New Concerto, New Kind Of Bass Guitar For Nashville’s Victor Wooten
Victor Wooten demonstrates the new electric bass he'll play at the premiere of 'The Bass Whisperer' concerto.

New Concerto, New Kind Of Bass Guitar For Nashville’s Victor Wooten

Try to imagine Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers using a cello bow on his instrument. Picture the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, with Paul McCartney bowing the bass line to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The bass guitar doesn’t really work that way.

So bassist Victor Wooten had something brand new made to order: an instrument he’ll debut tonight night with the Nashville Symphony.

But Why Can’t You Bow An Electric Bass?

On the left, a violin (credit: Aaron Wolf via Flickr) with strings crossing over an arched bridge. A six-string bass is on the right (credit: Ethan Prater via Flickr).CLICK TO ENLARGE
On the left, a violin (credit: Aaron Wolf via Flickr) with strings crossing over an arched bridge. Instruments in the guitar family, like the one on the right (credit: Ethan Prater via Flickr) have a flat bridge. CLICK TO ENLARGE

If you look down the length of a cello, violin or viola — anything meant to be played with a bow — the strings make an arch. That’s what allows you to bow one string at a time. But on a normal bass guitar, they lie flat. You can’t draw a bow across without scraping every string, simultaneously.

Also, the body of that violin or cello also has a narrow, waistlike section. That’s so nothing’s in the way of the bow as it moves it back and forth. Instruments in the guitar family are generally much wider. A bow would bump with every stroke.

Wooten worked with his luthier, Vinny Fodera, to design a new bass with strings that have that curve, with a body that nips in at the middle — and with a longer neck so that he can play some higher notes, in the cello range.

Getting it right has taken some trial and error. Speaking about a week before the concert, Wooten says he’d just gotten the instrument back from another adjustment: “they had to cut out some more to make more room for the bow.”

Here’s a clip of Wooten demonstrating his new instrument:

Long, Smooth Lines

Victor Wooten knows the electric bass inside and out. He’s had one in his hands as long as he can remember. In fact, Wooten says he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. When he was born, his four older brothers were already forming a band. All that was missing was the bass.

The Wooten brothers went pro before Victor started the first grade, opening on tour for Curtis Mayfield. Their family band put out R&B albums in the 80s and 90s, and for the last twenty years, Wooten has been one of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones, providing a deep, percussive and imaginative foundation for Fleck’s banjo.

Wooten also played cello in the school orchestra as a kid. That left him with a taste for a longer, smoother musical line. He says he’s always searched for ways to make the electric bass do something similar.

When he got the chance to co-write a concerto for the Nashville Symphony with Conni Ellisor, Wooten was determined to include truly cello-like passages — the kind that can only be made with a bow.

Victor Wooten admits there’s still a lot to figure out about playing his new instrument. But now that it’s here, more classical music may be on his horizon. And even when he’s playing something more like jazz or funk, Wooten says he plans to pull out the bow and see what he can do with it.

Nina Cardona

Nina Cardona is WPLN's host for All Things Considered. As a reporter, she covers a wide range of assignments with an emphasis on culture, the arts and local history. A graduate of Converse College, she's lived in Middle Tennessee most of her life.
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