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Interview: Victor Wooten - Zen and the Art of Playing to Infinity

On Victor Wooten’s two new albums, "Words and Tones" and the instrumental "Swords and Stone," the reigning icon of bass technique continues to push the boundaries of support and virtuosity.

Victor Wooten just might be the busiest bass player in the world (and no, we’re not talking about his note-per-measure ratio). His days are packed with clinics, radio appearances, meet-and-greets, and soundchecks, and night after night, the man and his righteous band take it to the max, proving that he never, ever lacks for ideas, and can boldly surpass artificial limitations and the expectations of bass fanatics everywhere with marathon performances that border on the superhuman. The next morning might find the father of four tending to his family, his label, his music camps, and his other gigs, or the follow up to his acclaimed book, The Music Lesson, as he heads to the next town. And what does he do when he has a little time off?

He practices. “I’m trying to improve every side of my playing, but right now I’m working on getting more proficient at being able to solo through jazz changes,” Wooten says. “I’m okay at soloing through the changes once I hear them, but I’m not as good at just looking at a piece of sheet music and knowing what to play. That’s a fun lesson, though.”

The five-time Grammy winner, whose name is synonymous with electric bass virtuosity, will never stop evolving. Like Michael Jordan shooting free throws in the early hours before games, 48-year-old Wooten isn’t in it for the money, the notoriety, or the endorsements. It isn’t work, it’s love, and it’s about striving toward his highest potential, knowing all the while he’ll never reach it. And therein lies the greatest game for the man who will go down in history among players who are exactly that: the greatest of the greats.

So it makes sense that Wooten has raised the bar and simultaneously released two new albums on his own label, Vix Records. Words and Tones showcases Wooten’s collaborations with some of his favorite singers, including Saundra Williams, Divinity Roxx, and Meshell Ndegeocello, while Sword and Stone flaunts instrumental, orchestrated takes on 11 of the same songs, with different solos, string arrangements, and horn sections (plus three other tracks). Both albums showcase Wooten’s unique combination of R&B, contemporary jazz, funk, gospel, and world music while maintaining his signature, bass-tastic approach. As you might expect, there are plenty of virtuosic licks and jaw-dropping techniques, but Wooten’s primary focus is on grooving.

His tireless work ethic could make anyone feel lazy, but that’s far from his intention. In fact, the man who dedicates a large chunk of his time to sharing his knowledge with others understands that when people deem him the best, they are merely seeing the best in themselves. Perhaps this Zen outlook comes from all the effort Wooten puts into his craft, or it could be a manifestation of the wide-eyed joy that has stayed with him since he first picked up the bass at age 2. Whatever its source, the force of his creativity keeps Wooten’s past achievements in the rearview mirror, his soul and his craft steadily moving forward into the unknown.

LEFT: Two bassists are better than one, that’s why Wooten tours with 6-string fretless wonder Steve Bailey.
RIGHT: Wooten onstage with a Yamaha SVC-110SK SILENT Cello. Photos by Steven Parke

What inspired you to release instrumental and vocal albums at the same time?
I’ve wanted to put out two albums at once for a long time. Many years ago, when I was on two different record labels, I wanted to put out a record on each label on the same day, which I thought would be so cool. But record companies don’t like to work together like that because they’re competitors. This time around, I had planned on doing just one CD with female vocalists. In most cases, I allow the vocalists I work with to write a majority of the lyrics so that they’re singing what’s true to them, and so they get credited as writers. But as I was putting melodies on the songs so the singers could get a feel for them, I realized I liked these songs as instrumentals, too. Then it hit me that I could release these as two separate records—now that I own my own record label, I can do whatever I want with my albums. I finally had an opportunity to pursue an idea I’ve had for a long time.

How did you decide which songs to put on these records?
A lot of it just comes out on its own. I’m not the type of musician who’s writing and recording all the time. I do have songs I’ve recorded in the past and have not used. In a couple of cases, I put old songs on these records. I have a voice recorder on my phone, and whenever an idea pops into my head, I either sing it or play it into my phone. So I went through those ideas, wrote charts from them, and wrote songs based on them.

How did you record these albums?
I used all Pro Tools. I used a little bit of both DI and mic’ing my cabinet, but mainly DI. I always keep a cabinet set up in the studio so I can do both and mix the two, but this time I didn’t use my cabinet much in the mix.

Did you try any new techniques on these albums?
I’m always looking for new tricks and techniques. I always use a ponytail holder hair band on the neck of my bass, and I found that if I moved it to the 17th or 18th fret, I could make sounds like a guitar player using pinched harmonics. So I put distortion on the instrument and, just like a guitarist, I took a solo on Sword and Stone that sounded just like a guitarist would. It was definitely something new for me.

