The Sound That Makes You Move

IN SEPTEMBER 1992, WE HAILED THE “Masters of Funk” in an article—co-written by Chris Jisi, Karl Coryat, and me—that surveyed the contributions of 22 bassists.
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From September 1992

IN SEPTEMBER 1992, WE HAILED THE “Masters of Funk” in an article—co-written by Chris Jisi, Karl Coryat, and me—that surveyed the contributions of 22 bassists. We began with such pioneers as Larry Graham, Louis Johnson, Bootsy Collins, and Verdine White and brought the story up to the present with younger funksters like Robert Trujillo and Victor Wooten. The 12-page story included a selected discography and transcribed examples from four bass lines that traced the evolution of funk: Graham’s classic “thump and pluck” from Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” Johnson’s much-imitated part from the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23,” White’s smooth fingerstylin’ on Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” and a slice of Wooten’s wizardry on “Flying Saucer Dudes” from the Béla Fleck & the Flecktones album Flight of the Cosmic Hippo.

We had introduced Wooten to BP’s readers in our fourth issue, in a Bass Notes profile by Bill Milkowski. Since then, his reputation had grown steadily as more and more listeners were exposed to his artistry on a Fodera 4-string. Today, of course, he’s recognized as one of the modern masters of electric bass, with a half-dozen solo albums, 14 Flecktones discs, and a host of other recordings that document his command of the instrument. In concert, he’s simply dazzling, playing lines of great harmonic and rhythmic sophistication while barely moving his hands—or so it seems, thanks to his clean, efficient technique. He’s also one of the nicest guys I met while working at BP. So here’s to you, Victor … then and now. —Jim Roberts

Few modern players combine technical innovation with musicality as well as Victor Wooten, the 26-year-old bassist for Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. As he noted in a Jan/Feb ’91 profile, Wooten was a child prodigy, picking out bass lines on the bottom four strings of his brother’s guitar when he was only three. He soon joined the family band, the Wootens. “We would learn R&B tunes off the radio, like James Brown and all the Motown stuff,” Victor remembers. “By the time I was five we were doing club dates, and I started on bass when I was six.”

One of the bands the Wootens covered was Sly & the Family Stone, but Victor had a hard time getting a handle on Larry Graham’s sound. “I wasn’t getting the right tone and feel until my brother Regi showed me how to slap. Later, he showed me how to use my thumb in a down-and-up fashion, the way he played guitar. He said if I wanted to sound like Larry Graham, that was the way to do it. To this day, I’m not sure whether Larry used that technique or not, but it helped me to get that really funky, jumpy sound I was looking for—the sound that makes you move.”

When he was about ten years old, Wooten heard Stanley Clarke. “Someone played a Return To Forever album, and after that I started learning every Stanley Clarke song I could get my hands on. I had been taking solos onstage since I was eight, but it wasn’t until I got into Stanley that I started learning lines note for note.” His second revelation came several years later, when he was exposed to Jaco Pastorius. “A drummer friend of mine invited me over one day, and he put on Jaco’s ‘Portrait of Tracy.’ I heard what sounded like a piano, and he told me it was a bass. It floored me. So I borrowed the record and learned the tune that night—I just found out where all the [harmonic] notes were on the neck, and I’ve never been the same since.”

With his bewildering array of right- and left-hand techniques, Victor’s solos are mindboggling, to say the least—but he asserts that wasn’t the goal. “The techniques I use didn’t really come from a need to be different. They evolved because I wanted to play what I was hearing. I’d listen to drum solos by Billy Cobham and Tony Williams, and I’d try to learn those rhythms. I couldn’t play them with conventional techniques, so I had to come up with different ways to do it.”

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