Full Interview: Grammy®-Winning Bassist Victor Wooten

Victor Wooten

By Molly McCowan

Victor Wooten: bass virtuoso, powerhouse behind Béla Fleck and the Flecktones for over 20 years, five-time Grammy® winner.

With seven solo albums to his name and over 20 other albums with his many projects over the years, this masterful musician has a lot of experience under his belt. He has also been named Bass Player Magazine’s “Bassist of the Year” three times – the only person to ever win the title more than once.

In celebration of the 15-year anniversary of his first album, A Show of Hands, Wooten recently released a re-mastered version of the album, A Show of Hands 15, featuring three previously unreleased tracks.

To promote the new album, Wooten joined up with fellow bassist extraordinaire Stanley Clarke for a 15-stop U.S. tour, including a show at the Boulder Theatre on March 12.

Scene was lucky enough to catch up with this amazing musician before his performance.

Scene: How old were you when you started playing bass?
Wooten: I was out playing gigs with my brothers by the time I was five years old. They started teaching me how to play much earlier than that, when I was about one or two. I started by using one of my brothers extra guitars – He took two of the strings off and that was my bass.

Scene: You grew up in a very musical family. How did growing up in that environment influence you?
Wooten: The same way that growing up in a family that speaks a language influences you to speak that same language – you learn it naturally, which is the best way. Rather than having to study and practice it, you just learn it. If you think about music as a language, it becomes easier to understand. If you think about when you’re learning to speak English when you’re a baby, your parents don’t teach it; they just speak it to you and allow you to speak back, whether you’re right or wrong. When you’re a child learning a language, you learn the language before you learn the words; like what it means when your mother raises her voice. Learning the actual words come later. I learned music that way. I learned what things meant in music before I learned how to play an instrument, or how to play real notes. My brothers allowed me to play with them even though I couldn’t play an instrument: They gave me a toy instrument to hold and strum along as I learned it. It was a brilliant and beautiful way to learn.

Scene: Did you choose bass as your instrument?
Wooten:
My brothers knew they needed a bass player to complete the band, so my brother Regi chose for me.

Scene: Did you realize at any certain point that bass spoke to you, personally?
Wooten:
I don’t remember thinking about it; it was just a way for me to fit in with my family. [Like how] when you go out to play touch football everybody takes a position. I got the best instrument, though, so now I look at it and I’m very, very happy.

Scene: What kinds of music influenced you as a young musician?
Wooten: All the music that was on the radio in the mid-to-late ‘60s: A lot of soul music, R&B, Motown, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone. But because radio was so open, I would also hear Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd. And then later on I got into jazz – people like Jaco Pastorius, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke.

Scene: What influences you to create music nowadays?
Wooten: I still enjoy doing live concerts and having that instant feedback, that instant gratification. I can’t think of any other profession in the world where you get that instant feedback – where everyone in the audience is there to support you. I enjoy making people happy with music. But I also enjoy teaching music and helping other people discover their gifts and talents through music. And also now I’m a father of four kids, so I enjoy playing with them and for them. I’m able to make a living not only for myself, but also for my family.

Scene: Tell us about the music camps that you host at Wooten Woods in Tennessee throughout the year.
Wooten:
This upcoming camp, our “Bass/Nature” camp, will be made up of students from around the world. We use nature as an example, as inspiration and in many cases as a classroom. We’re all trying to be natural, which means being like nature. In that same way, we want our music to flow naturally. We don’t want to have to concentrate or focus hard onstage. No one has to teach a bird how to sing, a squirrel how to build a nest, a flower how to grow; it’s just so natural. As humans we’re a part of that natural cycle of life, but we forget that and we abuse it. In these music camps, we follow nature’s examples. At camp, when we “awaken” people to these gifts – it’s hard to explain and easier to experience – they progress rapidly. After six days we see a major transformation in their music.

