A Quick Note: This is part of a series of posts about “How To Not Be a Dumb Musician”. These posts outline common frustrations associated with certain types of musicians in an attempt to become better musicians. Enjoy.
Bass players often get a bad rap for only having to play “one note at a time”, being “failed guitarists” or generally not knowing much about music. In the 1996 Tom Hanks classic movie That Thing You Do! the bass player doesn’t even have a name. Some people don’t even know what the bass does, or why this weirdo is on stage with the guitar players. Well bassists, let’s up your game. Here’s how to not be a dumb bass player.
Why The Band is Frustrated With You
The main reason everyone else in the band gets frustrated with you is simple: you’re too busy trying to come up with more interesting things to play and are losing sight of what it means to be a bass player. Anything too fancy that you play will distract from your primary job.
Get Your Bassiness Back
Guitar is cool, isn’t it? They get to play fancy fast stuff and they get all the attention. The keyboard player has all sorts of crazy sounds, and nothing is quite as cool as the drums. Each instrument plays a specific role in the band, including you. Your job is to be the bridge between the drums and everyone else in the band.
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Bands
Drums are, by their nature, rhythmic. They don’t provide much in the harmonic department. (Drummers, I know, I know, you guys tune your drums. You know what I mean though.) Everyone else’s duties in the band are primarily harmonic. Sure, there are rhythms that they play, but nothing as rhythmic as drums. Your job is to be the bridge between these two, the glue that holds them together. By locking in with the drummer, you are providing some harmonic structure to the rhythms he’s laying down. This unifies the whole band and makes it sound like you’re actually playing together.
Once you embrace your role as the glue, the bridge between the two halves of the band, you’ll find yourself thinking differently, playing differently, and the whole band sounding tighter.
What You Can Do For Yourself
Now that you understand the role you play, let’s take a look at specifics. Here’s a few common phrases said by dumb bass players, and what you can do to never have to ask these questions again.
What Not To Say: “It’s a C chord, then G chord, then an A chord. Minor? I dunno.”
Bassists play only one note at a time. That’s the job, playing the lowest note in the band, and playing it well. Nothing is more frustrating to the rest of the band than a bass player who doesn’t know what chords are. Just because you aren’t playing them doesn’t mean you don’t need to know them. If you plan on playing any sort of moving line, you need to know what that chord is, because if you play loud E under the band’s Cm, they’re going to throw stuff at you. Knowing the chord allows you to move around better and construct a more interesting bass line. Knowing the chords will not only make the bass lines you play more melodic, they’ll also give you some street cred with the rest of the band.
Instead Say: “When it goes to the bridge, I’m playing a line that fits in nicely with the chords you’re playing.”
What Not To Say: “Yeah I thought I would just play the sharp 9 on the downbeat. That’s hip man.”
Bass players: play roots on downbeats. It can’t get any simpler than this. I know you want to play something cooler, but save it for literally any other beat. Beat 1 is reserved for roots. Yes, you can play a 3rd or 5th if the chart calls for it, but play too many other note notes on the downbeat and the keyboard player is going to cut your strings after the gig. You have flexibility in the rest of the measure (in some genres more than others) but in general, stick to those roots on downbeats. You’ll never go wrong, and you’ll make the rest of the band happy.
Instead Say: “I’m a bass player. Roots on downbeats pays my bills.”
What Not To Say: “Sorry I missed the change on the chorus, I was stuck in the middle of this awesome fill.”
I know, you’re tired of all those pesky roots. You want to change it up and add in a Pino fill. Go for it. Just know that you better come out of that fill and stick the landing. When you start a fill, make sure you know how you’re going to get out of it. If nothing else, on beat 4 of the last measure, yell “MISSION ABORT!” and go straight to the root on beat 1. Okay, maybe don’t actually yell it, but abandon your fill, it’s only bringing you down. When you do play a fill that messes you up, it’s time to take a cold hard look at your life, and just play roots. Your primary job is to play roots on downbeats. Anything else you play is secondary.
Instead Say: “I’m going to dial back my fills until I get comfortable with the groove.”
What Not To Say: “On this part I’m going to play some chords up high, oh and use my distortion pedal!”
If you want to be a guitarist, go buy a guitar and start talking about delay pedals all the time. Your job is to be the lowest sound in the band, not play flashy stuff. When in doubt, keep it simple. Your job is not to be the one who plays fast, loud and fancy. Your job is to play roots on downbeats, and play great time. Remember, you’re the glue!
Instead Say: “I’m a bass player, I don’t need that stuff.”
What Not To Say: “Is it cool if I take a slap solo there? I’m going to take a slap solo there.”
Don’t take a slap solo there. Slap bass is maybe the flashiest thing you can do on the bass. But you know what? It’s rarely ever called for, at least not as often as you would like. I know it’s fun, I know it’s fancy, but slap bass is a very unique sound that only works in certain situations. Take the “only if necessary” approach here. If you’re on a smooth jazz gig, slap away my friend. If you’re on an acoustic singer-songwriter gig, don’t do it unless the singer turns around and emphatically yells, “slap solo!” Even then, you should check to make sure the singer isn’t having a stroke.
Instead Say: “I’ll keep it simple.”
What You Can Do For the Band
Arrive Early and Leave Late
One of the most awesome things about being a bass player is the gear, or the lack thereof. You could get away with just the bass, amp, and cable, and sometimes not even the amp. This is awesome, and the rest of the band hates you for it. So meet them halfway and they’ll appreciate it. Help wrap cables after the gig, or better yet, help out your new best friend:
Become Best Friends With The Drummer
You know who listens to the bass player the most? The drummer. You two are responsible for providing the main groove. You two are in your own exclusive club, and the other band members will never understand. If there’s one person you should focus on making happy at the gig, it’s the drummer. You guys will groove together, talk after, and call each other for more work because you love playing together. The easiest way to get to know the drummer after the gig is help him tear down. He’s got a ton of crap up there on stage and could use a hand, while you’re packing up you’ll talk, exchange numbers, and boom! You guys are gigging besties. (Editor’s note: let’s find a different term for this that doesn’t sound disgusting)
If there’s one helpful thing to be said to bass players, it’s this: BE A BASS PLAYER. Keep it simple. Oh, and stop picking your callouses in front of everyone.
Photo credit: Carson Ting