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Bass Icon on Being a Perpetual Student
Bass guitar phenom Victor Wooten relates to students in one simple way – by making sure he always remains one of them. And Wooten’s on the move again. On this day it’s literal; we chat on the phone only minutes after he touches down in today’s tour stop of Las Vegas – but motion remains the most apt metaphor for bass playing’s most hyper-creative mind.
There’s an awful lot on Wooten’s plate these days: he’s still fresh off a double album release in 2012 (Words & Tones and its instrumental counterpart Sword & Stone), he teaches year-round camps and clinics and, of course, still hits the road with his project du jour. Wooten began his true ascent to bass stardom in the late 1980s as a member of Bela Fleck’s heavily Grammy-decorated Flecktones, and while he’s remained a constant rock in the band, it’s been through a laundry list of various collaborations and an even-increasing teaching schedule that he’s chased something he still reaches for today: the pursuit of what’s next.
It’s fair to assume that Wooten needs nothing “new” these days, that his learning days are over and he can rest comfortably in his reign as one of the premier bass players – if not the premier bass player – in the world. A fair assumption, perhaps, but a wildly incorrect one. Three decades into a career that’s known few bounds, there’s always still a door to be opened and a new trick to be learned for music’s perpetual student.
Two CD releases at the same time is a pretty daunting task. What made you want to take on the challenge?
I knew I wanted to do a record featuring female vocalists (Words & Tones), and I wanted to allow the vocalists the opportunity of writing some of the lyrics, so they would be singing lyrics that were true to them. As I was working on the songs, I would put melodies on them, either with bass or another instrument, so I could send it to them. I realized I liked the songs as instrumentals, also.
What were some of the biggest challenges in imagining the same songs two different ways?
The main challenge was making sure the versions were different enough. I didn’t want the instrumental versions (on Sword & Stone) to just be Muzak versions of the vocal ones [laughs]. So in many cases I would change arrangements, add musicians, do different solos, things like that to entice people to listen to both. For the most part, it was a ton of fun being able to approach it from two slightly different mindsets.
Any new techniques or tricks you used on this record?
Yeah, on the song “Sword and Stone,” I used a new technique. I usually have this hair band — just a little scrunchie that someone might use to put a ponytail in their hair — that I have up around the headstock of my bass. It slides around the neck and helps dampen the strings, so that things sound cleaner in open string palm muting. In this instance, on the solo of that song, I put it all the way up high, around the 17th fret. So then when I play my normal way behind it, those notes pop out certain weird harmonics. It sounds like what a guitarist would do with pinched harmonics. So I took a solo with distortion and some effects, and you’re hearing these really weird, amazing harmonics popping out. That was a lot of fun, to basically play like a guitarist and have these neat new sounds coming out.
Do you think people can be their own worst enemy, from a mental standpoint, in the studio?
As soon as you know that record button is hit, a mental trick gets played on you. At that point it has nothing to do with music, it has everything to do with your psyche. With my camps and my teaching, that’s something I try to focus on: the mental aspect of not only playing music, but also living life.
Tell me more about your philosophy as a teacher, something I know is very dear to you.
One of the main things I try to get students to do is take a backwards step and free themselves up.
When you first get introduced [to music] as a kid, maybe you’re playing an air guitar or something like that, and there’s a huge smile on your face. It’s not about the instrument or doing it “right.” But as soon as you buy an instrument and start taking lessons, the smile goes away. Now you know what you’re doing wrong and all that. It becomes more of a chore. So I try to get people back to that free place where they’re loving it again. Once they do that, they’re re-inspired and rejuvenated to play again.
Is it fair to say that you’re still a student of the bass guitar as much as you are a teacher?
Absolutely. Still a student.
To me, that’s really the definition of a good teacher, someone who is a professional student. Music is ever growing, so I don’t want to reach the end of it. I know that I can’t. Right now my growth is more so leading towards being a more complete musician standpoint, not just from a bass standpoint.
I want to become a better writer, a better producer, and I’m trying to understand music more and really expand my musicianship, not just my bass playing.
You’ve collaborated with a really wide range of musicians over your career. So how do you keep expanding that understanding in each of those new projects and situations?
By letting the musicians contribute. In other words, if I just call musicians in and tell them what to do, that’s going to stunt their growth and my music may not be as good. It’s like getting a group of people to sit around and have a talk, but you tell everyone what to say. The conversation will be much better if everyone is allowed to say what they hear and what they choose. That’s a big thing that I really learned from Bela Fleck. When he would bring his tunes in, he would never tell us what to play. He would play his part and allow us to express ourselves and put out our first instinct of what we hear on that song. If he were to tell us what to play, that would rob us of our first chance to express ourselves with what we’re saying.
Instinct is certainly a key word. How did you learn to best trust yours?
That’s just how I grew up. I never grew up in a musically regimented manner. I had to actually learn to play that way, to play more regimented. Playing in theme park shows, or theater or Broadway type shows, where you have to play it the same way every time, I had to learn that.
You’ve been active through a really fascinating time of sweeping change in the business side of music. What challenges does the industry present as they relate to you these days?
The challenge is the fact that people aren’t buying records like they used to, and I’m in a record selling business. So trying to get people to buy your records is a challenge for everybody. Figuring out how to deal with that is a challenge. Trying to get people out to the live shows, even though I have four kids at home and want to stay home, I still gotta tour. There are challenges, but some of those challenges are also opportunities. Because people can get things on the Internet, I have fans in places I’ve never been and never will be. I know that those fans want the music, so I just have to figure out how I can satisfy them as well as my needs of being an entrepreneur and a business person. So what do we do? That’s just the way it is. I can complain about it or I can move with it.
photos by Steve Parke