Gary Willis - May 2004
Merging technical virtuosity with musical mastery, Gary Willis is widely acknowledged by fans, peers, and critics alike as one of the most influential voices of our time. Recognized for his fretless bass prowess and fingerboard harmony concepts, Willis' unconventional musical facility is demonstrated through often thick, 16th note-laced, hypnotic grooves and lyrical solo flights entrenched with a dynamic melodic sense. Over the past two decades, Willis' innovative, ultra-light right-hand approach has defined economy-of-motion while the depth and scope of his musical vision has often defied easy categorization.
Now a resident of Barcelona, Spain, Willis' story begins as a Texas-native. In 1978, Willis enrolled in the legendary jazz program at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) where he studied composition and improvisation. It wasn't until his third year of college that his long-time conflict between bass and guitar was resolved and bass became his primary instrument. After relocating to Los Angeles in 1982, Willis met guitarist Scott Henderson, and shortly after, their musical collaboration as Tribal Tech was born. With Kirk Covington on drums and Scott Kinsey on keyboards, Tribal Tech revolutionized their own style of jam-concentric composition and became the driving force behind the mind-bending, improv-driven fusion of the day.
Besides his contributions as a co-founder of Tribal Tech, Willis' fretless faculty has been well documented in recordings and musical conversations as a sideman with Wayne Shorter, Allan Holdsworth, Dennis Chambers, and Robben Ford to name a few.
In 1996, Willis launched his solo career with the debut of No Sweat, and two years later, Willis unveiled Bent, the second project under his own name. Joined by an all-star cast of sideman, both collections display contemporary fusion as its finest featuring spontaneous improv-laden compositions.
An in-demand educator, Willis has shared his approach and knowledge of bass playing and music with thousands of students as a course leader at the Bass Institute of Technology and an instructor at the California Institute of the Arts, the National Guitar Summer Workshop, and Gerald Veasley's Bass Bootcamp. As a touring clinician for Ibanez, Aguilar Amplification, and D'Addario Strings, Willis has conducted master classes in 21 different countries.
Also an author, Willis has written some of the most widely-revered and best-selling bass texts in publication today covering harmony, ear training, improvisation, and technical concepts. Along with a book of transcriptions featuring eleven original compositions, Willis has also had several of his tunes included in Sher Music publications.
As a website developer, Willis maintains one of the most informative bass-related sites on the web at GaryWillis.com. He is also a pioneer in the realm of cutting-edge, interactive online bass education. Through his webcam lessons, anyone seeking bass education can take lessons from Willis in a private, one-on-one video conference format.
In the following interview, Willis shares his thoughts with us on playing fretless, composing, soloing, right hand technique, bass education, Tribal Tech, and much more!
Who would you cite as having the most impact on you as a bassist and a composer?
I always say I'm a product of everything I've ever liked. If a book inspires me, or a movie, or personal event, then that should come through. Eventually, the final goal is to communicate and hopefully inspire.
Was bass your first instrument?
It was, I got my first bass at age 13. It was a short scale Vox Panther.
What was your inspiration to play 5-string fretless bass and when did you begin playing it?
I always gravitated to the lower end of a 4-string. If things were in F or G, I'd never go up to the 10th or 12th frets to groove. I always heard it that way. My first fretless bass was one that I built. I put a guitar tuner on a Precision neck, found some Telecaster saddles, modified a Fender bridge, and found a Dan Armstrong Blade pickup that barely reached all five strings. It had really narrow string spacing at the bridge. The next fretless was a Yamaha BB5000 that I bought. Later on, I was lucky enough to hook up with Mike Tobias, and I've been fortunate to be playing custom or signature instruments since then. Mike wasn't ready to move in the direction of a bolt-on ash body bass when I was, but two years after I went with Ibanez, he ended up with the Killer B which was similar to where I was headed with Ibanez.
Many fretless players emulate Jaco, yet your fretless tone and style is very unique. How did you develop your fretless sound?
Well, you have to listen to Jaco to play fretless, in my opinion. But if you assimilate enough influences, you have more choices about what you want to come out. There's Rocco, Anthony Jackson, Paul Jackson, and many more for me.
