Renowned fretless guru Willis talks soloing, books and ramps

What makes a tight rhythm section for you? What are you and the drummer listening for?

It’s one of those things where if you can define it, it’s not really true. There’s just a hook-up, you can’t put your finger on it. It just happens between artists and musicians. You can’t even discuss it! If the combination is right and everybody’s ears are in the right place, or even in the wrong place, there’s a place where the music goes that you can’t say you took it there personally, or that person took it there — it’s just the way it goes. It’s like we hear music the same way. We’ll both push each other in different directions. But no way in hell could we talk about it! And if we did, that would destroy what should happen anyway.

How did your Ibanez signature bass come about?

They knew I wanted to do it, and they knew exactly what I wanted. They decided to do a signature model in 1998 and came to me and I said great, cool. I had no idea how long it takes, I was working between the LA office and the manufacturer in Japan. They were intent on making exactly what I play, because I play a factory model that is customized. I’ve got 40 prototypes of Bartolini pickups! We went through that many to get it right, I’m fortunate. It’s been awesome.

Are you still retrofitting ramps on instruments, and can you explain to the readers what that’s all about?

Well, the purpose of a ramp is to keep your fingers from digging in. You have to adjust it for thickness depending on how much string you want to get. That’s how close it is to being under the strings. You put your finger down and you know how much string you want, and you’re not going to get any more than that. Also, it’s tactile, in that from the pickup to the end of the ramp — which in my case is by the neck — the feel doesn’t change. So you can get the same response from the string and still have different tones.

As you move closer to the neck there’s less resistance from the string, so there’s a tendency to grab too much of the string and play too hard. All it is is a piece of pine moulding, cut it to fit between pickups — or between the pickup and the neck — and set it up so that the strings have the same space between the ramp and the strings. It’s ergonomic. It doesn’t take long to make if you’ve got the tools, I’ve got a belt sander. I can do one in an hour.

What influence did Jaco Pastorius have on you?

He made almost everything possible for all of us, as far as being the first with that fluidity and having that role, not a traditional role. He played melodies unlike traditional players. A lot of that was to do with the band he was in, too, and what Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were doing.

You’re well-known for your solo technique. How would you get a bassist to move from being a rhythmic player to a soloist?

It’s a general rule that anyone who has that kind of inclination can sing, hum or whistle. I try and get people in touch with that imagination. It’s not about practicing chords and scales. Go to a place on the neck, play something and see how you react to it and see if can get that conversational development of an idea going. Because your ears have got the answer. You can imagine a better solo than you can play it, it’s always the way. There are all sorts of ways of getting the notes out, it’s what’s inside that is a priority. That’s the answer. It’s already there!