Breaking into the music scene with Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit in the early 90s, Oteil Burbridge is a musical force to be reckoned with. Since then, he has toured and recorded with the Allman Brothers (and is the longest running bassist in the bands history), the Kofi Burbridge All Stars, Gov’t Mule and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, all the while bringing his signature sound and voice to every genre he steps into. We had a chance to ask Oteil about some questions about genres, and your voice (as well as his newest love, the banjo).
Many working musicians stick with one or two styles of music, but you’ve tackled quite a few over the years and had success with them. What advice would you give for the musician looking for new venues and inspiration outside of their usual genre?
I started playing different types of music because I enjoyed listening to different types of music. It’s not really necessary to play a bunch of different styles. Sometimes people like to put different styles together. The growing interest in what is called World Music has helped that along. When Bela Fleck went to Africa to research the roots of the banjo he did shows with some musicians from over there. The Aquarium Rescue Unit mixed blues, bluegrass, funk, rock, r&b, and avant garde. It was approached very playfully, but still reverently too. Some people go their whole lives playing just one style and I think that’s great. In some ways it’s impossible for me to play bluegrass in its purest form; I don’t play upright bass so right there it takes me out of the running. But the bluegrass musicians that I play with want me to bring something new to it so they have given me permission to be myself in that setting.
How do you approach creating music with each musical group you are with, and are any approaches different between them?
As soon as you change one person in the group it’s different. If I played in ten different blues bands it would be totally different, so the style of music doesn’t have to change for the approach to change. I take things one day at a time and every day is different. We might be with the same group of people and one person wants to try something different than they’re used to doing. That will change the whole game. Being out of your comfort zone is a great way to find out things about yourself that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.
Is there a balance between serving the tonal needs of the group and keeping your signature sound? If so, how do you keep that balance?
When you find your own voice it’s not something you can really help anymore. Unless you are deliberately trying to obscure you signature. When five people talk, they don’t all have to have the same speech pattern, pitches and rhythms. The conversation is not inhibited by the variety of voices. I guess you just have to be sensitive to what the song needs. Most people that hire me at this point in my career want me for my sound anyway, so I’m lucky in that respect.
What gear are you using these days to inspire that signature sound?
Which bass is your favorite and why?
I don’t have a favorite. My Fodera 6 string does things that my ’63 P-bass can’t possibly do, and vice versa. On my last solo record I used my Fodera 6 string, my Modulus 6 string, my ’63 P-bass, my ’69 Gibson EB-2, my banjo bass, and my Joe Perman custom 5 string. They all have drastically different qualities and fit the needs of what I was going for on those individual songs. Playing only one bass would be like eating only one kind of food all the time.
How does playing another instrument – like the banjo – affect your approach to playing bass? Conversely, did some bass pedagogy bleed over when you were learning banjo?
I think it is crucial for musicians to play instruments besides their main ones, even if it’s just for fun. I especially think that bassists should mess around with drums and percussion. There are things that are easier on some instruments than others. Some things are outright impossible. A wind instrument can do things that percussion instruments can’t for instance. Playing different instruments gives you different perspectives on this greater thing called music; that can’t hurt. The banjo is such a unique instrument, as they all are I guess. It’s just so damn fun! It turns out that I’ve been trying to play banjo on bass for quite some time and I didn’t even know it. No wonder Victor Wooten and Bela Fleck are such a powerhouse combination. What a great blessing they have been.
Are there any other instruments you’d love to pick up and learn?
Probably all of them truthfully. I’m a curious guy. I’ve played (to greater and lesser degrees) piano, bass clarinet, trumpet, violin, drums, percussion, bass guitar, guitar and most recently (and fervently) banjo. Who knows what will be next. I’m way down the rabbit hole with banjo right now. Banjos tend to inspire deep love affairs.
What’s in the CD player/iPod right now that’s inspiring you? Is there a “go to” album that you have that people may be surprised by?
I’m a Spotify guy so I’m bouncing around constantly. Bobby Blue Bland was the last thing I was listening to because he just passed away. Living in the YouTube and Spotify age is such a blessing. It’s like having the entire library of all the music of the world at your fingertips. I can’t imagine getting stuck on one thing.
What new projects are on the horizon?
I have so many things in the works I can barely keep track of them! My biggest and most important project right now is trying to start a family with my wife Jess. That’s the ultimate project for me right now!