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interview: Jeff Berlin

By Anthony Garone

Thoughts on music education and personal transformation.

Some Context

Below is Part 1 our interview with the incredible Jeff Berlin. Already done with Part 1? Check out Part 2, where we get super-deep!

Don’t know who Jeff Berlin is? Check out his wikipedia page! 

Jeff and I connected via Facebook over some mutually-passionate comments regarding an obvious personal transformation he and I have both been going through. I was fortunate enough to get his attention through some comments and posts. After he watched some of our interview with Steve Vai, he reached out to me and tried arranging some time for us to get together at NAMM. All this happened in a matter of weeks.

At first, I was disappointed I couldn’t meet up with him at NAMM, however the resulting interview is so much better than I think it would have turned out if we tried talking amidst the chaos of NAMM. There are so many deep and wonderful statements and interactions in this interview. I hope you get as much out of it as I have. Thank you for your attention!!

This interview was conducted on Friday, February 5, 2016 at 2PM AZ.

Interview Audio (Podcast)

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Interview video

Interview transcript

Anthony: Hi, this is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and I’m here with the incredible bass player, Jeff Berlin. Jeff, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

Jeff: Well, thank you for inviting me. I always like these chats. It gets me a chance to open up interesting topics for old friends, people that know me, and possibly new fans that don’t know me and might want to know what I do and what I’m about. So, thanks for the opportunity.

A: Thank you so much! One of the purposes of MakeWeirdMusic.com is to allow musicians and music enthusiasts to find out about new artists and to find out about new music, new techniques, things that make certain people unique. You certainly have a great history and I thought it would be great if you could introduce yourself and talk about that history. Then we’ll get to some of the meatier stuff that you and I have mutually wanted to talk about.

J: I’ll begin by saying the title of your website, Make Weird Music–in regards to the “weird” part, you were thinking of me. So, I own the “weird” element as a person, possibly as a musician. I’m Jeff Berlin. That’s my name. It’s Jeffrey Arthur Berlin. Family and people I grew up with refer to me as Jeffrey. Everybody else refers to me as Jeff, which I find the more intimate and friendly interaction.

Preferring one over the other, I like Jeff. It’s just more social. Jeffrey sort of makes me feel like I should probably get you a cup of tea and possibly, if you live out of the United States, a copy of Pravda . You know, a butler element.

I’m a bass player. I’m a fortunate musician. I’ve eked out a career, an international one, and have the great good fortune of playing really among the greatest musicians that ever played in several styles of music. So, that is a blessing to me. It occurs to me sometimes: why me? Why did this happen? I’m very grateful for this life in music. And that’s what I do. I’m a bass player.

On the violin

A: How did you get started with the instrument? I know you were playing violin as a child. Something like that…

J: All Jewish children in the 50s that exhibit–let’s say a natural propensity for music–inevitably are guided by their equally and possibly more strict Jewish parents to pick up a violin or a piano. It’s hard to find a Jewish trombone player in the world. I think that Nathan Milstein  and Isaac Stern  and Itzak Perlman  will sort of relate to the Jewish-ness of the classical instrument (violin) that we were encouraged to play if we exhibited music.

And I do acknowledge this: certain people may be sports-motivated. Tiger Woods  exhibited a genius for golf as a child. He actually appeared on Johnny Carson ’s show as an unknown kid  who had genius in that. I wouldn’t say I had genius, but I did have a natural musical propensity. I sang Italian songs before I could speak English. You know, speak.

And how that happened was my father was an opera singer and when he sang these songs and repeated and repeated them, I would sing, [sings in falsetto in Italian] and we have a film–not a film, a recording of it somewhere in the family where I was 9 months old singing Italian songs.

So, “we gotta get this boy a violin.” I began on violin and as much as I wasn’t really into it emotionally, I have to say it was probably the greatest foundation of music to help me prepare for the career that subsequently ensued. So, I am grateful for my mother and father having not pushed, but gently coaxed, gently shoved, encouraged, “Come on, son” … “I want to quit” … “I know, just do this and I’ll get you a gift.” They blackmailed me in a positive manner. They were smart. And I played violin until I was basically 16 and then I stopped altogether.

On the bass

A: And then how did you get on to the bass?

J: Oh, well that’s right. When the Beatles  came to America, I saw the very first performance. I saw it on the Ed Sullivan show . There was a kid in our neighborhood, he came out and said, “The Beatles are here.” I’d never heard of them. He said, “They’re playing tonight.” I said, “Who are these guys? What is this?” And I watched them and wasn’t impressed.

I was 11 years old, I imagine, or 12. I can’t recall. And, you know, “What’s this?” It wasn’t Tchaikovsky . I wasn’t moved. Ironically, I would say, not terribly long later, I was not only smitten, bitten, and knocked on my backside by these guys, but when I listened to the records, I knew I had to do this. It was inevitable that music had to figure into my life, not in the symphonic manner, which was probably the career that I may have been guided toward, but by picking up an instrument.

I didn’t pick up a guitar because the bass is tuned like a violin is, except in opposite intervals. A violin from low string to high string is tuned in 5ths: G D A and E. A bass is tuned from low string to high string in 4ths: E A D and G. So, the associated names were exactly the same and my thinking is, “If I can get through the Mendelssohn violin concerto , I’ll learn this bass in two weeks.” And that was my childish egotistical arrogance.

I quickly did learn the bass, probably in ways that people didn’t really wish for me to do because I would be hired to play in bands and then get fired from bands because I didn’t groove and I didn’t know what a rhythm section thing was. It didn’t interest me as much as playing the solos on bass that Eric Clapton  played on guitar.

I played the Crossroads  solo I guess when I was 16 or 15 or something, and would play Cream  solos, Beatles melodies… I wasn’t driven toward the rhythm or the bottom of the bass, but rather toward the top. And I suppose it went hand in hand with the violin training that I had done, which is the violin is intrinsically a melodic instrument, so I put that in and didn’t quit understand. “Jamerson ? Yeah, it’s a nice bass line, but listen to–” you know… “I’m the son of the preacher man .” I think that was Jerry Cogbill–Jerome? [Sings and scats] [NOTE: it’s Tommy Cogbill ]

Now I’m excited as all get out by these bass players. Back then, I wasn’t interested.

