Day 6: Play That Funky Music, White Boy

Have you always suspected the pros had some amazing studio secrets that made their playing reach far beyond scales and modes, and into the realm of impossibility? Pro technique is the Matrix of music. We know it’s there. We’re searching for it. But the secret of the techniques are rarely ever revealed. Instead, we musicians sit in frustration wondering what it takes to play like our heroes. Our heroes have indeed pioneered the way and deserve the pedestal we put them on for finding out the hard way just how to emit great music. Fortunately, we also have men like Vic Wooten and Steve Bailey who are not only pioneers, but generous enough to share their findings with us and show us openly how to dance to the same rhythm and see what they see. Today was the first day of coming into maturity as a musician. I’ll warn you though, you really need to be here to experience these techniques first hand, before you’ll “get” them.

First, however, and as usual, today began with an exercise in the mind. The first activity of the day was an hour and a half long tracking walk. Some documentary film makers came along for the journey as we took a long walk looking for animal footprints in the sweltering hot sun. There is a heat advisory for this area, with warnings of temperatures approaching 110 degrees. I threw a do-rag on and it was soaked within minutes.  Along the walk, Victor asked us to face west. Victor proceeded to turn east, and watched to see who thought for themselves and who followed what they saw. A number of students simply followed along with what they saw. Victor has been trying hard to convince us to think for ourselves… not to accept everything he says as truth, but to add it to what we already know. This was a sobering moment for the lemmings. It was also a lesson in practice. Practice finding west by feeling for the sun. Similarly, if you only practice when you’re playing, it will take a long time to get good. But if you learn to “feel” in other areas which you are always practicing (such as feeling, as in the sun), music can become a lifestyle. Music is, in fact, a lifestyle. In everything we do, we should feel the elements of music.

Along the hike, Victor pointed out that a Sycamore tree looks “sick more” as you go up the tree. We all thought he was a genius till he told us he only knew how to identify two trees. If he hadn’t said anything, we’d have thought he was a nature virtuoso in addition to his musical abilities.

Within a short while, we found some animal tracks. The first question was, “how long ago were those tracks made?” Many speculated they may have been made during the rain storm the night before. Richard encouraged us to push our fingers into the ground about 6″ from the track to see how much pressure it would take to make such an impression. As it turns out, not as much as had thought. Tracking is about asking questions, and not providing answers, and so Richard proceeded to ask a number of questions, leading us to speculation. Speculation is fine, but in the absence of ignorance can also lead to the wrong conclusion. When a tracker is alone, they’re always right, except when they’re not. Speculation combined with experience, however, can give us answers.

One of the tracks we found had an impression around the paws but not in the middle. This suggested that the critter had pads in the middle of their feet. We also saw claws in the ground. Descendants of cats can retract their claws, while descendants of canines cannot. So we knew it was a dog. It was a very muddy spot, and we could see where the animal had slipped and made a deeper impression in one area. Due to the direction of the tracks, we were also able to see which direction the animal was traveling. With some experience, Victor told us that we’d be able to tell the difference between a domesticated animal and a wild animal. A domesticated animal knows where his next meal is coming from, and will expend more energy traipsing around looking for things to entertain itself. A wild animal will have a more purposed walk, and even a stalking type of walk. We were able to tell which prints were made first, as some prints filled in others. We could also tell which direction the dog was facing as the front feet of a dog are bigger, due to their front side being heavier.

Once we had finished looking at various prints, we examined some scad (calcified dirt and dead animal remains). We then checked out Duck River, which is the river the camp is located on. Duck River is one of the most bio-diverse rivers in the world and is crawling with all kinds of life not seen anywhere else in nature.

After the tracking exercise, Victor gave us his undivided attention. He allowed us to ask him questions and was willing to show us anything we asked. He also had a few secrets up his sleeve he wanted to share with us. He warned us that he would be direct, and he corrected a number of playing mistakes many campers were making.

Victor stressed again to make holes in your music. This is part of what playing in the pocket is all about. Add space. If people don’t notice the music, then take it away and give it back. Quiet contrast, like turning off a fan, causes people to notice when something’s missing. It also lets musicians (or the audience) fill in the rest of the music either consciously or subconsciously. Any kind of quiet contrast will do. Long-to-short, loud-to-soft, simple-to-complex, etc. Building on this principle, after a solo, slowly bring back the rhythm. Slowly get underneath it and then build it back up. Victor demonstrated this and drew applause. The world we live in as a bass player is making other musicians sound good. We open and close pockets. We change emotion and feel. We move the audience in the direction we want them to go.

Emotional contrast requires an even bigger contrast. Next time you’re playing, add gradual intensity – increase the attack. Bring it to a climax. Then drop the intensity off completely and play very gently. The class felt immediate relief in his example, using one of the campers to illustrate. Again, applause were given – and not courtesy applause, but applause for how wonderful it sounded, and what a fantastic bit of information we had been given.

