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From Amateur to Pro: A Discussion with Rufus Philpot

Rufus in Rye

Rufus Philpot (photo by Greg Heath)

Perhaps best known as the bassist with killer acid jazz and fusion chops, Rufus Philpot has developed a remarkable career as a well-respected musician and educator.

His work with such top groups as Down to the Bone, the Virgil Donati Group and Planet X (from 2004-09), the Mitch Forman Group, the Scott Henderson Nomad Trio, and the CPT Trio (with Kirk Covington from Tribal Tech), built Philpot’s reputation for melodic, groove-driven, bass lines as well as his ability to burn up the fretboard with intricate and musical solos.

From the start of his career in London, Philpot has always had one overarching goal in mind: To work with the musicians who inspire him. That desire took him to New York City in 1999 and later to Los Angeles in 2004.

He also has a passion for sharing the hard-won knowledge he has learned over the years. Considered a world-class educator, he teaches regular masterclasses at The Musicians Institute in Hollywood and the Los Angeles Music Academy. He has taught master classes in Australia, England, and Sweden and was also the youngest faculty member at the Bass Collective in New York City from 2001-2004. He currently teaches private students in Los Angeles and internationally through Skype.

He is an endorsed artist for Xotic Basses, TC Electronics Effects, Gallien-Krueger Amplification, La Bella Strings, Pedalsnake, IK Multimedia, and was with Ibanez from 2003 to 2010.

Bass Musician Magazine: Based on your experience as a working musician, what are the one or two musical skills you see that are consistently lacking in bassists who trying to make the transition from playing at home to gigging for pay?

Rufus Philpot: Because of the social media explosion, it’s pretty easy to get impressed with a lot of superficial aspects of bass playing. I think the actual musical component, however, can end up taking second place.

For example, I meet a lot of younger students who can play with a certain amount of speed, but they’re not playing anything musical. If they’re not careful, they can fall into trap of flashy technique overshadowing, or replacing, substance. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself playing something bad — just a bit quicker than the next guy.

The concept I like to get across with my students is that technique is always driven by the musical idea. If your approach is the other way around, where you let technique be the main focus of your music, it’s going to be a failure. Your goal should be to have good musical ideas and to be able to execute them at whatever tempo the music requires.

I was fortunate to have grown up in a time where we didn’t have the technology available to slow down music. If I wanted to play along to a Jeff Berlin song, I had to play it at Jeff Berlin’s speed. I had to learn each song bar by bar. I wore out a lot of Sony Walkman tape players as I tried to learn those parts. But as a result of that learning process, the music developed my technique and speed. Not the other way around like we see today.

My facility on the bass comes from transcribing legends like Anthony Jackson, John Patitucci, and Eddie Gomez. My dexterity comes from learning how to play a Pat Metheny guitar solo on the bass. I never played fast for the sake of playing fast. I had to play fast because I wanted to play along with the record.

I’m not saying technique is not important. The general level of technique over the past several years has gone through the roof. Yet some of the stuff I see on YouTube that is hyped as virtuosic bass playing comes across a really nothing more than a fingering exercise. It’s barely musical. It make one wonder if some of those players could walk a swinging melodic line through a jazz blues You know, the work that bassists actually get paid to do.

I think part of this has come about because we live in a hyper-accelerated time. Social media and on-the-go technology enables us to see anything at any time.

It is vitally important for musicians to make sure they don’t limit their musical interactions and experiences to just social media. Instead, there should be a lot, and I mean a lot, of playing with other musicians.

For example, I spent five years with Virgil Donati’s (Planet X, Allan Holdsworth) band. My main priority was to keep solid time. Only after I met that requirement, could I focus on playing all of the crazy unison stuff. Far down the list of my job requirements was my ability to solo.

And with Down to the Bone, it’s simple acid jazz funk 95 percent of the show. The only extra spice I throw in is some trading lines between me and the horn players.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of letting the music dictate your work as a bassist.