Scene: What kinds of workshops are offered at the camps?
Wooten:
We have a crew of musical instructors and also a crew of nature instructors. These people try to get the participants outside, and many of the exercises involve awareness. We have blindfolded exercises every day, where you learn to feel and listen with other parts of the body. When you bring that openness and new awareness back to music, you realize that you have more tools to play music with than just your fingers and your ears. For us, music theory is taught in a very narrow way. Mainly, music theory only teaches you about notes. We have a lot of names for it – we call it scales, chords, modes, harmony, but it’s still dealing with notes. Music theory doesn’t deal with dynamics. It doesn’t deal with pitch, it doesn’t deal with emotion. It doesn’t deal with space, meaning when not to play. Or phrasing – how to use a phrase to make your audience stop talking and listen to you. Different techniques like rhythms; music theory doesn’t deal with. It might touch on it, but there’s no theory for it, as there is for the notes. I’m afraid to even say this – I’m afraid I’m going to alienate another teacher who thinks I’m talking down about them, and I’m not. What they teach is good, it’s necessary, but it’s not complete.

Scene: Are you going to be heading to the Bass/Nature Camp on March 29?
Wooten: Yes! We have a camp starting then, so I’ll be getting home [from this tour] just a couple days before that to prepare. That will be our first camp of the year, and so far I’ve been at every camp, so I’m always there.

Scene: How do you cater to all your students’ different musical tastes in the camps?
Wooten: By finding out what it is they want to say with their instrument. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, you need to have something to say, or else the language is useless. So I want to know, “Is this person going to just play locally in a band, just in nightclubs in his neighborhood, or is he trying to become a recording artist, a rockstar…etc.?” That makes the difference as to what we’re going to talk about. But the rules to the language are the same. Whether you’re speaking English, Japanese, the purpose is the same. If we’re talking about music, it doesn’t matter what style. No matter the style, I can talk about music in a way that will help you improve. Music is one thing; the style is another.

Scene: Do you have very many female bassists coming to your camps?
Wooten: We do. One thing I’ll say about the females that I love is that the females don’t play that macho ego game that male musicians do. Females will just play the music. And a lot of the times, the females are more solid players because their focus is to make their music sound better. A lot of the males that come through can’t quite set aside their ego and the idea of “I can play in a way that’s going to impress you.” That doesn’t get you gigs. A lot of times it’s the females that are in two or three bands –  one of the ladies that I met at one of my very first camps is now Beyonce’s bassist as well as her second musical director. I’m not taking credit for that; I’m just talking about how solid women are when they get serious about playing. They do it for the right reasons.

[Editor’s note: Find out more about the Wooten Woods camps at www.wootenwoods.com.]

Scene: Do you feel that bass is often underestimated as an expressive instrument?
Wooten: Yes, by most people it is. But by the same token, bass is the foundation of music. It is the foundation between the rhythm and the melody. Drums are rhythmic, but that don’t play the melody – bass is rhythmic and melodic. So it’s kind of in a broader role than any other instrument; that’s why I say it’s the foundation of the music. The same way when you walk into a building and no one looks at the floor and says, “Wow, this is a nice floor.” But you understand that the foundation has to be the strongest part of the building, and that the foundation’s goal is not to get attention but to hold up the rest of the building. Bass, by its general nature, holds up the rest of the band. And so, like the foundation of a building, it usually goes unrecognized. But that’s definitely changing.

Scene: You’ve made huge strides in making bass influential as a solo instrument.
Wooten: Some of that’s good and some of that’s bad. Sometimes, and myself included, it’s easy to have so much ability and technique that we forget what our true role is. I hear a lot of young people that are learning the instrument in reverse; they’re learning to play the flashy stuff first, but they can’t even play a 12-bar blues.

