How Joe Dart Got His Groove

Imagine my excitement in discovering Joe Dart’s Berklee College of Music bass clinic on YouTube; over 100 minutes of potential wisdom and grooves to steal!

Now, imagine my disappointment in discovering that the whole thing had been mixed by the drummer’s right foot. But fear not, funk bass fans, for poor audio fidelity will not stand in the way of finding out just how Joe Dart got to be so damn groovy; I sifted through Joe’s lengthy conversation with Danny Mo Morris in order to try and tease out what he did to work on his playing and what he does now to keep growing as a musician.

What follows are eight essential elements of the Joe Dart puzzle; the Tao of Dart, if you will:

DISCLAIMER: The following post contains Amazon Affiliate links; if you end up buying the product through my link, then I get a small percentage (typically 2-5% of the product price) at no extra cost to you. It’s not much, but it does afford me some new plectrums once a year…

Eight Take-Aways From Joe Dart’s Berklee Clinic

  1. He Studied Music From A Young Age

Joe’s musical journey began early on in the form of ‘forced’ piano lessons and 5th Grade trombone playing, but the lure of the bass proved too much:

I was about 8 when I remember the bass being present. The opportunity to play a lot was there from a young age…

Music was very much a part of family life; Joe’s Grandfather – renowned session violinist Israel Baker (who, in addition to numerous other film credits, was one of the shrieking violins in Hitchcock’s famous Psycho shower scene) – would call him and test his aural skills over the phone:

I remember even as a young kid – I don’t know how old I was, maybe 7 or 8 – my grandfather used to call me and quiz me… he’d call me and be like ‘Are you near the piano?’ And he would go to his piano and play me an interval and say ‘What is that?’ and then he’d play a chord and say ‘and what’s that?’

Can you imagine what family ear training from the age of seven does for your musical development? In addition to encouragement at home, Joe studied the bass formally with teachers put him onto ‘the good stuff’ from the start and encouraged learning by ear:

I was lucky when I was a kid to meet some really great bass teachers… [who] fostered an interest in funk bass playing years before I would have found these amazing bass players that I now really consider inspirations, like James Jamerson, Verdine White, Rocco Prestia, Stevie Wonder’s left hand bass stuff… I was hearing it when I was 10 years old, 11 years old, taking lessons because [my teachers] considered that to be the definitive bass music… they sent me home with that stuff.

It wasn’t just what Joe’s teachers were making him study, but how they went about it that helped him develop. On being asked how he gained an understanding of harmony, Joe’s first response is:

…really great ear training, which was my teachers sending me home to learn stuff on my own and come back and see if I had gotten [sic] it or not…

Personal experience has taught me that learning music by ear rather than taking it in from the page results in much deeper learning – things might take longer to learn, but I remember them in more detail and their influence has a way of showing up in my playing much more readily than music that I’ve learned through notation.

Joe’s formal education continued when he studied music at The University of Michigan, where he’d meet the other members of Vulfpeck. Dart’s take on the value of music college stresses that who you know is just as important as what you know:

People will ask me ‘how important is it to go to music school? Is this the key to being a successful musician or a professional musician?’ And I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t, but I can say that for me personally it was, even if it wasn’t the degree it was a chance meeting of all of these people that went on to be my bandmates and best friends; if I hadn’t gone to University of Michigan Music School at this particular time I wouldn’t have met any of them and that made all the difference, you know, so I really do value that when I think about going to music school, going to a place like Berklee. It’s as much – if not more – about the people you meet there, the people you play with there, the connections you make than anything else; that to me is the real power of it.

  1. Play Music, Not Exercises

The act of playing music, rather than practising exercises, seems to be at the core of Joe Dart’s musical philosophy. When asked how he warms up to play, his answer is by playing:

…Vulfpeck played some festivals this fall where it was freezing and it was very early on in the set where we played ‘It Gets Funkier’ and a few of these 16th-note, it’s-not-a-warmup type of tune, but that’s where I’ve discovered is the best way to warm up.

Playing a lot and gigging a lot seems to also be the answer as to how he maintains his level of facility on the bass:

I try to play as much as I can with as many people as I can.

Playing with good drummers helps to keep my strength and stamina up.

  1. Great Time Comes From Strong Subdivisions

The importance of having a great sense of time comes up again and again during the clinic; more specifically, the idea of always subdividing the beat when playing is central to Joe’s concept of groove:

I do really believe in a sense of time, a sense of groove; some constant, militant subdivision. I really do consider that to be what really separates something from sounding good and really feeling good…

The drummers that I love are truly militant about the subdivision.

