Scott Devine – Using his Bass Superpowers for Good – Bass Musician Magazine, June 2015 Issue…
Eric: What was your first introduction to music?
Scott: When I first got started, it was in support of a friend. He came to me, I was 13, and he said, “I really want to learn guitar, but to do that, to get this guitar teacher in school, I need at least three people to take the class or the school won’t do the class. I said, “I don’t really want to learn guitar.” He pleaded with me and I said “OK”. So we had these guitar lessons from a visiting tutor. It lasted three or four weeks and I was the only one who ended up playing after that. The others decided they didn’t like it.
My parents bought me a guitar for 20 pounds, so probably 30 dollars, I struggled on with that for about another six months, maybe even a year. My parents figured it was fad and was never going to last.
My Dad worked in a factory nearly all of his life. He worked next to a guy who happened to play guitar. My Dad would pay him a package of cigarettes for each lesson. He turned out being a really inspirational teacher, he had great stories and a good teaching manner. We didn’t go over theory, he taught me how to play songs. I would go over to his place once a week and we would jam over songs. He must have seen something in me. He said to my Dad, “You know, he should really get some proper lessons. I’ve taken him about a s far as I can. He should take some classical guitar lessons, because it’ll teach him to read music that way.
This was probably the most beneficial and equally the most horrible because I really didn’t want to learn classical guitar. I wanted to play Van Halen and my dad wanted me to play Segovia. There was conflicting ideas there. The deal was that my dad would upgrade my guitar if I would take classical guitar lessons. So I did it. Again, I was really lucky. The teacher was inspirational and she really kicked my ass and pushed me. I entered into classical guitar competitions which was really very nerve wracking.
I moved out of home when I was 16. It was at this point that I met Chris May, who is the founder and owner of Overwater basses. His company had happened to move to Carlisle, where I come from, and set up shop. I was in school and a really bad student, I’d gotten in with the wrong crowd. I saw an advertisement in the paper for an apprentice luthier and this was my way out. At this point in my life I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was really confused. I enjoyed music, but the town I came from had no live bands. I turned up every day and asked him for a job. There were other guys who had just got out of university who were perfect for the job, but I just kept showing up every day and basically bullied my way in there and got the job as an apprentice. That was one of the most important things that could have happened to me. Chris May is an entrepreneur and a really great guy. He opened the door and led me to understand that being a professional musician was an actual thing. You could play at corporate events, play in the West End or tour with artists as a freelance musician. It just blew me away. While we were working, Chris would play music I’d never heard before: Weather Report and Brand X with Percy Jones, Bill Evans with Eddie Gomez on bass…. all sorts of cool music with great bass players. Whether that’s the reason or not, it led me to thinking that bass was cool and that I could do this. I can remember the very moment: I was watching this great bass player from Edinburgh as he was picking up his fretless from the shop. I said to Chris “Wow, I wish I could play like that.” He said, “You could do that, just take a bass home.” So I took home a bass and just started slapping the hell out of it, like a machine gun. Then something happened.
At lot of things in my life just happen by accident, completely by luck. A phone call came to the workshop one day. It was a bass player who was working in the pit at a musical. He had a health issue with one of his lungs and had to go in for an operation. He was looking for someone to fill in for him. Chris gave him my name. The guy came to the workshop with sheets and sheets of music. I told him I didn’t read bass clef. He left the music with me for a week with the understanding that he would come back and listen to where I was at. I took the entire week off and listened to the tapes and learned the show by working on it from morning to night. There was probably a hundred tunes to memorize. He came back and gave me the thumbs up and I did the gig. It was a month contract and I was thrown into the deep end. That experience blew my mind. This was my first professional experience working with other musicians who were making a living playing this great music. It seemed like I had been let in on this great secret. I left my job at Overwater and kept that gig for a full year.
After that contract, I had another huge stroke of luck. The guy who had given me that gig phoned me again and offered me a six month cruise in the Caribbean and then the Mediterranean. I was told, “All you need to do is audition. They’ll check that you’re ok and then you leave in two weeks.”
