Back in the early ’90s, Keller
Williams got tired of fading
into the background as the barflies
at his weekly gigs focused on
inhaling every last 25-cent, happy-hour
wing and half-price pitcher
of Rolling Rock. It’s not easy
being a solo acoustic artist when
the crowd treats you as nothing
more than a human jukebox. The
volume and spectacle of a full
band might have helped get audiences
to take more notice, but
it would have also meant losing
money at each gig. So, Williams
decided to begin his one-manband
looping explorations. That
changed everything. “Then people
started paying attention,” says the
Soon the crowd was dancing to
his loop-a-licious grooves and
Williams began garnering major
buzz in the music scene.
It wasn’t long after this artistic
transformation that Williams
made his mark in the jam-band
world, of all places, both as a
solo artist and also in collaboration
with various luminaries
in that scene. His album Stage,
won a Jammy for Live Album
of the Year in 2005, and his
song “Cadillac” won a Jammy
for Song of the Year in 2008.
He also shared a Jammy with
the String Cheese Incident and
Umphrey’s McGee, among
others, for Tour of the Year in
2006. With these accolades,
Williams’ scenery changed from
inattentive, pot-bellied plumbers
and sullen schoolteachers
at the local bar to completely
engaged crowds of happy-go-lucky
hippies and their hirsute
companions at massive arenas.
Williams’ music is often goofy
and irreverent. In addition to
penning a huge number of originals,
he’s also covered a broad
rage of hilariously incongruous
songs—from Ozzy Osbourne’s
“Crazy Train” to the Sugar Hill
Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” But
while his music can be fun,
make no mistake—Williams is a
serious musician who keeps serious
company. His 2007 release,
Dream, counted icons like John
Scofield, Bob Weir (who played
on the Jammy-winning song
“Cadillac”), Béla Fleck, Charlie
Hunter, and Victor Wooten
among its many guests.
Several years ago, Williams
became a father, and this life
change is reflected in his writing
and recent career choices.
In 2010, he released a children’s
album called Kids, and wrote a
book entitled Because I Said So
that’s based on the album’s song
of the same name. He recently
secured the highly coveted Super
Music Friends section of the Yo
Gabba Gabba! live tour. Even
with the grueling demands of
parenthood and these projects,
however, Williams is always looking
to the next frontier—like the
loop-free, bluegrass-tinged Keller
& the Keels and the Travelin’
McCourys. In December 2011,
he released Bass, his 17th album.
For this album, Williams eschews
the guitar for the first time in his
recorded career, teams up with a
reggae keyboardist and drummer,
and leaves the one-man-band
approach behind to pick up
the—you guessed it—bass!
Let’s talk about the newest
and most unusual thing for
you first—the fact that you’re
playing nothing but bass on
Bass. How did you get into
the instrument itself?
Well, I guess it started long ago
when I was on tour with the
String Cheese Incident. Keith
Moseley’s wife was due to have
a baby shortly after the tour
ended, and there was a possibility
that the baby would come
early and Keith would have to
leave. So instead of hiring a bass
player, they told me to learn 20
songs on bass just in case. So I
learned 20 String Cheese songs
on bass—I worked on them for
40 hours in one week, doing
the 9-to-5 thing, learning songs.
Luckily, the baby was on time
and Keith never had to leave,
but I was left with a love of this
new instrument and started to
incorporate that into my looping
shows. That’s kind of when
things started to change for
me, as far as people coming to
shows and dancing. Low end
has a huge impact on music in
general. I can’t understand how
I went so long without it, as far
as my solo act.
Was it hard transitioning from
guitar to bass?
A lot of people say, “Oh it’s
harder to go from guitar to
bass, and to sing while playing
bass.” It’s not, because my guitar
style has always focused on
the bass line, and now with the
bass there are two less strings
to deal with and tune. It’s just
How did you first get into
A TV show called Hee Haw that
had these cats playing guitar.
You remember that show? [Ed.
note: The CBS variety show ran
from 1969 to 1992.] I think my
parents knew one of the girls
that would pop her head out
of the little hay field after the
jokes, so they would always have
it on. I wanted to be like Roy
Clark and Buck Owens, pickin’
and grinnin’. It was cool, so I
got a guitar when I was a kid
and just pretended to play it.
What kind of guitar was it?
One of those little 3/4-scale
guitars. I still have it. From that
guitar, I moved to the hockey
stick because it looked more
like an electric guitar [laughs].
It was easier to hold and “play.”
