From Amateur to Pro: A Discussion with Derek Jones
The third featured artist in this series, “From Amateur to Pro” is bassist Derek Jones. Over the years, he has performed with such notable musicians as Bela Fleck, The Pete Escovedo Orchestra, Jeff Sipe, Orestes Vilato, Dori Caymmi, Crystal Gayle, and Kai Eckhardt. Derek has also performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with Conan O’Brien, CMT Live, as well as the 2001 & 2002 CMA Awards.
Originally from Vallejo, Calif., he started gigging as a teenager in 1986 and moved to Nashville in 1999 where he played with Nickel Creek, Jeff Coffin, and Jerry Douglas.
In 2004, he moved to Las Vegas to play bass and double bass in the Cirque du Soleil production of “KA” at the MGM Grand. You can catch a behind-the-scenes look at Derek at work in the October 2010 issue of Bass Musician Magazine.
Derek is an endorsing artist for Carvin’s SB-5000 (fretted and fretless) and proudly uses Genz Benz amps, Elixir strings, Eminence Bass, iGig cases, and Jim Dunlop effects.
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?
Jones: As far as musical skills go, I would say some of the newer players I’m seeing are lacking an overall musicality. We’ve all heard that music is a language, right? Let’s say you know all of your words in English, Spanish, Russian, or whatever language you speak. You are dialed in on your vocabulary and can conjugate verbs faster than anyone in your community. Yet, you don’t know how to inflect emotions or be articulate in your phrasing. As a result, your words are less impactful. When you are learning a new language, you learn nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and how to conjugate verbs. However, you really don’t communicate with anyone until you start conversing with them. Music is no different.
One way to fix that is through experience and it’s the one thing you can start doing right away. Practice your techniques and learn how to play your instrument at home, but get out of the house and play with people who are more experienced than you.
As a bass player, getting used to playing with other musicians is critical. You can spend all day working on scales, modes, and harmonic concepts and all that, but you need to learn how to communicate with an audience. That is what music is all about. If you can’t communicate your thoughts in a way that other people can understand them, then it’s kind of meaningless.
I’ll give you an example from my life on how I went from shedding in my room to gigging for money. When I was 14, I picked up the guitar and started jamming to MTV with my friends. We tried to learn all of these cool guitar licks and were so proud of our accomplishments, even if we figured out only one note!
That experience gave me the confidence to join the high school jazz band the following year. I wasn’t a great reader but I took the music home and worked my butt off and eventually became a better reader. I improved to the point where I was enjoying the musical relationship I had with the other 20 kids in the band.
Soon, that jazz band experience lead to an opportunity to play with a bunch of older cats in the Generation Gap Big Band.
That feeling of grooving with others through music got me hooked. We were communicating with each other and the audience. Whether I was trying to jam to Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden with my friends, or playing Glenn Miller-era oldies at the Moose Lodge, the music was no longer about me. It was about the music we made together. That was an addicting feeling and I didn’t want to play in my room anymore. I wanted to get out and get together with other musicians.
I think getting that experience is more difficult for the younger musicians today. With the advent of YouTube, I see a lot of these young kids playing fantastic solos. And so what? That’s not going to get you hired by non bass players. Think about that for a minute. Most people you work with are not going to be bass players. You have to bring a musicality that people want to be around.
Do your homework at home but get out and play. That will give you experience and improve your musicality faster than anything else.
BMM: Along a similar line, what about personal or business skills that bassists should have but many don’t bother developing?
Jones: Now that you have all of these skills and learned all of these tunes, how do you sell that to someone else? Salesmanship.
How do you become a commodity that people want to pay their hard-earned money for to hear you play? Salesmanship.
When I first started to make a go of it as a professional bassist, I thought because I was a decent player I would automatically get work. I was wrong.
Take some business classes and find out how to market yourself. If you want to make a living at this you have to know how to run a business. Who is your competition? What is expected of you? Don’t hide yourself in a bubble and not know what other bass players are doing. You have to be in your community and be a vital part of that community.
Look at the bassists who have risen above and figure out how they got there.
Also, take a look at yourself from the perspective of the person who will hire you. Again, that’s rarely going to be another bassist who was blown away by your YouTube solo. You have to look at what traits people want to have for their gig.
Another important consideration is your personality. Are you enjoyable to be around? That’s called “bus chops.” Who do you want to be with 22 hours a day on a tour bus? You don’t want to be with a jerk, so don’t be that jerk.
You also want to be around musicians who have a strong identity on who they are as artists. They’re going to bring it to the table every day. As bass players we have to sound good, but it’s more important that we are recognized for making everyone else sound better.
I’ve found the key to accomplishing a lot of this is by surrounding yourself with people who are better than you. And I mean better to the point that you’re wondering why you’re even there. That keeps you humble and searching. Surround yourself with people who inspire you.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky for many people, including me. How do you find an appropriate balance between pleasing everyone and pleasing yourself. Thelonius Monk said, “A genius is the one most like himself.”
