“You’re always trying to get rid of buzzes when recording, so I came up with the idea of trying to make them groove instead”: How Victor Wooten created a groove without touching his bass guitar

Victor Wooten during Victor Wooten Promotes His New CD "Soul Circus" and Fodera Bass - November 6, 2005 at O-East in Tokyo, Japan.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Victor Wooten's use of multiple overdubbed basses on his 1997 solo album What Did He Say? was in direct contrast to the single-bass, no-overdubs approach on his celebrated debut, A Show of Hands. Or was it? “On my first album I tried to recreate the sound of the band on one bass guitar; here my goal was to reproduce that sound with many basses. Actually, the songs sound better with separate parts, because each one is cleaner, clearer, and more focused.”

One compelling example of the Wooten bass orchestra is A Little Buzz, on which he “played” the buzz part using the exposed ends of two guitar cables. “You're always trying to get rid of buzzes when recording, so I came up with the idea of trying to make them groove instead. I wrote the tune the day we recorded it, throwing silly ideas at JD Blair on drums. I'd say, ‘I need a stupid beat, something that starts and stops with lots of angles – not fluid at all.’ And it came together.”

As much as A Show Of Hands was about proving how musically expansive solo bass could be in spite of the obvious restrictions, What Did He Say? was about Wooten's freedom to have fun and express himself in any way necessary. That may mean with solo bass or eight bass overdubs, bass and drums alone, or an entire ensemble. “I could have done either album first,” Wooten told BP. “But I had wanted to do a solo bass record for maybe ten years. It was kind of a challenge to myself. With What Did He Say? I was trying to express myself in a band context. 

Back in 1998, having been catapulted to a landslide Bassist of the Year victory in the 1997 Bass Player Readers Poll, Victor Wooten offered up a track-by-track tour of his second solo album, What Did He Say?

Is there a story behind the title track, What Did He Say?

“I have a friend from Virginia, Matt Smith, who has this amazing ability to talk in total gibberish, but make people think he's actually saying something. One time JD and I were laughing about it before a gig, and we started going, ‘What did he say? What did he say?’ during soundcheck. That night during the set it came up again, and we developed this great groove around it. We got the live tape to hear what we'd been doing, got together with Kurt Storey, and recorded it at my house. We did the chorus vocals using a loop. I put down a scratch vocal for the verse, but Kurt and JD liked it and wouldn't let me change it. While we were playing, our cockatiel, Cherokee, was squawking in the background. He was getting into it, so we looped him in there, too.”

In the liner notes you mention there are six bass tracks on the song. Are the harmony parts separate tracks?

“Yeah. On the first CD I made a point of playing everything at once. This time, wherever I thought it would sound better to play parts separately, I did. When a lot of people make records they try to figure out what everyone else is doing and see how they can fit in. I wanted do what I do whether it fit in or not.”

The second part of the bridge sounds like it has two bass lines.

“One is going down and there's another in the background, just adding fills. The melody on top is two or even three parts. For the liner notes I counted every track of bass, even if it was just an extra little part.”

That's a pretty mean shuffle groove on your cover of Bobby Caldwell's What You Won't Do for Love.

“When A Show of Hands came out and JD and I started touring, that was one of the tunes we'd play. With the Lexicon JamMan, I can loop chords and the bassline – really create the whole band all on the fly – and just play the melody on top. This song consists of mainly three tracks: bassline, chords, and melody. I list more tracks because there are parts where I play some harmonics, even though they're not there through the whole tune. And sometimes there are two or even three tracks on the melody. I used the tenor bass, tuned ADGC.”

When you won the BP Readers Poll you said the song Cherokee was a good example of a new playing style you're trying to develop.

“My goal is to use my thumb-and-fingers technique to play these fast, ripping notes and make them pop the way trumpet players tongue fast bebop lines. You can hear me trying this on the Cherokee solo. I actually did quite a bit of punching in on that bass part. I'm just not at the point where I can play like that and keep it going.”

Was it a challenge for you to arrange the parts for the other instruments?

“A little. I had come up with the idea of having everybody in at the beginning, dropping out for the bass solo and then gradually coming back, beginning with James Genus on acoustic bass and ending with the drums – kind of backwards. Each person was recorded alone, so I really have to credit everyone's musicianship and Kurt's engineering for making it sound like an ensemble.”

How did you develop the musical idea for Don't Wanna Cry?

“When I'm on the road I always bring my Boss DR-5 with me. It's a 4-track sequencer in a little box, with drums and sounds so you can program the whole rhythm section. I can plug in my bass and play along – that’s the way I practice on the road. When I was in Japan doing a clinic tour with James Genus, I used it to come up with the main groove of Don't Wanna Cry. That groove sat in the DR-5 for about a year, and then at soundcheck the vocal idea hit me. I got a microphone, went into a dressing room, and recorded almost all of the vocals. Everything you're hearing except for the vocals and bass melody is that DR-5 program. It's the same box I used for the piano solo on The Loneliest Monk.”

Is that song a tribute to Thelonious Monk?

“Yes and no. It's about how Monk was strange, so much so many people called him crazy. But that's what we call anybody who's out of the ordinary. The musicians we love the most are the people who are out of the ordinary, because you have to be out of the ordinary to be an original. An innovator has to step outside of normal thinking to get there. To me that's where we should all be.”

