Improvising with Victor Wooten
Victor Wooten is one of the most incredible musicians I have ever seen perform. He pushes the boundaries of what is humanly possible. While I was hosting a college radio show in 1997, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones played in our studio. I had the privilege of sitting in the same room with Victor and watching him take a solo that, to this day, is still one of the most awe-inspiring displays of musicianship I have ever witnessed. However, the thing that impressed me most about him was his work ethic. Before we began recording, everyone in the studio headed into the control room. We were discussing some details of the taping schedule with the band, its manager and the studio engineers. Victor never moved from the studio. He stayed in his seat and practiced his bass. The man has been playing bass since before he could efficiently walk or talk. While everyone else involved with the taping was talking logistics, Victor remained in the studio, alone, playing his bass.
His latest solo album, Yin Yang, was recently nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary Jazz Performance. It is the only album on an independent label to be nominated in the category. Victor took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Jambands.com this past week from Los Angeles.
JW: So you first learned to play the bass when you were three years old?
VW: Yeah it was somewhere around that time. I was about three years old, learning from my brothers how to play.
JW: Regi taught you, right?
VW: Yeah, my oldest brother Regi, guitar player, he started teaching me. They started teaching me the musical language when I was actually younger than that, but when I was about three years old is when they actually put the instrument in my hands and started teaching me the notes.
JW: They do say that the human brain is a lot more malleable at that age. It’s much easier for children to learn other languages. Do you think music just became part of your vocabulary?
VW: Definitely. Definitely, your mind is just open. You know? You can learn anything at that age. Your mind is open and it was just like learning another language. It was identical to learning another language.
JW: And then you were gigging regularly by the age of eight?
VW: Well, it was actually when I was five. When I was about five or six my parents started booking gigs for us.
VW: We were living in California at the time. Before, when I was first learning to play the music, we were in Hawaii, but then we had moved to California. We started playing out, first at rec. centers and then some clubs. Then I think I was five years old when we were doing some dates opening for Curtis Mayfield and we did at least one date opening for the band, War at the Oakland Coliseum.
JW: Now that’s pretty incredible for a band of kids to be getting those gigs. Did your parents have some kind of entertainment background or connections to get you those gigs?
VW: No, none at all. My parents are the kind of people that will do whatever it is that they want to do. If something in the house is broken, they figure out how to fix it, because they figure if someone else can fix it, they can too and they’re right about that. So they would call venues and book us gigs and after a while the word started getting out and people would start calling us for gigs.
JW: Do you remember what age you were when you realized that conventional bass playing just wouldn’t cut it for you?
VW: No, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it that way. It’s sort of like when you learn how to talk, you talk with your own voice, whether you realize it or not. It’s not like when you’re a kid, you’re saying, ‘you know, my voice is gonna be different than anyone else’s.’ It just happens that way and I believe a lot of it is because I started at such an early age.
When you’re playing at a really early age, you do things your own way and you don’t even have to think about it as much. So I believe that’s the way it was for me. I wasn’t even thinking about it. The way it really happened was the fact that my brothers all played different instruments and I was learning all the different things they do on their instruments. I was learning that stuff and applying it to the bass. That’s what really got me into the different things. That’s how I got into two-hand tapping, because that’s how my brother played keyboards, with two hands. So it made sense to me to try that on the bass. My brother Regi used his guitar pick in an up and down manner and he showed me how to use the exact same thing, but just using my thumb on the bass. So that all just kind of made sense at an early age.
JW: I know you apply a lot of the same techniques that drummers use, or trumpet players or flamenco guitarists to your bass.
VW: Definitely, but it just made sense to me at that time. When I was young, eight, nine and ten, still developing the bass, it made sense to try these techniques that were working so well for my brothers on their instruments.