Then a friend showed me some
chords when I was, like, 12 or
13. I really took to it and took
all the chords he showed me
and put them to the songs on
the radio. Three or four years
later, I began making money by
playing covers on a stool at a
happy hour with a coat and tie.
Did you write all the music
on Bass, or was it a collaborative
Except for the obvious covers,
“Hollywood Freaks” and
“Buena,” all the songs are originals.
One of the originals was
co-written by Robert Hunter.
I’m very proud of that. The rest
were written on guitar, and all
of them have been road-tested.
Some of them I’ve been playing
for years, and they never really
found a place on a record.
Does the road-testing of a
song play a part in the final
outcome of the recording?
Yeah, road-testing is definitely
a big part of the final recording.
It has a lot to do with the
audience reaction. There are
songs that have died a quick,
painful death, never to be resurrected
again, simply because
they didn’t go over live. Which
is the total opposite of how it’s
normally done. Y’know, people
usually go in and record songs,
save them, and go out and play
them live. I’ve never seemed
to have that luxury. And there
have been songs that were
made up in the studio, and
then they go out and get drastically
changed live. I figure out
exactly how I want it to be, and
then record it.
Keller grooves on his Fender Road Worn P bass at a 2011 gig at Pearl
Street Night Club in Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo by David Barnum
There’s a YouTube video of you
playing “2Bu” acoustically,
and it’s a totally different feel
than the version on Bass.
“2Bu” is a drastic difference from
what I do on guitar. All these
songs are written on guitar, and
when I took that into the studio
with this trio, it turned into
more of a reggae thing. It’s really
fun for me to do songs a different
way, but it’s not so different
that people don’t know what it
is. The vocals are still constant
and usually done at the same
tempo and in the same key and
in the same timbre. It’s just that
the music might change from an
open, fast-picking tuning to kind
of a laid-back, reggae style.
“I Am Elvis” is another one
like that: On the Bass version,
you add a reggae/soca feel to
it, but in some of the older
YouTube videos you play it in
more of a singer-songwriter
“I Am Elvis” is definitely done in a
few different ways, but if you really
put them side by side you’ll see
that they’re very similar. My guitar
style focuses on the bass lines.
For instance, on the solo section,
this is the bass line [scats bass line]
and if you listen to the acoustic
version, that bass line is there.
Unlike your other albums, Bass
isn’t a solo looping record.
K Dubalicious is the name of
the trio. It’s me and two of my
favorite local musicians—Jay
Starling [keyboards] and Mark
D [drums] from a reggae band
called the Transmitters. The guys
are so good. I’m able to show
them songs and they’re able to
pick up on them really easily.
What led you into looping
That happened from years and
years of being that guy in the
corner at a bar, where there’s no
cover charge and there just happens
to be a dude playing in the
corner. No one’s really coming to
hear music, they’re just coming
because it’s a bar and that’s where
they go. Years and years of playing
background music, and people
not really paying attention, and
me wanting to go down different
musical avenues and create more
and more of a dance vibe. Once I
started looping, it was more fun.
You create all your loops live,
Oh yeah—nothing is prerecorded.
Your looping can get really
involved and have many layers.
Was it always that intricate, or
did you start off simpler?
It was a couple of years of just
guitar and vocals—looping a
rhythm line and soloing over
the top of it—and putting a
beat-box track over that. Once
I added the bass, that’s when it
really started to change.
Which loopers do you use?
It started out being called the
Echoplex back in the late ’70s
or ’80s. It was a tape machine
inside a bulky box. Then that
went digital, and Oberheim
had it for a while. Later, Gibson
bought out Oberheim and then
totally shut the whole thing
down. They’ve been out of production
for many years.
So where do you get your
On eBay and Craigslist. Where
the trickiness comes in with the
crap that I use is that we have to
find guys that know how to fix
these things. Louis Gosain, who
travels with me, is an electrical
genius, but there’s usually stuff
he can’t fix. So there are generally
three units that are out being
serviced, and we travel with four
of them—we usually have four
that are working really well.
Or three out of those four are
working well and probably three
more are being used for parts or
are out on a service call.
Have you used any of the other
loopers on the market, like the
Boss RC-300 Loop Station or
any laptop-based rigs?
Those are great—all the new
stuff that’s happening is fantastic.
So much is being done
with computers these days,
and I’ve definitely messed
around with it but I haven’t
crossed over completely. What
I need is to have them be able
to tie together and have them
synced up, because I usually
use three at one time. The
bass is on its own, the drums
are on their own, and then
there’s one for guitars.
Photo By Louis Gosain
Have you ever had issues with
recalling the wrong loop?
