I’ll always remember the moment I first learned what a bass guitar can really do. A friend and I were browsing on YouTube when he pulled up a link that someone had passed on to him. The little red line grew as the video buffered, and there emerged Victor Wooten, live at Bass Day 1998, playing a polyphonic rendition of “Amazing Grace”. While I now know that he was playing in harmonics on an Alto bass, at the time I could only attribute the performance to dark magic. It was so deeply mysterious, and my quest to learn to play like that has carried me through my years of performing.
I am only one of millions of aspiring musicians that have gone through the same awakening at the sight of a Victor Wooten clip. Countless imitations have since been posted to YouTube, which has proven itself to be a valuable learning tool in the way of music. Victor himself is quick to remind us that there are ups and downs to YouTube learning, but the frustration, the triumph, and the adventure in between that comes with tackling one of Victor’s bass pieces is all part of his intention.
I caught up with Wooten in anticipation of his performance at Northwestern. He’ll be playing with J.D. Blair at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Thursday, March 12 at 8 p.m.
So how familiar are you with YouTube?
I’m very familiar, yes. I do spend time there and I’m a fan of YouTube.
And how familiar are you with your own presence on the site?
Yeah, there’s a ton of stuff from me on YouTube — I’m very aware of that.
So from a legal standpoint, does it ever bother you to see something going on the Internet?
Yeah, I live on both sides of that. There are some things I wish were not up there, and other things I’m glad are up there. I do know that my fan base has grown because of it. [Later adding] Another thing is that I have another video I just put out called Groove Workshop. A person who really wants that DVD should buy it, and a kid who has to struggle with paper routes to buy it, it’ll mean more to him. But if he can just go on YouTube and see it, it doesn’t mean that much! Stuff that’s for sale I think should stay for sale. YouTube has its place but sometimes it can overstep its boundaries.
What is it you don’t like to see?
Well, some things get up there before I’m ready to release them to the public. I may work on a song one night and it’ll end up on the Web before I’m ready for the world to hear it. It keeps a lot of us artists from being able to experiment and try things that we think are only gonna be in front of an audience for that night. Now we know that the world is gonna see it right away. It can hold us back a little bit.
Well, on the brighter side, I think one thing about YouTube is that there are a lot of artists there you won’t find elsewhere. If a kid turns on the radio these days, he won’t hear Larry Graham or Stanley Clarke. On the other hand, these guys are incredibly popular on the Internet. Do you think bassists growing up in this century need those sources of inspiration?
I think it can be a help. I definitely think that, and that’s the beautiful thing about YouTube is that the whole world has access to the rest of the world! And there may be some guy living in Vienna, Austria just sitting in his living room making videos, and all of a sudden the world knows about it. There’s an upside and a downside to it all.
Well, you’ve cited a lot of specific interests like Prince and Larry, so do you think that they’re “necessary education” in bass playing?
Well … it is in a sense … I mean, “necessary” is too much. I think it can be a help. I see both sides of the fence here. Some of the things I had to struggle for are just laid out easy for people playing bass, which again has an upside and downside. Because of all the access, sometimes I’ll go to other countries like Japan and I’ll hear bass players playing like American bass players, when I’d rather they play like Japanese bass players with American influence! Sometimes people forsake their own culture because they have that easy access to other cultures.
I never sat down and took a lesson from a teacher, but on the other hand, I could say you’re one of my teachers. I’ve learned by playing your pieces -– you get a lot of experience learning a Victor piece. So how does that absence of human interaction strike you?
Well look, if you’re born in America, you don’t have to go to YouTube to learn to speak English. You just have to listen to the people around you. The thing with YouTube, or music in general, we think we have to be taught. In order to learn to play good I gotta go listen to Victor Wooten and these guys. And that’s not true. Because we have access to so much stuff, sometimes we don’t see what’s right around us. For example, what I’ve seen over the years is that kids aren’t playing in neighborhood bands anymore. I grew up jamming in my garage with the neighborhood kids … I don’t see that anymore. People are playing alone and putting up videos and whatnot. But are we really putting this stuff to use? Are we playing with people or are we great living room guitarists? There’s that upside and downside.
