Keeping It Simple with Will Lee

Flash back to the Fall 1990 issue of BP.

From the Fall 1990 Issue

Our Fall 1990 issue was a Will Lee extravaganza. We had a photo of Will on the cover, hugging his Sadowsky bass and wearing a shirt by Café. (Will insisted that we publish a credit for the shirtmaker.) We had a 12-page Chris Jisi story with an interview, two pages of music, a tribute from producer Joe Ferry, and three sidebars in the “Top Ten” format of David Letterman’s late-night TV show, where Will has been a fixture in the band since 1982. We had an “Ask the Experts” column where Will explained his approach to singing while playing. And we introduced Will’s new workshop, “Pocket Central”—a title derived from his devotion to the groove, a devotion that made him a first-call session bassist. There were also four ads with photos of Will. (After the issue came out, Letterman held up a copy on the air.) Over the next few years, Will became a good friend of the magazine, contributing some entertaining columns (his first one was called “What The Heck Is Funk?”) and always being available to answer questions. And on one memorable occasion, he had us rolling in the aisle of the NAMM Show with some his (unprintable) studio tales.

Chris Jisi: What’s your philosophy of bass playing?

Will Lee: My basic approach can be summed up in two words: The Pocket. The most important function of the instrument is creating and holding down the groove.

Chris Jisi: How would you describe the way you work with drums?

Will Lee: There are several ways to approach it. One is playing exactly what the bass drum is playing, plus a few other notes. That keeps it simple, and keeping it simple is what it’s all about in most cases. Another way is to totally ignore the kick drum, at least some of the time. If the drummer is playing a strong, simple groove, you can depart from it and play some new things, and it’s not going to stop grooving. Even if what you play is off the wall, if it’s in time and played with feeling and sincerity, it’s probably going to be a good part. That was the key to the Motown sound created by [drummer] Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson. A third type of possibility exists when the song has nothing else going for it in support. That’s a golden opportunity for the bass part to shine.

Chris Jisi: Session players talk about “having the ability to play on tape.” What does that mean?

Will Lee: Realistically, it means knowing that what you’re about to play is going on a permanent record. If you want to take that as pressure you can, and it used to drive me nuts. For a long time, my motto was: “If I’m not worried, I’m not awake.” Now, I’d rather be known as a guy who enjoys playing. My new attitude on sessions is to have a good time, and that translates musically. If I feel good, then people will feel good when they hear me play.

(Actually Heard)
10. It needs more something.
9. Play some of that “Will Lee shit.”
8. Can you play that louder?
7. Can you make it go up at the end?
6. Give it more smile.
5. It’s too “black.”
4. It’s too “white.”
3. I want this to sound like an old wicker chair I have in the country.
2. Make it more orange.
1. Keep your day job!