Ask Willis - January - 2001

Hey Willis
Been a big fan for a long time. Really like the new cd. I've always enjoyed playing bebop and jazz standards. However I have a big problem; I often lose my place during the drummer's solo's. Every now and then I lose the time by a beat or two while walking during regular time. I've tried tapping my foot, but still lose the "one." When this happens, I turn green with embarrasment and often the playing suffers or I make more mistakes because my confidence is broken. I'm 26, been playing bass for 6 years, but played piano for about 7 years before bass, so I learned bass at a rapid rate. I mention this because I think part of my problem is that I was sort of "thrown" into playing with advanced players and semi-pros. I never played in teen jazz bands or college combos, or with players with the same amount of experience on their instruments. I have a lot of harmonic and solo knowledge and musical sensibilities, I can even play things in solos that are rhythmically advanced, but my time keeping is in trouble! Please help with any advice. Thanks.

'Thanks....been there....done that myself...'still do....Thanks for bringing it to everyone's attention, though. If you know what's good for ya, you'll develop the ability to fool everyone into thinking you know where you are. Sometimes I come in during trading 8's in the general vicinity of "one" (usually based on watching for a big cybmal crash) and find my way after a bar or two based on what I hear everyone else play. Of course, other times I know exactly where I am and everyone else doesn' is that the other way around? Anyway, really good drummers occasionally indulge in total disregard for any information that would hint at where the time is...and that can be fun but in any case you have to develop the old "inner clock". It just comes with experience. Of course it's very important to be "right" when it comes to keeping up with the time during a drum solo, but it's just as important to be "right" by adjusting to what you hear a couple of bars after your entrance.

Hey Willis
I've been trying to study Coltrane's tune "Giant Steps" and I've been having some difficult in that first six measures (lots of chords - laughs ) so I'm asking you if you have some kind of written phrases for that or what's the best way to improvise over those chords. I've been trying to use a concept of major/minor. For example: B7 - D.. I use Bmajor and Bminor.. then G and Bb I use Bmajor and Bminor, and I find out that may be a good way to study that... can you help me? well, while I wait for your anwser I wish you a very good new year, much health, hope, love and peace !! Best regards from Brazil

Welcome to the world of Giant Steps...that's several good years of study, at least it was for me. I don't have any written phrases...I never was able to work that way. The first concept you mentioned sounds fine for the first bar but the Bmaj and Bminor don't jive with Gmaj7 and Bb7. You probably meant Gmaj and Gmi. Anyway, I spent months just learning how to walk quarter notes on this tune. Eventually you want to be able to move your lines all over the neck. The more you get a handle on that, the better foundation you'll have for "seeing" the harmony wherever you're at on the neck. Once you can do that, then start isolating parts of the neck for soloing. The harmony moves through Bma, Gma and Ebma. Make sure that your hand "sees" each of those harmonies with the proper hand position every time the harmony changes. That'll cut down having to chase every chord around. You can get a lot of mileage out of pentatonics for this one. Try this approach for pentatonics on the first three bars and see if you can apply it to the rest of the tune:

Hey Willis,
Happy new year, and all that stuff, I really apreciate your music and bass solos, hope TT's Rocket Science brings you again to Argentina soon. Another thing, I've downloaded from napster an mp3 of you playing Giant Steps, its great , amazing, but , where/when you recorded it?

Thanks, happy all that stuff to you, too. 'Hope to get back down there again someday. That probably was from the Bass Player Magazine 5th Anniversary CD. (1995) I don't know if it's still available but you could check their site.

Hey Willis
How do I go about learning to play the extremely fast bebop style stuff that you play(like your solo off "speak" and the song off of Thick where you open up with a bass solo. (Slick) I mean what is it that you studied to learn how to play that way. Did you transcribe a lot, or did you study out of a certain book? What did you do to get your playing to that level? I would really appreciate any advice.

