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If you’re just a peripheral fan or modest observer of what’s hot in current music, the name Cory Wong is most likely on your radar. Even if you’re not one to keep up with trends in music and like to binge YouTube and social media, then you’ve probably come across his ear-to-ear smile, his striped shirts, and his lightning fast rubber band-armed strumming on his Stratocaster. If you’re a music junkie or musician yourself, then you most definitely know all about the 35-year-old Minnesota phenom who came onto the scene playing in Vulfpeck and The Fearless Flyers who is now taking the music world, and internet, by storm.

But what you might not know is that Wong is one of the hardest working musicians around, taking on the tour-less pandemic lockdown by releasing nine albums since the start of 2020, hosting his own variety show Cory and The Wongnotes, taping his own podcast and vlog, working with gear companies on new products, and making cameos and collaborations with other artists. Another fact that isn’t widely known, and the reason why he’s appearing in this particular publication, is that Wong actually started his musical career as a bass player and is proudly still one to this day.

Long before Wong ever held a pick or strummed a guitar, he became fixated with bands like Primus and Red Hot Chili Peppers as a young boy. So naturally his childhood icons were bass players like Les Claypool and Flea. When he eventually got his hands on his own bass he dedicated himself to learning all of his heroes’ bass lines and naturally flourished on the instrument. It was only after trying to start a band at his school that the need for him to learn guitar shifted his path to the realm of the 6-string. As he developed musically, and having the luck of growing up in Minneapolis, Wong fell into the Prince camp of musicians. There he met Sonny Thompson, who not only became one of his musical mentors, but was also recently featured on Cory and The Wongnotes.  

Given the lockdown situation and his extremely prolific year of album releases, Wong took the opportunity to write and record the bass parts to his music instead of enlisting the many talented players that he typically calls on. This includes his October of 2020 release, The Striped Album, which is often bass-focused and shows just how authentic and serious about low end he is. Still facing uncertain times with no sure signs of the return of touring, Wong remains working and writing in his studio. In the process he is enjoying keeping a large part of his focus on bass. And that is exactly why we are taking this opportunity to focus on Cory Wong.

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Despite the wild year, you’ve been insanely prolific throughout it all. Where did the motivational kick come in to do all of these things?

I had actually planned on doing three albums in 2020 and that it would be a productive year. I went into it knowing that I was going to do a whole lot of stuff. But there was a lot of space in my planning that was left for touring. I had a couple of European tours and a couple of U.S. tours, and then when everything got cancelled I was just in my studio at my house writing music. I always say that creativity is a vine that blossoms rather than a gas tank that empties, so as soon as I hit my stride on something I would keep going. But I had to readjust my approach with some things. Normally the way we release albums is through the album cycle—you write the album, record the album, release the album, and then you tour in support of it. There are expectations with that sort of thing and I don’t always subscribe to it, but it makes a lot of sense and is practical. This was the year when I could do anything I wanted and there were no expectations tied to them, other than whether or not the music was good. It became a fun time for me to explore a lot of different spaces, like the acoustic realm, playing multiple instruments, and trying new things.

You’re widely known for your guitar playing, but you actually started on bass first, right?

I did! I’m actually a bassist at my core. When I was in 6th grade my favorite bands were Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus. So what instrument do you think I wanted to play? I begged my parents for a bass guitar and I promised that I would put the work in and do it right. They still weren’t sold on it, so I told them I would learn all of the Chili Pepper’s Blood Sugar, Sex Magik and One Hot Minute front to back, every note. I came home from school one day and my mom told me to go look in the closet. Sure enough there was a white 4-string Fender MIM Jazz Bass, which is the one that I still use today. That was the first instrument I ever owned. It sounds so cheesy and cliché, but as a kid I felt like I had my weapon, my sword, and I had to start training.

Did you make good on your promise and learn those albums?

I sure did. I learned those two albums front to back by reading all the tab books. And while I didn’t understand the theory behind it or how Flea was building the bass lines, I was just playing them. Then I wanted to start a band and I found other friends who were willing to join me, but one was a drummer and the other didn’t play music and wanted to play bass. I told him that I was the bass player, but he wouldn’t budge. I saved a bunch of my snow-shoveling money and bought a Stratocaster, and I started learning how to play guitar. I really just wanted to be in a band. I did the same thing, I learned those two RHCP albums all the way through. I kept my passion for bass at the same time and kept on with my Primus obsession, but I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get the low notes Les Claypool was getting on “DMV” and “My Name is Mud.” I finally figured out that he was using 5 and 6-string basses, so I mowed lawns, shoveled snow, and did random tasks and saved up and got an Ibanez SDGR 5-string, which is a classic mid-’90s bass. I stuck with playing bass, but I had to shift my focus to guitar. Still, bass has been a big part of my musical world the whole time. To this day I still want to get a bass gig. Someday maybe Jamiroquai will call and I’ll finally get the job.

