Getting Bent with Gary Willis

Tribal Tech's 5-string monster talks with Metalwood's Chris Tarry about players, influences, dogs, and even his hats in this exclusive interview for ActiveBass.
CT: How are you enjoying working on your own solo CD's? Musically, how does it differ for you from working with Tribal Tech?

Willis: My CD's as well as the Tribal Tech CD's have been a blast. The only drag was that the last time I was doing mine, we were doing the Tribal Tech CD at the same time so the workload was pretty daunting. I was up for 63 consecutive hours at one point. The main difference now is that we're not composing in Tribal Tech, we're just going into the studio and jamming. Of course, there's a lot of pressure, but the results are a lot more unique and it's a way fresher process.

CT: For the Tribal Tech CD's do you ever go back in and add little parts to the improv if you feel it makes sense musically?

Willis: Definitely, the jams were starting points. Some parts are 100% what was played in the studio, others were added later. But since we're not trying to realize some "composer's vision" it was fun to see where the pieces went after we did the basics. I was working at home in New Mexico while they were in LA. Sometimes we didn't hear everything all put together until we mixed.

CT: I have always found you to be very open with imparting information on what you do and how you do it. Ramps, round tuners, and the Gary Willis touch has worked it's way into the modern bass venacular. How do you feel about these influences becoming common place in bass playing today?

Willis: If any of that is commonplace, it's probably been word of mouth. I've always enjoyed teaching but without a teacher tell me how to get from point a to b, I had to develop a very direct approach to learning. I guess that's resulted in a few different approaches to things like equipment and technique.
The Willis Ramp

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CT: I just remember seeing this ad recently in the back of Bass Player Magazine with Lincoln Goines. He had the round tuners on his Fodera and it made me think "Willis must be putting something in the water!"

Willis: Yeah, those are getting pretty popular. I'm going to make them available soon.

CT: That will be great, let me know when you have the official Gary Willis I.P.O. (Initial Public Offering) Well all be rich! In your experience what are some common things you think most bass players overlook in their development?

Willis: One is the right hand. Since harmony and the fingerboard take so long to learn, it's possible to completely ignore the right hand and let it develop at the slow pace of the left hand. Unfortunately, that slow pace allows a lot of bad habits to become gradually ingrained in the right hand. Other things are right hand dynamics, bass setup, a sense of melody, a strong ear, an understanding of harmony, somebody stop me....

CT: How do you approach walking on an electric bass in a standard jazz setting? Do you have any specific concepts on how to walk convincingly on an electric bass?

Willis: If it's really a "standard jazz setting" I probably wouldn't be asked to do the gig, but anyway, I'd try to adopt the traditional role of keeping time and making sure the soloists are supported in the traditional way. Pardon the shameless plug, but my fingerboard harmony book outlines the way to get the harmony out of the bass for walking bass or any other style. But actually, the way I'd really rather approach a setting like that is from a less structured role that's a lot more rhythmic and interactive with everyone.

CT: Who were some of the jazz players you listened to when you first started getting into soloing?

Willis: I started checking out Miles, Wayne, George Benson, Bill Evans, Herbie....

CT: How has being a dog owner effected your music? What other things do you do to keep yourself grounded?

Willis: It's great 'cause you can't ever take yourself or anything too seriously around a dog. I have no idea if it's affected my music, that'd require a music-psychologist or something. I've been playing a lot of tennis this winter and I'll be playing on a local USTA league team that starts this weekend. I ride my mountain bike when I can't find anyone to hit with. BTW, did you decide on the Electro or the Stroker? (mountain bikes)

CT: It looks like Im gonna go for the Stroker. I cant go without that fantastic double suspension!! Wait till ya see it, its bright orange! Buddy (Chris Tarrys dog) is very afraid of my bass. He looks at it much like he does the vacuum! I think that in itself says a lot about putting things in perspective!

Willis: Buster loves the vacuum, but he mostly barks at it. He gets so wired, he starts doing "laps".

CT: What is it about music and playing the bass that keeps you going? How do you change things up artistically to keep things interesting?

Willis: I can't honestly say that music or bass playing keeps me going. Maybe focusing on other things like web design, writing books, tennis, mountain biking etc, makes coming back to music fresher for me.

CT: If the house were burning down, what five albums would you have to take with you?

Willis: I don't really listen to that much, but I have collected my favorite tunes off of a bunch of CD's and converted them to MP3's so I can listen to a "best of" all the time. But, if you have to have a list:
"Big Loada" - Squarepusher
"Time Remembered" - John McLaughlin (playing Bill Evans compositions)
"Hand Jive" - John Scofield
"Thrust" - Herbie Hancock & Headhunters
Bill Evans & Tony Bennett

CT: What bass players out there today are turning your head and why?

Willis: There are some great players out there but there's not that much that grabs me. Mainly there's not much focus on writing so the context these great players present themselves in, just doesn't hold my attention for very long.

CT: As most people know, a good ball cap is part and parcel of the Gary Willis arsenal. What's the current count on the collection and what are the top 3 favorites?

Willis: I think it's up over a hundred now. I just got this great Homer cap from the Simpson's site. Then there's my Apple "Think Different" and of course there's the Ibanez cap.

CT: Mmmmmmmmm the Ibanez cap!

Visit Gary on the web at