Simply put, Marcus Miller is a living legend. His prowess as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer has earned him two Grammy awards and the esteem of critics and musicians across genres. As a sideman, his credibility is well-attested—Marcus has played, and in many cases written and produced, for everyone from Miles Davis and Luther Vandross to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. His solo career has further cemented his status as the preeminent living bass player. With his groundbreaking style and carefully cultivated sound, Marcus has created a unique and massively influential musical voice. Marcus has honed that voice for decades, in part by embracing innovation and using the best tools available. And that’s what brought him to Dunlop Super Bright Bass Strings.
We sat down with Marcus to talk with him about where his new signature strings fit into the evolution of his musical voice as well as a number of topics, including the importance of tone and finding your own sound. This guy’s a true master, with insights that are valuable to any musician, whether or you play bass or not. Check out the video below for some of the highlights from our conversation—soundtracked by the legend himself. The full interview is packed with even more of Marcus’ masterful insights, so be sure to read that after you watch the video.
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 realized that tone is the first thing that impresses people about your sound. That’s the first thing that people are struck by.
All the bass players I admired had a signature sound.
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 past 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.
When did you first realize you’d found your sound?
Marcus: I was talking to a mentor of mine, a fantastic drummer named Lenny White from my neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens in New York, and I said to him, “Man, I want my own sound, how do I get my own sound?” I was probably 17 at the time, and we had these amazing musicians in the neighborhood who I admired. When we went to these jam sessions, I’d be walking to the club from my car parked two blocks away, and I already knew who was in there because the sounds were so identifiable, even from down the street.
So I’m saying to Lenny White, “Man I really want my own sound, how do you do it?” And he says, “You can’t worry about it, you just keep playing, and keep playing, and then one day, you’re going to hear a recording of yourself and go, ‘Oh that’s me.’” So he gave me some real abstract Karate Kid kind of instructions on how to get your own sound.
Later on, when I’m 21, I get a call from Miles Davis, and he says, “Come to the studio, I’m going to record.” I ran to the studio, and we played, and I’m like, “This is Miles Davis, man, I got to play something good.” And then we heard the playback in the control room, and I remember saying to myself, “Oh wow, that’s me.” I recognized that sound as me. And once you find your own sound, you got to hold on to that, man. You got to hold on tight, because that’s something that a lot of people don’t ever get.
So, I said to myself, now that I have a sound, now I can go to the next level, now I can start to be creative, now I can start to try different techniques, improve my technique, improve my creativity, because I got the first element, the most important element. Sound was really the launching pad for the rest of my playing.
How important is style for a musician?
Marcus: Once when I was talking to Boz Scaggs, he said something that I’ll never forget: “People don’t buy technique. They don’t buy anything but style.” That’s what draws people to an artist—your style, your view of the world, the way you present yourself, but more importantly, the way you see things. You got a lot of great musicians, and then you got artists, and not all great musicians are artists.
I get demos from musicians, and they say, “Check out my demo, I want to make a record.” And the first song is a funk song, the second song is a salsa, and the third song is a bossanova. I say, “Each one is like a completely different player.” And they say, “Well, I want people to know I’m well rounded, that I can do it all.”
You got a lot of great musicians, and then you got artists, and not all great musicians are artists.
That’s really important, but what people want to know is, do you have a unique point of view? And I know the problem, because I was a studio musician for like 25 years. People think they know all the stuff I played on, but I played on hundreds of records that you don’t even know I played on. I’m on Mariah Carey records, Whitney Houston records, where I’m just playing what’s necessary. As a studio musician, you became who you needed to become for each record.
But eventually, I started moving more to an artist mentality where I found my own sound, my own style, and I decided I was going to try to make that sound and that style work in whatever situation I’m in. So, the difference between me 30 years ago and me now is that I have a much clearer point of view about how I want to play and what I think music should sound like. And that’s me really trying to become an artist.
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.
Why is it so important to evolve your sound?
Marcus: I always feel like I want to continue to evolve, like I want to push forward. And people ask me, why? Why do you feel like you need to change when you have such a good thing going? But it’s boring otherwise. You know what I mean? I really think that if you’re an artist, your responsibility is to show people the world as it exists today through your eyes. That’s what all artists do. It doesn’t even have to be music, it can be writers, photographers, comedians, they all do the same thing, they all present us with the world as it exists now, but through their own filter, and that’s what makes them interesting.
In the ’8os, everything was really, like, techno, and everything was clean, and everything was very exact because we had just discovered these machines that we could make music with, so we were playing really, like almost in a robotic fashion a lot of times. Because that was where the world was. We had just been introduced to these computers—how do we learn to live with them?
And for a while, computers were dominating. Everything sounded like this, and we found cool ways to do that, but now people are a lot more comfortable with the technology, people are a lot more comfortable with computers. And now things are starting to sound a little bit more natural, at least in a lot of areas of the world and a lot of areas of music.
So for me, I want my sound to sound less high tech. I want to still have a full range of bass and treble, but I want to get a little bit more growl, I want to get a little bit more urgency in my sound. And that’s how I used to play back when I was first starting. In New York, everything was always aggressive, and people didn’t want to hear jazz, so if you were going to play jazz, you had to play with an attitude. We were like 16, 17 years old, and people were like, I don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re really into it, I guess I got to respect them. That’s how we used to hit it. So now, I’m wanting to get back to that.
And in my band, I got like 21, 22, 25 year olds who are feeling like they want to prove themselves, like they want to make a statement, and that’s inspiring me. I want to make sure my sound is in there pushing them.
What is the role of the bass player?
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 recognize 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.
What are you trying to accomplish as an artist?
Marcus: When I first started playing music, I just wanted to be a good musician. My father’s a musician, his father’s a musician—I come from a musical family—so I just wanted to step into the shoes that were laid out for me. And then I’m in my neighborhood in New York, everybody had a band, and I just wanted to be in a good band and just be known as a good musician.
At each step, I just looked to see what else is available from that new step.
And what happens is that, as you get older, you start realizing the possibilities with music. So first, I just wanted to play the bass, I just wanted to be good. Then I saw somebody who had just written a song, he said, “Hey man, here’s a song I wrote.” And I said, “Wow, I would love to write a song on my own.” And that became a goal. And then I saw arrangers making sure that everybody’s part worked together, and I got into that. And then producing. At each step, I just looked to see what else is available from that new step. I’d reach a certain level and go, okay, now what?
And so, for me, at this point, I’m still going, okay, now what? I’m recognizing how powerful music is, how it can communicate things that people have difficulty communicating with words. So we’re playing in Africa, we’re playing in Russia, we’re playing in China, we’re playing all over the world, and we’re able to bring people together who normally wouldn’t come together like that.
So now, what I’m feeling, is how effective, how powerful music can be. That’s my next goal, to take advantage of that, to communicate, try to establish goodwill around the world. It sounds really kind of corny, but when you’re on the stage, man, and you can’t say hello in the audience’s language, but you got like, six, seven thousand people all moving together, all sharing the same emotions, you begin to realize that we all have a lot in common. We just need to establish that first, and then work out the details.
Let’s at least establish that we have a universal commonality, and music is the best example of that.