Having Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus as your introduction to bass was ambitious. How did Les and Flea’s playing influence you at a young age?

The biggest thing I took from idolizing them is that the bass chair is so important. That to me is the hardest chair on my gig and the role that I’m most picky about. It’s important for a lot of reasons; one being that it’s the foundation and it connects what I do as a guitarist with the drums. The bass player needs to be amazing. Even within the next phase of bands I was into as a kid, which was Green Day, punk, and ska music, the bass is very active. The bass player does the melodic, active stuff, and the guitars do a lot of the chugging. To a lot of people, bass is an afterthought. Just something that makes music feel big. But to me the bass is just as important as everything else—the lines, the hooks, the feel, the placement, and the range is so important. Those are the biggest things I learned from being a fan of bands with prominent bass players in them.

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Coming from the place of being a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, how do you write your bass lines?

It’s starts for me in two places: one is the groove and feel, which I’m lumping together, although that topic alone could be a two-hour conversation. And secondly, the focal point. I try to have a hyper-awareness about those things first because in instrumental music you need to be much more diligent in outlining the groove, feel, and focal point because a lot of the general public doesn’t know how to listen to instrumental music. When you’re listening to songs it’s clear that the singer is the focal point, and as a bass player you need to play something that adds to that, but doesn’t get in the way of the singer. In instrumental music, the focal point can shift from horns to keyboard to guitar to bass. Anything can take center stage within an instrumental piece. I love the idea of orchestration and arrangement from the classical sphere and taking that approach to funk and pop music. That makes bass essential in the composition and it can create undercurrents that will change the whole part. That’s where groove and feel comes into play. And then from there I figure out where the bass should line up with the guitar, where it should stand out, and where it should entirely lock in with the drums. If there are a lot of things happening and a lot of subdivision, my bass part will probably be more simple. But if the song has more soaring parts, then I like the bass to have more subdivision. Sometimes I’ll do the Rocco/Jaco [Rocco Prestia and Jaco Pastorius] muted 16th-note thing, or I might do a slap thing like Larry Graham, Louis Johnson, and Prince, or I might do the Jamerson thing; it depends on which approach the part in the song calls for. I love hooks on the bass.

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You’re known for your rubber band wrist and funky rhythmic strumming on guitar. How do you translate that to bass?

The approaches I take on bass are purely based on my instincts and taste. Every bass player has different tastes on what is too much, what is too little, and how much rhythmic density to use. If I were to break that down more the place I would start would be: what are the heavy beats and what are the holes? Within that you have to pay attention to the big and heavy beats and how hard you need to hit them and where in your range you should hit them. Is it a short or a long hit? Is it a short hit with a fall, or is it staccato? I always find the big beats first and then figure out how to attack them. Then I figure out where the holes are in the groove or in the focal point, and I decide on whether I’m going to fill them or if it’s going to be funkier if I leave them blank to breathe. I always consider what I can contribute to the piece of music that will actually make it feel and sound better from a place of bass. For me, when I’m playing bass on my own music, I’m already getting my kicks off on the guitar and I have nothing to prove on the bass. And of course, people who I play with and music I listen to definitely informs what I think will or won’t work.

Tell us a little about your playing technique on bass.

The three realms of bass that I think in are the Rocco/Jaco world, the melodic Paul McCartney land, and the other realm is Prince, Larry Graham, and Louis Johnson type slap. There’s an attitude and attack that goes with the latter, which is a little more aggressive and driving, and is often more syncopated than other styles of slap bass. Sometimes I thumb right off the neck instead of on the fretboard. For whatever reason, sometimes I like that sound better. When it comes to playing with fingers, I rest my thumb of the bridge pickup of my Jazz Bass and I don’t play as far back as Joe Dart or Jaco, but I play right above the bridge pickup or a little more towards the neck. Typically, I rest my thumb on the E string, but I’ll play with a floating thumb if I’m hitting the E a lot. My left-handed technique is a little more guitar-driven. I play light strings, which is something that I picked up from Prince and Sonny T.

Sonny T and Cory performing with the Wongnotes 

Sonny T and Cory performing with the Wongnotes 

You were lucky enough to learn from greats like Sonny Thompson and the Prince camp. What did you take away from your experience with them?