For those fretless players struggling with intonation issues, what would you recommend?
A few things. Lines are a good place to start. You can change pitch with just variations in pressure so having your finger exactly in the right place is a must. Even with lines you have to adjust your placement up and down the neck. On the 1st fret you have to play sharp, and on the 24th fret, you have to place your finger to be really flat which is why each player should personally set up their own intonation (saddle adjustments) to determine where they want to place their finger to be in tune. The traditional thinking is to put the line directly down the middle of your finger at the 12th fret, but that results in having to play really sharp at the 1st fret, way past the line. I intonate so that my finger is about where I'd put it on a fretted bass at the 12th fret, just behind the line. Then, it's reasonably sharp at the 1st fret and almost completely behind at the 24th. With practice, it takes a year or two of "hand-eye" coordination, and eventually that becomes muscle memory.
Always practice with some kind of reference pitch to judge your notes with, or if you're really good at placement, for example, position your first finger exactly where it should go, and then work on octaves and fifths. The other really valuable thing is to be able to "pivot" with your finger or be able to roll it one way or another to "find" the pitch. This is similar to a vibrato, except you're slowly trying to find the intonation. This works well because any sustained fretless note should have a little vibrato or a little movement. It just sounds more alive. In the course of producing that sound, you can correct the pitch while you are at it, and that means being able to pivot on all four fingers. The main thing is control. If it's an involuntary "shake", then it's REALLY annoying! Less is always better. Less and slow.
Do you try to maintain a regular practice regimen? What essential aspects of bass technique or music do you focus on the most specifically?
Ha, what's practice? If I'm lucky, I'll get to pick up the bass a day or two before I have to go out and play to try to remember what it's like. Of course, life is different now than when I was a student and practice was the focus. I actually never had a bass teacher, so I kind of drifted for awhile. The only bass I knew of at first was on the radio, and that wasn't challenging to me so I didn't learn much. I got a guitar when I was fifteen so I did a lot of learning on that until my third year in college. I always learned by ear, from recordings or in bands, whatever. Even complex things had to settle into my "ears" before it made any sense. I had a great guitar teacher show me the melodic minor scale, and I was offended because he said I wouldn't be able to use it right away, but he was right. About a year later, I started recognizing that sound in chords and people's solos and could finally put it to use after that.
As far as starting out, I try to emphasize the connection between what students hear and what they see on the fingerboard. The consistent geometry of the fingerboard makes it so easy to learn if you don't get so hung up with the names of the notes on paper and all that. Of course, there is a time for all that, but if that is the primary way somebody learns to play, it seems like a big disconnect to me. To me, the bass is one (or two) big patterns. The problem is that most players don't expand their "view" of the patterns past starting with the root up for a few notes of an arpeggio. That's not enough to seamlessly connect the bass. To me, the patterns go all the way across five strings wherever my hand is at, and to add strings, all you have to do is shift. That is what goes on in my fingerboard harmony book. The patterns are all the way across the neck and within a fret. Anywhere you go on the neck, a combination of two patterns will allow you to see everything under your hand. It's not an easy book. It's tedious, but once you assimilate the geometry, then you're free to solo, groove, fill, or walk with total freedom.
Leading your own group, you have released two recordings, No Sweat and Bent. How would you describe your approach to composition and harmony? Did you have any predetermined concepts for these recordings?
I did. For most of the tunes, I didn't try to write too much. There are great musicians there, and if there's too much composition, their personality doesn't get to come out. A lot of the tunes are less than eight bars of material, just a "setting" for everyone to improvise in. On each recording there is at least one or two jams where nothing was written, and I've got the best seat in the house! Great players have a good sense of what fits compositionally, not just ok, "when is it my turn to solo?" So, what you get is when they play something, it has an impact on what happens in the tune and where it goes. To me, it provides the most challenge and the most rewards. The only thing is that it's the most risky way to perform. When it sucks, there is no place to hide. You just wanna crawl into a hole!
How do you approach soloing over complicated chord changes on standards such as "Giant Steps"? How do you practice improvising?
