Smile Politely

A pioneer of the bass guitar

Victor Wooten is playing the Canopy Club tonight, in light of his two recently released albums, Sword and Stone and Words and Tones, the former being an instrumental version of the latter. Wooten has been hailed as “the Michael Jordan of the bass” and as “one of the most fearless musicians on the planet.”

Wooten is a jazz bassist who started playing at only two years old (how he was able to hold a bass at that age, I’m really not sure). By five, he was touring with his family band Partridge family style, and at six, opening for Curtis Mayfield with his equally-talented brothers.

It’s no surprise that has taken home five Grammy awards, having spent basically his entire life with a bass in his hands. His claim to fame was with super group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in the 90s, and soon after touring with the Flecktones, he released his first solo album, A Show of Hands, with a four string bass and no multitracking. It has been regarded as one of the most important bass records ever created. He also formed a super-group with his bassist heroes Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, which is known as SMV (their first initials put together … very clever). To this day, he still plays with the Flecktones and works as a solo artist, as well as with many other artists, and yet still has time to visit our very own Champaign-Urbana. Bass Player Magazine has voted Wooten Bassist of the Year three times (making him the only person to win the award more than once) and a Rolling Stone reader’s poll voted him one of the Top Ten Bassists of All Time.

Calling Victor Wooten just a bassist would be a bit of a misnomer. He is a husband, father of four, naturalist, teacher, author, magician, acrobat, and philanthropist. Because of the high demand of musicians wanting to pick up his style and techniques, Wooten began going around the world to music stores and schools to instruct students in the way of the bass guitar. Eventually, he started Bass/Nature Camp in 2000, which has evolved into Victor Wooten’s Center for Music and Nature. It isn’t only for bassists — the camp welcomes all instrumentalists and vocalists, and has helped thousands of musicians from around the world polish their chops. Wooten Woods opened in 2009, a veritable Disneyland for musicians outside of Nashville, Tennessee, which currently hosts seminars, workshops, and get-togethers.

Wooten is highly respected in the educational community for his thoughts on music and nature, and he has spoken at many schools, universities (Stanford, Harvard, Strathmore College, Berklee College of Music, and others), classes, and spiritual centers. He even has his own record label, Vix Records. He’s a busy man, indeed.

Wooten can’t really be pinned down to a single genre. I stated he was a jazz bassist earlier, but he delves into bluegrass (Bela Fleck is a banjoist), Celtic, rock, funk, rap, and has even done work on the soundtrack of the film Striptease with the Flecktones.There will no doubt be a diverse number of musical influences floating around at his performance Friday night.

Wooten is renowned for his technical innovations on the relatively young instrument that is the bass guitar. Upthumbing is a bass playing technique of his design, in which he uses his thumb as a pick to execute swift up-and-down strokes with crisp precision and rhythm. You can see his upthumbing technique for yourself in the following video (go to about 25 seconds):  

You can also see his usage of a number of other techniques, such as tapping and slapping.

Wooten’s thoughts on the bass guitar are rather revolutionary. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave shortly after the release of A Show of Hands:

The electric bass is still such a new instrument and I think people are still just stuck in the traditional roles that it’s played. People are slowly waking up like all of us. We’re slowly waking up to the possibilities of the bass. People wouldn’t think twice about hearing a solo bass vocalist — that’s no big deal. But a solo bass guitar is another story for whatever reason. People just need to kinda open up their minds and listen to the music. Don’t get caught up on the instrument. The instrument is secondary.

Wooten is truly a pioneer of the bass guitar who wishes to change the public perception of an instrument that usually takes a backseat to the guitar. His music assumes a new philosophy of what the bass guitar is as an instrument, and breaks the stereotype of the boring, one-dimensional bassist. Tongiht we have the opportunity to take a peek into his metaphorical musical covered wagon of whimsy as he travels across the United States.


Victor Wooten will perform at The Canopy Club as the early show of Friday evening before Paper Diamond. Tickets are $15 in advance or $18 at the door, and the show starts at 7 p.m.

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