Rufus Philpot’s Trio B.A.D.

For those who aspire to be professional bassists, I would strongly suggest having solid reading skills. I’ve noticed that seems to be missing these days with some folks shying away from developing that skill.

In England, there’s a tradition of reading due to the theater work. When you would sub on a jazz and fusion scene in London, most of the songs were charted out. After a while, you don’t even practice the charts. You’re just good enough to sight read them. You might take 20 minutes to talk through the chart before the gig, but you’re still reading without much, if any, prep time.

When I moved from London to New York, I found the scene there was a 50-50 mixture of reading and learning by ear. The first time I played with Randy Brecker was with his wife’s band in a tiny club. Randy called “Some Skunk Funk”– which is not the easiest tune to read on the spot — and we did it. I was able to not only survive, but thrive, on that gig because of my reading chops. And as often happens in our world, that gig led to other gigs. All because I could read.

On the flip side of that, I’ve been in several situations over the last couple of years where the band is rehearsing material I would expect people to be able to sight read. It can be time consuming to go over things which you would often expect guys to be able to just read on the gig itself.

I don’t think reading has ever stopped being important. I just noticed sometimes it can get glossed over. If your reading skills need work, the best practice I have ever found is to get yourself in a big band. Horn players read their asses off, and it will raise your reading chops tremendously.

Having a good teacher is also a tremendous help. But you have to have the right teacher. If your teacher doesn’t read very well, he’s not going to push you to read. If you come in with a chart you need help with, he’s going to look like an idiot when he can’t help. As a result, he will deflect the importance of learning how to read music when he works with you so be wary of that when you go looking for teachers.

BMM: Along a similar line, what about personal or business skills that bassists should have but many don’t bother developing?

Philpot: I want come back to social media for a minute. What people have now is the ability to use social media to promote and connect to an audience. That is an amazing tool and the younger generation is great at that. My generation, however, is still playing catch up. I definitely believe you need to be savvy in that technological promotion arena.

Aside from technology, there are also more traditional issues that are keeping musicians from succeeding or derailing otherwise successful careers. Probably the biggest one I’ve seen is a lack of common sense. You have to be efficient with your money and prioritize your spending.

Let me give you an example: A friend of mine was going through some tough financial times and was having difficulty paying his musicians. We were packing up after a gig one night and I look over to see this guy — who was filing for bankruptcy by the way — and he’s driving a brand new SUV. His car payment was more than my apartment rent! It simply made no sense and created ill will among those he said he couldn’t afford to pay.

Another consideration is your health. It’s business in a different way than you’re asking, but I consider our bodies to be important business. And one I often see musicians neglect.

Most musicians don’t lead the healthiest of lives. We often perform and eat late at night where you often don’t have the best food options. That lifestyle, if you’re not careful, is not good for you in the long run. If you haven’t been paying attention to your body by the time you hit 50, it’s going to be harder to rectify the damages.

Take care of your money and your body. You could pay $50 a month or more for a gym membership. Or you could buy an acceptable mountain bike for the same money. The bike will get you outside and into nature. I’ve become an avid mountain biker and have experience tremendous mental and physical benefits that have positively affected my life and my musicianship. That’s just one of many different active pursuits that is an inexpensive way to keep your body and bank account fit.

BMM: When it comes to gigs, there seems to be two schools of thought: Take every gig you can to build your experience and network; or be very selective and cultivate your music credentials and reputation. What are your thoughts on building a successful gigging resume?

Philpot: Being selective about gigs can be tied back to being smart with your finances. If you have a certain amount of financial freedom, you may have the option to take the gigs you want and turn away those you don’t like.

You also have to consider the market and who is paying you to perform. Each scene has its own criteria and standards. Do you have the right skill? The right look? The right gear?

Pop musicians, for example, will often pick a band based on playing ability and a certain look. Sometimes it’s more about the look than it is the musicianship. You simply have to know the scene you want to play in and see where you fit.