Influences

A: You obviously don’t play music that’s like the Beatles anymore. A lot of your music is very jazz-oriented and there are some fusion releases you’ve done with a few bands. Scott Henderson , Dennis Chambers –that album is incredible. The Bruford  stuff. Can you talk about how you got into jazz and fusion and rock?

J: Yes. My initial influence was Jack Bruce . When I heard Cream, the studio records were enjoyable. The live records slayed me. When I heard those live jams, including (I might add) Ginger Baker ’s drumming… To me, Cream most affected me via Jack Bruce’s–I would call “original.” I don’t think it’s a stretch. One of a kind. Original and utterly unprecedented bass playing. He, for me, is the first virtuoso on my instrument in history.

Ginger Baker also, ironically, is a little bit maligned these days due to the “beware Mr. Baker and his rather curmudgeonly attitude.” Let me tell you: be that as it may, when you listen to those earlier Ginger Baker recordings, you will hear a drummer with an utterly original tone and an utterly original approach. His thing was so original that I was flabbergasted. Although I wanted to be a drummer, I still wanted to be Jack Bruce more than I wanted to be Ginger Baker.

But it’s really about having this opportunity. I wanted to just make a statement that this, at one time, Ginger was considered the greatest drummer in the world. Elvin Jones  and his area of music, of course, was Art Blakey , all these guys. But in rock, Ginger was it.

Okay, enough of that. So, this influenced me. Going a long way around the barn to answer your question. I got into Jack, learned about virtuosic stuff, went to Berklee  when, at the time, I felt that Berklee was entirely a school focused only on musical content. In the era that I went, we had ear training, bass lessons, harmony classes, arranging, composing, line-writing. Herb Pomeroy  line-writing, which people still state is the greatest original melodic musical writing class ever. And the school at that moment was only interested in educating in musical content with no other distractions. I learned from that and it actually put me on the path of music education that I’m on today and put me on the path of understanding music from an academic point of view.

Building a career

Again, a long way around the barn, I got out of school, I went to New York, I became a successful studio bass player and I’d go to the union, pick up my union checks for beer commercials and pantyhose commercials that I’d played bass on and all kinds of stuff, and–while you smile–the Brecker Brothers  were sitting next to me playing the horns on those same pantyhose commercials. Steve Gadd  was playing drums on them as well. So, Bobby Rosengarden –you know, the Dick Cavett  drummer. It was a slew of the crew of the greatest New York musicians. And I was in that mix because I could read music and I was considered an over-player being a young hyper kid. Psychologically, probably way out of balance at that juncture. And yet, I could play and read and do my job.

What got me into Bruford and what got me into these bands was, at that particular time, I had played with a whole lot of the musicians that were famous in the 70s. Herbie Mann , Pat Martino , I recorded with Patrick Moraz  when he was the keyboard player in Yes  when Yes was at its absolute height. I recorded and played, oh goodness, with George Benson , Dave Liebman , we had a band with Pee Wee Ellis . I was in Europe as the house bass player for Atlantic Records  hired by Herbie Mann to record and play a great deal of the artists that were featured at the Montreaux Jazz Festival  at the time.

Bruford and Van Halen

So, my pedigree was good, my thing was growing, and then Ray Gomez , who was a guitar player and a friend of Patrick Moraz, who got me on the Patrick record, recommended–or, Patrick recommended me to Bill Bruford. Wait, I gotta get this straight. Patrick mentioned to Bill Bruford  about this great guitarist, which he is, named Ray Gomez and I was playing with Ray Gomez in Carmine Appice ’s band. So, Bill came to America to check out Ray. I was the bass player and Bill ended up hiring me for his band. I played with his band, did several very-well-received records, toured quite a lot with that group, and am as grateful as can be to have had the opportunity.

Bill opened everything up for me. He is, or was because he’s retired now–I would call him a guy that had the intelligence and the spiritual wherewithall to utilize every element of his playing in an original manner. He was arguably one of the more average technical drummers around, kinda quirky and [scat drumming], you know–that thing. And yet, there was an infectiousness in it and he was utterly original in that. So, a lot of guys who, let’s say had more physical technique, weren’t as identifiable in their style approach as Bill Bruford was. And that was a very big lesson for me. That proceeded.

Allan Holdsworth  was in the group. Later I played with Allan, went to Los Angeles, and, you know, things ensued. Van Halen Eddie Van Halen  and I became friends at that time. I was invited to play in the band, an invitation which I turned down, but I think they wouldn’t have had me anyway. I don’t think David Lee Roth  felt I was of an attitude to have in that band, but nonetheless, Eddie did make me that offer and I did consider it.

For reasons I won’t go into, I didn’t accept it, except to say I would love to play with him today. We’re older gentlemen. He’s, to me, as great a musician as John Coltrane  in that Coltrane changed everything in the way that the saxophone was viewed and the manner of playing, he originated everything. So did Eddie Van Halen.

He is one of the great and unique talents that I’ve ever heard on guitar. And always felt that somebody like myself, a Billy Sheehan, someone of a more adventuresome nature, might make even Van Halen sound greater, although I do admire what his son has done and I am quite a fan of Michael Anthony having felt that he was, even still, the perfect bass player for Van Halen. No doubt about it. So, there you go, and now I’m 63.

Teaching Methods

A: Somewhere along the way, you got quite interested in teaching methodologies. You were a student, obviously, and along the way you evolved, learned technique, mastered the instrument–or, have been trying to and continuing to over the decades…

J: “Trying to” is more correctly put.

A: The better the musician, it seems, the more they “try” is what I hear about. Can you talk about what got you into teaching and what informed your teaching methodologies over the years?

J: In a nutshell, my teaching methodologies that I formed came out of my years on violin and my tenure at Berklee School of Music. At the time it was called “School of Music.” Both areas were entirely focused on musical content. Very little that I ever recall was ever referred to in terms of the word “groove,” “feel,” “heart,” “art,” “artistry,” or anything… Rather that people that learned their instrument and practiced their instrument already had enough of an inspiration and a feeling for it that the art part was sort of already taken care of.

