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Will Lee: “A groove is a groove is a groove. If it feels good now, it’s always going to feel good!”

Will Lee
(Image credit: Al Pereira/Getty Images)

If you’re looking for some fresh music, made by a virtuoso band, but never self-indulgent in nature, check out Look Up!, by Band of Other Brothers, the quintet of James Taylor and Toto keyboard player Jeff Babko, Steely Dan and Sting drummer Keith Carlock, Dave Matthews and Bela Fleck sax player Jeff Coffin, Keyon Harrold guitarist Nir Felder, and bassist Will Lee, for whom a couple of credits won’t suffice as there are literally thousands of them. 

Lee is best known for a third of a century on primetime TV with The Late Show With David Letterman, where he held down the low end from its first line-up in 1982 through to Letterman’s retirement in 2015. 

Along the way, and since then, he has racked up an astounding number of stage and studio performances, up there with the career tallies of fellow bass stalwarts Lee Sklar, Chuck Rainey and the session-bassist godparents, Carol Kaye and Ron Carter. He’s still as creative as ever, though, with three songs composed for the new Band Of Other Brothers album and a vocal performance on Jeff Babko’s Right Now Blues

Tell us about Look Up!, Will. 

“It was recorded during the pandemic. The whole concept of it came around when one of our members, Nir Felder the guitarist, said, ‘We’re stuck in our places. We haven’t done an album in a couple of years. Why don’t we see if we can put something together?’ As soon as he said that, I got super-inspired and I shot an idea past everybody that I had for a song called Cassie.”

That song has a bass solo by none other than Stanley Clarke. 

“I already had that song in the works, but it was incomplete, and I realized there was a nice place for a bass solo in it. I was playing along with these changes that I came up with, trying to channel my inner Stanley Clarke, and I said ‘Wait a minute. I know Stanley!’ So I called him up and asked him if he’d be game for taking a listen. He liked it, and he played a beautiful acoustic solo, starting out playing arco.” 

It was great to hear an acoustic bass solo over an electric bass. 

“Yes. I loved not having to do it myself!”

He has a new signature EBS preamp, which is quite expensive but it’s amazing. 

“He told me all about that, but you know, if you’re really serious, and you want quality, you have to pay for it.”

On the same subject, Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine told us recently that his signature Ernie Ball costs a lot of money, but he would rather have it that way if it means no-one has been exploited in a sweatshop to make it.

“Well, it’s the same story with my signature Sadowsky. I was hoping it could be like $300, but they said to me, ‘Will, do you want quality?’ And I had already been down that road with other companies, doing a signature bass that cut a lot of corners and was unreliable. I didn’t want that, so mine costs between $3,000 and $6,000. It’s really nice to have something that’s roadworthy and is going to work every time you pick it up.”

I don’t think a keyboard could ever really do a bass performance for real

You’ve had your Sadowsky for some years now, correct?

“Yeah, probably about five or six years, and here’s a perfect example of having a bass be reliable. I was playing a gig at the Bitter End in New York one night, and somehow the preamp malfunctioned on the bass that I was playing, which wasn’t designed so that it worked without a preamp.

“I had invited my good friend Willie Weeks to sit next to the stage at the Bitter End to see this gig. It was the first time he had been back to the Bitter End since he played on Donny Hathaway’s Live album in 1972, so it was a really important moment for me – and then the bass stopped working. Luckily, a guy in the audience had a bass and handed it to me while my wife went home and grabbed my Sadowsky.”

Will Lee

Will Lee performs with Mavis Staples in 2017 (Image credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Are you still doing sessions in as great a volume as you always have? 

“Not during the pandemic: I’ve done work on 40 albums or so in the last couple of years. It’s not the same as it used to be, you know – in New York, years ago, you could play from three to seven sessions a day. The studios were flourishing, and musicians were just running back and forth from place to place. 

“I think New York may be the only place that you could book that many things in one day, anyway, because of how close these studios were together. They were all in a three- or four-block radius, for the most part.”

When was that peak?

“The ’80s, and then it all started to wane as the ’90s crept in.”

Because keyboards were able to create realistic bass parts by then?

“Actually, I don’t think a keyboard could ever really do a bass performance for real. I used to have a sample company where we actually did this. I performed a lot of things – you know, different lines and slides and fills – because the only things that existed before that was just really stiff-sounding samples of sounds, no matter what you did.”

So, you’re still doing a bit of session work.

“Well, I’m doing what I can, you know. I’m a terrible engineer, but I’ve figured out how to record bass for people’s projects, so I can do that. Don’t ask me to mix it, though, because everything will just be loud.”

I’ve figured out how to record bass for people’s projects, so I can do that. Don’t ask me to mix it, though, because everything will just be loud

I think people who don’t understand mixing think it’s easy.

