Fascinating, one-on-one interview with this most original innovator of “Indian slap bass”
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
November 8, 2010
Jayen Varma is an Indian electric bass player. He is known for developing tabla- and mridangam-style finger technique on the bass guitar, a style which has come to be known as “Indian slap bass.” Jayen’s unique approach to the instrument has won him fans around the globe and garnered accolades from bass greats Jeff Berlin, Bootsy Collins, Marcus Miller and many others. The Registry of Official World Records has validated Jayen as the world’s fastest percussive bassist.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. What kind of music were you exposed to while growing up?
JV: I was born in a middle class family in the southern part of India. Most of my family members are musically talented, but there are no professional musicians. I was not at all interested in music when I was a child. I was an introvert and scared to get on stages until I was around 21 years of age. One day, when a musician friend of mine was singing, I was jamming by hitting my hands on my lap and he told me I was musically talented. Until then, I never knew I had any talent in music. I decided to learn drums and an Indian percussion instrument called a mridangam. Soon I began playing on stages with bands as a drummer.
FBPO: When did you start playing the bass?
JV: I took up the bass in 1986, when I was 25. The first song I played was The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden. By playing in cover bands, I learned bass lines to more than 200 songs in all genres, including blues, rock, jazz/rock, metal, raga rock, funk, fusion, pop, disco and reggae.
FBPO: What made you choose the bass?
JV: I used to play a little bit of six-string guitar. In 1986, a band named Melting Maids asked me to join them as a bass player. So I picked up the bass and I loved it immediately! And the journey continues.
FBPO: Who were your biggest influences on the bass?
JV: Abraham Laboriel, Sr., is number one to me. In the early days, I did not have enough access to the world outside India, but in one of the videos of the great Abraham Laboriel, I heard him say that what is important is the sound that is produced, not necessarily how the bass is played. Those words really lit a fire inside me and inspired me to move ahead with my unconventional style. And of course Billy Sheehan, Jaco Pastorius, Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, Victor and Regi Wooten, Stuart Hamm… the list doesn’t end.
FBPO: Tell me about “Indian slap bass.” Just what is it?
JV: Indian Slap Bass is playing the bass guitar just like the Indian classical percussion instruments tabla, mridangam or kanjira. It is played by hitting the string with the index finger first, then with the middle and ring fingers held close together. This is not at all complicated because your fingers act like two drum sticks, where one stick is the index finger and the other stick is the middle and ring fingers held close together.
It works perfectly, not only with funk, jazz, blues or rock, but with heavy metal also. Since the two fingers can distinctly produce clear 16th notes on the same string, it fits with metal music. It can also be blended beautifully with Indian classical music. I am sure that the next generation of musicians will find the potential in its application in future music to come.
FBPO: What possessed you to approach the bass as if you were playing tabla? Or a mridangam or kanjira?
JV: Even from the beginning of my bass playing career in 1986, the tabla/mridangam style technique was more convenient for me than the usual slap method. Maybe because I had some training in the Indian percussion instrument mridangam, application of this technique on the strings was easy for me. In the early 1990s, when I could not get a slap tone due to the unavailability of pickups and guitars at that time, I was forced to use hard plastic pipe pieces on the forefinger and middle finger to get the tone while playing like a tabla. It worked well as far as tones were concerned, but the playability was poor. In those days, the music genres I used to play did not require slap bass, so I had to put that idea aside after experimenting for few years. Eventually, I came back to my convenient method of tabla percussive fingering.
FBPO: Thanks to today’s technology, like YouTube, the rest of the world is able to appreciate a very different – and fascinating! – kind of bass playing from you. Do you do much performing outside of India?
JV: I have not performed anywhere outside India. I will do it soon.
FBPO: How does it feel to hold the distinction as the world’s fastest percussive bass player?
JV: There are many bass players in the world who deserve the title “The Fastest” in each and every style and technique. Musically speaking, I still find it hard to play someone else’s melodies or bass lines at his speed without losing the feel he produces. I am happy to have this recognition from the registry, but I’d prefer to be known as one of the fastest bassists.
FBPO: What plans do you have for your career in the future? What else can we look forward to seeing and hearing from you?
JV: My intention is to popularize Indian slap bass across the world. I have been experimenting and promoting this method single-handedly for years. I am so happy that it has many fans across the world now. Many young bassists are willing to learn it. I am sure that if someone practices this technique for one year, he will be able to do it well. In India, the majority of people still have to become familiar with the bass guitar, which makes my task challenging. So my task also includes popularization of bass guitar in India among the masses. I know that this style has so many fans in the USA and Europe. I will be doing bass clinics on both continents in 2011.
FBPO: How do you practice?
JV: Wherever I go, I always do finger exercises. I do them to get precision in timing and playability. I don’t usually do them on bass, but on my mobile phone or on my own body or on the table, etc. Speed and good melodies are the result of one’s practice. I am still trying to make some good music. I am also waiting to produce an international album.
FBPO: What else do you like to do when you’re not setting world records for speed on the electric bass?
JV: I was working in a government department till 2008, doing my bass guitar works part-time. If I am free, I spend my time with my family and friends and on the Internet. I read motivational books and sometimes I go to schools and charity organizations to give motivational tips to children. I also work with some people to fight against corruption in the society.