The part that might not have been taken care of is where to put the fingers on the neck or where to paradiddle  or polyrhythm  a snare drum or play the vibes or play the guitar or the horn. This became noticeable to me when in the 80s, I noticed, at least on bass, a detour from musical content and a new paradigm began to show up, which included non-musical methodologies. “Non-musical” meaning “learning for its own sake.”

Learning music, like anything well-done, takes time and isn’t easy. Where a story began to evolve that “study with us” or “study with me” or “there’s a million ways to learn” (which there are, by the way), but ironically, there’s a million things to eat, I’m just not sure I want to eat them all. Do you follow the logic? I agree there’s a million ways to learn.

So, I began to sort of, at that time in the sort of imbalanced area that I was–I’ll get to that later. I’ve been psychologically imbalanced for many years. I grew up hard, very dysfunctional family and paid the price for it up until rather recently where there was a rather combative and not very pleasant aspect to me that I know existed, but didn’t give a hoot that it did. “You don’t like it? To hell with you.” So, I was almost deliberately supporting and constructing a rather evil personality, but not aware of what the results would be. Not outwardly, but inwardly. That I’ll discuss in a minute.

The educational thing came about where a lot of people who are popular in music started to teach and in my opinion, in my opinion, taught incorrectly in that people say they were getting better from the methods I would do a lot of clinics in those days and I’d developed a way where “Come on up! We’ll play what you wanna play and I’ll do a little critiquing” because if I tell you personally, “Anthony, you’re holding the neck too hard or you’re not representing the notes in a G major triad ” probably quite a few guys in the audience also grip the neck too hard and don’t represent notes correctly. So, what I offer to you as a demonstration usually applied to most people that were there anyway. We all share a common beginning in pretty much everything, so music seemed to be the same thing. Art is universal. To me, learning it is not.

Anyway, I got into saying that these methods “aint g’wine t’work.” They’re not gonna do you what you think that they’re gonna do you. And I took notice that a lot of people were content to follow advice and never question the advice being given because they’re admirers of bass players or guitar players or drummers who offered this advice, but who were either self-taught or not fully supportive of music itself. Having partially come from a training background, but usually abandoning it or not relying on it, philosophically going in other ways. Often what was being shared was emotionally satisfying.

If I tell you, personally, that whatever you play is great, has meaning, and you’re expressing your heart, and what you do is fine, it exists, this is how you feel… That’ll be $100. In the essence of the sharing of this philosophy, I took note that it became so popular in so many other areas of teaching, generally again from self-taught people that might not have understood the meaning of music. I can’t understand the grammatic meaning of French having never really studied it. I can Spanish because I have studied it.

So, I began to object and in a rather mean-spirited way, I began to attack and covertly and overtly slander people and it was all based on a psychological instability. I wasn’t wrong, and to this day I don’t feel that I was wrong or I am wrong about anything that I ever felt about education and about learning. I feel a generation… I feel two generations have been let down by the well-intended and kind advice from people that meant no harm and meant no collusion that “we’re gonna fake these guys out and get their money.”

“Self-taught”

People believe the things they say. What I’ve come to believe is that it’s their right and I’ve no right to criticize anymore. That’s my alert/awakening and I’m living this. But, in the terms of advice to people in the educational thing, there’s only two ways to learn that I’ve ever thought about, which is being self-taught and by learning musical content.

Self-taught includes you taking that guitar off the wall behind you and putting on a Stevie Ray Vaughan  record, listening, imitating, going out, jamming with your friends, trying a Fender amp, then going to a Marshall cabinet, now trying to a Markbass  amps, now trying Gallien Kruger , testing this, trying that, putting on these strings, pedals, playing with this drummer, that drummer… Anything that you’ve done under your own auspices, anything you’ve done under your own control is a self-taught endeavor because you’re not paying me or anybody else to teach you.

The second way I felt–and this produced, by the way, everybody. I’m a trained musician, but I’m self-taught. You’re a guitar player, right?

A: Yep.

J: And I know you’re self-taught. I know you’ve picked the guitar up. No matter what you’ve learned, I know you’ve listened and done stuff on your own. Am I right?

A: Absolutely.

J: And the reason I say it with such confidence is because everybody is! Everybody, the most trained musicians are self-taught. Jaco Pastorius , Jack Bruce, Rick Wakeman –I showed him a piece of music recently… Not recently. It was actually about 21 years ago! “The other day! No, that was 21 years ago.”

Academic learning

So, the second way is academically, which is the elements related to music that you can’t or have trouble getting or one can’t find on their own because there’s a million books, many of which I personally feel will not get you to play better. There is a manner to learn academically and I notice that in music history since the time of Bach  or before, up until the time of George Gershwin , up until Benny Goodman  and Glenn Miller  and up into the 50s and 60s that they’re training musicians, the Gary Burton s, the schooled guys, the great arrangers, the people that are–John Williams  is a trained guy.

I’m wandering here because everybody since the early 17th century and earlier have all been trained the same way. The only thing that really has changed is the music itself. They sat students down at 3 or 4 or 5 years old and a teacher or a parent said, “This is a G, this is an A, and I want you to write it like this.” And subsequently, a tenure, an apprenticeship began. Now recognize this, everybody with a little deviation–I know they’ve got the Suzuki method and they’ve got this approach and that approach–it all was based in the center of you and I sitting down with a guitar, bass, or piano and a teacher saying, “Play A B C D E.” All of it!

Gershwin learned how to write and compose in a tenement apartment . Do you follow? Beethoven  was taught, obviously, by many, many people. Louis Armstrong  had private lessons. Exhibited a thing that a teacher taught him to play, more or less, and you see the indentation on his lip. What had changed was musical content, not the manner in which to teach (for the most part).

Jaco Pastorius is a self-taught bass player. I mention him because everybody knows Jaco. Jaco learned how to arrange and compose physically and academically in a bus and in hotel rooms. A guy sat him down and said, “This is how we do it.” What was his name? Bret? Brent? Charles Brent, who passed away, I understand. So, when I got the idea that everybody learned music this way, and again there are no exceptions that I can think of–maybe one guy in Istanbul and another guy in Rotterdam–do you follow? The trained guys, they all learned the same way.