Not really, because everything is
created right there. I’m not really
going back and doing verse and
chorus with different loops—it’s
a little simpler than that. I’ll just
play the verse and the chorus.
My looping comes in for jam
sections. Once they’re all synced
up and I have a loop going, I’m
able to work that whole DJ formula
with all the samples that
I’ve created. I can drop out the
bass, or I can have the drums
play, or just let the bass play.
The loops must have to be
pretty tightly controlled. Can
you really get into the music,
or do you have to constantly
be alert to make sure you get
to a particular loop in time?
There’s a lot of starting, stopping,
and starting over. But it’s all
done, hopefully, in time to make
the first-timers think I meant to
do it. The people that have seen
me before kind of know what’s
going on, like where I wasn’t
quite satisfied with a loop so
maybe I’ll start over, maybe do
it in real time. My three loopers
are plugged into each other and
are all synced together, and 90
percent of the time they’ll stay
synced but sometimes they’ll
drift. That’s where the trickiness
comes in and you have to start
over again in the middle.
You’d think all loopers would
stay perfectly synced, but they
Yeah, you’d think, “This is in
time and this is in time, and they
should be playing together.” But
they definitely drift. The problem
with the new loopers is that you
can’t really sync them together.
One of the trickier aspects for
people just getting into looping
is getting the loop to stop
and start exactly in time. Is
there a trick to that?
Here it is: It’s all on the one [the
first beat of a measure]. You’ve
got to figure out where your
one is, no matter what time signature
you’re doing. Then you
have to forget about the loop
and concentrate on hitting the
[record] button with your foot
when you want it to start and,
after you’ve played the phrase,
you hit that button [stop]—but
you just keep playing as if you’re
not looping at all. After two or
three seconds, you slowly stop
playing and it should be in time.
So keep playing—even when
you’ve disengaged the original
Correct. It’s kind of like golf—
looking down at the ball and
not looking up to see where it
went. My problem was always,
like, “Here it comes, here it
comes.” Then I’d hit the button
and I’d stop, and that’s where
the issue would happen—if
you hit it too early or too late.
Just keep playing, and you’ll be
exactly where you want to be.
What if your figure doesn’t start
on a downbeat—for example,
if it comes on the and after the
one? In that case, you wouldn’t
be playing on the one.
It’s all about the initial loop—
the start and stop of the first
loop. Once you have that, you
can kind of create things over
top of it and start them in different
times. You’re kind of making
your own click track.
Keller Williams' Gear
Fender fretless Jazz bass,
Fender Road Worn Precision
Martin HD-28, Gibson Chet Atkins
SST with Roland synth pickup,
Rick Turner Baritone 12-string
Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer,
Allen & Heath MixWizard mixer,
Strings and Picks
Flatwound bass strings with a .105 low E,
Elixir Acoustic 80/20 Bronze with
Polyweb Resonator sets (.016–.056),
Jim Dunlop 1.14 mm picks
Let’s talk about your other gear.
What are you using to cover the
new bass-centric material?
On Bass, I used two Fender basses,
both Mexican-made models.
One’s a Fender Jazz fretless, and
the other is a Road Worn P bass.
And what about your main
My main guitar is a Martin
HD-28. I also use a synthesizer
pickup on a Gibson Chet
Atkins SST, and that’s my
backup and my carry-on—I
always get off the plane with a
guitar. Nine times out of 10,
all the other guitars show up,
but there’s the one time that
they don’t—so I always make
sure I have a carry-on, and it
has to be one with a strong,
thin body. The Chet Atkins is
definitely not the finest of guitars,
but it’s a block of wood,
it fits in the overhead compartment
of a small jet, and I don’t
have to gate-check it like a big,
What are you running the
synth pickup into?
I use it as a synthesizer guitar
with the new Roland GR-55,
which is insane. I used the
GR-33 for years, and the technology
involved in the 55 is
unbelievable. I use the same
pickup that I used with the 33,
and with the 55 there’s no latency.
It’s like real time. The stereo
effects are just insane, too—the
way you can mix and match a
vibraphone on one side and a
flute on the other side, and have
that coming out in high volume
in stereo is pretty interesting.
What about amps?
There are no amps. It’s all
plugged in direct. The stuff I
bring around is the outboard
gear that I use for looping. I use
an Allen & Heath MixWizard
soundboard, which acts as
the brain. I also use a Korg
Kaossilator—the handheld Kaoss
pad that’s now updated with
synthesizer sounds. It’s really an
incredibly fun toy. You can set
the key and the scale, and there
are literally no wrong notes. It’s
like a poser’s dream [laughs].