The term ‘Disneyland for bassists’ might seem over the top when describing Warwick’s factory and headquarters in a small village in the middle of the German countryside. Yet the company’s third annual bass education camp and public open day is gaining legendary status among the global bass community. If the four-hour drive from Frankfurt, which follows an evil-o’clock dawn flight to make the connection, isn’t enough to test your mettle, then the sheer number of bass masters gathered in one place is more than enough to make you giddy. A full roll-call of every low-end lover present would leave room for little else in this report: let’s just say that the 85 campers who paid between £650 and £850 (‘early birds’ can get a lower price) for a week of accommodation, five days of classes, jams, food and airport transfers were catered for in every sense.
Victor Wooten is a galvanising figure in the realm of bass education, having established his successful Wooten Woods Bass Nature camps over the last decade, so his presence here is a ringing endorsement of this event. It was Wooten’s friend and collaborator Steve Bailey who first proposed this venture three years ago to Warwick, and perhaps taking inspiration from Vic’s bass camps and utilising the beautiful surroundings, the Warwick week felt relaxed, with egos left firmly at the door.
Set around the headquarters’ idyllic location of Markneukirchen in the Saxon Vogtland region, where they’ve been located since 1995, the company has also capitalised on the centuries-old tradition of instrument building in the region. Yet in contrast to its olde-worlde locale the Warwick factory and offices seem to have landed from space, its state-of-art design and technologically advanced carbon-neutral factory – run on recycled waste wood, solar and natural gas power – is seemingly brought to life from the pages of a cutting-edge design magazine.
Notable tutors this year alongside Victor and Reggie Wooten were David Ellefson, Stu Hamm, Bobby Vega, Adam Nitti, Armand-Sabal Lecco, Alphonso Johnson, Steve Bailey, Andy Irvine and Gary Willis, adding up to a unique gathering of some of the most experienced and respected bassists on the planet. With such a range of experience and styles for the students to draw on, each of the 20 daily classes were divided into a comprehensive range of topics from music theory, reading music and ear-training, to practical applications for scales, slapping, tapping, rhythm and groove development. With no specific attainment goals set during the week, aside from receiving a certificate at the end, it really is down to the individual to take from it what they want – yet even a single day’s classes would leave anyone with months of musical information and ideas to digest and master.
Students had to be up bright and early to catch the 9am start time for the first class of the day. Arriving later in the week, BGM’s first port of call was Victor Wooten’s final masterclass, first thing on the Friday morning. While other tutorials dealt with the finer points of harmony (Jonas Hellborg) and ear training (Adam Nitti), Wooten’s masterful communication to students is second to none, and it was refreshing to witness how he went about demonstrating this to the class. Laying down a simple G minor chord vamp on his looper, he then played a diatonic ascending bass-line while a student soloed on top. His goal was to show that matching simple harmonic movement, and a gradual build in volume from quiet to loud, enabled the bass not only to support the soloist but also to propel and inspire them too.
One of the key moments in this final session – especially at the end of a week saturated with technical and theoretical information – was when Victor covered the chromatic notes of a scale. ‘This is the scale you probably use the least,’ he said with a knowing look to the group. He emphasised this by playing a melodic line and then stopping on a ‘wrong’ note, which he then moved to the next note in the scale, resolving the tension the passing tone had created while also demonstrating that far from being ‘wrong’, these chromatic notes are not to be feared.
To further emphasise his point he then played a solo over G minor using only the chromatic passing tones, emphasising timing, phrasing and feel – the results flowed and sounded musical. As a point of contrast, he then played a stilted, jerky solo with all the ‘right’ notes, which sounded terrible. He then took a vote on which one was better, the result being the first one because the feel, timing and ideas all flowed. “So what you’re telling me is that feel, timing, tone and phrasing matter more than just playing the right notes,” he asked the surprised group. It was the perfect parting thought: no matter how much technique or theory you know – don’t forget about the music.
But the Bass Camp wasn’t all about cramming one’s head and hands with all these top tips from world class pros, it was also about networking, and more importantly hanging. As the week of classes drew to a close, more international guests arrived, notably Metallica bass star Robert Trujillo who was set to headline with his bass supergroup Mass Mental. In the informal evening jam, a killer version of AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ with Megadeth bass don David Ellefson and Bon Jovi guitarist Phil X, things got even heavier with Trujillo funk-rocking it up with Wooten and Bailey. It was refreshing to see such opposing stylists literally letting their hair down, trading grooves and solos with relish.
The open day saw the several hundred members of the public welcomed into the grounds of Warwick’s headquarters for a day of live performances, beer, food and meet-and-greets with a huge number of specially invited guests, flown in especially for the day. The factory tours were especially enlightening as visitors got to gawp at the €2 million computer-controlled machine, the only one of its type, which precision-finishes every neck for each model of Warwick bass. With frets placed into each fingerboard with laser-guided accuracy, it really was breathtaking.
The queues snaking back from the signing area were almost as impressive as the sheer number of stellar bassists all flown in for the day. These included UK stars such as Scott Devine, Steve Lawson, Colin Edwin, Neil Murray, Dean Mark, Bill Banwell, Jack Stevens and Mike Mondesir, alongside international names such as Kai Eckhardt, Lorenzo Feliciati, Pascal Mulot, Divinity Roxx, Evan Brewer, Nik West, Bakithi Kumalo, John B Williams, Jerry Jemmot and Chuck Rainey among many others. As the day drew to a close, Mass Mental delivered a blistering funk-metal set with Armand Sabal Lecco and Trujillo locking basses in spectacular fashion, alongside Candiria drummer Ken Schalk, Ugly Kid Joe singer Whitfield Crane and singer Benji Webb, fresh from a festival on the Isle Of Wight. Trujillo was chuffed with the audience, saying: “The last time Mass Mental played in 1990, there were about 10 people in the audience.”
Warwick saved the best for last, with the closing night party rounding off a mind-blowing week with a superb meal, and a final bass jam featuring some more outstanding playing from the faculty – with Jonas Hellborg and drum legend Chester Thompson stealing the show with a stunningly beautiful take on John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ – and some appropriately dazzling fireworks. Ultimately, the feeling many left with was that they’d become part of a large extended musical family, one which can’t wait to be reunited again next year and for many more years to come.