MARCUS MILLER

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

“The thing that’s important to me now is to consolidate the different components of my musical life…”

Bassmagazine.com


This edition lays admiration and respect down for a player who can only be described as a living legend. 🤘 

One of the most significant players of his time, his signature sound and style features on many familiar recordings by top-flight artists and musical icons. A player highly regarded within the industry, double Grammy award winning and a catalogue of work that has seen him remain at the top of his game for over 30 years.

His characteristic bass sound can be heard on a limitless catalog of musical hits from Bill Wither’s “Just The Two Of Us”, to Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much”, to songs from Chaka Khan, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Elton John and Bryan Ferry to name a few… .

A truly inspirational artist, let’s head back into the Big Apple 🍏 and get down with Mr Marcus Miller. 🎸 .

Image Credit – discogs.com

Generational Musical Movements 🎼

New York never fails to surprise me, for such a small place the amount of incredible timeless musical activity and creativity that has blossomed from ‘the city that never sleeps’ is quite astonishing.

A true New York boy, born and bred, Marcus entered this planet on the 14th of June 1959, what a significant year 1959 was for so many reasons. 🎸

Born into the throws of musical movements it was almost guaranteed Marcus would have some involvement at some point down the line.

Until the age of 10 Brooklyn was home, his family then moved out to Queens. Musical influence and involvement started early, his father, William Miller, was a church organist and choir director. In his own words Marcus gives us a great overview of his early days:

“I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and lived in Brooklyn till the age of 10, when I moved to Queens, New York.  My father is a piano player and organist in the Episcopal church and he comes from a very musical family.  His cousins were musicians.  As a matter of fact, one of his cousins played with Miles Davis in the late ’50s and the early ’60s.  His name was Wynton Kelly.  He was really an incredible jazz pianist.  My father was like the classical cat in the family and his cousin Wynton was the jazz. So that was my early upbringing.”

Marcus Miller – forbassplayersonly.com

Photo courtesy of – Marcusmiller.com

An early influence and still a relevant appreciation was the Jackson 5, Marcus actually began singing initially due to his fascination with the group – like so many – this was a truly inspirational musical outfit. However, his first real instrument was the clarinet and Miller began to progress this during school.

The satisfaction gained from pursuing the clarinet just wasn’t quite right for Marcus, so he then progressed onto the saxophone, but he found he was still slightly detached from the musical seen at the time and these instruments just weren’t getting him into the R&B bands he longed for. 🤔 

A natural desire to be integrated into the rhythm section of a band Marcus decided to pick up a bass guitar one day at the age of 12/13:

“I picked up the bass one day when I was around 12 or 13 years old and just fell in love with it!

My best friend got one for his birthday.  He was fooling around on it and I ended up fooling around on it more than him!  He was playing it, but I was at his house all the time.  So, not to wear out my welcome, I convinced my mom to get me a bass.  My first bass was a Univox and it looked like B.B. King’s guitar, you know, with the red kind of 335 look?

I played R&B for the first couple years.  I enrolled in the High School of Music & Art in New York, which is kind of the magnet school for musicians.  I met Kenny Washington there, who was a drummer in my grade.  He was a jazz drummer and he said, “Man, listen, you’re a talented musician.  You need to start learning jazz because that’s the ultimate music for musicians to play.”  He invited me to his house in Staten Island, which is a long way from Queens, you know.  You had to take a bus, a train, a ferry and then another bus, so it was like a three hour, three and-a-half hour trip.”

Marcus Miller – forbassplayersonly.com

Photo credit –  Michael Sauvage

Jazz & Fusion Session Legend

In the world of bass guitar Marcus Miller is seen as a benchmark and a truly inspirational and motivational character.

His playing is so familiar to those that know and those that don’t, he’s somewhat of an innovator; even now in the modern day, as an older musician, the respect and admiration fellow players and musical fans have for him is overwhelming.

A seasoned session player in New York, Marcus reflects on this and his own style along with the appeal he carries as an artist, this is a very interesting take on himself as a musician.

“As a studio musician in New York, there are two types of players. There’s the musician—more of a chameleon—who’s good at finding the sound that’s necessary for a particular record, and then there’s the guy who you don’t call unless you want his unique sound. I was somewhere in the middle. I’d get to the session and see what was required, and if it seemed like they were looking for the kind of sound everybody knew me for, I’d break that out. But other times, it was clear that my regular style wasn’t going to be appropriate.”

Marcus Miller – premierguitar.com 2012

Image – MarcusMiller.com

“YOU GOT A LOT OF GREAT MUSICIANS, AND THEN YOU GOT ARTISTS, AND NOT ALL GREAT MUSICIANS ARE ARTISTS.”

Marcus Miller –lifestyle.jimdunlop.com

The work ethic along with the classic “right time, right place” means everything in the world of music and development.

He explains here how his session work began and progressed all in one movement.

“Well, I had the advantage of living in New York.  Most of the cats lived somewhere else, like Detroit or Texas, and they had to travel to New York and figure out how to make a living and then start to try to make a name for themselves. Because I lived in New York, I was doing gigs in clubs when I was 15 years old, starting to make a little name for myself.

I got a gig with a flute player named Bobbi Humphrey.  She was a pretty popular kind of contemporary jazz flute player.  It was before they had smooth jazz. The guitar player from my neighborhood band got the gig and he got me an audition.  I played with Bobbi for a couple years at the age of maybe 15, 16, and eventually Bobbi got the opportunity to have Ralph MacDonald produce her album.  Ralph was a very popular, very successful percussionist and producer in New York.  He had written “Where is the Love?” for Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway.  He wrote “Calypso Breakdown” for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which, before Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was like the biggest selling album of all time.