Suddenly I noticed that bass players aren’t being trained that way at all. In fact, a new paradigm was being invented and new approaches that I can now tell you my story and say things like, “Here’s an idea that worked for me. It may not work for you, but it worked for me.” And I thought about that principle and thought to myself, “That’s interesting,” because in my case, I guarantee you Anthony or anyone that’s listening, whatever worked for me, I’m guaranteeing you, is going to work for you. And that, to me–and I’m guaranteeing this. It’s not just a statement. Because I made that statement publicly and could fulfill that declaration, it occurred to me that music and education was compromised, that a feel-good endeavor–am I talking too long by the way?

A: No, the whole purpose of this website is to allow the artist to speak at length. I’d rather hear as much as you have to say and as little as I have to say.

J: I just want to make sure I’m not wandering.

A: No, please go ahead.

J: It was just that when this became–this replaced music because when I fought so hard to emphasize music in music education, I took note that some people that weren’t into it sort of went, “Well, yeah, music is good too.” This was a contribution, I suppose, because of the pressure that I’d put on that–I lament the pressure part of it. That’s the thing about this whole thing. I do feel that bass education and, again, done by well-meaning people–nobody’s evil here. Nobody. I just feel the whole system’s been compromised.

I recently heard about a record-scratching  class at Berklee and I heard about a heavy metal class in a school in Nottingham, England, that you can get a degree in. “This is heavy metal. You’ll study and play Metallica  and Black Sabbath . You’ll go on tour and you’ll get a degree.” I simplify the thing. And now record scratching and other elements of education–there’s things in bass that I think are shocking, but, to make clear: this is my feeling, people don’t have to agree with it.

I’ll share what I think and hopefully, without wishing to cause harm–I don’t want to cause harm to anybody. That’s where my whole thing is utterly changed. What I do want to do is change focus back to where I feel it has deviated from, which is deviated from the fact that musicians only get better if they learn correctly, practice correctly, and play correctly or incorrectly.

You play, you grow in that, you listen to early Clapton, which I have, and he wasn’t the guitar player that he subsequently became. Jimi Hendrix  apprenticed with Little Richard  and the Isley Brothers  playing [50s rock and roll scat]. He had his thing, it was still coming out, but since music is deviated from what I consider the true message, which is: musicians, if you want to get better, it’s not entirely easy, but so what? It’s fun! My bass is never far from me. I pick it up and I practice and I play and the endeavor to do something that I don’t know so that I can eventually become better seems a positive thing to me.

Music is hard work

There is a statement made that music, I think Victor Wooten  said this, that “academic music is proven to work, it just takes too long.” And I heard that and I thought and I remembered something that Obama once said, “Anything worth having isn’t easy.” There’s a million philosophical messages that we work for the things we love. They don’t always come easy. In my mind, “So what if music, learning it properly, takes a long time. So what?” What artist–look at the history of Van Gogh , who studied and suffered his whole life through mental illness, but eventually evolved to the master that we know today.

All musicians–I saw early Pavarotti  singing locally and developing his career and he took vocal lessons for many, many years. So what if it takes “too long?” I’m against the idea that musicians will embrace an easy way out when it’s intended that the work is not supposed to be a detriment, it’s supposed to be an enhancing thing. It builds our character. We’re working for our music, for our artform. Holy mackerel! Is that not too great or what? “I did an exercise today and I couldn’t play it. I really was terrible at it.” You know? Not literally, it’s just an example. And the answer is, “Sure! Because tomorrow it might be better.” That’s progress. That’s improvement. So what if it’s bad today? You know?

So, I’m not happy with the general all-round vision that working for our artform is an awful thing because everybody I know who is either self-taught or trained in music–and as far as I’m thinking, I’m curious–and, by the way, “self-taught” means playing, jamming, hanging… Anything that’s free. Free! You know, except buying the guitar and toys. It’s the human development of your instrument. I can’t think of a third option other than learning music or being self-taught. I don’t know if there’s a third option and yet, I’ve seen that an industry has presented a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth options. My message is: my vision is different.

A: Have you talked to Robert Fripp  by any chance about this stuff?

J: I know Robert, but I haven’t talked to him about this. Why? Is Robert in the same mindset?

A: I went to a week long guitar camp thing that he leads called the Guitar Circle and he said, “Everyone who is self-taught, raise your hand.” So, of course, I raise my hand, so do nearly everybody else in the class and he says, “What you’re effectively telling me is somebody who knew nothing about the instrument, who knew nothing about music as a craft, who knew nothing about the technicalities of playing taught you everything that you know about what you’re doing. Tell me how that’s effective.”

J: It’s exactly and precisely my same philosophy.

A: I think you two would have an interesting conversation around some of this stuff.

J: Well, it’s important to point out that my only comment here is about education. It’s not about art and the way one plays and the way one chooses to play. I was told that I am not welcome at many music schools because of the fact that I’ve lambasted more mean-spiritedly music education schools, teachers, magazines, web–I mean, I put ‘em all in and cocked my rifle. In that manner, I lament it and I’d like to talk about that in a second.

What hasn’t changed is perhaps I’m finding another way to relate a thought to people and if they don’t believe in it, of course they must go through their own way. I don’t want to cast aspersions against someone different than me–anymore! I don’t want to be to be rude to anybody. I quoted Victor, but Victor changed things for the better by opening up music to 10,000 kids. You know what I mean? Our philosophies diverge, mine with other guys diverge, but if the intrinsic need is to educate, then I imagine they’re doing a good thing, a kind thing.

I just think that in the specific end of things, I could quote several guys and offer thoughts where I feel that the message is misleading people. The problem with me is political. If I do this, I’m not so sure, especially with the harm that I’ve caused before, that it would be taken that way. So as a part of my penance, for the most part, I can only offer my thoughts and keep it as neutral and show love and respect for different people who teach differently than I do.

Love what you learn

A: Do you believe that if people were taught as historically people have been taught music, the music scene, the music industry would be wildly different? Do you think that pop music of today would be produced if a requirement was that formal training be introduced to all musicians, like there’s some sort of threshold in order to be able to release music or something?

J: Well, I imagine that the level of awareness of music would be higher, so perhaps some of the music that is going on today that, to my ear, is rather [long pause] different, that perhaps a higher awareness from people might not tolerate that kind of music and demand from artists and themselves something that isn’t supposed to be virtuosic.