Next up, getting the audience more involved. The audience needs time after a good lick to absorb it emotionally. They also need the opportunity to fill in the pockets with their own music subconsciously. Music is a conversation. You can make an audience listen to you – or you can engage them in the conversation. Your music isn’t the music the audience wants to hear. They really want to hear their own music, and subconsciously want to add their own fill to your playing. Don’t play on the beat, and give them what they expect. If you solo, you can sound more mature by playing off of beat 1. Pause frequently so the listener can interject something subconsciously. This is why phrasing is critical. The audience will give you the biggest applause for playing the simplest stuff, as Victor illustrated.

If you have a problem with a band member, try the 3-for-1 approach. Vic’s rule is three complements for every 1 criticism. If you immediately criticize someone, their guard will go up automatically and they won’t listen to anything you have to say. Give them three complements first, then treat the problem as if it’s you own problem.

Getting back to phrasing. When you’re talking to someone, you’re phrasing. It’s like asking what’s for dinner. When you practice soloing, follow your voice. If you’re going to say, “hey, what’s for dinner?” then play to those syllables during your solo – it doesn’t matter what notes you play… just play something. Playing notes to your syllables is a way of teaching yourself to phrase naturally. Music is speaking, and has syllables.

Secret #1: Victor has a few different hand gestures he can give to his band that will cause the entire band to stop playing, then play a series of random notes (on or off scale). The notes played will be phrased according to some predetermined text, such as the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Lord’s Prayer. Each musician will play random notes to each syllable and musically recite the piece indicated. Right after the last note, the band will immediately begin playing again, and the audience goes wild. Other pro musicians have heard this and been unable to figure out what was going on, as it’s completely out of time, and yet completely synchronized to fall back into the rhythm. Victor demonstrated this for us and it was amazing. More applause. The Lord’s Prayer is always done quietly, prior to falling back in, and can change the entire mood of the song. We always define the key and time we are in, and we don’t have to do either. This performance technique allows you to break out of this mode.

Secret #2: Take the theme song from a favorite TV show (say, “I Dream of Jeannie”). Play the melody as your solo, but play completely different notes. You’ll be shocked at how different (and good) it sounds. You don’t have to play all of the notes in the melody, but phrase it. This will allow you to creatively construct new ideas and get your creativity flowing.

Onto timing. Timing must be impeccable. There’s no point to using a loop pedal if your timing sucks, as it will just loop the suck. When you’re playing, your attention shouldn’t be on the bass. It should be on the groove and feeling the groove. When you’re playing solo, don’t play solo in your head. Play with a world class drummer in your head, even if your drummer has cut out. If a drummer was playing with you, imagine them playing your groove. Visualize and feel the drummer. Don’t think about the bass or technique but only the drummer. Don’t care if the notes come out wrong: think about the drummer. We experienced two campers’ before-and-after playing for this exercise, and it was easy to spot when they were thinking about the bass, and when they were thinking about the drum beat in their head. The bass was rushed and sloppy, but with the drum beat, it was clean and tight. Get your instrument out of the way. Think about the groove; the drummer… not the bass.

When addressing timing, use a metronome whenever you play. But lets say you have a metronome simply playing a tick with no emphasis. What time is it in? Most of us would default to 4:4 or 2:4 or some time we’re familiar with. But without counting, we actually have no time. We haven’t decided where we’re going to start from or count to. It’s only a pulse until we decide to count. And since most audiences are going to count, the best way to surprise them is to count differently. The same is true with triplets. It’s only a triplet if we agree to count to three. What if we counted to four or five? A great way to sound mature in your playing is to take familiar pulses, but count them to unfamiliar numbers. Take your triplets and count to 4 or 5 instead, and see what that does for your playing.

Moving onto silence. Play the rests. Victor taught us a simple exercise (also on his DVD) to play the rests. Walk up a scale, and play the rest for the root, then walk back down, and play the second as a rest, then third, and so on all the way to the sixteenth note. At any time, you should be able to replace any note with a rest. They have the same value musically, and so you should practice interchanging them.

Creativity. Want to get your creativity flowing? Play some random notes into a loop pedal – not even within a time signature. Force yourself to turn it into music. Two students tried this and did very well to the point of earning applause. Vic uses the Boss DC-50, which appears to be an excellent pedal. The DC-20 will also suffice. A second exercise is to pick four notes at random, or have someone pick them for you. Play the four notes into a loop and then layer a wicked jam on top of it.

Secret #3: A great phrase to solo to. There is an old phrasing technique Victor picked up in India. Count your beats descending and leave the “and” beat for everything except the last beat. This works out to a four bar phrase, but sounds completely different. For example: one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and-six-and-seven-and-eight-one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and-six-and-seven-one…” and so on. All the way down to “two-one-one”. Once you learn how to actually count that, try to solo to that phrase. Again, more applause.

In fact, today was all about learning amazing techniques and phrasing structures directly from the master himself. By the time class was over, we all felt as though we had reached some kind of musical climax. I’ve just added another two years of work to my playing just to fully master the things Vic showed us in a few hours. If 30 bass players will applaud to simple techniques and phrasing structures, imagine how an audience of non-musicians will react.

There’s a giant pig outside my room at the bed and breakfast. He’s actually quite impressive.