LEFT: Hands a blur, Wooten flits his mitts across the fretboard of his signature Fodera Monarch at a November 9, 2012, gig at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia. RIGHT: Wooten plays an upright bass during a show last summer at Rams Head Live in Baltimore, Maryland. Photos by Steven Parke

What have you been working on recently?
Being able to play more melodically, and playing more lines. I’ve always been a rhythmic player and I’m very comfortable with that, but I want to play lines like a great piano player or horn player. Right now I’m on tour with the Jimmy Herring Band, and seeing Jimmy play so well and so cleanly makes me strive to reach that level.

How do you go from being a bandleader to a sideman?
In either situation, I’m listening to the groove and playing what the song is asking for. It’s just like us talking right now: Everything I’m going to say is based on what you say first. It’s mainly about listening—I try to do more listening than talking. That’s the essence of groove. If I’m really listening to the song, then I’ll know exactly what to play.

How has your playing evolved over the years?
I think that the instrument has taken a backseat. It’s not about your instrument—it’s about what you have to say. Your instrument happens to be the one you use—it might be a bass, voice, an alto or soprano—but who cares? It’s all about what you’re saying with it. Right now, you’re not thinking about how your lips are moving or the physics of your talking, you’re just speaking. That’s how I approach the bass—by approaching the music instead.

How did you start playing bass when you were two years old?
Actually, my brothers had me play music with them before I began playing bass. They would have me sit in the room with them and have me strum a toy, keep time, and start and end at the same time as the song. When I was 2, Regi took two strings off his extra guitar and it became a bass for me. That’s when I really started learning how to play the notes to songs I already knew.

So your family has shaped who you are as a musician?
Totally. That was my upbringing. I played with my brothers for the first half of my life, and they truly turned me into who I am. Just like kids who grow up with a good family and go off into the world to do their own thing, their upbringing always stays with them. And musically, my background all began with my family.

What was your first bass?
It was a copy of a Paul McCartney Hofner violin bass, but it was made by Univox. I still have it. After that, I was playing an Alembic Series 1, which is a huge instrument that’s also really heavy. I was so young and short and small, and it was huge.

What has kept you playing Fodera basses for all these years?
I got my first Fodera in about 1983. Back then, it was just a $900 bass Vinny Fodera and Joey Lauricella had started making that year, and we just happened to have met up at the right time. I got it right out of high school and it felt just amazing. It fit me perfectly. I’ve stuck with them ever since.

What do you look for in a bass?
The first thing is that it has to feel good. I’ve done very little to my Fodera basses. The only thing I’ve had Vinny and Joey do for me is move the volume knobs and the switches as far back near the bridge as possible so that they don’t get in the way of my right-hand strumming technique. Although I’ve changed how my particular instrument looks— with a yin-yang symbol, for example—the bass I use today is pretty much exactly the same as that Fodera Monarch bass I got 30 years ago.

What inspired you to switch to Hartke amps?
I was just ready for a change after many years of using great Ampeg gear, so I took some time to just look around and see what was out there. I spent a year on tour with 25 different bass cabinets and my crew would set up a different rig each night. So I got to really hear, play, and experience many different amps. It always starts from sound, so I got the amps with the best sound to me, and then I started reaching out to the companies, because who the people in the companies are is very important to me. If I’m going to endorse a product and put my name behind it, I’m really endorsing the people who work at those companies. It’s like a marriage. You’re not just going to marry someone because they’re beautiful, you gotta know who they are. There were companies whose amps I chose not to use because of the people. But I needed a company to support me wherever I went, and Hartke took the cake easily. I got one of the first HyDrives that they ever made.

And how is the new Hartke HyDrive series?
I love it. It’s powerful, so I never have to turn my volume up too high. It’s a really bright cabinet, so you have to be prepared for that, but with my 1x15 cabinet, I get all the bottom I need.