Scene: Do you feel that music theory is the basis of music?
Wooten: No. Music came first; theory came later. We start to teach in reverse. Think about this: What if you wanted to learn to speak English and I started out by teaching you nouns and pronouns and verbs and the alphabet. You’d learn to talk that way, but it would make you learn it really slowly. That stuff is good to know; we need to know it. But that stuff comes after you can already talk, not before. That will slow you down – it’ll take you at least 10 years to really learn it, and when you can finally speak, you’ll be speaking with a heavy accent. And that’s what happens with music; we try to teach people rules first rather than music first, and a lot of people get frustrated because of that. Music theory didn’t come before music, so why do we teach it before we teach music? In my mind it doesn’t make sense. It works; it just takes a long time. You can have someone playing good music the first day. A baby doesn’t have to learn music; they have to learn an instrument. Everyone has been hearing music since before they were born. We all know music; we just have to learn to play it through the instrument. Later on we’ll learn the rules.

Scene: Do you agree with the idea that playing music with other people, no matter what their level of skill is, only improves you as a musician?
Wooten:
Think about it like this: Imagine if a baby trying to learn English only spoke to other babies. He’d be in his twenties before he could talk. So if you use the same method that got us good at one language really quickly and take that same theory and apply it to the language of music, all of the sudden all your answers are clear. So yes, you should be playing with people that are much better than you as much as possible. The main problem is that most good musicians don’t usually allow you to do it. We stick you in class with other beginners; we tell you that you have to pay your dues. In language, no one even ever tells you you’re a beginner. When you’re a baby and you make a mistake when you’re talking, no one ever tells you how bad or wrong you are. Instead, your parents start talking “wrong” too! You’re always made to feel free when you’re learning to speak, but we don’t offer that same freedom when it comes to music. But if could do that, and when that does happen, like when you take a child who grows up in a family like me that all play music, that little kid is good really quickly. I see it all the time: 99% of the time when you see a kid that’s really good at music, I guarantee that someone in his family plays and that they allow him/her to play too. It’s very easy to become good when you surround yourself with it. Play with people who are better than you as much as you can.

Scene: What does the phrase “You can’t hold no groove if you ain’t got no pocket” (which appears on the album A Show of Hands) mean when applied to a musician’s technique?
Wooten: Well, it doesn’t matter what technique you’re using; it has to groove. You have to have a pocket, and you don’t have a pocket without a groove. You can be as flashy as you want, you can know as much musical theory as you want, you can solo through all the hardest jazz songs, you can have the most expensive gear, but if you can’t groove, you’re not a good musician. You might be good on the bass but it doesn’t mean you’re a good musician. A person who’s just good on the bass is good for an exhibition or something, but for playing in a band, you have to groove.

Scene: How would you define the musical term “pocket?”
Wooten: A good pocket is really another name for a good groove. What it really means to me is that it’s something that the other musicians can “sit” right in. The singer, the horn player, the melody instruments, etc. can just sit right in that groove. Like when you’re holding a baby and that baby can just relax and just drop their whole weight in your arms because they trust you; that’s a pocket. To play in a way that allows everyone to just sit right in that groove and have a nice time.

Scene: If you could give one piece of advice to young musicians, what would it be?
Wooten: I would say to learn to play music, not your instrument. When you talk, you don’t say, “I talk now.” You speak a language, and you speak it through your instrument. I approach music in the same way – like a language.

Scene: What is your favorite genre to play nowadays?
Wooten: Jazz mixed with funky music. I grew up with R&B, and I still gravitate back towards that. But I always add a little jazz in my funk and a little funk in my jazz. I would say that those two styles of music are what I’m more adept at playing, but I really enjoy playing anything. It’s almost like if you say your favorite food is pizza – but if you ate it every night, you wouldn’t really want it the next day. I’m just very happy that I get to play lots of different styles of music.

Scene: Have you noticed any changes to your style throughout your career?
Wooten: It’s definitely changed because I’ve grown a lot through playing with the wonderful musicians that I get to play with. Over the twenty years that I’ve played with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, I’ve heard my style change quite a bit. Just being able to play in different time signatures and different types of music, like Bulgarian music or Irish music, for example. I think my playing has changed a whole lot. I grew up only playing with my brothers, but when I became kind of forced to play with other musicians, I grew as a musician and as a person.