I went to the audition and it was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. I had no idea what to expect but I was super confident. I’d been reading the music for a year and could read bass clef pretty well. I got to the audition and the music director was super old school. There was no sugar coating, he was going to tell you exactly what he thought. He said “We’re going to be doing a set of jazz, then we’ll do 4 more sets of pop and cocktail music. “ He then asked “What standards do you know?” I said “What’s a standard?” He said “OK, don’t worry about that. Let’s do fly me to the Moon. “I’d never heard” Fly me to the Moon” in my life. He gave me a lead sheet with no notation- just chords and he said “Create me a walking bass line”. I had no idea how to play a walking bass line. I’d been listening to Jaco – I could play “Teentown”…. But that didn’t help me create a walking bass line.
This guy was freaking out. He was so angry. Then he said “OK, let’s try a Bossa.” I said what’s a Bossa? He said “a Bossa Nova”. I said “I’ve never even heard of a Bossa Nova.” He just angrier and angrier and redder and redder. The rest of the band was deadly silent.
Eric: Oh! – They were all there at your audition?
Scott: Oh, Yeah
Eric: Oh, my God….
Scott: Yeah, they were all facing me, and this really, really angry musical director was going crazy. He was ripping the music off of the music stand…it was horrendous. Anyways, it abruptly came to an end and I was told to get out. It’s the only time that’s ever happened to me in my entire life. I got my gear, put it in the car and started driving back home. I’d gone from thinking I was going to travel the world in this mysterious lifestyle to being thrown out of the audition. Just as I got home, this is before mobile telephones, the phone rang and it was the musical director. It wasn’t for an apology. He was not going to apologize. He essentially said, “We have got no other options. If we don’t go, the rest of the guys will be out of work. You are the only option.” So away I went. I had to learn to play a walking bassline before the first show in two weeks. It was the worst and the best thing that could have happened. There was no other option than to learn to play walking bass to the jazz standards.
Eric: How did you do it?
Scott: I listened to a lot of Ray Brown and I bought Ed Friedland’s books. It was the scariest moment ever, but it was worth it. On that cruise ship was where I really learned to play bass. Even though I had been playing bass for a year in that show, I didn’t really know anything about playing bass…. I knew nothing. All I was doing was playing the same lines every night, that’s not playing bass. That cruise ship really taught me how to play bass. The piano player was a standup guy, he taught me everything I needed to know about tritone substitutions, walking bass lines everything I needed to know. The guitar player was also really helpful. So, that was where I learned to be a real bass player. After that seven month contract I did a few more and even did a jazz cruise, where I played real jazz every night – that was fantastic.
Eric: So after that experience, I imagine you were ready for anything.
Scott: Yeah I went back to the UK and really started going after the freelance thing. I’m playing in shows, doing musicals. I fell into the musical director thing by accident and started organizing bands. I did some work for a division of Sony in Poland, it was really bizarre. Being musical director isn’t really as cool as it sounds. All it really means is that the bass playing is the last thing you think about. It’s all about arranging the horn parts, arranging the travel, making sure everyone is pulling their weight in the band. It’s cool, you get paid more, but it’s not as much fun as just playing bass. I really went after the freelance thing when I got back and took any gig I could. Anything from the sailor bars to stadiums, to touring Europe. I would do anything.
Eric: You’re gigging like crazy and then you started to have some health issues?
Scott: Yeah, I was in my late twenties, gigging five, six, seven nights a week – not for months at a stretch, but for years it was all I did. If I wasn’t gigging I was practicing. I would practice obsessively – all day long. I noticed that I would have some issues with my right hand to start with. It was almost like I was losing control of my index finger. That’s how it started. That really accelerated over a period of three years to where I just couldn’t play. It came on gradually. But right at the end it came on real fast and nobody could diagnose what it was. My fingers were sticking together and I was losing control of my fingers, not only when I was playing bass but when I was typing on the keyboard. It got to the point that I couldn’t play a major scale and doctors were trying to figure out what was going on. We’ve got something called the NHS system in the UK and basically it’s free medical. It’s fantastic, but there are drawbacks, you kind of get passed from pillar to post sometimes. It’s sometimes hard to go right to the top of the chain. In the end, I got fed up with the entire thing, it was really affecting my life and I paid to visit the best neurologist I could. I’d been in his office twenty seconds and he said “You’ve got Focal Dystonia.”
He asked me what I do. I said “I’m a bass player, I’m a musician.” He said Do you do anything else? You really need to find something else. This is the end of the line for you.”