People often try to find holes–I notice people will work harder to find loopholes in what I say than to try to get the general message and often they’ll say, “Well, I don’t want to be a virtuoso.” And my thing is I say, “Well, I never mentioned the word!” I simply say that the level of music–I’m a fairly good Beatle bass player just because I happen to know so much about the bass that I don’t even have to think twice about it.

I can play Beatles songs with real feeling. Check out Will Lee  and The Fab Faux . Will is a studied guy and can do this. But to answer your question, I don’t look at music education as a part of an artistic success story. I don’t look at music ed as being done in order to have a career. I look at music ed as done so that one could be a better player and therefore qualify to have a music career. Now I know it’s a subtle point of thinking, but often people will practice thinking, “Well, I’m ready for the gig,” or practice and “Maybe now I can audition for a famous band,” or whatever. My thinking is, “I wouldn’t go that way.”

I would say to everybody, “Practice because you love music and that this instrument, in my case, deserves to be learned better for its own sake! I have my bass nearby and I’m always practicing ideas and the thing is that I’ve developed a career that coincidentally occurred because I was qualified, it seems, to have one, rather than, “I’ll practice this scale and then I’ll use it tonight on a gig.”

You might be surprised to find out that scales were never meant to be used in professional music because professional music and all its artistic different parts isn’t based on scales. It’s based on the artful use of melody and rhythm and harmony that coincidentally sometimes might include a scale, but what you practice is not usable on a gig.

People erroneously have been saying, or asking, “How do I use this?” And I say, “You don’t! You don’t use this on a gig.” I’m a Spanish student and they say in Spanish, “Yo voy a la playa. (I go to the beach.) Tu vas a la playa. (You go to the beach.) Nosotros vamos a la playa. (We go to the beach.) Ellos vama los playa. (They go to the beach.)” There isn’t a Spanish-speaking person on earth that talks like that and yet I conjugated these verbs in class to learn the conjugations and eventually, the artistic element began to take place. Can I give you another example?

A: Of course!

Music as a language

J: People refer to music as a language. It’s a very popular tenet of function, belief, that music is a language because it communicates things. Okay. I took note that when we learn English, in our case–obviously other countries and other societies learn their languages by ear–it’s interesting to note that probably close to 100% of us went to school to academically develop our skill in our language.

We learn reading and writing and giving book reports, which is us standing up in front and, “I read the book A Tale of Two Cities ,” and we’re working on our speech and enunciation and use of words and it’s all an academic endeavor and we all went into academic use and learning and practice of language since we’re 1st grade or kindergarten up until 12th grade and then there’s English literature and higher forms of it in college and universities. What musicians have not done that I can see is recognize that if music is a language, why aren’t they learning it as one?

Clichés of belief

Musicians sometimes have built in to their belief systems clichés. The clichés are the things that bass players feel, “Keep the bottom,” “Gotta play a groove,” “The groove is the most important thing, more than notes,” or something of this nature, when ironically, if you don’t play the right notes, there’s nothing to groove on. So, the concept is a backward concept. A groove is a result of first using the right notes the right ways–according to the feel of the song–and hence, in the comfort of doing that, a groove ensues. A groove is a result, it’s not the principal thing.

I don’t sacrifice words to communicate with you so that I have a groove in the manner of communication. I will say to you, “I feel like eating, um… what is that word? Spaghetti! At the end of our interview, I’m going to go in and cook it.” So, what comes first is the word, so next time, I can say, “Ya know man, I gotta have me some spaghetti because I’m an Italian food freak and I ain’t kiddin’ and I’m gonna get down in the kitchen and I’m gonna be pitchin’ a nice bowl o’ s’ghetti in my face.”

Now, I’m being ridiculous, but there is a jazz development to that that the creative development is that I use words and then invent words. First comes the words. How do we speak if we don’t know the words? How does anybody communicate in time? And in time is the time of communication, the ebb and flow of it. If you want to see how hesitant you will be in the communication area of language, I would ask you to say something to me in German or Dutch where I also could not do it. Or Italian. Spanish is my language.

If we can’t speak these languages, can’t “groove” in the language, it means because we don’t know the words. That’s my thing. That’s as far as my thinking goes. So when one says, “Groove is the best,” I say, “Eventually it is. But, if you don’t know the right notes and you don’t know how to play, why try to perform something that isn’t natural for you to play?” I’ve seen guys work on groove and playing and they’re all over the place! Their time is all over the place and their notes are all over the place because they teach a lot of guys.

And I say, “Look at a tightrope walker.” You’ve got John… what’s his name ? The guy who crossed the two towers when they were up and crossed the Grand Canyon. You look at these guys. Do you ever notice that they take a couple steps backward sometimes in order to get their balance? They stop and they put a foot back and they wait and they wait and they balance and then they go forward.

Musicians are always going forward without stopping or going backwards one or two steps to see what they know to see what they don’t know. And if they did what I said, or people like me, they would change their entire sphere of playing. I could, me personally, if I were king of the music world, I could change everybody’s playing in 3 to 6 months. Easily! If they did what I said. No democracy, you know what I mean? I’m good. I could hear you and say, “Okay, Anthony, here’s what you’re going to practice today and in that way I’ll make you better.” So, that’s sort of a benefit to me. I’m sharing these thoughts. I hope it doesn’t seem too hard or too mean-spirited.

A: I’m curious. Personally, this resonates a lot with me and it’s part of the motivation behind the website itself. I see this every day in my work as a professional in the IT industry. The barrier to entry for software development is much lower than it ever has been and I know that I’m young, I’m 34, and I’m sure that there are people that have computer science degrees from 1980-some or 1990-some saying, “Oh, look at this whippersnapper. He thinks he can appreciate the barrier to entry,” but what I’m seeing as I manage software developers is completely improvised skills that were built alone with no formal instruction and I hire them and we have to train them in order to get them to do the work.

It also reminds me of religious, spiritual contexts where Catholicism as one example, you go through years and years of schooling to become a priest, but in many Protestant non-denominational Christian churches, they’re started by people with no real formal background. They just have a spiritual zeal and they develop a following and sometimes they develop a church and that turns into an institution and you have to live with, if you’re Catholic, you have to live with the informal and say, “Well, anyone can start a church now,” whereas somebody who might attend that church might say, “Look at those guys and how formal they are. I can’t believe they think this is what it takes to believe in God.” So, those are two very personal examples that it reminds me of. Is there any relation there for you?