This belief in the power of the ‘militant subdivision’ extends to his philosophy about music education:

As a bass player [timing] is somewhat overlooked and should be more the focus of bass lessons as a kid: developing great time, subdividing and never letting fills or anything get in the way of keeping time and keeping it feeling really good, keeping it locked in with the kick drum.

  1. Practise Grooves In Context

It transpires that Joe spent his teenage years working on his sense of time in context by always having a reference to the pulse in the form of a metronome or drum machine:

Before I had a long list of great drummers to play with, I played with a drum machine; [first] with a metronome, but – as soon as I had one that worked at all – a drum machine and a looper pedal.

I had this instructional DVD just called ‘Slap Bass’… I already had one instructional DVD that I adored, which was Flea’s with Chad, such a classic. This guy named Ed Friedland had an instructional DVD… I sort of learned to slap and learned the power of the sampler – the looper pedal – and the drum machine from Ed because he was just in a studio, just him and his bass and this little drum machine thing and this little looper pedal and he would just lay down these grooves and then solo on top of them

For reference, the DVD in question is Ed Friedland’s Slap Bass – The Ultimate Guide.

This method of practising seems to have given Joe a solid sense of time and groove that has helped him stay strong on stage:

When I was playing all those hours with a drum machine and then looping myself to find some cool basslines to solo on top of, I was able to develop pretty good time and groove that would serve me later when I would be playing with drummers, or when I would be playing sections of the Vulf tunes where the band drops out… If I didn’t have good time it would just fall apart.

Again, the emphasis – even when practising – is to always be making music:

I can definitely recommend spending some quality time with a drum machine as well as a great drummer if possible.

Don’t have a dedicated drum machine? There are plenty of apps available, ranging from the ‘Drummer’ function in Garageband to dedicated drum loop apps, including:

If you don’t happen to have the contact details of a host of top session drummers, then there’s also no need to despair – you can jam along with greats like Bernard Purdie and Mike Clarke for free on Spotify. I even collected everything together into one playlist available here:

  1. Limiting Gear Makes You Focus On Your Playing

Being restricted in his options as far as gear went in the early years forced Joe to refine his playing so that he could get a halfway-decent sound out of an uncooperative instrument:

The first [bass] was a very cheap Samick bass that had extremely high action and was just extremely un-ergonomic. It was terribly difficult to play, but I think [that] helped me develop finger strength and, in a way, if I could play anything relatively musical on that then when I got to a bass that actually felt good I sounded like I could play the bass.

And eventually, after two or three years of that Samick bass, I got a Fender Jazz used in a local music shop; Mexican made, basically not an expensive Fender Jazz bass, but it was a real Fender and it was my total go-to axe, it was the only one I owned for many years. Really only in the past two or three years have I acquired a couple more basses…

Even the Musicman Joe Dart signature bass is a bare-bones, ‘single-speed funk machine’ which was modelled on Jack Stratton’s rather cheap Carlo Robelli bass (Sam Ash’s entry-level house brand of instruments) that Joe had used on earlier Vulf sessions:

[The Musicman bass] was designed after it… his Carlo Robelli bass, which had flatwound strings on it. I would mess around on it and ended up playing it on a few of the kind of disco/funk tracks of Vulf, including the first ‘It Gets Funkier’ and ‘Daddy Got a Tesla’, among others.

Jack Stratton’s Carlo Robelli Bass

So, between a handful of the basses Jack owns we started going ‘Oh, this is the cool bass for this tune, this is a cool bass for this kind of tune’and then I really fell in love with that Robelli bass that he had and eventually when Jack and I started to meet more people in the manufacturing side of the industry we met the guys at Musicman, and we said if we were ever going to design an instrument, then it would be designed after this Robelli bass that we envisioned as the ultimate funk bass, the ultimate Bernard Edwards Musicman-ish kind of thing: The ‘single-speed’ funk bass.

  1. Don’t Overthink Your Playing, Be ‘In The Moment’

When playing – and, in particular, when improvising fills or solos – Dart is a fan of being in what he terms a ‘reactive zone’ rather than a ‘planning zone’:

If I think about it in the studio or live and I think ‘Ok, here comes this moment’ and I’ve got this fill, which I’ll catch myself doing sometimes, I’ll be playing and I think ‘I’ve got this idea’, then 100% of the time I miss it and it ends up feeling totally disjunctive, because it’s planned and you don’t nail the actual thing you were hearing… So, I do appreciate trying to get yourself in a real, true improvisational state rather than planning something… Hopefully, over time the muscle memory gets you to a place where you can react in real time.

