We all have influences. If you’re doing creative things, you’re constantly doing a dance: trying to have a dialogue with your influences while keeping them just out of sight. There’s nothing more cutting than hearing that you sound like X.
Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead, is my biggest influence. Every note I play is in conversation with his style, which is a problem because Lesh is so distinctive that it’s easy to hear when someone is imitating him.
Lesh is different than every other bassist I’ve ever heard. He isn’t simply holding the groove down, but he’s not really a bass god like Victor Wooten or Stanley Clarke. He doesn’t slap. He hardly ever solos (but he’s always kind of soloing too). He screws with groove and plays with a pick, but everything he does just seems to work. His influences on the electric bass were Bach and 20th century classical music. He has perfect pitch and studied classical composition. Real bassists either hate him or love him.
In other words, Phil Lesh is a pretty formidable influence and he infects your playing if you let him inside you.
I listen to my playing in Not There, which is about as far away from the Dead as you can get, and I still hear Phil Lesh everywhere: the way I like to start with a high note then play something really deep and bass-y or the way I kind of swing everything even when I don’t. Even though my playing is much more repetitive than Phil’s (Marco wants me to write a book called Over and Over and Over Again: My Life in Not There) it still has his imprint.
Recently, some friends and I started a Dead cover band. I don’t know why they’re into it, but for me it’s almost like I’m trying to cast out Phil Lesh’s influence by letting it run wild within certain boundaries. (Spoiler: it won’t work)
At the end of his life Picasso re-painted the old masters, mutilating and cannibalizing them in a vain attempt to make them his own. I’m no Picasso, and if he struggled with the grip exerted on him by his influences maybe we’re all damned to imitate and copy what we love.