J: Sure! The relation would be the impact I got from what you’re saying is that, well it goes back to something that I’ve come to believe greatly now is that everybody has a choice and everybody has a right to choose and everybody wishes to improve can be a “Protestant” or a “Catholic.” I’m leaning more towards Buddhism these days than having the needs for it, but again that’s my choice and the variety of choices–there’s a little bit of a danger in choosing.

Choice is often based on emotion and this is just a fact. We’ll choose a car not only on the gas mileage, but, “Man, check out how that looks!” Painting a home, the color that resonates with one. People will regard music in their manner of viewing it based on how they feel about things. “Feelings” are honest and I actually trust more my body than my mind in that my mind got me into trouble all the time. It would think that, “Well Anthony’s sitting there and asking me about this. He’s trying to trap me. And Anthony and Anthony and Anthony!” You know?

A: You sound like my wife!

J: That’s what she does?

A: No, I’m just kidding. She’s very kind.

J: “My wife. You kiddin’ me? My wife.” I’m trying to think of “my wife” jokes. Oh yeah, “I take my wife everywhere, but she finds her way home.”

A: Henny Youngman  one-liners.

Messages and cultish behaviors

J: So, the thing is I just believe there is a lost society today in musicians in that they 1. are trusting the wrong messages, 2. I feel that often they have a cult attitude. The cult attitude is that if their hero or someone that they admire or location or center or being or something presents information, if they trust it, they never question it and woe to you if you criticize or question that person or institution. Woe to you because people will attack.

This denotes to me a cult where the leader is infallible, never to be questioned. The institution, the philosophy, the book–I don’t know. Whatever it is. Don’t question it. Don’t even think that this source of information is wrong. And this is the downfall in part of music education because I have advised people in clinics, “Look, try anything because no harm will come from it, but don’t be so sure that even I, Jeff, be so sure that people are like, ‘Yeah, I like Jeff now…’”

Don’t trust everything I say as if what I’m saying is gospel. Question it. Investigate my thoughts. Don’t fall into the trap that you substitute one perfect vision of guidance of music for another. If what I say makes sense, investigate it.” Example, rock education. Again, I’m not welcome in many schools, I’m not welcome and am not appreciated by people that teach rock because I’ve said that rock education hasn’t produced the results that it’s promised or at least alluded to and the results would be learning the skill in rock to develop/have a career in rock, or even a good amateur chance at being a rather freed and expressive musician.

And I say this for the most part, not individually. I notice a lot of guys that may have been through rock education may have already been able to play, got to the schools, more or less may have done the same thing, got out, got a careeer, and feel that the school or the teacher or the book helped them. My thinking is that people–now I say this, which of course will not go down well, but it must be said–people need to check this out and find out if what I say is right or wrong.

If it’s wrong, ignore my words because I’m not saying it for evil intentions. I’m saying it to enlighten people that trust a system of learning that might not be producing what it says it should as a general system. If I’m wrong, well, I got this wisdom, 10,000 grads from this and 9,000 are in successful bands. “Berlin’s out of his mind!” I’ll accept that. “Thank you for checking out my statement and finding it wrong.” But I don’t think you will, and that’s my point.

Rock “Education”

You can list a thousand guys. There’s 2, 3 million people that have passed through rock education. I’m grabbing a number out of the air, by the way, and a thousand names are used. Take 3 zeroes off one side and take 3 zeroes off the other and you’ve got a 1 in 200,000 chance to possibly extract a career as a successful or even a decent rock musician. My question would be, “What if the statistics were the same if you studied the law? Would it be the same if you studied how to drive?” In all things vocational that I’ve noticed, there’s a real high success to the students for having invested money and time, because there’s a lot of time and a lot of money, and usually acquire careers through vocation.

In fact, in just about all areas of learning, what I’ve discovered is that rock music hasn’t fulfilled that promise and that people on the belief or again by the feeling, which I’m asking in them to question, that rock music is an entertainment (in my opinion! People don’t have to agree. It’s an entertainment. I’m very clear on this because I have a long history in which I was not so forthcoming and I want to make up for that, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to change my spot because I don’t see errors in my thinking so I’ll share it as benignly as possible. People check it out. If I’m wrong, follow your plans.).

From what I’ve seen, there’s a couple of websites, the top 100 rock bass players, top 100 jazz bass players, top 100 rock bands, top 100 you know. If you look at them, and I examined this and I barely could find anybody that claims from any of these sources that they went to a music school or went to a teacher–let’s say, maybe they did, because you know there are exceptions, or went to some source or camp or tutorship and acquired a career.

It would be an interesting thing for somebody with time on their hands to do this research and add up a thousand names and find out what area, and I’m very specific on “rock education,” “rock ensembles,” “rock lessons,” “rock music” in its varied forms. Steve Vai went to Berklee and studied music. I don’t believe he studied rock. Stu Hamm  went to Berklee and studied music. I don’t believe he studied rock. Frank Gambale  and Scott Henderson went to MI  to study with Joe Pass  and Joe Diorio . Jazz guys. I don’t believe they studied rock. That’s just the point.

If I try to support the principle for the good of our industry, for the good of the sake of musicians who really ought to be thinking more alertly and not be so quick to be sold, if rock education would change its name to rock entertainment, I wouldn’t say a word.

A: So, it’s kind of like when the Buddha says, “If you see the buddha walking to you, kill him.” You need to discover it for yourself.

J: Well, I’ll change that. If the Buddha walks to me, I’ll ask and interview him to make sure he is Buddha. If he says, “I’m Buddha,” I won’t buy it right away, so I might spend a little time to find out for myself because if he is, I’m going to acknowledge it and say, “You know what? At the beginning, I thought you weren’t, but I’m wrong.” And this is the thing about all this that I’m talking about today, it is important to investigate for yourselves.

It isn’t an 8-month tenureship at a library. You can do it in a week. Look at interviews. Look at what guys said. I just feel that rock has become such a business and such a money-maker and as long as people are willing to spend the money, why stop? I’m simply saying, “Go for the fun of it. Be a little on the alert if you feel this may help you to acquire a career because if it does, there has to be a precedent.”