That was like someone stabbing me in my heart. I can’t even put into words how upsetting that was. He added “Oh, and by the way, it’s incurable.” I flew all over Europe seeking treatments, and the more treatments I received, the worse it got. It’s neurological, so it’s got nothing to do with tendons or muscles. It has to do with the brain and how it sends electrical signals. If there is one thing I learned during this entire thing, it’s how the brain is still not really understood. We only barely scratch the surface of understanding the brain, and doctors will admit this. It’s such a complex piece of kit. When it goes wrong it’s really hard to fix.
They told me to take at least six months off, so I didn’t touch the bass for six months. I had some crazy ideas, I was going to become a luthier again. I even booked to enroll in a classical guitar making course. At this point I was at one of the specialists, even though the treatments hadn’t worked. This doctor happened to mention that one of his patients, a famous violinist, had the same issue and found that wearing latex gloves seemed to be helping. I got home, bought some latex gloves, and as you can imagine, it didn’t work. “I had seen that French musician, Etienne Mbappe, play using silk gloves. So I ordered some black silk, motor bike liner gloves, cause that’s what they were. They came in the post and I played for a while. There was definitely a difference, I could feel a difference. I played over several weeks, ten or fifteen minutes a day. I could play without anything really crazy happening, without any spasms. It still felt a little bit weird, but I could play a bit.
It was at this point that I had been searching for what to do with my life. I ended up getting on YouTube, and as any bass player would, I ended up watching other bass players. I would tell myself not to do it, because it was upsetting at the time, not being able to play. I started watching some of the lessons, but couldn’t really find any with substance. There were people showing cool riffs and licks. A guy can play a million slap notes a minute, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to get any gigs. I could play for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, so I thought maybe I could put some lessons on line that people could learn from. At this point, there was no thought about Skype lessons or “Scott’s Bass Lessons” there was really no forward thinking. I did create a website and called it “Scott’s Bass Lessons” because I thought it needed a name. (Laughs) Everybody told me it was a terrible name.
I put two or three bass lessons up on line, which I can’t watch now. I hate watching them, they’re so bad. But some really nice comments started coming in and they made me feel so good. It was amazing, like someone was giving me part of my life back. I wanted to feel like that again, so I put out some more lessons. I got more nice comments, so I advertised and started giving some Skype lessons. I started thinking, “How can I make a difference to people’s bass playing on a bigger scale?” I decided to scale back on the Skype lessons, to my wife’s utter horror, because I was earning no money pushing out free lessons. Also the gloves had really started working and I could actually play a gig. I couldn’t play six nights a week, but I could add some income playing two gigs a week and give Skype lessons. I knew nothing about online business.
Eric: This is probably around the time that I first noticed you. I stumbled upon you playing these gorgeous basslines on YouTube, but I have to admit that what caught my eye was your gloves. I think they are now an integral part of your brand.
Scott: OH, yeah, very much so. Geoff Chalmers (Scott’s online cohort), really believes the gloves are part of the reason this whole thing took off.
Eric: Now, once I saw the glove, it was really a minor part, what really drew me in was that I was listening to a fantastic player. You have a great sense of rhythm, harmony and melody and you play in the pocket. It’s actually quite rare for a bass player to exhibit all these traits. How did that come about?
Scott: That was super lucky (laughs). Seriously, that was super lucky. I just had the right influences. I’m really happy with how I sound as a bass player. I’ve got loads of work to do, but I’m happy with it. I think I sound like an amalgamation of all my influences. I was influenced by some cool guys. The melody and the soloing part comes from a guy named Skuli Sverrisson. He’s an Icelandic bass player who was living in New York when I met him. Skuli was the bass player for Allan Holdsworth. He played as much of a part at influencing me to become a bass player as Chris at Overwater giving me that bass. Skuli played a bass solo on the song “Low Levels High Stakes” that inspired me to start playing bass. This solo was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. To this day, I’ve never heard a bass solo as lyrical as that. This guy is an unsung hero, I have no idea how he’s fallen through the cracks. He was in Matt Garrison’s year at Berkeley. I was lucky enough to meet Skuli and study with him. Also guys like Gary Willis. I would travel to Barcelona once a month to study with Gary Willis. On the groove side, it was James Jamerson, Paul Jackson, Chuck Rainey, Jerry Jemott, all of them guys. I was really into all of them at the same time. I was also really interested in harmony. There was something about the harmony side that really did it for me. Just the understanding of scale substitutions and how to use them in bass lines. There was a real crossover to me between the traditional groove guys and the hyper bass players that know a lot about harmony. I really like bringing together the two styles. You can get that real traditional type of feel, but with some nice harmonies as well. Michael League is doing some cool stuff with Snarky Puppy. He’s got that old school vibe, but he’s definitely got some harmony chops well. I really love that. He’s a great player.
Eric: In listening to you play, I feel you are a very pragmatic bass player. In that what you play is not for show, you seem to provide what the song needs. I think you teach in the same style that you play, in that you provide players with what they need. The way I see it, you’re big on chord tones and you integrate patterns into your lessons. Could you talk about those two concepts?
Scott: Chord tones are so important, for all bass players even if they don’t know it. As bass players, were doing the same things as guitar players and keyboard players. They’re playing chords, our job is to play chords as well, but we do it in a linear fashion. Instead of playing the chord all at once, well we can do that but we might get sacked from the gig if we do it too much. (Laughs) What we need to do is to outline the chord, so the audience members can listen to our bass line and hear the sound of the chord just by the way we’re outlining it. Now we don’t need to play chord tones all of the time, but we really need to see the options that we have. Then we can really bring out certain elements within our lines. I think there are two foundational pillars to any bass line. The first is the rhythm, that’s the most important thing. I always used to think “What is groove?” If you listen to the beginning of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” the intro is nothing but drums and it grooves like hell. So, notes have got nothing to do with groove. What grooves is the rhythm. So rhythm is the fundamental part of what you play. And right next to it is the chord tones. I really think that is so important for people to get that into their bass playing. But unfortunately, it’s hard. Some people think the bass is easy because we don’t have to play chords like guitar players, but to outline the chords, wow, it’s tricky to do it really well.
Scott: What was the other part of your question?
Eric: Can you tell us your approach to patterns?
Scott: Yes – The bass, as well as the guitar, is a geometrically friendly instrument. On guitar, once you learn a bar chord you can move it all over and the shape stays the same. The same is true on bass, once you learn a major scale you can play the exact same thing on a different fret and it will be a different major scale. I kind of think in a way it’s playing to the instrument’s strengths. Whereas if you were playing something like a piano, the shapes are all different. Now, don’t get me wrong, a piano is great in other ways. People have to learn different shapes on the bass as well. So there are plusses and minuses to it, but I really love the geometrical fashion of how the bass is laid out. In talking to other players as well, I can remember emailing Mike Garrison and asking him about shapes and he said “Oh yeah, I need to think shapes when the tempos really starts to crank up.” I was also talking to Ed Friedland the other day and he was talking about using geometric shapes on the bass and how he uses them to teach. I also think it’s a user friendly way to teach. If I’m teaching someone a I, VI, II V – it’s a major chord, a minor chord… If instead I teach them a pattern, it can be so much simpler for people to understand. The key to learning anything and teaching anything is to make people understand that it’s achievable if you approach it in the correct way. If you approach anything and think “This is so hard” – it’s going to feel so hard!
If you approach something and think “You know what, I’m going to get this – it’s going to be easy, and you’re given a few shortcuts here and there, then you’re going to feel more positive about the entire experience and you’re going to want to learn more and go down that route. I use a lot of analogies when teaching, I think that’s really important as well. Especially when teaching more complex stuff.
Eric: Let’s talk about your web presence. There are a lot of different choices out there on the internet and it’s become an extremely competitive environment. You’ve managed to gather this really loyal group of followers. To what do you attribute this success?
Eric: How so?