Well, you’ve been discussing access a lot, but I would counter by noting that it’s harder to just listen for these resources (as a bassist). If you just listen to what’s playing in the mainstream, you get mostly electronic, or also simple rock bands where you can pick up guitar parts. But when you want to play bass on a more technical level, there aren’t quite as many role models out there. I took interest originally because of Flea [of the Red Hot Chili Peppers] because he’s playing technically in mainstream music. Still, you can’t get so many technical bass parts just by keeping your ear to the ground.
Exactly, and that’s what makes it special! It’s harder, but not impossible. See I grew up in the late ’60s playing bass, and things were hard –- we had a few TV shows like the Midnight Special, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Soul Train, and when an artist came on TV you were lucky to catch them. You’d have your whole family sitting around the TV and hopefully you had a VCR to record it, and any little tidbit was so special. That’s why those who wanted it could get ahead. The great musicians are on CD now, they were on record when I was young. I had to take a record and put the needle on to learn a Stanley Clarke solo. I had no tab, I had no lessons, I didn’t have 30 more people playing it on YouTube, and because it was harder it was more special.
Well the time period you mention was interesting -– the electric bass was only invented in the ‘50s. Did the bass have that exciting new feeling to it?
Absolutely, and it’s really an exciting instrument, and a brand new instrument. It’s come so far and so fast and some of the pioneers and first people to ever play it are still around and still alive.
A rapidly growing trend on YouTube is kids posting their imitations of it online. How do you react when you see a kid doing that?
You know I love to see it, it’s flattery, and I love to see people learning my stuff in the way I used to learn Stanley or Jaco stuff when I was a kid. The idea that a kid is looking at me that way is pretty amazing, but at the same time, I see a lot of people putting up stuff before the world really needs to see it. Like, it’s almost where artists used to have to be a little bit more seasoned before you knew about them. By the time you knew about someone like Flea, he had played a lot of gigs and had honed his skill. Now, all I have to do is learn one song well and put it on YouTube and call the buzz. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but at the same time there is. A lot of us older musicians can see through what these people are doing.
Speaking of which, I notice that with the difficulty of some of your songs, you can’t always find someone who has learned it perfectly. Have you ever thought of posting an informal, instructional video to help people out?
Well I have an instructional booklet with 14 of my songs out there.
The Best of Victor Wooten? I have it in front of me.
I wrote the fingerings and everything, but here’s the other thing: I don’t really care if you play the songs exactly as I play them. I’d rather hear your interpretation. If I just lay it out for you, you’re not gonna learn a whole lot. If you use your ear, you’ll learn four times as much.
Well true, but on the other hand, with some of those live performances there’s often a lot of nuance. And one of the great things about your videos is that “how’d-he-do-that” response. Some of those little things, you always wish someone could cue you in to.
Well yeah, but I don’t know any other artist that has put more out on that subject than me. There are videos, DVDs, YouTube videos, and I have a whole Web site geared toward that called the Bass Ball. It’s all out there, but I haven’t made it completely easy. I want you to work for things, I want it to be special for you.
There’s a lot going on in the way of guitar on the Web now, with guys like Andy McKee or John Butler trio, and a lot of focus on slap playing or open hand playing. Do you ever draw inspiration from these guitarists?
Yeah! I’ve been doing that since I first started, [because] my oldest brother is a guitar player. I’ve been drawing from them forever. But not only guitarists, all instruments, you know. All my brothers play different instruments . There have been great guitarists doing touch style, finger style, tapping whatever. Michael Hedges, Stanley Jordan, Van Halen,Yngwie Malmsteen. I’ve been in touch with that stuff as long as I’ve been playing.
So what keeps you challenged? What’s out there now that can make you say, “Man, I’ve gotta learn that?”
Sure, well a lot of the time that comes from another instrument. The fullness of a piano or the powerfulness of a drummer like Dennis Chambers or Billy Cobham. That’s always been an inspiration for me.
You’re particularly involved with your fans and for someone at such a high level, you’ve remained very accessible by taking emails and showing up to your camp, etc. What drives you to stay in touch with the fans?
Oh! Well I don’t have a career if I don’t have fans! I’d just be a person posting stuff on YouTube!