Rock has been around since the late 1970s when somebody decided to transcribe Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa solos. I think Steve Vai did a whole book on that. Ironically, these transcriptions never really helped anybody to learn how to read nor play the guitar, in my opinion. One guy, two guys… It shows the genius of Steve Vai for having the ability to write it out. It doesn’t mean that a student or somebody buying it actually extracted any real benefit from it. What would have been the benefit was to put on the headphones and get into the grit and dirt and meat of listening and imitating to those Frank solos as all self-taught musicians do to improve.

What has happened is rock education has sanitized the learning experience. Rock by its nature, and transcriptions and these things, is a filthy affair. It’s an affair based in grit, dirt, sweat, PHEW. “What the hell was he playing over there? Let me listen to that again. Damn, I still can’t get that.” And in the search, 2 things happen: 1. You develop your understanding of the artist and 2. “Well if he did this by hearing it so much, I got a couple of ideas where I might do it this way.”

Hence the evolution from Robert Johnson  to Robert Cray . And the line of Cogbill and Jemmott  and who preceded them, maybe the upright guys, to the Jacos and the great R ‘n B players, the Rocco Prestia s and the subsequent great funk players, the Victor Wootens in that unique funk and groove element of his bass playing–the lineage is a self-taught progression, but the sanitized element of “This is a G chord, now turn up your amp, now turn on your sound… There you go! Now check out that sound! Now play that chord!” True! But, a whole element–it’s like taking the trace vitamins out of spinach.

You’ve taken spinach and you’ve so concised it, so condensed it, so purified it that it has the chlorophyll  in it, but vitamin A, B, and trace elements, and biotene, and kerotene, and the nicotine, and Teen Town  and all the teens is taken out of it so it’s become a sterile food item, which a lot of our foods are. Keep that in mind when you are willing to plop down a check and, for gosh sakes, if I had my way, I would like to change the whole system.

People in business aren’t happy with me, and I don’t blame them, but maybe we could replace it in two ways. 1. Maybe the people in business offer more content. Stop letting students run the show. What do they know about it? Teachers in schools and other places saying, “So what do you want to study?” I understand the philosophy in that, but students are picking their own classes and saying, “I don’t want to study this, I want to study that.” What?! They don’t do that in medical school or in the DeVry school of truck driving-lessons driving license. It’s like, “This is how it is DONE!” When people learn this way, they seem to get better.

A: Two questions come to mind. The first is: Do you believe musicians have a responsibility to their listeners or the audience? As they produce new musicians, somebody picks up–and I heard Steve Vai on the radio and said, “I want to play like that.” That happens all the time. You with the Beatles. And then secondly: Do you believe that had you not been educated the way you were, it would have even been possible for you to have the career that you have, to play the kinds of music that you’ve been on? I know that’s a really big hypothetical question, but there have to be some self-taught people without that education who are very great players, but what you are doing is so sophisticated, I’m wondering if you believe that level of sophistication could be achieved without the education.

J: The point here is this: If you choose to be self-taught, you’re within your right to do so. If you choose to study with somebody, and therefore write them a check, I suggest to make sure that what you’re paying for is what you get. And that’s the whole difference. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell.

The self-taught endeavor is fine. If anyone reviews back, I don’t criticize it. My whole thing is really, quite frankly, a financial thing. “Here’s money, fix my car. You’re going to fix it.” “Here’s money. Cook me a good meal or I won’t come back to your restaurant.” “Here’s money. I have a cold or a cut. Sew me up.” “Here’s money. I’m going to a therapist. Help me to learn about myself.” “Here’s money…” You follow what I’m saying. “I want to buy shoes that don’t fall apart.” “Here’s money. I want to learn how to navigate this instrument in musical ways that I don’t know.” And that’s all there is to it in my personal philosophy. So, your first question is what?

A: I see. That makes more sense. The first question is whether you believe musicians have a responsibility to be educated.

J: No. They don’t have a responsibility because it’s an artform and an artform is open to interpretation and choice. What I do think is that students that bought a guitar are short-changing themselves by not taking the time to learn the guitar that even a weekend golfer is taking to learn how to hit a golf ball correctly. There’s more guys on the golf course that have taken from the golf pro at the club and learning how to hold the club and learning how to position because I used to think, “What fun is it to have golf clubs and constantly hit it into the trees?” Where’s the joy? “Oh boy! I love this game!”

And the same thing occurred to me. People, who I feel are erroneously (some of them, not all of them) say, “Well, I have a guitar, but I’m not interested in really learning. I’ll do a couple of tunes and sit at home and just strum away.” And that’s fair! My suggestion is that if they just put in a few more months, they could get way beyond that and I’m curious if they went and bought a guitar or a bass or drums, wouldn’t they wish to put in the time, which is not 6 hours a day–I’ll put in 6 hours a day because it’s my career, people are expecting something from me or people like me, so I have a responsibility.

Communication and entertainment

But, if a guy’s just playing and wants to do his thing, his responsibility might be more to his own investigation. And when he starts to play, I guess the responsibility is not to play in a poor manner so that people sitting in a bar might have a modicum of entertainment because I do believe in the entertainment element. We need to be entertained. I watch television, I go to the movies, I go to music shows. Music is an entertainment. Communication and music–you know everybody communicates.

There’s a funny thing about, “You gotta communicate with people.” And I thought, “But anybody does! Anybody on the stage plays with authenticity at their level.” They’re playing and they know people are out there watching and digging it. I don’t know anybody who plays that doesn’t want to communicate. “I’m gonna play, but I don’t give a hell about you, Anthony.” What?! That doesn’t happen on a gig. We’re playing. Everybody’s a little excited or nervous or scared or jittery or “ooh, there’s a hot girl there and man, my friends are listening and, oh I hope I don’t forget that song, man.”

We are not separate from the emotion and the communicative element of music. That’s another little false cliché: people play without feeling. I have a feeling that everybody plays with feeling. Nobody plays like, “I. Have. No. Feeling. Whatsoever.” People that do this are trying to extract the notes and play with feeling. Everybody has feeling. Everybody, but the top players have less mystery of where to put their fingers. You look at a top player and they’re playing the same lines and the same music they played a long time, so it isn’t a mystery anymore.