Scene: You also teamed up with legendary bassists Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke in 2008 to make an album, Thunder. Was it challenging to have so much bass on one album?
Wooten: Actually, it was not that challenging to build a record with so much bass because those two guys are so musical. They’re much more than bass players; they’re complete musicians. Marcus pays saxophone and clarinet, and they both play piano. They both do movie scores and scores for television. So they hear music in its entirety, not just from the low end. And from me studying them since I was a kid, I’m trying my best to follow suit. The whole reason we decided to do that project was we got together and played onstage one time and it was so easy. If Marcus went down and played the bass line, I found the middle, and Stanley played up high. And if anybody switched, we all just found our place. The hardest part for me was just being around my heroes as an equal. That was a challenge.

Scene: How so?
Wooten: The first time I met Stanley was when I was nine years old, so it took me a long time to not feel nine whenever I got around him.  It was almost like going home and being around your parents; you still let them tell you what to do. But I was there to be an equal, so I had to force myself to step up, and even to play out and write stuff and offer suggestions and correct them if I felt they were wrong; all of that. That was the biggest challenge.

Scene: Stanley Clarke is well-known for playing acoustic, or double bass. Have you ever played acoustic bass in shows?
Wooten: I have. Very little in shows, but I have an acoustic bass at home and I’ve been working on it because I plan to record a record on it in the future.

Scene: What do you think the main differences are between electric and acoustic bass?
Wooten: Well, it’s harder to do anything on an acoustic, for me anyway. It’s such a physical difference, and it’s such a physical challenge. But the electric bass was made as a copy of the acoustic bass. It was made so that we could plug it in and finally be heard – to keep it in line with the guitar and other instruments that were becoming amplified. But electric bass is just physically an easier instrument to play, for most people. But the double bass, to me, is just really where it’s at. I urge all electric bass players to learn how to play the double bass.

Scene: Do you use any techniques to warm up your body before you play?
Wooten: Yes, but for me, it’s not a physical thing. For me, music is not something I do a couple days a week or a couple of hours a week. I’m musical even right now as I’m talking to you. Music is more of a lifestyle for me, so I want to make sure I’m healthy and in shape all the time – to the point where when I pick up the bass I’m ready to go; I don’t need to warm up. The way I look at it, mentally, is that I’ve been playing bass for 44 years; I should be warm by now. That is literally my approach, and it helps me mentally especially on days that I can’t physically touch the instrument before I hit the stage. But usually my warm up before a show will be a whole body warm up, not just stretching my fingers or my arms. Like a boxer doesn’t just go back and throw punches; they warm up their legs, they breathe, they warm up the waist, everything. I approach music in the same way, but even more so, I approach music mentally. There will be times that I don’t do anything physical backstage except sit in a chair and get my mind mentally ready as to what I have to say to these people. The mental process is a huge process that is very, very important.

Scene: Have you ever experienced any injuries to your hands or arms because of the way you play bass?
Wooten: Fortunately I haven’t ever had anything serious. There have been times when I played too hard and the muscles down my arm have tightened up, causing my hand to close up into a fist. I’ve had that happen before and I just know instantly that I’m playing too hard, and [that I need to] relax. Other than that, I’ve been fortunate.

Scene: You’ve always stood for peace and equality. Do you think these ideals have become even more important over the 15 years that have passed since A Show of Hands was first released?
Wooten: It’s always been important, but it’s at a point now where we really have to make it a conscious effort. Some of our natural abilities towards love and equality have almost become completely reversed to where it’s a “Me first” mentality, or “I can only love people close to me.” So we have to make it conscious. For the world to work, we have to love each other. We have to understand that equality – that’s what makes the planet stay alive. Love each other.

Learn more about Victor Wooten at www.victorwooten.com.

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