Sonny T is one of my main musical mentors. He was Prince’s mentor also. Growing up under the school of Sonny Thompson was unreal. I can’t even explain everything that I’ve learned from him. He’s the reason why I play light gauge bass strings. His high G is a .030 gauge. The dude has one of the fattest sounds of any bass player on earth and he uses ultra-light strings. I asked him how his tone is so huge with such small strings and he told me dead on that it’s all in the attack. He always told me to find a way to sound big. I use light gauge strings and my attack is fairly heavy, which is why I play towards the back of the pickup. Then the strings don’t flap around as much. The other thing I’ve learned to do is have some level of compression on at all times. My tone has been changing throughout my life. Growing up in Minneapolis under the Prince and Sonny T school wired me a certain way for playing, but I also get to sit next to Joe Dart and watch him play. He hits the strings ridiculously hard. Which is why he puts gaffe tape over the metal circles on his pickups, otherwise the strings will clank on the actual metal. I’ve also sat next to Tim Lefebvre and he’s playing soft with such feel, but his notes sound bigger and fatter than anybody I’ve ever heard. He came and sat in at a gig of mine a while back. I don’t know what it was, but his notes sounded so huge out of the same rig we’d been using and everything. That was an eye-opening moment that made me realize that Sonny had been right. It’s the player’s attack and where you hit the strings that plays such a vital role.

Cory Wong, Joe Dart, and Woody Goss of Vulfpeck

Cory Wong, Joe Dart, and Woody Goss of Vulfpeck

You’ve played with some amazing bass players, including your constant collaborator Joe Dart. What’s it like working with him?

It’s incredible. Like I said earlier, I’ve always had the standard that the bass player needs to be amazing. Joe just happens to be, dare I say it, the best bass player of our generation. It’s fun because he and I are both very driving rhythmically in the way that we play, but we’re also very aware of hooks and how our parts individually weave into the whole of the song. Playing with Joe is a blast because we’re both a shot of nitrous to the energy of the rhythm. We interlock into something that feels super special. It’s amazing to watch him because he’s such a force on the instrument, there’s no denying that. We push each other, our limits, our creativity, and the physical boundaries of what we can pull off on our instruments. Sometimes on the road we have days of touring when we’re tired or worn down or not feeling great and we just motivate each other to get to that place every single time. When we step on stage we draw that aspect out of each other.

What’s something you’ve picked up from him as a bass player?

The power and importance of articulation. His articulation is so precise and that’s something I’ve come to appreciate. I have something similar on guitar, but it’s very different because it’s with a pick. The evenness of his notes in the attack and release is amazing. He can play a flurry of notes, or he can play steady 8th-notes and each individual one comes out crystal clear and the same as the others. That’s so important as a bass player. Especially when you do the kind of Rocco/Jaco thing that he does.

How do you approach soloing differently on bass than on guitar?

In general, soloing on bass and soloing on guitar all depends on what is happening behind me. A lot of times when I solo on bass I like to do a groove solo. I keep the groove going along with a solo that is melodic, and I make sure I’m aware of my surroundings when I do it. If there’s enough groove going around the bass part during a solo and there’s enough information being conveyed by the other instruments, it’s nice to be able to solo with the same kind of freedom that a saxophone or trumpet player would. You can’t always do that if the groove has been neglected. Sometimes in the jazz realm when it comes to the bass solo, everyone just stops playing and it’s like, “Whoa, this guy is trying to outline some changes, give him some harmony and give the audience some context.” People do a disservice to bass players by just dropping out in those moments. And that’s why everyone says that people talk during bass solos. It’s the worst. If it comes down to me and the drummer during a bass solo then I know I have to keep the groove going, so I’ll keep the locomotive moving and feed that fire.

You always have a happy demeanor when you perform, and you can hear that in your playing. How important is your disposition to your performance?

I appreciate hearing that. It’s great that it translates. Part of it is, not to get too philosophical, but the guiding light of what we do—at least for me—is joy and fun. If I can spread that message through my music, then that’s the ultimate goal. It’s more important than someone saying I’m a dope guitar player or my licks are killer. If they think I’m good at what I do, great. If they think I’m a good player, awesome, I appreciate that. But to me, it’s more important to hear that when someone hears my music it brings a smile to their face, or that my music is fun and brings a sense of happiness. It’s one of the things I feel I’ve been called to do with my music and with my life, so my demeanor reflects the fact that what I’m doing is fun and I’m genuinely having a good time. Even on days when I’m really tired or burned out after playing 40 shows in a row, and I have a 5AM flight and the gig doesn’t start until 11PM, the reality is I get to do what I love for my job. I get to bring joy to people, I get to play music with my friends, and I get to be around some of the greatest musicians, and that’s something to celebrate. Feeling that I’m living out my calling always fills me with gratitude. I’m pretty much doing all the things I really want to and it’s fun, so of course that’s going to translate. –BM

Hear Him On: Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood [2020], Meditations with John Batiste [2020], Trail Songs: Dusk [2020], Trail Songs: Dawn [2020], The Striped Album [2020], Cory and The Wongnotes [2021], Live In Amsterdam with Metropole Orkest [2020], The Syncopate & Motivate Tour (Set 1) [2020], The Syncopate & Motivate Tour (Set 2) [2020]

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