MIKE WATT IS A NAME THAT HAS become synonymous with American punk rock. With the Minutemen in the early 1980s, Watt helped re-write the rules of punk bass by throwing out the rulebook. Since then he has continued to create challenging and deeply felt punk rock with Dos, Firehose, the Stooges, the Black Gang, and many other bands. Though he has attained a sort of iconic status and is often lauded as a very righteous dude (which indeed he is), it is his actual music that is his life’s work. As a composer-bassist, Watt has a singular approach that has helped shape how so many of us hear and play music.
The first thing I notice when I listen to Watt’s playing is his tone; employing few effects and zero gimmicks, he gets a tone that’s at once muscular and singing. Playing melodies that are also bass lines— or vice-versa—his musicality is unique and deep. Unlike so many punk and rock bass players, Watt’s strength is as much in his left hand as in his right, utilizing slurs and vibrato, and strategically working the whole range of the bass (not just the lower register) for harmonic and melodic impact. His dynamic range is often subtly woven into the fabric of the songs themselves. His action, for the record, is set very high, so that if he plays a note with all his might, it will actually be that much louder than those played with a softer touch, without the note fizzling out or breaking up.
Thinking about some of these things, I wrote this etude inspired by and dedicated to Watt. It can be played on either string bass or bass guitar; I suggest you learn it on both! Of course, this piece is perhaps more about how I hear Watt than anything else, but to me that is part of the point: I prefer incorporating what I love about a musician’s style into my own creative approach, rather than just trying to copy what they’ve already played. Maybe you get something different out of listening to Watt’s playing. That’s the great thing about music—there’s room for everyone!
I hope you enjoy my tribute to one of my long-time bass heroes. Listen to some (or all) recordings of his music, and if you get the chance to see the man play live, please do—you will definitely be in for a treat.