A Chance is a bit of a departure from The Loneliest Monk.

“JD wrote that song; he had recorded it at home on his 4-track. When he played it for me, I thought, Man – this is so cool and so funky, and it's the type of tune I wouldn't write, so I asked him if we could do it for the record. I played my Compito 6-string using the same effects he used on the demo: a DOD FX25 Envelope Filter and an Ibanez Soundtank FL5 flanger.”

Norwegian Wood is the only solo bass arrangement on the album, and it's pretty ambitious, How did you come up with it?

“When I'm arranging, it's best for me to try not to think about it too hard. I just hear it in my head. I found out quickly I could play the main melody in harmonics in the key of G – actually the key of C on the tenor bass. The intro chords are another Oteil influence, and then I add a flamenco type of technique. From there I had to figure out a way to get to C so I could use the harmonics the way I wanted. I kept experimenting, and when I got something I liked I'd record it. I kept adding to it until the end of the tune.”

“When I do these kinds of pieces I do fix things, but I probably end up leaving more mistakes than I fix. There's one place in the middle of the tune where I kind of lose it, and you hear me go [sighs]. But I came back in time in the next part, so I thought, Okay, let's just leave it. It's that idea of the juggler who almost drops one pin but gets it going again. I like that – instead of being a seamless performance, there's some life in it.”

Your father sings lead on the tall tale Bro, John. Is it based on a story he always told?

“Yeah. He would tell us stories about John who could eat and eat. There's another tune dad sings in that same bouncy, old gospel style. My dad calls this style of singing ‘snatchin’. The actual groove was something I'd come up with on my Fodera yin-yang fretless while playing around with the JamMan. I thought it was cool, but since it's in an odd time I opened it up in 4/4 in the middle so my dad could sing over it. I sent him a copy of it with me singing and asked him if he would be able to do it. He got excited and started working on it right away.”

Had you planned on involving your parents in the album?

“Definitely – since the first record. A lot of what I'm doing is because of them, so I wanted to include them. If I do another solo album they'll probably be there again. It's fun for them, too; my dad's always loved to sing, and for him to get on a record? Yeah! That's exciting.”

You came up with a very interesting version of John Coltrane's Naima.

“I was sitting around jamming with my friend Tye North, who plays bass for Leftover Salmon. He started playing these chords from a chord shape we both got from Oteil. I started grooving underneath it, and together we noticed Naima worked with it if the melody is played in half-time. I've always loved that tune; it was one of the songs Regi taught me on guitar when I was a kid. A while later, Oteil was visiting Nashville, So I called JD, my brother Regi, and Kurt. Kurt set us up, and we threw it down in two takes. I didn't really have an arrangement; I just kind of created it on the spot. I had intended to play the melody with this Yamaha BID MIDI-converter pickup I have on one of my basses, but when we were recording, the way Oteil played the melody sounded better than anything.”

“Oteil being there also gave me a chance to play a little electric upright, too – the Conklin M.E.U. Whenever my brothers and I listen back to my upright playing, we start laughing because my sound is so much out of the Stanley Clarke school – especially when I start to solo. He influenced my electric playing, too, but my upright solo at the end of Naima reminds me of Stanley, which makes me happy because I love him so much.”

Was Sometimes I Laugh originally a solo piece?

“I’ve played it as a solo piece for a long time, but I thought I could enhance it by adding the other parts. I used the tenor bass on this one also. It’s kind of a sad-sounding song, but there's one section in the middle where I would hear children laughing every time I'd play it. So I got a bunch of friends of mine, my two nephews, and some other children to laugh for me.”

What's the story behind My Life?

“JD and I came up with that song at soundcheck. A lot of times if I get a new bass or a new sound, it creates new tunes. In this case, I had just gotten a Taylor fretless acoustic bass guitar. First came the bassline and then came the idea for the rest of the song, and we played it that night. This tune is basically saying we each have our own life to do whatever we want.”

What tracks are you playing on The Sojourn of Arjuna?

“One part that's a bassline, chords, and harmonics, another that's just a simple bassline and I'm also doubling (saxophonist) Paul McCandless’s melody on fretless and fretted basses. I got that idea from Jaco, who once recorded a part twice to get a natural flanging sound. This song started off as a solo bass groove. Later I came up with the melody, and we started playing it live with the Flecktones. When the people from Compass Records heard the tune, they suggested I get Davy Spillane to play Uilleann bagpipes on it. So it's a nice, slow funk groove with an Irish melody on top.”

Tell me about Heaven Is Where the Heart Is.

“That started out as a solo bass tune, too. There's just one track of bass. I had a title and I started coming up with the song when I got the idea to try to get Take 6 to sing on it. Later an even better idea hit me – to get my brothers to sing it. Together we came up with the vocal arrangements. As for the lyrics, we're always looking outside of ourselves. To me, the answer is inside. If we just go within ourselves, we'll find the answer to everything.”

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Chris Jisi was Contributing Editor, Senior Contributing Editor, and Editor In Chief on Bass Player 1989-2018. He is the author of Brave New Bass, a compilation of interviews with bass players like Marcus Miller, Flea, Will Lee, Tony Levin, Jeff Berlin, Les Claypool and more, and The Fretless Bass, with insight from over 25 masters including Tony Levin, Marcus Miller, Gary Willis, Richard Bona, Jimmy Haslip, and Percy Jones.