I have been sitting practicing this morning, in particular, focussing on my sound, and I thought it might be useful to share with you the techniques and approaches I use in my bass playing.
I focus a lot in my lessons on how to play different bass lines, how to execute techniques, and how to learn different styles of music. But today, I’d like to talk about the thought processes that I have while I play, and how I put everything together to produce an end result with my bass playing. Focusing exclusively on what we are playing, instead of how we are playing it, is an easy habit to fall into, so it is also important to also focus on our sound and how we are achieving that.
My main aim when I play the bass, is to communicate in some way with the listener. That is obviously achieved by my sound, and if I manage to convey some sort of emotion.
There are some techniques to help achieve this:
- Sense of flow - try to play through the line to keep motion.
- Phrasing - I don’t think of my lines as the bottom line, obviously bass is sonically the bottom line, but I think of bass as a lyrical line, interweaving with the other parts. To me, it is as important as the melody line, or harmony lines.
- When playing melody, I try to put as much feeling into the line as possible, and make it sings. Video Sample 1
- In faster, more groovy tunes, I try to communicate with rhythm, and make the listener want to dance. Video Sample 2
When I play, I usually have this dual thought process going on:
- What is needed from the bass right now?
- I think about my sense of time/feel/groove. I play on lots of different theatre shows and in different bands, on electric and upright, and the main thing I notice with time, is that different bands sits in different places. Some might play with a relaxed feel behind the beat, or some might play dead on the beat. This is something you need to be aware of, although this comes naturally for people you play with a lot. Some players say that they just listen to the drummer who sets the time, and then follow them. But I feel that it is important that every player in the band is taking responsibility for time, and feeding off of each other. Sure the drummer needs to lay it down, but there is a certain amount of push and pull on a small-scale level between players, that helps maintain a steady tempo.
There is a current phrase that I hear everywhere, ‘serve the song’. Now for some reason this saying really winds me up, I think it’s because some players use it to justify why they only play roots, or to attempt to put down another player for being too busy. But I think the message to take from that phrase is to not let ego get in the way of how you play. I like to say, ‘be musical’ and listen to the other musicians around you. Sometimes there is a need for a basic bass line, and other times a busier line with some high melodies or featured bass is called for. Think of Jaco, on the Shadows and Light, or Mingus , the Joni Mitchell albums. Is he serving the song? You bet! He is very much featured throughout, and pretty busy, but what would those tracks be like without his bass part? They would be different songs, but they might still work with another bass player doing his own thing.
There isn’t a right or wrong way with music, just be musical, and don’t put in links or techniques, just for the sake of it. You don’t have to stay in the traditional role as a bass player, but equally, very simple bass lines still very much have their place.
When I first started playing bass, I couldn’t really play fast, I didn’t have a big range of licks or fills, but I started getting booked a lot. There were a few bass players around me that had much better and flashier technique, but because I didn’t, I just laid it down with simple lines. Unintentionally, this meant that I was a solid dependable bass player, that musicians wanted in their band. The lesson I took from this was that the first job of a bass player is to provide a solid backbone to the band. Sure, I now love putting in lyrical fills and adding melody where necessary, but fundamentally, I love laying down a strong solid bass line.
I am going to play you two of my bass lines from an original Blues/Rock band I’m in called the Kendall Connection.
- The first one is called Hello My Old Friend, and because it’s a traditional blues style track, I play a very simple line that suites the song. Video Sample 3
- The second track, Wood On The Fire is more upbeat, so I felt that a busier line better suited the song. Video Sample 4
So to summarise, really what I am trying to say in this video is:
- Be Musical
- Listen To The other musicians around you
- At all times, think about the sound you are making
- Drop The Ego
- Try to communicate to the listener by being lyrical and phrasing your lines
- Take responsibility for time
If you work on these aspects when you are practicing, then you are sure to become a better bass player and a more interesting player, both to your fellow musician and the audience.