Free your mind and the bass will follow, Doug Wimbish of Living Colour tells Joe Shooman.
Fresh from a brilliantly received tour with Living Colour, multi-stylist and producer Doug Wimbish is an inspiring blend of humility and energy. The pioneering player muses on the different tools available for the purveyor of the low frequency, starting with the instruments themselves. “Some people’s basses are their character, and they are the character of the bass. They have their vibes and what they like, and I love that stuff,” he says.
He should know, having wielded his signature Spector bass with a host of names including Mick Jagger, Madonna, George Clinton, Depeche Mode, Annie Lennox, Jeff Beck, the Sugarhill Records house band, Joe Satriani, Mos Def and more. While he has a well-documented collection of basses, he has a definitive reason for choosing which one to play for any given song.
“Let’s go back to Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, my roots: there’s definitely that jazz vibe,” he muses. “I am a character player and I learn how to play characters: how would it be if I was Jimi Hendrix on bass. How would Jimi or Sly approach it? How would Bootsy approach it? All these cats play different instruments even though we know them mainly for one. Marcus Miller played bass clarinet, and played his ass off: he wrote the lines out and played with Miles Davis.
“He is a real musician. He is trained like that. I just wanted to be that musician that was able to do it. If someone needed me to program something, I could do it; if they need me to run ProTools or Logic, I can do that; if they need me to strike the tape and get tones up, I can do that.”
Over his four-decade career, Doug has been at the forefront of musical explosions including hip-hop, electronica, funk-rock and pop. He says that he was always there with ears and mind firmly open as to what was happening and how he could implement ideas in his own session and studio work.
“I was in the situation to be able to observe and absorb it. I believe that my vibe came from the people I was around. Sometimes they’ll tell me to just do my own thing, and others they will tell me to do exactly what they want.”
For example? “I’m working with Mick Jagger and Simon Phillips, a killer drummer, and we’re writing songs – Jagger songs – and I know that he wants a certain kind of vibe. My way of working with Mick is to follow those lips, man. He is so good at humming those bass-lines. I’m like, ‘Yo Micko-lo, play something’, and he’s humming this thing,” laughs the Connecticut-born genius. “After a while you know somebody and you get a dossier on what they are saying. And I know exactly what he’s talking about, where to begin it, it’s a good study point.”
Another example is when he’s playing with Jeff Beck: at one point, says Doug, the two will just start laughing with each other with glee at nailing the perfect groove. “He lets me do my thing, but I know he needs that solid shit. I mean – he’s Jeff Beck! I don’t want to cross those lines: I am digging playing all those lines and he gave me my first rock break, first busted me out. I learnt a lot about feel and technique, how you play with your thumb and fingers, from Jeff. He’s got his own feel.”
That’s the crux of the art of the bass, Doug notes, as we ask him for advice for players who may just be starting out. “For the youngsters and the kids – find your sound,” he declares. “Find your interest: be that individual; go for what you feel you wanna do. If you wanna play a certain style, you do that and don’t let anybody else tell you any different.
“But if you want to do something else, there’s people that are there for you that you can vibe off. Music is free. You go for it. I will be here to support you: you will have a fan, believe me.”
Photo by Karsten Staiger