Photo by Michael Weintrob
What hasn’t been written about bassist Bootsy Collins?
In 1970, when Collins was just 18, he joined James Brown’s band and played bass on timeless classics like “Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” and “Soul Power”—which for some people is enough to establish him as one of the instrument’s all-time greats. But Collins was just getting started, and two years later he joined Parliament Funkadelic.
Brown taught Collins how to interpret groove—he emphasized the one, which means resolving phrases on the downbeat—and Collins taught that concept to his new band. That one defined the sound of P-Funk, which in turn helped define the sound of funk, which—thanks to sampling and the popularity of hip-hop—was influential in shaping the next 40 years of popular music.
Collins is central to seminal Parliament releases like Chocolate City and Mothership Connection, and even his “solo” project, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, scored a number one R&B hit with “Bootzilla” in 1978. He’s also a frequent collaborator and since the ’80s has worked with everyone from Bill Laswell to Fatboy Slim to Herbie Hancock to Buckethead. In 1990, he was at the top of the charts as part of Deee-Lite’s mega-hit, “Groove Is in the Heart,” and in the early 2000s performed the Monday Night Football theme with Hank Williams Jr.
And that’s just part of his curriculum vitae.
Collins’ tonal wanderlust—in addition to his innovative playing—defined the sound of funk as well. Eddie Van Halen has the Phase 90. Jimi Hendrix had the Uni-Vibe. And Bootsy Collins has the Mu-Tron III envelope filter. That watery thump isn’t just a Collins’ trademark—that’s what funky music sounds like.
Collins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two decades ago, but he not only shows no signs of slowing down, he shows no signs of becoming a has-been. His new album, World Wide Funk, is surprisingly fresh. “I was trying to intertwine some of the young energy,” he says. “That’s kind of what I hang around now, a lot of young musicians, and being around that inspires me even more. I tried to incorporate that into the album.”
World Wide Funk features guest appearances from fellow bassists Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke, Manou Gallo, and Alissia Benveniste; guitarists Eric Gales and Buckethead; drummer Dennis Chambers; rappers Doug E. Fresh, Chuck D, Dru Down, and the Blvck Seeds; singers Kali Uchis, Musiq Soulchild, and October London … and many others.
But this is Premier Guitar, so when we got Collins on the phone, our first order of business was gear. We got the lowdown on his early instruments and the history behind what eventually led to his iconic star-shaped basses. We also discussed his never-ending obsession with pedals, collaborating with other bassists, the recording of World Wide Funk, and—this may even be a first—we even got him to talk about his little known, yet very impressive, guitar playing.
You’re known for your distinctive star-shaped basses, but obviously, that’s not what you started with. I read that your first instrument was a guitar strung up with bass strings. Is that true?
Well, it didn’t have bass strings at first. It was a regular $29 job, a Silvertone guitar. The reason I put bass strings on it was because I wanted to play with my brother [Phelps “Catfish” Collins]. He played guitar and he was developing a good reputation. He’s about eight years older than I am. He was a teenager and I was, like, 9 years old. And from the beginning I wanted to play with him. So, I figured if I got a guitar, I could at least learn how to play and then the next step would be to play with him. When that next step came up, he didn’t need another guitar player, he needed a bass player. I didn’t have a bass, so I was like, “Okay, well, what do I do now?” I asked him if he would get me four bass strings. He got me four bass strings, I unwound the thickness of it at the end, I put them on the guitar, and voilà!—that was my bass guitar.
World Wide Funk, the latest album by Bootsy Collins, was mostly recorded in his Bootzilla Rehab home studio. It includes an intro by Iggy Pop and appearances by Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke, Eric Gales, Buckethead, and Chuck D, just to name a few.
Did you still have that when you joined James Brown?
Yeah. He loved my playing but he was really done with that guitar. The color of it was beat and at that time Fender was the main thing on the market. Everybody had to play a Fender—either a P bass or a Jazz bass. I wanted one for the longest time, but I couldn’t afford it. He dogged me out about my little bass, man, like, “You can’t come up here on my stage anymore with that thing.” He wound up getting me a Fender Jazz bass.
Did you prefer the Jazz bass as opposed to the Precision?
Yes, especially at that time because I just loved the way the neck felt. It wasn’t wide all the way up the neck. It was just a perfect fit. And the sound of it—I loved the P-bass sound, too, but I liked the body shape of the Jazz. It fit real good.
Did you have a Vox bass with James Brown as well?
Yeah, I’ve still got that Vox bass [an Apollo IV] and I played it on one of the songs on the new album—I can’t think which one it was off the top of my head—but I played it on one of the songs and man, I mean, nothing sounds like that. It’s like a dead-string sound—those old flatwound strings on top of that hollow Vox bass guitar. It’s got a built-in fuzz on it and a built-in tuner. It was incredible. I used a lot of different things on this record to try to give me a facelift. I’m still keeping the old stuff, but I’m adding a little newness here and there. On different songs, I use different pedals as well.
Were you still playing the Jazz bass when you joined Funkadelic?
No, I went back to the P bass. That’s what everybody was into, back at that time. I was like, “I got to get myself together to play the P bass,” because the neck is different. I started playing it—and I started loving it. The first recordings I did with Parliament Funkadelic were with that P bass. And that P bass is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now [laughs].