With any set of changes, you have to start out a little at a time. Work on the first three bars, then the next four. Get fluent at walking over it. I remember the first small group I was in wanted to play that one, and I was like "what?" I couldn't hardly string three notes together just walking much less solo. Once you can walk it all over the neck freely, then work on soloing in different parts of the neck. I worked "Giant Steps" to death. Eventually, I narrowed it down to two strings and six frets. If you can do that to "Giant Steps" anywhere on the neck, walking and eventually soloing, then you've got it.
When you are analyzing a chord chart, what are you thinking? Do you assign scales to chords?
Scales, never. The chords come from the fingerboard harmony concept. Group chords that are in the same key. Put your hand in the right place and you're playing what you already know, assuming you've done the homework of learning what happens in a key. You have to be able to analyze chords for key centers. That tells you where to put your hand so you can "see" the key all the way across the fingerboard. Even if the chord is only for a couple of beats, with my system you're never more than a 1/2-step shift to the next key center. Eventually, the neck stops being a mystery.
You have an extraordinarily ultra-light right hand technique that utilizes three fingers in what you have described as open and closed positions. Could you discuss the right and left hand elements used in your technique?
Much thanks! The main reason anyone who uses three fingers should be to get access to more strings. The hardest right hand thing to do on bass is to cross strings going up. I didn't plan it this way, but it works out that this issue is exactly the problem my third finger solves. It plays the first note ascending anytime I'm going up and gives the index, middle, and thumb time to shift. Descending, it just follows in behind and dampens notes, always ready to play if I change directions. Except for when I'm sustaining a note sometimes, I always try to keep fingers on strings, including my thumb. I do a lot of right hand dampening, and that also puts fingers on strings ready to play.
I have two right hand positions. One is where my thumb and third finger are always in contact with a finger-per-string, three-string spread (open position). This position is used primarily for octaves and one-chord groove playing that requires a lot of string skipping. With the other position, index and middle fingers are on the same string, thumb is in contact with the string below, and the third finger is ready to play on the next string up (closed position). I use this position more for linear playing and soloing. My thumb floats from string to string. Gotta float, especially if you have more than four strings.
Traditional electric technique is handed down from upright bass technique. Take the vertical strings of an upright and your index and middle fingers fit perfectly for "walking." If you try to maintain that angle when the bass becomes horizontal (on electric), you have to turn your wrist unnaturally thus creating tension that often results in carpal tunnel syndrome for some people. Plus, it pulls the third finger off the strings making it unavailable. My left hand is pretty standard. Although, I've taught it to use as little pressure as is necessary.
Do you have an exercise you could recommend to those players wanting to adopt your 3-finger right hand technique?
There are a couple of basic ones on the lessons section of my website which you can check out.
I've seen you employ an unusual right hand technique where you produce a distorted-type of effect with your thumbnail. How did that develop and could you explain it to us?
I don't remember when it started. One technique produces a false harmonic with overtones that don't necessarily have to do with the main pitch. The other is a fingernail scrape parallel to the string that produces a nasty attack that varies with how fast you scrape. Much cheaper than pedals!
As a world-renowned bass educator and highly-revered author, you have written some of the best instructional books available. Could you give us an overview of the content within each book?
Ultimate Ear Training For Guitar & Bass - The ultimate ear training book is based on the idea that if you train yourself well enough, whatever you hear externally (tv, radio, cd, whatever) gets a fingering. Then, you'll have trained yourself well enough so that whatever you imagine will get a fingering. What else could you ask for as a musician, to play whatever you imagine? It works on directly connecting your ear/imagination to the fingerboard. It's also for guitar too, not just bass.
Fingerboard Harmony For Bass - The fingerboard harmony book is the hardest one. It addresses the geometry of the fingerboard. It exploits the symmetry of the bass so that you only have to learn to see what happens in a key from two positions. Learn that and anywhere you go on the neck, within a fret, you can use a combination of those two positions to see the neck wherever your hand is located. We don't have to learn everything in all twelve keys, unlike other instruments. It's a misconception that it's bad to play patterns on the bass. Most people's problem is that their view of patterns isn't complete enough. Actually, the bass neck is one (or two) infinitely connected patterns. They continue by shifting five frets in either direction. It applies to fretless as well. The idea is you can choose where to locate your hand when you're playing harmony. Teach yourself what happens in a key thoroughly, and if you put your hand in the right place, you're playing what you already know. It will look exactly the same. Part of it puts demands on your ability to analyze harmony for key centers, but that's a pretty straightforward process. It takes the mystery out of the fingerboard.