This seems like a sensible strategy, given the band’s writing and recording process, which seems to hinge around (Vulfpeck bandleader) Jack Stratton giving musicians minimal information in advance of the sessions. Discussing the recording of ‘Hero Town’, which featured ex-Prince drummer Michael Bland, Joe said that:

I don’t think we did more than two takes… He didn’t know what we were going to play, of course, because that’s the Stratton way; keeping musicians in the dark about what’s about to happen is what Stratton does best.

Years of relentless practice and playing have prepared him for new, unfamiliar (and often daunting) musical experiences:

The reason that it can be fun and the reason that it’s magical to have these experiences where no-one knows what’s going to happen is because everyone has been preparing basically for that moment forever.

When asked about the process for learning bass-heavy tunes like ‘Dean Town’, it seems that the man isn’t afraid of a challenge:

Dean Town was by far and away the most challenging Vulf session that I’ve ever done. Woody sent me that bassline [in] MIDI… he thought ‘we haven’t done a bass feature in a couple of albums, we had done ‘Beastly’, but then we hadn’t done a bass feature in a little while. I remember spending all night the night before shedding that for the session the next day because I wanted to be able to nail it, I didn’t want to have to do a bunch of takes…

It was incredibly challenging and now playing it live with the band is as much an audience participation moment as anything… it keeps me limber.”

There’s a transcription of the bass part to ‘Dean Town’ right here should you feel strong enough: Vulfpeck – ‘Dean Town’ Bass Transcription

  1. Always Play For The Song

Fielding a question about how he alters his playing approach for recording vocal-led and instrumental tunes, Joe’s answer shows that he thinks song first, bass second:

I’m always trying to really serve the song and so that’s why when there actually is a singer live it’s much easier to do that; it’s so much easier to serve the song, because you get the arc of it and you see where they’re singing, where they’re not singing, and you see where their phrases are and you can bounce off of that and respond…

Harder to do are the songs where I think it’s an instrumental and the whole time Jack [Stratton] knows it’s not going to be an instrumental, we’re going to add lyrics later but he doesn’t tell me. So with ‘Christmas in LA’, that was just an instrumental track and then later Theo [Katzman] wrote and added vocals, and so hopefully I’m not playing out in sections where it’s a tender vocal moment. But I think when it’s an instrumental song we all can sort of see where the focal point would be… and, either way, I try to always ‘arc’ the tune. And if there’s going to be a little bass moment – a little fill, a little lick – where I step outside the hook of the bassline it’s usually that last chorus, at the very end, which I always loved when bass players would do that on pop songs…

Even when he’s soloing, he’s thinking compositionally:

[I approach writing basslines by] building something that their ear can grab and then playing off that and stepping outside of that, but you can’t really step outside without first building this fundamental song, and that’s even how I think about soloing – when I’m playing a solo a lot of the time I’m keeping time, whether the drums are there or not – you know, ghost notes, really keeping time and really building on building a figure slowly and then playing off that, playing against that.

  1. Study The Greats, But Maintain Your Voice

One particularly insightful remark concerned the importance of acknowledging your influences, but not at the expense of developing your own sound on the bass:

Finding your voice on an instrument is something you can’t force… it’s not something you can decide to do one day. It happens very slowly and is something that hopefully, if you’re listening to enough different stuff and you find what really speaks to you hopefully it starts coming back into your playing, but not in a way that you’re just constantly quoting or copying – it’s hopefully going to blend into something which eventually becomes your voice…

Over the years, I’ve taken something from each of these bass players that really influenced me from a young age like Rocco, Verdine [White], Pino, Flea, but trying to figure out ‘what do I have to say? What really speaks to me about each of those players?’

It’s also important to dig deeply into the history of the music that you’re inspired by in order to discover who influenced your influences:

You find your own voice through learning what other voices sound like and where they’re coming from and then you check out the influences that they were checking out; that’s where Jamerson comes into things for me, because I didn’t actually realise that the people I was looking up to were looking up to Jamerson. I didn’t hear Flea and think ‘Oh, he’s doing a Jamerson thing’, I also didn’t know who Jamerson was until Flea hipped me to him, so checking out other people who have a voice and then checking out who they were checking out.

It’s not just bass players that Joe Dart took influence from when finding his voice:

And even non-bassists, I think I do really look to guitarists’ solo phrasing or saxophone or, like I said, Stevie Wonder’s playing. I think you can find inspiration for how to speak on an instrument even through many other instruments.”

Still dying for more Dart? You can check out these posts for even more head-bobbing bass action: