Interview with Regi "The Teacha" Wooten

Posted on January 30, 2011

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My motives in doing these interviews is somewhat selfish, I want to touch a bit of greatness, and bring it to you as well. That is exactly what I was able to do in speaking with Mr. Regi Wooten.  An incredibly innovative and talented player as well as thoughtful man. I found the same freedom and inspiration in his thinking as I hear in his playing.  I can see now why they call him “The Teacha”! He’s played shows in every venue imaginable. The eldest of the five Regi started playing and teaching at a very young age. Among Regi’s first students were his brothers, Victor (internationally acclaimed bassist with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and The Victor Wooten Band) and Joseph Wooten (Steve Miller Band). Join me for a look at his musical history, his thoughts on spirituality and music, his philosophy of music education and what it feels like to play in front of 50,000 people at once.

JS-Can you tell me a little about your history, growing up and when you started playing and teaching?

Regi-My dad was in the military. He was in the Army first and then the Airforce. He was stationed in Hawaii, we lived all over the United States but we lived in Hawaii when I was in the 5th grade. I always wanted to play music but they couldn’t really afford any instruments. In Hawaii they made everyone take ukulele becuase of their culture. So I was happy because I finally had an instrument, a real instrument. Before that I just used to make instruments out of anything.

My brother Victor who plays bass with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, he was 2 when I started teaching him. My brother Joseph [keyboard player with The Steve Miller Band] was 5 when I started teaching him.

JS-How old were you at the time?

Regi-I guess I was about 9 or so, 5th grade.

JS-That’s when you started your first band with them?

Regi-Yeah and we started playing immediately, like house parties and stuff, Victor was 2. There’s like videos and stuff of him playing.

We were in Hawaii for 2 1/2 years then we went to California. Started playing miltary basses, officers clubs, a lot of recreation centers and we played the colleges also. It was at one of the colleges that a producer for an old R&B act [Curtis Mayfield] discovered us. So that was one of my first major gigs.

We were in California for 5 1/2 years and then we went to Virginia. Stayed there for a long time, playing and touring, record label things and stuff like that. Then we were signed to Arista Records. I was kind of like the leader of the band for a long time.

I always played guitar, I could play every instrument. In 6th grade band, I started playing trumpet, french horn and in jazz band bass guitar. I learned how to read and write, score.

JS-I love all your different techniques. When did you start exploring and discovering them?

Regi-I actually started early because Victor had his bass and we didn’t have another bass so I had to figure out how to do the bass stuff on the guitar……. I had to figure out how to do the keyboard stuff on the guitar. So I was playing all kinds of weird things. I used to play my guitar on my lap….play it like a keyboard. I used to try and get those voicings, compete with my brother Joe to get those voicings. I didn’t want to play his keyboards, they were his pride and joy.

Victor was really young, 5, 6, 7, 8,  he could do all these bass tricks. He became one of the stars because people couldn’t believe he was playing. He would do all these tricks, you know, play the bass behind his head…..on the floor, play the bass standing up, like it’s a stand up bass. We’ve always done lots of different tricks anyway. We did all kinds of different things, acrobatics onstage, things like that.

JS-What is it that keeps you bonded to the guitar all these years?

Regi-I’ve always liked the sound of the guitar from the very beginning. That’s what started me in the first place, way back in Hawaii. I came up during the 60’s anyway. I was too young to actually see Hendrix play but I remember hearing that sound over the radio. Then the Beatles, all that stuff, all the hard rock. There were lots of guitar players back in those days. [They had] hard rock, acid rock, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly and all that.

JS-Yeah, guitar was pretty big.

Regi-Yeah, guitar was really big, there was Woodstock going on. I was too young to go but I heard about it and the sound they were getting [at that time] were really exciting. I always loved the sound of the guitar. I like electric but I like any kind of guitar.

JS-What’s the longest amount of time you’ve ever held a guitar? I can imagine you holding one for 10 hours straight without even blinking an eye.

Regi-Yeah [laughs] The longest I’ve held a guitar? I’ve probably fallen asleep with one while playing but at the same time, I don’t think that would count.

When we came up we had really long jam sessions that would usually last a whole day.I don’t know how my parents could put up with it. We would have people come over when they went to work. Then when my parents came home we were still playing. We were allowed to play until like midnight, so we had some long jam sessions. We did years of that, especially back in the Virginia days. In Virginia, I was in 11th grade. We had long jam sessions where other people would come. I could go a day, night and then into the next day.

JS-That is awesome

Regi-Oh yeah, a lot of time we’d leave to use the bathroom and we’d still have our guitar on. Didn’t take it off, it was kind of crazy but it was natural.

JS-Did you eat?

Regi-Yeah, well sometimes, a lot of times we’d try to eat. Our mom would cook for the whole neighborhood…but every once in a while we’d get stuck in there.

JS-You would get so lost in it.

Regi-Yeah

JS-It seems that you’re a very spiritual kind of teacher and player. Can you tell me how this relates to your philosophy of music?

Regi-Well, music is very spiritual……. I teach a lot.

Js-I read that you had 100 students at one time.

Regi-At least and students ya know, they come and go. I’m really flexible, I don’t put people in a contract or anything.. I’m more or less trying to wake up their spiritual side ya know, tyring to make everybody happy to enjoy life to try and understand and enjoy this trip on Earth.

People will take lessons and a lot of times I’ll tell them, “You’ve had enough lessons, take a break, go do your own thing now or maybe you need to find a job.” I don’t think you need to just keep taking lessons, next step is you need some money ya know, real life stuff. My mom taught us real life stuff so I try and teach them real life stuff, make it easier for them.

As far as the spiritual part goes, what happens is, music is spiritual. I am always telling people, you don’t have to believe in God cuz God you can’t see him right? Can’t see God, at least he’s not tapping you on the shoulder you know, he kind of stays hidden and then you make up your own concept and music is the same way. Music is invisible too, so God is invisible and music is invisible.

I consider music a bridge. I think whoever the creators were gave us music as a bridge to try and understand the invisible world…….That’s how the music starts to get spiritual because noone has ever seen sound before but then the sound is out there moving all those people. You know what I mean?

JS-Yeah

Regi-So we play music to understand the invisible side. So, I think that what happened was God said or whoever created us said, “Well, I’m going to stay in the background but I’ll give them some art ya know, like music, which is simple. Then when they play it, they’ll feel this or they’ll feel that. When they play these rhythms, they’re going to dance. If they play this jazz, these harmonies, they’re going to become intellectual. If they play these melodies, they are going to remember.”…..Ya know, Like if you play a simple melody like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, how I wonder, you know? You remember and say wow, I know that sound.

I just want to reiterate what a delight it was speaking with Regi, someone so connected to the intangible force of energy and music, a person with so much freedom in his thinking and playing. Please join me next week when I  publish the 2nd half of the interview.

Thank you Mr. Wooten!

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