The Gary Willis Collection - The collection book is eleven of my compositions with the melody, harmony, and bass parts transcribed plus the bass solos. It's also in tab. It's all Tribal Tech material, and the music is kind of hard to find so I've made the music from the collection available on my site as mp3 downloads. We had to go through a couple of wanna-be transcriptionists before we found someone who could do it.
101 Bass Tips: Stuff All The Pros Know And Use - The latest and most successful book is the 101 bass tips book. It covers everything from how to build your own strap, boil your strings, wrap your cable, what a parametric eq does, how to improvise over sus chords, how to set up your intonation, and beyond. You name it, and it's probably in there. A lot of the information in the book was taken from the 2+ years I did the "Ask Willis" section of my web site, thanks to all those involved. All of these books are published by Hal Leonard.
Any plans for an instructional DVD?
Not really. Broadband is the direction I'm headed with video. I plan on starting to make short video clips available (for a small fee) that answer specific questions or focus on specific techniques.
What do you cover in your bass clinics?
Aside from the playing, I don't have anything specific prepared. It's just whatever anyone wants to talk about. In the course of talking about tone and sound, the gear always comes up, but it's in pursuit of how to accomplish things musically.
You maintain one of the most professional and informative bass-related resources on the web. Can you tell us about your live webcam lessons and the "Ask Willis" archives?
"Ask Willis" was definitely a lot of fun to do, and it helped with the 101 bass tips book, but eventually it started to become too much work and not enough fun. People were asking the same questions every month without searching the archives and weren't too focused on the entertainment side which meant I had to come up with more of the comedy. It's still a viable resource (for comedy as well). Who knows, it might show up again someday.
The webcam lessons are going great. Students from the U.S., Canada, and The Netherlands are doing it now. Every time I finish one, it's still with an element of disbelief. They're all an hour. You need a fast enough upload to sustain a minimum 200kbps. That gets the frame rate close enough so that I can notice details and makes it worthwhile. Average DSL is about 256k which theoretically comes out to 210k, and that is the minimum speed for full-motion video. It is a slightly less immediate experience than if we were in the same place. There's no way to "play together" so the kind of information and how much can be transmitted is altered. Although, it's easy to directly send .mp3 files to a student during the lesson and have them play along with it.
What gear are you currently using both live and in the studio?
The bass is my signature Ibanez GWB1. It's factory stock, not custom. The only thing I've done is set it up myself, but I can explain the setup to anyone that wants to know how to do that. I use the Aguilar DB680 as a preamp in the studio, direct to the recorder (not the board). Live, it's the DB750 amp with two GS-410 cabinets. For clinics, I'll usually use a couple of GS-112's with the DB750. I haven't had a chance to use it live yet, but the Aguilar 4x12 cabinet looks ideal for me. Regarding strings, for recording I use D'Addario XL's (.045, .065, .085, .105, .135), and for touring, I use D'Addario EXP's.
At the NAMM show this past January, Ibanez debuted a new Gary Willis signature 5-string fretless bass. How does this bass differ from your original Ibanez signature bass released a few years ago?
Ibanez just released the GWB35, another 5-string fretless. It's about half the price of the GWB1 (list is around $900). The differences consist of a synthetic ebonol fingerboard (still with lines), basswood body, Ibanez pickup, and a slightly different bridge. Otherwise, it's physically the same and still has the adjustable ramp and the Willis tuner knobs. I'm really pleased with the tone. For the price, you won't find a better fretless.
One of the most intriguing features of your signature bass is the "Willis Ramp." Can you explain the purpose behind it?
