I realize it's been more than a month since my last posting, and that sucks. But I have a job to do and it keeps me busy, and frankly posting takes time that I struggle to catch a hold on. But there are some things that are interesting enough to air in public, one of which was a bass seminar I attended at Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center in Wheaton, Maryland. Victor Wooten - the master funkateer of the Flecktones - was giving a clinic. Since I aspire to be a master of the low end, I went with about 200 other people.
Victor was there with JD Blair, the drummer from his first CD, and Shania Twain's drummer for several years. Turns out, the brother was voted the best country drummer just for keeping a good grove. Here's the notes I took on the seminar, which was co-sponsored by Hartke, the folks who make bass amps and gear. Victor used the amp throughout the seminar, though most of the time was Q & A, not playing. But when he did play, Vic was laying down some amazing stuff.
Check out the notes, use them as needed.
Victor Wooten clinic notes
Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center
Wheaton, MD March 23, 2009
J.D. Blair, drummer touring with Victor. VW and JD appearing at Birchmere and Rams’ Head.
Victor opened with the question: “Why are you here?”
Answers were varied – to learn, to get some inspiration, etc. Victor then added “Most people come to a clinic to see a performance; the other ½ say they are there to learn.
Why would people want to learn something from ‘one of the best’ and not bring a notebook? Victor noted that music is an elective course - we want to write it down when we are trying to learn something.
Michael Jordan on a basketball court: even stuff I disagree with I would write it down. Ideas write them down. Get all you can from anyone.
Then Vic opened it to questions and answers.
1st question was by a man who said he debated whether to stop practicing and go see Vic or continue working on his stuff. Valid question. Music is a language; to get good at this language do I stay at home or go where the best are speaking it? English is hard – the thought process behind it. Music is a language, so we can learn it. You learn a lot about a language by speaking it. Play with people more to learn how to speak. Alone in a practice room you will speak with an accent.
2nd question was about Vic’s creative process and writing. Does he set a barrier when he writes because some of what he writes might go over people’s heads?
I know if I do it, some might not understand it, but if it’s grooving right, then you get it. I do things that I know nobody’s getting. But if it’s over your head, you as a performer have an obligation to make it so your audience can understand. Make it groove, and all is right.
What about when you get stuck?
I record what I have because I might forget it. I go back later and listen to them and see how they work. If I get stuck on something, I see if it works with another piece. Maybe it will work with something else I have. Focus on what you have to say. Don’t think so much about how you want to say it - focus on what you are saying. Sometimes people are afraid to ask the music what it wants you to play. Ask and it will tell you.
Is there such a thing as having perfect time?
Digitally, things can be corrected. Listen to what other musicians are doing. JD Toured with Shania Twain for three years and won best country drummer of the year award. Her (ex-) husband Mutt Lange is notoriously hard to work for – he will take pieces of things and paste them together for the record. The guitar player at the audition said they were turning away so many drummers, that they told limo drivers not to stop the motor – that they would not be staying. When JD came in they were running a click track. Midway through the audition, Mutt said “stop! Who turned off the click?” The engineer said no one so they started again. The same thing happened, and again the engineer said the click was working. What was happening was that JD was so tight with the click that it sounded like it wasn’t there. Vic also said he met a drummer who said he had perfect time, but he felt like the guy was holding him back.
How do you keep your mind focused?
Most of it is off the bandstand. Life is music, so I am always practicing. Speak musically. Make whatever’s happening groove. I make it groove; you’re not listening to music note for note, you are listening to the overall package. Don’t try to get every note right. If someone comes into the room, they are a part of the band – they affect things. The audience has a right to ask, they paid to be there. We need to be aware of the audience; a good audience will push you higher or a bad audience can pull you down.
What non-musical things inspire you?
You hear people play that know theory and they play that way. Emotion comes from you. Life is a story. Go out and have a life; that’s where music comes from. Everything is an inspiration. You got to figure it out. Everything that happens in life is an inspiration.
What about learning the staff and reading music?
Learn it – do it! Learning to read before you can talk doesn’t make sense. In music we learn things in reverse. One of the best things that I have found to help me learn about reading music is to write a line of music. That will help you know how to read it.
JD how much do you practice?
I don’t as much as I used to. I analyze what I hear, and put formulas to the test. When Vic is playing in 4 or 2/4 then things click by listening. Practicing goes on in your head.
Do you still eat Frosted Flakes on tour?
I am trying to improve my diet.
Vic, do you have any advice for beginning bassists?
Listen to everything then get a bass and play. Play, Play, Play. Find people or situations to play in. Practicing is OK, but playing is better. My brother Regi started me with one note – maybe a G. But then he surrounds his students with the rest of the music. You might have only that one note to play, but do that for a while and you are making music. He will teach you a note, then say “now, let’s jam.” Think about mom listening on the other side of the door; when she comes up she hears her kid making music. Making music will help you enjoy it which will help you learn it. Play more. Find a way to hear the band in your head.