I suppose a complete answer to your question would be a short book. Here's a brief overview....
Soloing over changes is something I still practice and I started working on it a long time ago (20+ years). I did some transcribing but it was always with the goal of getting the info into my fingers, not necessarily on paper. Early on, I spent a good couple of years teaching myself to relax and play softer while turning up the amp. Efficient technique obviously makes speed easier to come by and allows you room to incorporate dynamics - Dynamics within the lines you're playing make the ideas more cohesive and expressive. One thing that I constantly work on is my vocabulary. It's one thing to play fast licks, the goal is to be able to create ,react and play with your imagination with lots of changes at fast tempos.

Hey Willis
Your gig(in Japan on Nov 26th) was so fun. I was inspired and decided that I want to improve my skill more. So I'm trying to figure out how to practice for interplay with other players. But this system needs two or more people to listen to the sound of other instruments for harmony. I can try to program a sequencer and then play with it. But it can't get it to react itself. Is there a way to practice this? And other question. How do you play a song that you've never heard, and how do your end it?

Thanks....It's great that you want to work on interplay but I'm not sure there's any effective way to work on it alone or with a sequencer. You could record yourself improvising and leave some space so that you could react but it would still only be one side of the picture. I was fortunate that a big part of my formative years as a musician was spent jamming and playing with other musicians in band situations. Your main goal is to connect your imagination to the instrument. You can work on that by improving the connection between your ear and the fingerboard. When you're away from the bass, try to give everything you hear a fingering. Eventually, whatever you imagine will get a fingering and your ability to interact in real time will be there.

Hey Willis,
Happy New Year.
I purchased your Willis Collection book a while ago. At first I thought that just by owning it I would get better. No luck there. Then I thought I would follow along (read the book) while I listened to each track. Here, I was thinking musical osmosis. Hey it works in plants. Ok.Ok I'll have to actually pick up my bass and play through the parts. Bingo !! What a -great- book. For less than the cost of an hour lesson with anybody I've gotten months of material to work with. Having both the bass notes and their relationship to the chords makes the massive amount of information much easier to retain and recall. Oh yeah my ?. Some of the more extended solo ideas are difficult to get up to speed. After looking at the (tab) I would get the starting point, I noticed you use a lot of notes on the E string above the 12th fret. Is this correct ? From my experience the note fundimental is weaker in that area than the same note on the A string. But I'm not really hearing that on the recordings. Could you clarify.
For those players who are looking to better understand what makes Willis' playing so great and improve their own playing. BUY THE BOOK !! and get busy. (totally unsolicited) but possibly Illicit.

Thanks for the unsolicited but possibly gratuitous panegyrization. (look it up yourself)
With my trusty GHS Progressives and the .135 B string, I can get a pretty clear, fat note above the 12th fret. This wasn't possible when I used any guage smaller. Now...about all those lessons.....;-)

Hey Willis,
this question is gonna seem a little out but do me a favor and be real (and forgive my ignorance).
ok here goes, Whats the deal with the real "Real Book". Should I bother trying to get my hands on a real/illegal Real Book. Whats the difference between that and the "New Real Book"? I found a guy that supposedly sells the real/illegal Real Book but how would I know its the real deal? Whatever history lesson/info you could give me on the subject would be greatly appreciated. Oh yeah which edition is "the one" to have and should I get it in Bass clef? Thanks in advance bro.

The legend goes that it was penned by Gary Burton who supposedly has a photographic memory...that's what I was told, anyway. Although the illegal "Real Book" is an unspoken requisite for learning jazz, I'd say go ahead and spring for the legitimate "New Real Book" series from Chuck Sher at Sher Music. Besides meticulously trying to get all the changes and melodies right, the composers get their legitimate royalties and you get a better product all around. Don't go for any bass clef versions. You'll be better off getting a handle on treble clef. And if you're anything like me, you'll be able to read equally bad in bass or treble clef..;-)