So, Ralph was doing his thing and he was a really popular session percussionist and everybody had to have him on their albums in the ‘70s in New York. Ralph was going to produce Bobbi Humphrey’s album and I wrote a song and I played it for Bobbi, and I said, “Listen. Listen to this tune.”  And she said, “I like this tune. I want to do it on my album.  I’m going to play it for Ralph.”  So she played it for Ralph and Ralph said, “Yeah, that sounds nice.  Let’s do it.”  And she said, “Well, can my young bass player come and play on this one song?”  And Ralph said, “Yeah, I guess we could put up with a new guy for one song.”  So I got to go to the session and they were cutting.  It was Steve Gadd and Richard Tee and Anthony Jackson.  And Eric Gale was on guitar.  Ralph said to Anthony, “This kid’s gonna play on this one song.”  So Anthony got up and went in the control room while I played on my little song.  And it went without incident.  It was pretty straight-ahead.”   

Marcus Miller – forbassplayersonly.com

Signature Strings Theory

In this particular industry it’s rare to find bass players who have a signature set of strings and really want to go into why they’ve chosen this particular set, gauge and style along with the overall material.

This is not the case for Marcus; the man is a multi-instrumentalist and extremely talented all-round musician that really appreciates spending the time to create the perfect sound.

A truly incredible musician to observe.

“ALL THE BASS PLAYERS I ADMIRED HAD A SIGNATURE SOUND.”
Marcus Miller –lifestyle.jimdunlop.com

As an artist and a player Marcus Miller has spent many years perfecting his own sound and identity as a signature trademark of expression.

He has been known to use a number of different strings by variable brands but most recently he has settled and worked with Jim Dunlop USA.

Along with producing a unique signature set Marcus was involved in an incredible interview that overviews the set in great detail where he expressed the reasons behind his decisions and what motivates him as an artist to achieve a signature and identifiable tone.

https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/music/2015/03/12/Preview-Marcus-Miller-finds-inspiration-on-African-island/stories/201503120030

HOW IMPORTANT IS TONE FOR A MUSICIAN?

Marcus: “When I started playing bass—I was probably 13 years old, something like that—I wasn’t really at the point where I could tell the difference between the important elements of music: technique, intonation, tone. So I was just going by instinct, just playing the bass. I had a Fender Jazz Bass, and whatever sounded good, even if it was accidentally arrived at, I stuck with it. Later on, I realised that tone is the first thing that impresses people about your sound. That’s the first thing that people are struck by.

That first note, it makes an impression. I know a lot of great musicians who play some amazing music, but their tone isn’t that great, and you have to get passed that as a listener. You have to go, “Ok, my first impression wasn’t that great, but man, he’s playing some great stuff.” But the really, truly great musicians who really make a full impact, to me they have the whole package, and the first element is tone. You hear a guy play that first note and you go, whoa! That’s everything, man. First impressions, right?

All the bass players I admired had a signature sound. Yes, they all had great technique, but you heard one note, two notes, and you knew it was Stanley Clarke, you knew it was Jaco Pastorius, you knew it was James Jamerson. And I really wanted to see if I could find something, maybe not on that level, but something that was easily identifiable as me. Once I got a sound that I liked, I didn’t fool around too much with it. Same bass, same settings, and I just changed the notes, I just changed what I’m playing. But I didn’t really fool around with the sound too much because I felt like I had something that was really identifiable, and that’s so hard to find as a musician. So tone is everything.”

WHY WORK WITH DUNLOP?

Marcus: “So the thing about having your own identifiable sound, your own identifiable music, your own identifiable style, is that you still have to grow. You still have to figure out a way, particularly if you’re playing jazz music or any kind of improvisational music to maintain your identity. And it’s a very tricky thing. Because if you stay in the same place, then you’re staying in the same place. And if you change too quickly, you might lose who you are.

YOU STILL HAVE TO FIGURE OUT A WAY TO MAINTAIN YOUR IDENTITY.

Now, everybody has their own version of how to deal with this, but for me, I wanted to continue to evolve. So I’m looking at these Dunlop strings, man, and I’m going, whoa, this maintains what everybody’s known me for, but it has a little bit of my old 17-year-old sound when I was playing more raw, you know what I mean? And I’m already feeling myself wanting to get back to that. This has the best of both worlds.

So it’s a way to grow, by finding this new string. And this is the whole thing: trying to evolve but maintaining who you are at the same time.”

Marcus Miller –lifestyle.jimdunlop.com

So this week we have discovered something truly special about an incredible Bass Player and musician, we understand how seriously he takes his string choice and how it is fundamental to his identity as an individual artist and player.

Let’s leave you with the burning question that’s always on the end of our thoughts… (well, guitarists thoughts ✌️😉 )

“WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE BASS PLAYER?”

We’re often thinking it and here Marcus perfectly encapsulates the definitive answer. 😎 

“Marcus: A lot of bass players who are solo artists are just sitting there waiting for their solos. But for me, I’m doing just as much work when I’m playing behind you—sometimes more work. It’s a shame that a lot of young bass players don’t recognise how important driving a band is. But that’s what a bass player does, man. You drive the band.

I’m really into that role.—it’s as important to me as playing a great solo. And with these strings, man, with this sound I’m going for, I want to make sure that I’m driving you, that I’m pushing everybody, that I’m pushing the musicians to be creative and reach new heights.”


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REFERENCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Miller
https://forbassplayersonly.com/interview-marcus-miller/
https://bassmusicianmagazine.com/2012/08/marcus-miller-renaissance-man-by-rick-suchow-bass-musician-magazine-august-2012/
https://www.premierguitar.com/artists/interview-marcus-miller
https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/music/2015/03/12/Preview-Marcus-Miller-finds-inspiration-on-African-island/stories/201503120030

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