“Well, yeah. Let me give you a small tip. This is something I learned pretty recently, and it’s very basic. You know when you’re being told the directions by somebody when you’re lost, and they tell you to back up, but you’d rather just go around the world another time? 

“I’ll be mixing along, and I’ll get frustrated with not being able to hear something in the music, so I’ll just make it louder – until everything gets loud. An engineer said to me, ‘Look, turn everything else down.’ 

“To me, that’s the equivalent of backing up the car, but that’s the secret. That’s the thing to do if you get stuck like that, because my bass was getting really distorted, and I was getting frustrated that I couldn’t make it groove anymore. The groove was gone, because everything was getting so washed out with massiveness.”

How do you record your parts remotely?

“I usually plug into a Universal Audio Interface and then use Logic. That’s another rabbit hole, because you can go nuts with plugins. I thought I was going crazy with all the plugins, but I just had a session with my engineer back in New York a couple of days ago. I told him about my dilemma of having too many plugins, and he said, ‘Well, I have 150 equalizer plugins,’ so then I didn’t feel so bad.”

When you play live, will you take an amplifier out with you?

“I will probably, yeah, I’ll probably have the Aguilar people drop one off for me. I use their 751. I love the 750, but they don’t make it anymore.”

And will you use effects as well?

“I sometimes use a pedalboard, but a lot of times I use a Boss GT-10B just because it’s amazing and easy to program.”

I’d like to ask you about Letterman. Was it really 33 years that you were on that show?

“It was actually 33 and a third, from the beginning of February ’82 to the middle of May 2015.”

Was is as much fun as it looked?

“I think it was probably more fun in the first 30 years, because it got a little routine when we had a bigger band, and it moved slower and it wasn’t as spontaneous. At the beginning, we were booked for 13 weeks. I’d never had 13 weeks of guaranteed work in my life, so it was super-exciting.

“But you know, on the first show in 1982, I thought ‘This is really not going to fly. This is not going to go past 13 weeks.’ Sure enough, after 13 weeks, we got a renewal for another 13-week contract, and then we could start to feel things happening, like bigger sponsors coming in – and all of a sudden, you realize they’re about to give you a three-year contract.

“That’s when we knew it was a hit show, for real, but it was really touch and go for the first while. That was exciting, you know? That make-or-break sort of lifestyle. There’s a lot of energy around that.”

So what lies ahead for you?

“I’m trying to finish a lot of songs that I started. When I write songs, it’s usually not the Band of Other Brothers sort of music as much as singer-songwriter stuff. Lyrics are the hardest part of writing a song to me, because I don’t want to try to go over anybody’s head with my music. I want to try to keep it simple. I’m looking for those musical moments that aren’t going to impress jazz guys.”

It’s been nine years since you did your third solo album, Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions. Will there be a fourth?

“I might be doing one right now without knowing it. That’s what happened last time. I had a couple of things in the can, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, if I do one more song, it’ll start to feel like an album here.’

The Late Show was a ride. I miss a few of the people there, not the job itself, because I think I had enough

“You know, when you don’t have a concept for an album, and you’re stringing together a bunch of songs, the biggest challenge is sequencing them. The gal who is now my wife had a copy of my first album, and on it was a sweet ballad which was very soothing. 

“She would go to sleep to the song, because it had long notes and a choir and Jeff Beck playing a beautiful guitar solo. She would drift off to that song every night, but the next song that came up was incredibly loud. It drove her nuts, because she would leap off the bed every day in terror. So I need to avoid that next time.”

Are you going to write an autobiography?

“Isn’t that what this is? No, I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I’m not really an author of books. I was thinking if a guy like [acclaimed ghostwriter] David Ritz came along and said, ‘I insist on doing this with you,’ I would.”

The reason I ask is that all those years on that amazing show would be of great interest to the people who loved it.

“Well, it was a ride. I miss a few of the people there, not the job itself, because I think I had enough. You know, how greedy can you get?” 

When I listen to stuff that I’ve done in the past there are lots of regrets – like, ‘Oh man, why did I do that? Why didn’t I just lay out there?’

Are you evolving as a bass player over the years? 

“Well, I would hope so.” 

In what way?

“Lately, I’ve been trying to work on a combination of using whatever musicality that I have, and whatever experience that I have accumulated, with what works musically, not only to my own taste, but trying to bear in mind what the artist and producer and everybody else who’s got an opinion is going to think about what I did. When I listen to stuff that I’ve done in the past there are lots of regrets – like, ‘Oh man, why did I do that? Why didn’t I just lay out there?’ 

“All that shoulda-woulda stuff. I try to avoid those things, and try to make something that’s not only feeling good in this moment, but will always feel good down the road. And another thing that I’ve learned, and you can quote me on this, is that a groove is a groove is a groove. If it really feels good now, it’s always going to feel good.”

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Joel McIver is the Editor of Bass Player magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV and occasionally teaches at BIMM.