to Bass Tour, which kicked off last week, finds the British star concentrating on his solo career -- supporting a new retrospective box set, "Sting: 25 Years" -- with a few Police hits thrown in. The band is back to basics, too: longtime guitarist Dominic Miller, his son Rufus Miller also on guitar, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, violinist Peter Tickell and singer Jo Lawry.
"I have no idea what this new band is going to sound like," Sting recently told USA Today. " It could be a triumph; it could be a total failure. But I don't think anything worthwhile is without risk."
Coming of age in the late '60s, Sting aspired to be a rock star -- but not a guitar hero.
"I began to form in my mind what I can only describe as a strategy," Sting wrote in his 2005 memoir Broken Music. "A vague one, but nonetheless a strategy that the bass, while being far from flashy, would suit the covert side of my personality much better than the guitar. It would be a quieter heroism I would seek, stoic and grounded like my father's. My ambitions would become concrete from the ground up, hidden yet effective."
Effective, indeed. As a bass player with a powerful tenor voice, Sting is able to command both the high and low ends of the harmonies in whatever band he plays with. He tested that formula in jazz combos playing the upright double-bass, but before that he was learning the electric bass lines of players he admired, such as Jack Bruce (Cream), Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) and Paul McCartney.
"It's hard to separate McCartney's influence on my bass playing from his influence on everything else -- singing, songwriting, even becoming a musician in the first place," Sting has said. "As a child, I would play my Beatles albums at 45 rpm so I could hear the bass better. He's the Guv'nor."
From McCartney, Sting picked up his basic technique. Sting plays largely without a pick, hitting the strings with his thumb and frequently brushing the side of his palm against the strings, called "palm muting." McCartney does the same, though he often uses a pick.
The resulting sound is close to that of a double bass, at least on an electric instrument. The upright is where Sting began.
"I picked it up at school," he told Bass Player. "There was a double bass there, and nobody else was interested in it, so I started to play blues parts and jazz on it -- and I became the bass player, even though I was a guitarist. So that put me in good stead to become a bona fide bass player later on. When you feel the power of the bass through your fingers, not to mention the effect it has on music -- the width it gives a musical sound, and also the depth -- it's an exciting revelation."
Sting channeled that excitement into the Police, the wildly popular late '70s/early-'80s trio that made him a star. The Police built a pop-punk sound atop a prevalent reggae influence, spotlighting the rhythm section of Sting's propulsive bass playing and Stewart Copeland's perky, polyrhythmic drumming.
Sting sang as well as played bass with the Police, a pairing he molded while in an earlier jazz-fusion band, Last Exit. Some early Police songs actually began life as Last Exit material, such as "The Bed's Too Big Without You." Singing melody while playing rhythm and harmony is not always a cinch.
"Playing the bass and singing is not as natural as strumming on a guitar and singing," he wrote in Broken Music. "There is a certain amount of neural and muscular independence required, something like riding a bike and juggling at the same time."
Note: Later this month, fans can watch an unusual performance: Sting has taped a concert with country star Vince Gill, in which the two take turns singing each other's hits, for the CMT series "Crossroads," airing Nov. 25.