Will Turpin admits that he’s probably not the best guy to offer advice to young bassists. In fact, he didn’t even pick up the bass until he was 22, when he joined a gang of his friends in the band Collective Soul—which, within a year, would sign a major record deal and go multi-platinum with its debut release, Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid. “My story is not typical by any stretch of the imagination,” he laughs. “I don’t think I can draw up any kind of road map for people to follow.”
Not to suggest that Turpin was devoid of instrumental chops when he joined Collective Soul. He grew up in a musical family: His father, Bill Turpin, played bass in the jazzgrass-fusion band Saturday Session before cofounding Atlanta’s Real 2 Reel Studios in 1976, and Will started on the piano at age eight. Switching to drums in his teens, he went on to study percussion at both Florida and Georgia State Universities. “I had my music theory thing down when I got in the group,” he explains. “I just had to apply everything I knew to the bass. If I didn’t have a keen sense of rhythm and orchestration behind me, I don’t think I would have gotten that far.”
In 2011, Turpin released a five-song solo EP called The Lighthouse and formed a side band, Will & the Way, to back him up for live performances. Now he’s releasing his first full-length disc, Serengeti Drivers, which he recorded at his dad’s studio. While Turpin did most of the heavy lifting (he sings lead vocals and plays bass, keys, and guitar), he’s joined by members of the Way, along with Collective Soul drummers past and present. “I never have to look too far to pull in the best players around,” he says. “I’m always surrounded by amazing musicians.”
The record is a first-listen gem, filled with breezy, country-laced rockers (“Demons”), pop dreamscapes (“All On You”), bighearted ballads (“Make It Home”), and even a splash of gritty funk (“Belong”). While the album’s spirit is carefree, the recording process was anything but bliss: Just as he was about to start tracking, Turpin’s wife, Donna, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Music was definitely my therapy during her treatments,” he says. “Fortunately, she’s cancer-free now and has just one more surgery, so all’s good. The advances in medicine are amazing. If this happened 20 years ago, things could have turned out very differently.”
We’ve established that you’re not a typical bass player. Do you have a particular approach to the instrument?
My philosophy is, it’s all about the song. Some guys have a set style and approach, but I don’t. I look at a song’s overall vibe, and then I work with the drummer on enhancing that mood. I definitely try to incorporate as much melody into my playing as a song allows, but again, it’s to enhance the song. I’m not trying to be the star of the show.
What kind of bass did you start out on?
A Fender Precision. My father played a P-Bass and a Jazz Bass, so I went for the P-Bass. I didn’t want to start out with something crazy. I bought another one when we got signed, and then I got a Gibson Les Paul Bass.
When you joined the band, did you give yourself a crash course on the bass?
Kind of. Harmonically speaking, I knew what I was doing from my training. Technique-wise, I would watch videos and learn stuff. I would listen to records and play along, and I’d watch AC/DC videos. Cliff Williams’ sound was something I was looking for, so I watched him and picked things up.
You alternate between playing with a pick and using your fingers.
I switch back and forth. It depends on how I hear the song and the dynamics I’m looking for. Sometimes you want to be softer and fuller; other times, you want a hard attack. I change it up.
Do you have a formal approach to songwriting?
Not really—songs just sort of happen. I play around on the guitar and the piano, and sometimes the bass, and whenever something that feels like a song comes to me, I go, “Uh-oh … I’d better hit the record button now.” Sometimes it’s just a little line, but there are other times when the whole thing comes to me—the hook, the chord progressions, the verses, and choruses. If I’m not in the studio, I’ll grab my iPhone and record what I’ve got.
Do you write mostly on guitar or piano?
I’d say it’s 80 percent piano, because that was my first instrument. Going back to my thought process on the bass, I’m big into orchestration. Out of high school and all the way through college, I was writing charts for the piano, and even drum lines. So when I play bass, even when I’m playing bass in my head, I’m seeing a score or a piano keyboard; I’m not seeing a fretboard. Sometimes I’ll come up with a song on the bass. It’s just not the standard way for me. There have been times with Collective Soul when I’ll start jamming on a riff and a song will develop.
Sometimes Shane [Evans, drummer] and I would be grooving on something, and Ed [Roland, singer/guitarist/keyboardist] would walk in and go, “Keep doing that. That sounds killer.” “Heavy” was one, for sure. That started with me and Shane, and Ed kind of wrote a song around it.
Does your playing change depending on the drummer?
I’ve never really analyzed that. Again, I’m just looking at what’s right for the song. I mean, there’s a communication that changes slightly based on who I’m working with, but it’s kind of unspoken. I don’t think about who’s leading; it just happens.
Your bass playing on your solo album is fairly straightforward, but you called on Mark Wilson to bust out propulsive stuff on “Belong.”
I don’t mind handing the bass over to somebody who’s better than me, and [the Way bassist] Mark is that guy. He played on three tracks. I’ve known him for a long time, and he’s a virtuoso on pretty much all instruments, but he crushes it on the bass. He’s like Tony Levin—he’s that good. “Belong” is a lot of people’s favorite. It started out with Mark and the drummer, Scott Davidson, during rehearsals. They stumbled upon that groove, and it was a lightning-bolt moment. I sat down with the B3 organ thing and just held a chord. I said, “Follow me, guys,” and I felt the whole verse flowing into the chorus. It was amazing.
How do you record the bass in the studio?
I like to have multiple signals. I have a clean DI signal that allows for manipulation and different things in the mix, and then usually we do another signal that’s effected. I do a signal with a Geddy Lee SansAmp so I can put a little compression on there, get some low-end or midrange sound going. Then I do a signal through a couple of pedals and an amp. I mix all of those, and that’s the final product.
Is there something you want to learn on the bass that you just can’t play right now?
I’d like to get better at slapping. I’m okay at it because I’m funky rhythmically, but I don’t practice a lot. I wish I could. Every now and then, I tell myself, “Dude, over the next three months, focus on some really cool slap technique,” but I never find time to do it. One day I will.
Will Turpin, Serengeti Drivers [2018, Gooey Music], The Lighthouse EP [2011, Gooey Music]
Basses Ernie Ball Music Man Bongo HH basses (4- and 5-string), Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay basses (4- and 5-string), Fender Precision Basses (1963 and 1965)
Amps Ampeg SVT-CL 300-watt head, Ampeg SVT-810E Classic Series cabinet
Strings Ernie Ball (.045– .100, .125)