Scott: Consistency and hard work. I’ve put out a lesson every week at least, for the past two years. Sometimes two lessons a week. It took me a while to get up to that. I can remember when I was doing a lesson a month and thinking “Maybe I should do two lessons a month.” So it was getting use to the workload. Now I’m doing at least a lesson every week and on top of that I’m creating courses for the academy, managing a team of eight people, and getting guys like Anthony Wellington, Ed Friedland, Steve Lawson, Todd Johnson – all these guys in to do live seminars. So, back to the original question, I think just stubbornness and consistency. I think if you’re consistent at anything, you can be successful. I’ve met some guys that were really talented at whatever they did and just weren’t consistent and kind of fell by the wayside. And equally, I’ve met guys who haven’t been super talented, but man have been motivated and if there was a mountain in their way – they would push through it, they would dig through it, dig under it, go around it – whatever it took, they would get through to the other side. I think there’s a huge, huge lesson to be learned in that. I have learned lessons from watching people like that who haven’t got everything on their side but they just pushed super hard. Now, obviously it helps that I’m pretty good at teaching. It might also help that I’m English – a few people have said that because 80% of my audience is in the states – which is crazy because most people assume that because I’m English that most of my audience is within the UK. The rest is generally in Europe and a tiny percentage is in the UK.
Eric: You get all this fantastic players to guest on your website, how did that come about?
Scott: I created the academy and I was doing the step by step courses. We had the academy show and all this cool stuff going on and the one thing that just really bugged me is that it was just me and I thought “People need to hear the same stuff from different people. They can’t just hear it from me. I’m just one guy with one opinion, I want them to hear different takes on the same stuff. I want them to hear one guy say “You know what, geometrical stuff doesn’t work for me and I use this.” I wanted to give people the chance to hear other opinions about the same topics. I’ll hear something from one guy and not really know what he’s talking about and then I’ll hear it from somebody else in a slightly different way and then really understand it. I really wanted to bring that element into the academy. The second reason is because I saw all of these bass educators out there, guys like Ed Friedland, Danny Mo Morris, Anthony Wellington, Steve Lawson, all these guys. I can remember listening to them and thinking “Wow, I’ve got this huge audience and they are so good at what they do. I need to connect with them. Just out of my love for education, I really need to do this. That really was the driving factor. I played around with this idea for six months and one day thought that live seminars might work. Now bear in mind, I didn’t know any of these guys. I just sent emails out and said this was what I was doing, would you like to be a part of this? And they all said yeah!
Eric: So these were cold calls?
Scott: Totally. It was amazing. I can’t even believe how this happened. When I was a kid, if I could have learned from all these guys it would have been a complete game changer. I just wanted to create somewhere where you can learn from the best people in the world.
Eric: Can you tell us about the virtual campus at Scott’s Bass Lessons and some of the other things you have going on at the academy?
Scott: There are a few core elements and some fringe stuff as well. The core elements are the course library, with step by step courses. Some of these course are over ten hours long. These are focused around core elements like scales and arpeggios, understanding harmony, a big beginner’s course, playing chords on the bass, all these core elements. We’re also in the process of building pathways that lead off of the core elements. It will have a slap bass route, a soloing route, and all these different routes. I’m aiming big with the courses. Right now there is something like forty or fifty hours of courses. The next big element is the live seminars with the guys. The weekly seminars with guys like Ed Friedland, Todd Johnson and Steve Lawson, Zoltan Dekany and Joe Hubbard. The campus is now a huge part of the academy as well. As of last week, we’ve had over 10,000 people go through the academy. I think 92% of them are still members and have renewed. I think it’s fair to say it’s the biggest online bass educational platform, which is just crazy…because I’m at the helm of it (laughs). We’ve had Danny Mo Morris put a course into the course library and other tutors are going to add course too. Another really cool feature that’s coming is the play-along library. I really thought it would benefit members if we had an internal play-along library of tracks, not just MP3’s but videos of soul, jazz, funk, rock, blues. It will also include some videos of me playing along with the music. That’s coming soon. I also do a weekly student focus video. Every week a student can submit a video of their own playing and I will get back to them directly. Geoff and I also do a biweekly live seminar called the Bass Hang. That’s where people can ask questions directly.
Eric: Before I let you go, I wanted to talk about the videos you’ve released on your own performances and compositions. Any new developments with this project?
Scott: A few new things. I’ve been working on a trio and a quartet. These are being push out a bit because it’s tough time wise when you’re running the academy and SBL. I also think it’s important for me personally, so I am working with a trio and quartet. The material will be more groove based.
Eric: Any shout outs?
Eric: Ha! I want to thank you for taking the time from your obviously hectic life to talk to readers at Bass Musician Magazine.