“I could do a five-minute dissertation on a note”
By Jon Liebman
Week of December 7, 2020
This week’s interview, with studio legend Leland Sklar, is a real hoot. I’d originally reached out to Leland to hear him talk about his new coffee table book, Everybody Loves Me, in which he proudly portrays about 6,000 of his favorite pictures of people “flipping him the bird.” If you know Leland, you know that’s his signature, good-natured wave and salute.
In addition to hearing all about the book and listening to Leland rattle of a list of names of some of the people in it – everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Jack Black, James Taylor, Charlie Watts, Jeremy Irons… and a few thousand others – I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk bass with Leland and hear what he thinks is important for someone who wants to learn the instrument.
One of the things that’s always bugged me is seeing someone who’s obsessed only with playing dazzling licks and all the showy stuff. There’s nothing wrong with including some of that in your playing, as long as it’s not to the detriment of taking care of business as a bass player and giving the music what it needs. When learning bass – or any instrument – you’ve got to take first things first.
“Be patient,” Leland says. “As you’re learning, don’t get frustrated and want to be Jaco overnight.” Confidence is also important, he continues. “If you’re intimidated every time you pick the instrument up and don’t think you’re going to get it, then you’re never going to get it.”
Building on that advice, I shared with Leland how I’m always reminding my students about the importance of proper bass technique as it relates to the music, whether it’s playing the best, the cleanest “1-5, 1-5” pattern you’ve got, or if you’re playing whole notes.
“We’re exactly on the same page,” Leland replied. “When I would do a masterclass or anything like that, I would say, ‘Do you know how hard it is to play a whole note?’ If you’re sitting there just shredding, you can get away with murder. If you’re giving one note a bar, how are you going to play that? Where are you going to place it? How are you going to release off of it? I could do a five-minute dissertation on a note.”
Keep in mind, there’s a reason we practice scales and arpeggios. There’s a reason we practice string crossings, chromatic runs, interval studies, and everything else. Everyone one of those disciplines is a means to an end, not the end itself. The end goal, when learning bass, is to make music, to groove.
“The important thing in my career has always been the song,” says Leland. “the needs of the song. If I’m doing ‘Stratus’ or something with Billy Cobham, that’s one thing, but if I’m doing ‘For My Broken Heart’ with Reba McEntire and I’m just supporting the whole notes, those are as important as the bass lick in ‘Stratus.’ It’s the song, and you honor the song. Nothing’s beneath you.”
Thank you, Leland!
How about you? Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Leland here.