What about when you are improvising?
I keep the tools - theory, scales, modes, etc – in the back seat of the car, but the groove is what I am after. You don’t need the spare tire in the front seat with you; you keep it in the trunk until you need it.
What about Rhythm theory? Tones and Space?
Any note works if it is in time, if its tone is good, if its dynamics are good. Resolve things to find a way back. I like the challenge, how to find a way back to the 1. I also like to be surprised by what I play. I don’t want to know everything that is going to happen. Most of the situations I am in I have the freedom to explore. With the Flecktones I can explore things on stage; that’s different than when you are accompanying someone and are expected to just get it solid, get it down and keep a groove.
What about scales?
The one scale that I like to practice a lot and people don’t work on is the chromatic scale. If you use every note, that’s it. Explore the weird sounding notes. Take a mistake and by what I do after it, it sounds right. Every “out” note has an “in” note right next to it. Play anything crazy and make it groove. Groove and a simple singable melody are essential. They are the things that will last.
Who inspires you?
Charlie Hunter and especially Steve Vai. I grew up listening to Steve Vai play and some of the things he does really inspire me.
How about when you switch time signatures? How do you tie them together?
I don’t really think about that, I just groove. In India they do it mathematically. Let’s say you have eight measures – 32 quarter notes. So if I play a triplet pattern -123 123 123- then I have 10 measures of three plus two in order to fill the same space as 32 quarter notes. If its four bars of 4/4 time I can play five or 6 bars and then add two and it adds up. They don’t have to be even bars. I can play in 7 and still feel the real tempo. Lots of people subdivide time; triplets (1-2-3) take the triplet pulse and count to any number you want. You don’t have to play every note.
What about space in music?
(Vic) JD and I met in Nashville and knew of one another – he went to NSU and I had heard about him. We would jam, have freedom to interplay, etc. JD was back there grooving. I think his solo was just a couple of hits. He said more by saying little. When you hear silence, you look in the direction of the silence. But then you have to give the audience something.
(JD) On space, Miles Davis was an influence. When he was doing the Be Bop stuff there was just so much sonic info. His drummer Al Foster could sit back and hold a pocket. When Miles has his band on a groove, then he can play two notes and it sounds great.
Vic, you said music is a language; when it talks to you, is it something you have heard before, is it the same?
No. I try to be open enough to hear how it’s going to speak back. You know it comes through inspiration – you feel something and then find a group of notes to say what you want to say. What I am feeling is what I play. Listening to music will sometimes inspire you. Realize you already have a voice.
You mention listening, what are you listening to and how did you find your voice?
I was the youngest of five brothers and that’s what I listened to most. My mom and dad were both musical, and my brothers all played. I listened to CCR, the Beatles, Motown, James Brown, etc. I’m a child of the 60s and so there was always something on the radio. Then I listened to jazz and the tapping – the Eddie Van Halen stuff. But it’s good to be open to all of music.
What about getting bands together?
Play with as many people as you can. Try to play with people who are better – find people at school. The opportunities are there.
How do you keep yourself level headed?
I listen to the good and the bad. If you take the compliments you have to take the criticism as well. Who I am inside is what directs me. What’s in my head? I have to ask “why did what you said hurt me?” You want to look at things honestly. When people put you on a pedestal, then to them you are that good. And keeping that role - staying on that pedestal – will help the little brother go higher rather than lowering your sights.
What about gear, do you play 5-string or only 4-string basses?
I have often said that when I lay them down, they all sound the same. The music is coming from me. When I play it comes from me. I don’t want to know the bass is there. I just want to play music. Be comfortable enough with the bass’s role. It is not just an instrument, it’s a role. Be comfortable. Learn the other things well enough.
What if you spoke another language? Would your music sound different?
Yes, but how we speak is a product of how we live. Everything outside is a product of what’s inside. People from other lands want to play like the USA. But the mix of cultures is what’s cool. When they come here, we don’t want to hear them play like us, we want what they bring to the table.
What about your Ying-Yang bass? What are the tone woods?
Fodera chose the woods. The maker chose the tone woods. I still have the original bass I played on my first album Show of Hands because I didn’t want to lose that sound. I like the sound on “Sinister Minister” and other Flecktones tracks, so I still have that, which was a mix of ebony and holly I think. This bass is different. My first bass has a maple finger board and this one has an ebony one. I still use the PJ (Precision-jazz) pickup setup. When I first got the bass that’s what it had on it. The techniques that I have developed have been developed using that setup. I use EMG pickups and I have a Mike Pope Preamp. But nothing I have is exclusive. Everything on my bass I stuff you can buy
JD, I notice throughout this time, you have had your eyes closed and seem to be somewhere else. Where is that place and what are you hearing?