You’ve used that hair band on your bass for many years now. What function does it serve?
It serves as a string mute, and depending on what you’re playing, it’s great for muting the open strings. Between myself and my brother Regi and his students, we’ve all come up with different ways of using the hair tie.

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.

How important is your gear to your sound?
I want gear that’s so transparent I forget it’s there. I do clinics for Hartke all over the world, and sometimes I forget to talk about them. And when I do, I tell people that me forgetting about the gear is a wonderful thing, although for Hartke, it’s not so good (laughs). I’m much more musical and I always get it more right in my heart and in my head, but by the time it comes out, there’s a bunch of mistakes in it, and it doesn’t sound like it did in my brain. When the amplification is projecting exactly what’s in my head, then I forget it’s there. Really, that’s the biggest thing I’m looking for. That’s why I have a hard time sitting in a room and testing an amp. I’m thinking about it too much. I need to put it in real context.

What have you been listening to lately?
One thing that might surprise people is that when I’m driving in my car by myself I’m usually listening to country music. I got into it when I worked at Busch Gardens amusement park in Virginia and learned about country and bluegrass. Listening to it in the car gives me a chance to practice my music theory. Because the chord changes move by slowly, I can call them out and say, “That’s a I chord, that’s a VIm, there’s a IIm chord, there’s a V7.” I’ve also started to predict where it’s going to go so I can see if I’m right, and I can tell what’s going to go on before it happens.

Who are your greatest bass influences?
It all starts and ends with my brother Regi. But Stanley Clarke is a big one, Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Jaco Pastorius, of course, and there are tons of other people like Chuck Rainey, Louis Johnson, James Jamerson and Willie Weeks. Acoustic players like Ron Carter, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro. And that’s just bass players. My musical influences span a lot of different instruments.

How does the bass resonate with your personality?
It’s a supporting instrument. It’s designed to make other people feel and sound good. It seems like a lot of the time, we forget that. That instrument was not designed to be on top, and it’s rare that you’ll find a bass player who is leading a band. It’s designed so that most of the time we’re going to be sidemen. But I find that when most of us bassists are alone practicing, that rarely comes into the picture of what we’re working on. We’re going to get hired based on our ability to be a supporter, but when we practice, we learn new scales and work on our licks and our solos and how to play faster. But you never get hired for any of that. You have to honor the true spirit of the instrument.

How does it make you feel when people tell you you’re the best ever?
I understand that what people think, good or bad, is up to them and not me. A little kid who looks up to his big brother for being able to dunk a basketball, for example, is really seeing his own future potential. It wouldn’t make sense for the older brother to stop dunking the ball because the younger brother can’t, so he keeps doing it. When people put me up on a pedestal, I used to take myself off it and tell them I wasn’t that good, or I’d shrug it off. But what I realized is that whether they know it or not, when they think they’re talking about me, they’re really talking about themselves. I don’t want to diminish their dreams by saying I’m not that good. Instead, I accept it, say thank you, and then we move on.

What would you ideally want someone to say about your music after hearing it for the first time? That they really enjoyed it and that it inspired them to go do it. I want people to feel something. I want them to think less about the technique and the playing behind it and feel the big picture of it all. Music should hit you in your heart and make you feel something real, just like an Otis Redding song does.

What inspires you to keep growing as a player?
You have to understand that music never ends and there’s always someplace new to go with it. A good friend of mine once said that it’s like trying to count to infinity—no matter how far you go, you’re no closer to the end. In no way do I think that I’ve reached the limit or the full potential of my playing ability. None of us have.

Victor Wooten's Gear

Fodera 4-string fretted Monarch basses, various upright models

Hartke HyDrive LH Series, Hartke HyDrive 410, HyDrive 115

Rodenberg Distortion pedal, Boss GT-6B Multi-effects pedal, Zoom B3 Multi-effects

D’Addario nickels strings (.040, .055, .075, .095)

YouTube It

Here Wooten demonstrates the harmonic technique heard on his new track “Sword and Stone,” where he uses a hair tie on the fretboard of his bass:

This clip from a clinic in Mechanicsville, Virginia, demonstrates Wooten’s tremendous grasp of melody, harmony, and rhythm:

In this clip from the 2010 NAMM show, Wooten plays his famous version of “Amazing Grace,” an arrangement he first unveiled with the Béla Fleck and the Flecktones:

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