On any bass, at a certain point you can play harder, but it won't get any louder. A string has a certain volume that it naturally can vibrate at. By playing too hard, all you do is create a bigger difference from the attack and the amount of volume immediately after the note. By turning up and playing softer, the attack is way more in line with where the string can naturally vibrate so you get much more fundamental and air movement after the attack. That's the purpose of the Willis Ramp, to keep you from digging in too much. Set it up right and your fingers automatically get enough string to play a note, but you're prevented from grabbing too much string and playing too hard. While I was at B.I.T., every six months a new crop of students would come in so I probably made between 200 or 300 ramps during my five or six years there.
After releasing 9 critically-acclaimed projects as co-founder of Tribal Tech, the band's most recent recording, Rocket Science, was released in 2000. What is the current status of the band?
The band is fine. It's just that we don't have a record company, "another one bites the dust." I expect the next thing we'll do, we will just put it out ourselves. The initial investment required to make a good recording has come way down so the main expense would be in advertising. Ha! When have you ever seen advertising for a Tribal Tech record? A salute to the end of record companies as we know them! I've known some great people at record companies, don't get me wrong, but the whole model of distribution, radio airplay, publishing, etc., plus the amount that the artist gets, has been chipped away at constantly over the years so it just doesn't make sense any more.
How do you feel you've matured over the years as a bassist?
Initially, I guess one wants to be considered "growing." Then, past a certain point it becomes "maturing." It's anybody's guess where you draw the line there. Lots of things besides just playing the bass affect how you define yourself and what you end up doing and "becoming." Eventually, I think I've gotten to the point where when I play, I'm more interested in communicating than impressing. Sure, speed and chops are part of communicating, but a really well placed note or honest follow-through with an idea are more important to me now. More of defining yourself comes from composing, so in that respect I've changed a lot in that I tend to write a lot less and let the compositions focus more on the interaction of the group than the soloist being the "star" for various parts of the tune.
What's next for you? What current projects are you working on? Any new books or recordings on the way?
I expect to have more time to write and focus on another music project, but I don't have a timetable for it. I'm easily distracted by trying to write cool Flash MX code, etc. Actually, right now I'm working on an interactive Flash application for fingerboard harmony. You choose which notes, by clicking on the fingerboard, belong in a line, and then it plays back your note choices in a bass line with the accompaniment. The next step is the code that tells you have made a mistake!
Earlier this year, you relocated to Barcelona, Spain? What was it like moving overseas?
Getting adjusted to life here is the easy part. The preparations for moving, shipping, etc. were the hard part.
Through your experience of countless tours performing with Tribal Tech, as a clinician, and now living abroad, how does the music scene in Europe and Japan differ from the United States?
Everywhere I've been, I have been lucky to see people enthused about music, the bass, Tribal Tech, etc. In the U.S., there is just too many miles between gigs and not a legitimate enough promotion model, although with the net, it has gotten a lot better. In Europe it's much more common for people to go out at night and hear music. The cities are more compact and built around easy-to-access public transportation, and the distances between cities are smaller. Japan is much smaller so the possibility to make a profit in the smaller venues is much more difficult, but the people there really appreciate the music.
Do you have any non-musical interests or hobbies?
I'm off the deep end when it comes to Flash MX coding and interactivity. It keeps me up late and often. I'm way into mountain biking but haven't had time to find the trails around here. I'm sure they are nearby. The Pyrenies are just an hour and a half away. I really like tennis so I'm a member of a club, and I'm starting some intra-club tournaments this month. It's really a blast to play on clay, especially after playing on hardcourts at 7000 feet for the last eight or nine years.
What advice could you give to an aspiring bassist and the viewers of The IIB who are trying to take their playing to the next level?
Make whatever you do creative. Take responsibility for getting out of your "rut." Start diagnosing your own problems, and use those problems as an opportunity to "create" exercises and techniques that solve those problems.
With Tribal Tech
With Dennis Chambers
With Wayne Shorter
With Allan Holdsworth
None Too Soon
With Grett Garsed And T.J. Helmerich
Quid Pro Quo
101 Bass Tips - Stuff All The Pros Know And Use
The Gary Willis Collection
Ultimate Ear Training For Guitar & Bass
Fingerboard Harmony For Bass