I have found that I listen better when my eyes are closed. That way I can respond to what’s going on. (VIC) Most of us think we are on the earth, but we are often the ones from another planet. We think we are down to earth, but we are not. When you listen, you learn. Be open minded. Pay attention to sounds, feelings, and what’s going on behind you and around you. Sometimes I might hear something that I want to incorporate, like a coin dropping on the pavement might give me an idea for a new groove.
What about tension and release in a solo?
We have a sax player here in the room? The key to solos and soloing is something that people don’t practice. (Saxophonist B.J. Simmons joins Vic and JD on stage).
What about music and the animals? In your book (The Music Lesson) did you write it as fiction or was it more autobiographical?
I wrote the whole thing as fiction, but I wanted people to take something away from it. If you write your ideas as fiction, then you don’t have to defend it.
The most important thing is to listen to soloists. Silence helps us get inspired. As a soloist he can bring something if we give him space. If we create a hole for the soloist, he can fill it. A good rhythm section that listens can push the soloist to the front. Pay attention to the musical skills. As a listener, if you are only allowed to listen to the rhythm section, you get bored. But as soon as you get involved, we have more fun. Just like when you talk, you can create space, dynamics, so you can respond to what happened.
Can I call your name musically? Anyone who comes in the room affects the conversation, just like someone who walks up when you’re talking.
I used to know that most of the black folks at a Flecktones concert were bass players. That’s just the way it was. I saw Anthony (Wellington) in the crowd one time and so I threw something into a solo that I knew only he would understand (Cosby Slop). You can tap into things and communicate with the audience. Paying attention to the nuances and how the audiences respond is important.
What about the future of the music business?
JD’s wife works at Sony and she can tell you that new artists that don’t pull numbers immediately are gone quickly. (JD) There is a learning curve. And I am on a learning curve, using video, YouTube, all that. You go to my website and you won’t see much. You go to Vic’s and the mouse turns into drops of water, and you can buy stuff, and see concert dates and such.
(Vic) The business is slowly turning back towards people who have real talent. People like music because they like music. It seems like people are getting fed up. But now people are not buying records, they are buying songs (on iTunes or others). We get people – like one young guy came up to me and said he wanted to be his own producer. He thought that meant just putting together drum tracks or samples, and didn’t really know what a producer does. I see a show called “Making the Band” and there’s no band in it; does that mean that P-Diddy doesn’t deserve a place at the table? No, but it’s not the same thing as being a producer.
How about people who can’t recognize the difference?
Make sure there’s something to offer. Don’t get stuffy. What about real music? There has to be something to eat at the table. It’s not all image; I mean Aretha Franklin’s fat, but I’ll be the first one in line when the tickets go on sale. James Brown would perform like every gig was his last.
How about the elimination of arts and music in schools?
There been a lot of studies that prove that people involved in the arts and music do better in school than people who are not involved. But remember, things like cutting arts and music in school cannot be done unless we allow it. Whatever I hear winds up in the music somehow.
If you had to choose one bass player to listen to, who would it be?
There are a lot of good guys out there, but I think right now my favorite is Oteil Burbridge. He’s a great bass player, but it’s not his technique – which is great by the way – that gets the attention. He doesn’t come across as flashy. His sound comes across.
Did you ever have any formal training?
I had better than formal training. I grew up playing music with my brothers. I did play the cello in 6th grade and into high school, so I learned note reading and theory, and stuff like that.
What’s in your CD player?
Right now I’m hanging around with my kids a lot so what I hear is what they listen to.
What does it mean to be a great performer?
Be the person who gives the audience what they are asking for. Listen to the audience. Nothing is as important as what I am doing right now.
How did you deal with the hatred and animosity growing up?
I have to believe that the good and the bad are both true, but I had a posse – a family that encouraged me.
I have some students who are playing the 1970s music in band and they really get bored with the repetition. Do you have any recommendations?
Learn all the stuff and play it the way the stuff goes. Go home and play what you want, but when you are a good player you need to be able to play with anyone. In my groove workshop we practice for mistakes. Sometimes when we play, we play until we make a mistake and then we start over. But practice for mistakes and make them groove. Now let me ask you a question, if you could take music and condense it into one word what would it mean to you?
(The answers ranged from peace, joy, love, passion, release, contentment, communication etc).
Now I have found that people all over the world have answered the same way, but one thing they never mentioned was theory, notes, technique, methods, bass, guitar or even strings. These things are the tools, but the tool is not the music. Remember what your word is and then use the tools to get to that one-word definition. Thanks!
So that's the clinic. And you didn't even have to go!