Growing up, I wanted to be everyone’s bass player. I figured if I could do that, I would get a lot of work. As a result, over the years I kind of lost who I was. I lost the joy of playing music. I forgot what made me want to play when I first started. When you’re playing music as a professional and music is providing a living for you and your family, it’s easy to lose that passion and get lost.
I’m 42 now with a great family and an amazing new baby and I’m finally starting to find my musical soul again. What I’m finding is that I can’t thrive as everyone’s bass player. Pleasing everyone else will only take you so far. I can thrive, however, as Derek Jones.
There’s only one Nathan East. There’s only one John Patitucci. There’s only one Edgar Meyer. Learn what they did and the path they followed. Be inspired by them and learn from them. But do not copy them.
There’s only one you. Be your own musical inspiration.
On a more practical note, I’d like to add, it’s really the simple things that will keep you working beyond your first gig:
Be over prepared.
Show up early.
Don’t get cocky.
People are going to remember more when you mess up than when you get it right.
It takes longer to develop a good reputation and only an instant to create a bad one.
Give everything you’ve got on every single gig.
BMM: Speaking of gigs, there seem 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?
Jones: In the beginning, you should take everything you can get. Over time, you will earn the right to be selective. However, you will probably think you earned the right before you do.
I moved from the Bay area to Nashville when I was 30. I quickly went from having a good rep in San Francisco to no rep in Nashville. No one in Nashville cared what I did in San Francisco. They only cared about what I was doing right now. And at that time, I was doing nothing!
I thought I would be doing pretty good within six months of my move. I was wrong. The Nashville community pretty much told me to take a number and get in line. So I did. And I went back to taking every gig I could take.
That move was a big lesson and a big shock to my ego.
I had to build my reputation in Nashville from the ground up. I eventually did and was able to be selective again about what gigs I would take. But, it’s scary to say no to a gig when you’re trying to move up.
I would caution people to be careful of their egos. If you have a hang up with certain gigs or playing with certain people, really look and see if the problem is with you. Don’t let your ego take over. At the same time, if you don’t want to take a gig because it’s not right for you, then don’t take it.
Also, I find it’s better to get a part time job to cover your expenses than take really horrible gigs for money. Keep honing your craft after work and wait for the gigs that you want to do.
There are no absolutes. As you become more professional, you need to market yourself and make a living. But you have to do it so when you go to bed at night, you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished that day.
BMM: Where does jazz come in to play for a working musician? Is it still critical to learn?
Jones: Knowledge is knowledge. Everything you learn adds to your self and your humanity and experience in life. Jazz is a form of music. It is not any less valid or more valid than any other musical genre. It’s part of the musical language. What you learn in jazz can be used in anything. Duke Ellington said there’s only two forms of music: good and bad.
Jazz is very improvisational language. You have to dig deep in yourself. It’s 10 percent your own ideas and 90 percent reacting to everyone else.
Studying jazz makes you a better musician. Jazz brings an intensity and focus to what you do. It sharpens your attention to detail. When you’re studying jazz, you learn about other forms of music.
More important than genre, however, is that being a better bassist is really about listening. You have to listen to many, many forms of music. Go to YouTube and get on the page for different countries like Bulgaria and Greece. See what music is popular there. If you’re not listening to music, you’re not going to leave your bedroom.
BMM: Any parting advice you’d like to give to our aspiring professional bassist?
Jones: First of all, be able to play. You do have to have a certain amount of technique and ability.
Second, get out there and play with everybody. Don’t just hunker down in your room and make YouTube videos. Go out into your community and be a part of it. Find out who the bass players and drummers are in your area and go listen and meet them. Don’t just talk to the bassists. Meet the drummers, sax players and piano players and find out what they’re looking for when they want a bassist. You’ll be amazed at how many of these people are really cool. They may give you one nugget of information that may end up being a paradigm shift in your life.
Don’t limit yourself to “I’m just going to be an ‘insert-style-here’ bass player.” You never know. I didn’t figure on working with Cirque du Soleil and here I’ve been for the past seven years.
You can’t have a right place or a right time unless you are out there playing. If there’s an open door, go in.
The more mistakes you’ll make, the faster you’ll learn. Figure out what you need to learn each time you fall down.
Realize that you are never at the top. There’s always more to learn. Always.
Also, don’t surround yourself with negative people. Throughout the history of music, people have always said, “It’s hard out there.” It’s always been hard to make a living as a musician. There are no good old days. Don’t listen to those people.
If there’s a desire in your heart, it’s there for a reason. Don’t deny it and don’t belittle it. Let it grow.
The fact that you can put your finger down on a metal string and press it against of piece of wood and have that resonate with someone else’s sound, and then communicate with an audience who aren’t musicians and who don’t care how you do it, then man, you’re doing it. You’re making music.
I’ll leave everyone with this thought: You are never ready. You don’t prepare. You begin. If you try to prepare for something, you are going to be preparing for a long time. Just begin!