Another challenge is balancing the market demands with what brings you joy. While you may work more if you can effectively switch between pop, soul, R&B and a jazz, you may burn out because you’re not playing the music that you enjoy. You have to be yourself…which may not make you right for every gig! However, and this is important: With the gigs you do choose, play with utmost conviction.

Last year, I played several different types of gigs back-to-back. I played a New Year’s Eve gig with a bunch of musicians (vocalists) from shows like the Voice/Idol and Belinda Carlisle. I knew the right stuff to play and I didn’t use it as a showcase for my chops and an excuse to overplay. I then played a jazz quartet where I could stretch out a bit. And after that, I played another gig in an entirely different genre. Even though those were all different types of gigs, I poured my heart and soul into each one.

I’ve played in 30 countries for almost 30 years and I’ve never been totally comfortable being a jack of all trades. I look at my life now and decide where the balance is between taking gigs purely for money versus spending my time with music I enjoy.

After playing for a couple decades, you develop a radar for which gigs to take. I almost know within the first 20 seconds of someone calling if I’m going to do the gig. It’s the little things like how they describe the gig, the other musicians involved, and even how they got my number and talk about my abilities without having met me. By the time those first 20 seconds are up, I already know how the gig is going to be.

I’m comfortable with my decision saying what I need to do that gig. Now, if it’s a project I want to do, the money is less important because artistically I’m going to get a lot out of it. One local project that fits that bill for me is working with drummer Joey Heredia and an outstanding Los Angeles-based flamenco guitar player. This music is fun and it is also gives me a chance to utilize my skills in reading, sound, dynamics, and soloing. Plus I can draw on the musical influences I assimilated 25 years ago! These are the gigs that remind me why I got into music.

Even though being true to your musical identity is a big part of the equation, it is not the only part. I still will make sure I’m covered financially for 98 percent of the gigs I take. That way, it feels acceptable. And that comes from the experience of years of getting burned!

My advice is to watch out for the guys who want you to do a gig for free, or on the cheap. They promise you they’ll pay later when they have more money. They won’t.

When those guys finally get a bigger budget, who will they call? Not you.

People will always go with the best they can afford. When they have more money, they’ll call the musicians they wanted in the first place because they can afford them now. You have to understand how to price yourself.

More important though, align yourself with the music and musicians who really speak to you. It has to be artistically driven. The money will follow that.

Using my life as an example, I didn’t move to New York for the money. I moved there to be surround myself with the music and musicians I admired. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I’d rather be doing something else for money as long as I can play the music I enjoy.

When you’re younger, you’ll naturally play music to make money as well as enjoyment. But as you get older, unless you want to become miserable and jaded, you play with musicians you really like and music you really love. The money is the last piece in the puzzle.

BMM: Where does jazz come into play for a working musician? Is it still critical to learn?

Philpot: This is a thorny topic. The ability to play jazz ties into musical choices made from knowledge versus an instinctive, ear-based approach. I really think it depends on what you want as a musician.

Look at bassists like Mick Karn and Bruce Thomas. They were two incredibly original voices on the instrument and neither played much, if any, jazz. However, they played in one narrow idiom and created incredible music.

If you want to be a player who is not going to be playing in just one band or confined to just one genre, then I believe a jazz background is beneficial. It’s like being well read in literature. It makes you a better speaker and gives you more command of the language.

Photo by Roland Garcia

Photo by Roland Garcia

It also depends on how you learn jazz. If your teacher thought jazz stopped after Charlie Parker, then that’s not cool. What you want is a wide spectrum of what jazz is. There’s no harm starting with Charlie Parker and then looking at Michael Brecker, Jaco, and so forth.

With my students, I don’t suggest they necessarily study other bass players. They need to learn harmony from piano players. What I learned from pianists was material you could study for 20 years. You have to be able to relate the jazz you’re learning to what you’re playing.

A great example is the track “Quantum” from Planet X. I moved that bass line outside the harmony. That was almost directly traced back to transcribing guys like Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker and how they played with the harmony in their music.

