Bass everyman John Patitucci is a law unto himself when it comes to the low end. Andy Hughes asks the great man the big questions.
You could be forgiven for bracketing John Patitucci solely as a jazz bassist. After all, he’s been on the road with Wayne Shorter, as well as featuring on albums by jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Dizzy Gillespie. But Patitucci is nothing if not a versatile musician, and his vast range of bass techniques have led to his employment in the studio with pop-rock titans Bon Jovi, blues legend BB King, and even indie darlings Everything But The Girl.
Our conversation opens with a reminder about Patitucci’s start in music, following the footsteps of his older brother. “My brother Tom started playing guitar: he was the first member of the family to take up an instrument. I had a try with the guitar when I was about eight or nine, but I couldn’t really get along with it. I played with a pick and I’m left-handed, so holding the pick in my right hand felt really weird. There were no known left-handed guitarists around then, with the exception of Jimi Hendrix. I was a child, so I lost interest pretty quickly.”
“My brother was pretty smart,” he continues. “He wanted someone to play with, so he suggested that I could play the bass, because I could use my fingers to play. So we got this Sears Telstar bass for $10. It was actually hanging on someone’s wall down the street in Brooklyn where we lived. It had a very short scale. I used Labella flatwound strings, and the bass buzzed a lot, but I thought it was really cool. I was listening to pop music on the radio: this was the early 1960s, so there was a lot of Motown and rock’n’roll. I was inspired by the people I was listening to, without realising it at the time. I loved the Beatles, and Cream. Paul McCartney was a real musician; he had a real dimension to his bass playing. A lot of British bassists made a massive contribution to the advanced techniques of bass playing.”
“I started off picking up stuff by ear, and then I learned to read music, and was trained after that. I learned classical bass for three years, and then I left school. I never graduated. I was the type who did well without academic backing. I didn’t need the motivation of a grade to make me want to learn as much as I could, and to explore everything I could find.
What is his current bass of choice? “My electric bass is the six-string Yamaha, the red one which you tend to see in pictures,” he tells us. “I helped to design that bass, and I play it a lot. When we were designing the bass, we talked a lot about the wood we would use, we used the old Fender woods that everyone loves, with a maple top, and I also advised them on the preamp inside the bass as well. I have been with Yamaha for a long time, and I have been involved in the design discussions with them for quite a while. I would suggest a type of wood for a prototype and suggest that they put a bolt-on neck on the model to get back to the basic sound. With my favourite bass, one of the main artist relations guys from Yamaha came over to my house with a frequency analyser, and we sorted out the frequencies we wanted, and nailed them right there.”
“I have been lucky,” he adds, “because the basses that I have had input into with the design are prototypes, so I get the hand-built ones to play. I have to say that the production models are just as gorgeous, wonderful instruments. The wood is so important to the overall sound of the bass, as well as the look of it. The bass has to look good, so it’s a pleasure to pick it up and play it every day.”
John is known as an innovator and pioneer in the field of six-string bass playing, picking up the instrument almost 30 years ago. As he remembers: “I played a four-string bass for years, but when I heard Anthony Jackson in 1985 and the pioneering work he did with the six-string, I really loved the way he played. Anthony persuaded a lot of manufacturers to start building six-string basses, but because I come from a jazz and bebop and acoustic bass background, I thought I could do something different. I envisaged the six-string as being used as a solo instrument in a jazz setting, like a horn. I welcomed the low B string as well because in the 1980s there were loads of synth players who were recreating bass notes lower than we could get on a bass. The low B gave us a change to reclaim that end of the scale, our rightful place. We’re the bottom end of the band!”
Any nuggets of advice from the master about the best approach to bass? This is a subject on which John has some fascinating observations. “A lot of players, when they hear a specific style that they like, and want to play, they think it is important to learn the licks just from the recordings they hear. I would say that it is important to be able to pick up music by ear, especially as you can finish up working with musicians who don’t write music, so there is nothing written down for you to go to and work with. But more important is the ability to assimilate the feeling behind these lines, and be able to apply it in other settings within the musical genre you have chosen.
“If you learn to read, you can access music from hundreds of years ago, well before there were recordings of music. Access to as much influence as possible is always a worthwhile thing. Even if you don’t learn and play all the styles you hear, they can still impact on you as a musician. I would say, don’t think small when you are looking to grow as a musician. The other thing to avoid is inverted musical snobbery. There are people who play rock’n’roll, and look down on any kind of music that contains any kind of intellectual component in it. That is a misconception, and it is wrong.”
“When you listen to people like Monk, Miles, Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Marcus Miller, they have a lot of musical and musicianship knowledge, and it hasn’t hurt their feeling and their playing. That snobbery works in the opposite way as well: there are people who don’t know theory and technique, but may have a great ear and assimilate music that way. You have to be even-handed with how you look at these things. Technical growth will buy you freedom with your bass. If you learn to be natural with it, the bass will feel natural to you. You can learn to express yourself freely on it, and haveso much more of a good experience. That will overcome the frustration you feel when you have ideas, but you lack the technical skill to make your hands play what you can hear, and what you can feel.”
Because the jazz that Patitucci mainly plays these days is a music form based on subtlety and interaction, you would assume that jazz bassists are not big on effects. You’d be right – it all comes back to the basics. “I just use a little reverb on stage,” he confirms. “For years I used one of those Yamaha Magicstomps, and when I was with Chick Corea years ago, I used a Bradshaw rack which had loads of compressors, delays, reverbs, you name it, and a big pedal board to control it all. I had loads of that stuff, and then I got really tired of it. I did what a lot of musicians do. I built up a load of stuff, and then got rid of it all, and then went back to basics, just plug in and play.”
“I have a Radial Engineering Tonebone now, which is a beautiful little DI box with a channel switcher and an effects loop. Because of the weight restrictions on aircraft now, which are really bad, I have a Hall Of Fame Reverb by TC Electronic, a really compact, tiny thing that is great for my electric bass. I am an Aguilar endorsee now and they have some nice envelope filters, and some other good stuff. For live work though, I just use some reverb on my six-string bass, for soloing. For my acoustic bass, I don’t use any effects; I like to get a very organic sound there.”
Unless you’re playing in your bedroom, you will have performed with at least one other musician, even if it’s just a jam round at their house, and it’s likely that your first interaction is going to involve a drummer. Any bass player’s relationship with the drummer is a fundamental foundation of the band’s sound. “It’s not just a relationship, it’s like a marriage,” says Patitucci, laughing. “What I always tell my students is to begin by watching body language, and see how the drummer physically expresses the time. What do their hands look like? Watch their body movements, and get in sync with them, meet the drummer in the time.
“A lot of bass players make the mistake of thinking that they have to establish the time and make the rest of the band, especially the drummer, come to that point and joining them there. I think one of the reasons I have been able to play with so many great drummers is that I am willing to go to them. Drummers like it if you find their time spot quickly, and meet their beat, and mesh with them. I have always done that in whatever style I am working with, listen to the drummer, and find where they are putting the beats, and go straight there and meet them. That will get you a reputation as someone who listens, and is willing to be co-operative.”
“A lot of bassists say, I don’t like the way so-and-so places the beats, so I don’t like working with him or her. That is so limiting, if you do that 10 times, then you’ve wiped out 10 guys you could be playing music with, and learning something from. It’s really easy to get a reputation as someone who is awkward and restricted, and that will not do you any good anywhere as a musician. Learn to fit in, go with the flow, and enjoy yourself – that’s the best advice any musician can have.”
John Patitucci is currently recording a new album.