Sean Hurley might not be the first name the average music fan thinks of when listing the top bassists out there today, but there is little doubt they’ve heard his expert fretwork on some of their favorite songs.
With nearly 30 years under his belt as a musician – whether in the studio or on tour – the 40-year-old Hurley boasts a resume that would make many bassists blush.
Currently, Hurley is on the road with the mighty John Mayer, traveling the world in support of the guitarist’s latest album Paradise Valley and leaving sold-out arenas in their wake.
To get to this point, Hurley has certainly traversed an interesting path.
Born in Western Massachusetts in 1973, Hurley actually started out playing the alto saxophone at the age of 10. That didn’t last long, however. He quickly dropped the sax after seeing a local cover band and becoming fascinated with the bassist.
As Hurley tells it, he finally told his parents he wanted to play bass for a living at 13. By 14, he was making money as a local bass instructor and playing jazz gigs with older artists, and also picking up hints from Jaco Pastorius, Paul McCartney, Billy Sheehan, Sting and James Jamerson.
“It was 1985 when I got my first bass, and those guys were challenging for a young player,” Hurley noted. “I took to the bass so quickly, so when I got good fast, I found out that everybody needs a bass player.”
Once Hurley turned 16, he met Arlo Guthrie’s son, which soon led to a meeting with the folk legend himself. Who would have thought that the senior Guthrie would want to take a teenager out on tour with him, but that’s just what happened.
After high school, Hurley was off to the Berklee College of Music, but the call of touring life was too strong.
“I went to Berklee the minimal amount you could go to be considered an alum,” he said with a laugh. “And then I got a gig. When Arlo asked me to go on the road again, I left and never looked back.”
Deciding to then move to Boston (instead of New York in order to be closer to his family), Hurley joined up with Beantown locals Vertical Horizon. In between breaks with Vertical Horizon, Hurley started working with pop star Robin Thicke, regularly flying back and forth from Boston to Los Angeles.
In 2000, not only did Vertical Horizon break out with the album Everything You Want, but Hurley also co-wrote Thicke’s hit “Lost Without U.”
“Robin kept flying me out in between Vertical Horizon tours,” recalled Hurley. “If there were four days off, I’d spend four days with Robin. Six months after meeting an L.A. producer, I could see that was where I had to go for the music industry. Of course, there was a girl involved in that decision, and I’m married to her now with two kids, so looks like that all worked out.”
Hurley swiftly became a coveted session player in Los Angeles, working with the likes of Liz Phair, Paul Stanley, Ben Lee, Miley Cyrus and Annie Lennox.
Hurley met Mayer in 2006 via his guitarist David Ryan Harris, and was eventually invited to join in on a session with Mayer and Alicia Keys. Apparently it went well, because Mayer called again in 2008 with an opening on his eight-week jaunt in support of his album Continuum.
“It had been about five years since I’d been on a tour at that point, but he’s a guy that you don’t say no to when you get that call,” said Hurley. “There’s a certain list of artists that you have to do that for.”
And while Mayer took a three-year break from touring (2009-2012), Hurley was part of the recording process for Mayer’s 2012 album Born and Raised and 2013’s Paradise Valley.
In addition, Hurley still puts in long hours in the studio with other artists for various projects. For one, he recently played on the epic soundtrack to the movie Oblivion (which was helmed by French electronic rockers M83).
“I work nearly five days a week in the studio in L.A.,” Hurley said. “Now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve got my own studio, too. I record so much, that when I do hit the road again with John, it’s a fun break.”
With Mayer touring currently in support of Paradise Valley, Hurley can be seen on stage with one of his signature Precision Basses from the Fender Custom Shop, whether in striking Olympic White, Charcoal Frost, or Faded Three-Color Sunburst.
“Once I got Fender in my veins as a young kid, I was going for P Basses,” he recalled. “I was in my mid-20s when I bought my first Jazz Bass. I was trying to cop Jaco licks on a P Bass, but for some reason, that’s just what I chose. When I started playing with John in 2008, I had switched over to Fender for all my sessions.
“I realized quickly, nobody’s grumbling if you’re playing a P Bass. If you want to keep gigs, you’ve got to have a few Fenders in your arsenal.”
It was Mike Eldred of the Fender Custom Shop who initially suggested the Custom Shop P Bass modeled after a ’61 P Bass Hurley cherished. And it was master builder Paul Waller who overcame a building challenge and made Hurley’s signature Custom Shop P Bass so unique.
With his original ’61 model, Hurley regularly used a piece of packing foam under the strings near the bridge as a makeshift mute.
“Back in the day, everyone was doing it differently,” said Hurley. “I grew up playing without the covers on the bridge and the pickup; I can’t play with them. I take them off and put in the foam. So when we were making the bass, I wondered where we were going to source the foam from. I got mine out of a shipping box. It might look ragged, but it worked.”
Waller instead drew inspiration from the Fender Jaguar, which typically features a mute between the bridge and bridge pickup.
“If you look at a Jaguar, there is this flip-up mute. It’s ‘60s technology at its finest,” explained Hurley. “He put those on it, and when he did, I thought it was really cool. It looks a little funky, but it’s so cool and period correct. To me, I thought, ‘That’s it.’
“When we committed to that, I thought it gave another reason to buy my bass. It’s got something on it that has never been done before. And the sound it creates is really cool. Throughout my Mayer set, I’ll flip it on and off like a guitar player would use a capo.”
Looking back on Hurley’s history in the music industry, it is evident that there are few bassists with his experience. Now, he has a signature bass to represent how far he’s come since he first gravitated to those four strings.