So, all they have left is emotion. It’s the only element left in the thing because they know what to play. Look at a Stevie Ray Vaughan video and watch him play and his thing is this [bobbing his head left and right] because that’s the essence of what I wish everybody would get to in some manner. To dismiss the mystery of where to put the fingers, which is what academic music does, and get into the feeling of it because that’s the goal!

If there was a law that said, “Jeff, what would you do: play only or study only?” I’d play only and I’d tell everybody to do the same. Don’t study a lick, don’t play a note, just pick up your guitar an play. If there was a law! But since there isn’t such a law, I’ll give advice on how to get better. Hopefully it’s acceptable.

Making weird music

A: This brings me to making weird music. “Weird” is a marketing term. It’s a very vague term intentionally. What I’m going for is to encourage people to discover what is unique about them and to put that into their music instead of making something that’s already been made a hundred thousand times, do something that’s unique and interesting to you by you for yourself so that others can enjoy it. How do you believe that what you’ve been talking about here can lead to, and you’ve touched on this a little bit but I’d like to hear a little more in-depth, but how do you believe that these methods can lead to finding your own true self in the artform?

J: I think the same way that learning English in elementary school, junior high school, and high school has led us to express our feelings and thoughts with great emotion about the presidential candidates, about the state of the country, about the latest news coming out of Europe, about our feelings about our loud neighbor or whatever, our feelings about anything that we feel–and if you go on the internet, you’ll notice everybody emoting with great freedom and liberty, their feelings and the reason they do is they don’t worry about the words and they don’t worry about the grammar. That’s the way I feel can answer this whole thing.

Now, another thing, it is, to me, an incorrect order of things to suggest to people to find their own thing on their guitar right now. I’ll explain. People that find their own thing, the “weird music” that they have, the “weird” thing, generally comes from the genius or motivated guy/woman/person who hears it to do it. Most people are not so gifted and most people are not so inclined. Most people can’t tune a guitar without a tuner.

In the limitation of playing and in the limitation of understanding how a guitar works the nature of suggesting to add and function in the “weird” element, to me, seems inappropriate at this time. That the “weird” element of music, Jaco’s harmonics was weird, but it came later and it evolved after he first learned the notes because if you listen to early Jaco he was not doing those things. The “weird” playing of Hendrix, he always did that sort of thing and he was fired from bands or criticized by the groups he played with, but the real distinct Hendrix element came later.

The “weirdness”, the special thing. The special thing is the “weird” thing. The Ginger Baker drum tones, the way that he played. Jack Bruce’s bass tone, the “fart tone.” He relayed that to me one time. “Jeff, I’ve got a fart tone when playing my bass.” I said, “Yes lad, you sure have.” [said in the “worst Scottish ever.”] I would say to people, “Don’t be so desirous of being unique when people barely know what the note Ab is.” See, my statement doesn’t interrupt the artistic message.

Learn what you do

People have said something that is utterly wrong and I’ll quote it now: “I don’t learn reading and I don’t practice music because it can hurt my creativity.” Perhaps you’ve heard this statement. It is about as foolish a thing as one could say. “I don’t take cooking class because it’ll kill my creative cooking talent.” “I don’t take English lessons because it’ll interrupt how I wish to communicate my thoughts.” Do you follow? “I’m not gonna take driving classes. I see how they drive. I know how I want to navigate the streets.” “I’m a doctor. I don’t take medical classes. You’re coughing? I know how I want to treat you.” I’m being a little silly here, but you get the point.

The message is not only false, it’s destructive. It’s been destructive to young people who have believed this, that as if learning the craft of your instrument and learning the language of it in an academic way, as we’ve all learned, is a detriment to your art. The self-taught people are really the only ones who can state that their thing is entirely based on their own merits because they have no infusion of factual and, frankly, unemotional musical information. So, those people have both represented very well the self-taught ethic and how beautiful and perfect it is, and these people have also screwed things up for everybody else!

These guys always point to these guys and say, “Well, he didn’t go to school.” And in that sort of effort, like I say, I think people were sometimes (not all) seeming to work hard to find a loophole when I used to have these debates, which I’ll never have again. I would make points on Facebook and make a statement about music education and they would come back with every loophole you could imagine. It was amazing to me that I felt people were working harder to not see the logic of learning well rather than putting in the time to learn music.

This gave me an inkling as to this corner of our community of players: people that are within their right to distance themselves for their own reasons from learning. Okay, so be it. The message, I guess, in this–the final element of this–is that I wouldn’t seek the “weird” until I sought the obvious. If by having the obvious, it’s almost like before I start to build up a really strange construction of a home with weird slats and lats and roof, I’m gonna lay a real firm slab of cement first so everything doesn’t come crumbling down.

Musicians are constantly crumbling down and the way you can see it is go to Craigslist or go anywhere they’re selling secondhand guitars. There are people buying and selling guitars every single day and they’re not replacing them with new ones. Some do. You know what I mean? I’m a voice and I’m alone and I don’t mind it, I just am a guy that came out of music education as formally trained as one could possibly get since I’m 5 years old. I’m 63, so that’s 58 years in the classroom.

I just wrote David Liebman yesterday and asked him for lessons so I could learn some new ideas. I studied with Charlie Benacos , the greatest jazz instructor maybe of the 20th century. I have here my book of transcriptions of jazz piano and guitar that I review so I can learn to play better. And then I’m not out to just play virtuoso music. I want to play the blues. I want to play funk. I got a call from Tower of Power  when Rocco was ailing so that I could fill in for them, but I was on the road so I couldn’t do it.

People are contacting me not so I can play solos. I don’t want to play solos except on my records. I want to play bass and I can. And there’s nothing that I can’t do and I don’t say it from ego. There’s nothing I feel I can’t express in my English, but there’s a lot I can’t express in my Spanish. So, I’ve come to a level. Is there anything you can’t really express in English if you know your subject?

You’re not egotistical to say, “Well, no, I can tell you how I feel in my thoughts.” People can be happy if they’re conducting themselves well and learn well. So, we’re all in the same boat. There’s no difference between me, you, or anybody else, except that I learned better than most and because I did I have some thoughts that are kind of rare in this day and age. Hopefully I can share them.

End of Part 1

Check out Part 2, where we get super-deep!

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