Jazz is great, but you need to study it broadly. You also have to use your jazz knowledge in context.

Here’s another example: I had just wrapped up a gig with Virgil Donati and this well-known bassist came up to me and said, “You’re like an R&B guy but with all of that jazz shit put together!”

My reply?

“Exactly!”

Even though I’m mostly known as a jazz-fusion guy, I’m really not. I try and imagine how my influences like Anthony Jackson, Rocco Prestia, or James Jamerson would play progressive rock metal. I try and think how I am going to make this groove in 11/16 sound fat and musical, not mathematical.

So it goes back to my earlier comments about focusing your studies on learning music instead of technique. You also have to be careful on who you’re learning from.

To me, getting your education online can be a potential minefield. There are a lot of people teaching music on the Internet no performance or recording experience. Their main skill seems to be an ability to maximize Google search results to boost their YouTube hits on how to play slap bass. They’re attempting to teach people with so called “hot tips” and shortcuts. Once you scratch the surface of their lessons, you quickly find no substance.

Students today are overwhelmed with education options and it’s easy to get bedazzled by flashy techniques that do nothing for your abilities to get hired. More than ever, I think it is crucial to find a teacher who has a solid performance background as well as one in music education. We’ve all run into incredible bassists who have no skill in conveying their knowledge to anyone else. They’re fantastic performers but lousy teacher. Real world playing experience and the ability to teach should go hand-in-hand in a teacher.

If you see an online “teacher” – or any teacher for that matter – espousing how it’s not important to know jazz theory, watch out. It can often be because they don’t know anything about that subject.

If some of these online teachers were flight instructors and you were taking lessons on how to fly a helicopter, you’d be in trouble. According to them, all you need to do is wiggle the controls and have fun with it. Push a few pedals. Move the joystick around. Just let the gravity flow through you. Don’t worry about what the dials mean or what the controls do.

Good luck surviving the landing.

Rufus Philpot’s Master Class at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California.

So do your own homework. Transcribe some sax solos, study with a great teacher, and check out some good theory texts (ones that deal with jazz theory ideally). There’s a lot to be said for transcribing bass parts and solos from recordings and actually writing them out. Your transcribing work sinks in deep. Those influences will subconsciously find a way into your playing and will provide a form of currency that helps you connect with other musicians.

The first time I played with Kirk Covington at the Baked Potato he came up to me after the gig and said, “Yeah…you get it.”

The reason he said this is because we had a shared musical connection, even though we had never played with one another before. Our shared love of Tower of Power, Weather Report, The Headhunters, and others, was our bond. It gave us an awareness of what the other was doing and that let me “get it.”

That being said, studying with a qualified teacher will dramatically increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your musical education. My students come to me from all backgrounds. Whether they’re novices or touring pros, I make sure each is taught the solid foundations of harmony, technique, and the art of constructing effective bass lines…and if they so desire, to also learn the art of soloing vocabulary.

A fantastic book I recommend to all of my students is Chord Studies for Electric Bass. It is a gimmick-free book full of actual musical examples exploring chromaticism and approach notes over all chords types. Jeff Berlin recommended that book to me when I was 20 years old. It was called Chord Studies for Trombone back then, but it has stood the test of time as an incredible resource.

While it is important to play music you enjoy, I encourage you not to just play it. Study it. Know its history. If you love funk and R&B, don’t start with D’Angelo…as amazing as he his. He didn’t come out of nowhere. Go back in time to the artists who influenced him. Listen to Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, or Bill Withers.

BMM: Any parting advice you’d like to give to our aspiring professional bassist?

Philpot: Follow your path. Heed advice, but consider who it comes from and where they have travelled on their musical path, as your musical dreams should be unique. On a practical note, find a good teacher to give you a solid musical foundation on which to build whatever your imagination presents to you.

To study with Rufus, you can start with his 55-minute instructional video or contact him for Skype lessons at rufusphilpot.com/contact/.

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