All hands on bass! Victor Wooten has expanded the vocabulary of his instrument—custom Foderas are his axe of choice—through the use of effects, extended technique, and a deep well of imagination. Photo by Steve Parke
You give workshops and clinics, you have your own music camp, and your book The Music Lesson is used as an instructional tool in some music colleges. How do you see yourself as a role model for students?
I like to help people and I want to help as many as I can. I want to help fill in the gaps and give them things that are essential—things they may not be getting from other teachers. That’s what dictates what I teach and how I teach—especially at this age where I have four kids, and I’ve done a lot of traveling. I want to help others reach those same goals.
As kids, my brothers and I never did what we did for awards, because awards come from other people. That’s something we five boys learned from our parents. As my mom would say, “The only thing you can control is whether you’re worthy of it or not. Whether you win the game, whether you win the award, you may not have control over that. Not everyone will become famous, but you can become worthy of being famous.” In other words, it’s doing things that are good examples, and that if people acted like you and did what you do, the world would be better. That’s how you want to live your life. That way you’re successful, whether people know about what you do or not.
Do you have any advice for students or teachers?
Absolutely. First, to the students: Listen to your teachers. Listening to your teachers doesn’t mean you have to believe everything they say, but, in paying attention to even the things you disagree with, you’ll learn more about yourself and you’ll learn more about whatever the topic is you’re studying.
Whatever you’re learning, make sure you’re using those tools to say what it is you want to say. Use those tools to speak your voice, not someone else’s. In music, whether it’s classical or jazz, we often get caught up just repeating what someone else said, but remember to speak your voice and say what you want to say.
For teachers, we need to remember that it is the student first. A lot of teachers want the student to look up to them, but a good teacher is looking up to the student and guiding. It’s all about the student—it’s about guiding them to rise to the top of their potential. Don’t get so caught in, “I’m the teacher, I’m dignified, and you’ve got to respect me.” All that stuff. The truth is, no, they don’t. You know, they should, but no more than we should respect them because they are the future and our job is to prepare them for it.
Do you still practice?
Yes, but it doesn’t always look like what you call practice. A text message may come in and my phone may beep or buzz—each of those sounds has a pitch. I make sure I know those pitches, so every time I hear one, it’s reinforcing that pitch in my head so I can start to say, “That sounds like a C, that sounds like a G.” I know that my windshield wipers will play a rhythm at 182 beats per minute, so every time I turn them on, I’m reinforcing my time.
A lot of musicians only think about music, as far as studying and learning, the few times during the week we have our instrument in our hands. A baby is learning to talk all the time, not just a few hours a day when it’s practice time. A baby is always listening to the point that if there are five languages spoken in the household, that child will grow up knowing five languages fluently. So I want to become fluent in music that way, and there’s music playing all the time, through sound. There are bird songs, the car reminds you to put on your seatbelt—everything is a sound, a pitch, a rhythm. When you can pay attention to that as music, there’s almost no time you’re not practicing.
Now, the type of practice where I can sit down and have my bass in my hands, that’s rare these days. I have to carve out that time. It might be one or two a.m., after everyone’s in bed, when I’ll get up and work on things I know I have to work on.
But that’s a long answer to say, the way I practice has developed and changed and broadened over the years. I don’t have the same amount of time as I did when I was younger to just sit down with my bass in my hand for hours a day. That time is gone. For me, musically, knowing that I don’t always have time to sit down with my bass, I don’t want to miss any opportunity to improve.
Victor Wooten’s trio is on fire during this performance of “Funky D” from halftime at a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. The band’s energy is through the roof from the first downbeat. Watch Wooten’s feet as he dances between cueing James Brown samples and using his FretTraX to trigger MIDI sounds while he plays chords. Once Wooten and drummer Dennis Chambers start trading four-bar phrases at 3:30, the fireworks erupt, peaking with Wooten’s ferocious slap solo at 4:11.