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Rufus Philpot: “The first time I heard Level 42's The Chinese Way on the radio, I couldn’t believe someone could play bass that fast in a pop song”

Rufus Philpot
(Image credit: Courtesy of Rufus Philpot)

Rufus Philpot has a long list of incredible musicians on his resume – Allan Holdsworth, Tony MacAlpine, Tool drummer Danny Carey, Virgil Donati, Derek Sherinian, Simon Phillips, vibes legend Roy Ayers, Reggie Washington, Scott Kinsey, Kirk Covington, Joel Rosenblatt, and Randy Brecker among them. 

He also plays with jazz guitarist Scott Henderson as part of the Nomad Trio, and was a member of Planet X and the Virgil Donati Group for five years. 

He can currently be seen in the acid-jazz/funk band Down To The Bone, a trio, B.A.D., and a flamenco group, and he has taught masterclasses at the Musicians Institute, the Los Angeles Music Academy, and in Australia, England, and Sweden.

Tell us about your career as a bass player, Rufus.

“I’m originally from London, and I moved to the USA in 1999. I first went out to New York in ’96, just to explore, and I went to Fodera and I met Matt Garrison there. I’d just seen Matt playing the week before with the Zawinul Syndicate, who were opening up for John McLaughlin on a double-header tour that they were doing. 

“I was playing this Fodera, and Nick Epifani walks in and he goes, ‘You sound good, man. Where are you from?’ I told him I was from London, and he goes, ‘Oh, you play good! Did you meet Matthew?’ and he introduces me to Matt Garrison. 

“I said to him, ‘I saw you with Zawinul. You sounded incredible.’ He said ‘Cool!’ and took me down to some jam sessions, where Richard Bona was playing.”

A good time to move to New York.

“It really was. Richard was just taking off and becoming the next big thing. I came back in 1999, but I didn’t have any gigs, so I ended up working a part-time job. I got friendly with the owner of a dive bar around the corner in Hell’s Kitchen, and I got my own residency with a band there. 

“I used to go to the Zinc Bar, which was a late-night musicians’ hangout. I sat in on bass at the invitation of Latin jazz bassist John Benitez, and ended up playing with a line of guys who sat in with us, including Roy Hargrove, Mark Whitfield, and David Sanchez.”

The staff at my school would bribe me not to practice saxophone, literally, because it was torture for them

What was your big break?

“Word spread a bit and I met Randy Brecker’s wife, Ada Rovatti, and I played with her band Elephunk for a bit, and then I went to Ecuador with Randy and the guitarist Vinnie Valentino, who plays with Vital Information. I started teaching at the Bass Collective, which was an amazing faculty at the time because John Patitucci was the head. My first album session was with Buddy Williams and Jeff Golub, both of whom were very encouraging and complimentary.”

Tell us about Planet X.

“I was told that the drummer Virgil Donati was looking for a bass player for his band Planet X, over in Los Angeles. I hadn’t heard them, but I was told it was really difficult music. I later played with their keyboard player Derek Sherinian on one of his albums, Mythology (2004), which also had Allan Holdsworth on it. 

“Planet X’s music was very complex, but I was up for it, and flew out to LA. I was pretty fried after the flight, but 90 minutes after I arrived, Virgil picked me up and took me to the audition. I’d been woodshedding the music, and it was insane, because of all the different note groupings. 

“Still, I passed the audition, because I’d done my homework, and Virgil and Derek went out of the room afterwards – and then they came back in and said, ‘Okay, you’re in. Welcome to Planet X! We’re about to rehearse for nine days, and then we go to Italy and Poland. When can you be here?’ I was like, ‘I can be here in a week. That’s the quickest I can do it.’ And that was it – I flew back six days later, with a suitcase and two basses.”

How did you get into bass in the first place?

“Before I played bass, I was a really bad saxophone player. The staff at my school would bribe me not to practice, literally, because it was torture for them. 

“They could hear it through the wall. Fortunately I found a bass guitar lying on the stage of the school theatre, because the local rock band had been rehearsing there – I think it was an SG-type bass, in cherry red. 

“I remember it wasn’t plugged in, but you know, the acoustic, metallic sound of the strings was very beguiling. I love the saxophone, but it doesn’t come to me naturally, and I felt an affinity with the bass. I knew instantly that it was for me, and within about two months, I was so much better at bass than I was on the saxophone.”

I love the saxophone, but it doesn’t come to me naturally, and I felt an affinity with the bass. I knew instantly that it was for me

Who were the bass players that you admired back then? 

“For me, it was Level 42. The first time I heard The Chinese Way on the radio, I couldn’t believe someone could play bass that fast in a pop song. The bass was very prominent, and it was just bewildering. I couldn’t even begin to figure it out – it was unbelievable. After that, I was into Japan, so I got into Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Mick Karn’s bass playing. I really admired Laurence Cottle, too.

You played a Wal from a young age.

“I got that bass when I was 18. I went to see Mahavishnu Orchestra play in London in 1984, and Jonas Hellborg was playing with them. I met Jonas at a bass event a couple of years later, and [Wal Basses founder] Ian Waller was there too. I got to play Jonas’s double-neck Wal there, and it was the start of my love for those basses.”

What other basses have you played?

“Well, my very first bass was a Burns Nu-Sonic, and then I had an active Westone Thunder I. The Burns had a tiny short scale, which was good at first, because as a kid, I had small hands, and it was very easy to get around – but obviously it sounded horrendous. 

“The first double-octave neck bass I had was an Ibanez Roadstar II active in tobacco sunburst, with a maple board and a big headstock, almost like an old Ken Smith. That was a great bass. 

“Ibanez endorsed me when I was with Planet X, actually – they built me a fretless five-string. I still have it. It looks like the Gary Willis bass, but with nicer wood – mine has a burl maple top and a Nordstrand passive pickup.

“It’s an epoxy coated macassar ebony board – I spec’ed the whole thing out. After that I played Ken Smiths, and these days I play my Wal, Moollon and Xotic basses. I also use Trickfish amps and LaBella strings.”

Name a bass part that you’re proud of.

“The Planet X record that I played on, Quantum (2007) definitely has a couple of cool tracks, and the album I did with [Tribal Tech drummer] Kirk Covington, Starship Cadillac, is available for download from my website, too. That album is fun. It’s like Tribal Tech meets Weather Report meets electronica. There’s a lot of fretless on that album. That would be a neat thing to hear.”

People can buy video and PDF lessons from your website, correct?

“Yes. You can also contact me there for one-to-one lessons on Skype or Zoom.”  

What’s your happiest musical memory?

“Meeting Allan Holdsworth is one. I saw him play at the Baked Potato in Studio City before he died. We had both been on the Sherinian record, and a friend of mine said to him, ‘Oh, Allan, do you know Rufus? You guys are on a track together.’ Allan looks at me and he goes, ‘Oh yes. A lot of notes... but all the good ones!’ That was the best quote ever.” 

  • See Rufus Philpot for more information or to contact him for lessons.

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