Home > Informational, Music > My philosophy on playing bass

My philosophy on playing bass

My recent sit-in with Lori Diamond and Fred Abatelli has got me thinking a bit about my musical career and its current state. While I am basically “not playing” right now, at some point down the road it might be nice to get into some studio work, or maybe find a blues power trio and play a few times a month. That said, I’ve had discussions over the years with several musicians about what I think is important in order to be a good bassist. So I’ve compiled my personal opinion here. Note this is my personal philosophy and in no way means that I have any real clue what I am talking about!

Be the “rock”

I consider the bass to be the foundation of any band. By this, I mean that I as the bassist have the most impact on dynamics, the most impact on tempo, and the most impact on tightness. By their nature, guitars are less impactful on the overall tightness and tempo of a song, and the same could be said for melody-based keyboard parts. And while the drummer certainly has a great measure of control, I consider it my responsibility to ensure that songs are at the correct tempo and the correct feel. I want to be the “rock” or the “glue” that holds the song together, that ties everything together.

My first to-do, whether it’s a new band, a sit-in, a new song, what have you, is to make sure I am absolutely 100% locked in and in tune with my drummer. It’s not called a rhythm section for nothing! But beyond that, I want to be the bridge from drummer to the other musicians, to be the one communicating, making eye contact, and keeping everything together. Good bands take hard work and communication and I want to be 99% sure that my parts are locked in and dependable, so that the other musicians have the freedom to work their magic over the top of my foundation.

Play nice with others

This is vitally important when you play with keyboardists, in particular the talented ones who utilize the full scope of their 88 keys. I’ve been lucky enough to play with several awesome keyboardists over my career, and in doing so I had to learn to play with them across their varying styles. Covers versus original ends up being slightly different, as the covers already have their parts clearly delineated, and if you are both playing the parts as executed, generally you should be fine.

In the case of originals, however, it’s critical that the bassist be highly aware of what the keyboardist is doing musically with their left hand, the hand that handles the bass keyboard parts. Rightfully so, talented players will use their left hand to enhance their keyboard parts, and it becomes necessary for the bassist to find their way around those parts and bring something different to the table to keep from blending in or blurring what the keyboardist is doing in the lower ranges.

It’s also important to key in on the techniques of your drummer and attempt to match your right hand to their rhythm. Many times you can heighten the perception of your riffs and fills by tying the timing of those fills to drum fills. My favorite bass fills are ones where it becomes difficult to separate the hit on the drum head from the pluck of the bass string; this shows tightness and makes both the drum and bass notes shine.

Bring your own sense of melody

I am not going to comment here on the specifics of note choice, because I think that’s hard to abstract away from any particular song. But I will say that you should never be afraid to give your bass parts some sort of melody or melodic impact. Whether it’s inversions against the guitar chords, i.e. walking down as the guitar part ascends, or a completely counterpoint melody to the vocals, as long as you are holding down the tempo and the feel I think it’s completely acceptable to have some melody in your parts and not just sit on the chord root notes or do triad scale walks. There’s nothing wrong with triad patterns, as they certainly have their place and time, but I have never felt obligated to use them where something a little sharper, or bouncier, or catchier might do.

Bring the passion

One thing I will definitely insist on, is to play your notes with conviction. Mean them. Attack them. Even on ballads, go after your notes with emotion. The notes themselves don’t matter from a passion standpoint; if you don’t feel the riff, or feel the fill, or feel the slide, the notes won’t resonate with you or with your audience. If your bass part isn’t making your body move, or your head wiggle a bit, then I would argue you are not committed to the part. There are a lot of bassists out there better than me, but I mean what I play, and that comes across and makes a difference.

Keep the action low

I won’t bother to say much about technique, other than acknowledging that mine is mostly by feel and technically speaking pretty bad, mostly due to my small hands compared to the size of the neck of a bass guitar. While I can write music by hand, and studied here and there with different teachers, I am largely self-taught, can’t sight-read, and have found that my style and ability changes over time the more or less I play.

At the end of my 3-year run with IronHorse Exchange I was probably at the top of my game; despite my small hands I felt a certain sense of synergy with my 5-string Fender J-bass that was the result of a tip I picked up somewhere in a magazine. I read that the higher your string action was, and/or the farther you kept your fingers from the fretboard, that both the time and energy it took to play a note was dramatically increased. It was one of those things that immediately afterward seemed very obvious. Many basses off the shelf do not have extremely low action due to the potential for fret buzz. Still, I took all of my basses in and had them strung as low as I possibly could, and then always kept my fingertips hovering just above the strings. I took them back in for adjustments every couple of months to keep the action tight. My play was faster, cleaner, and less tiring over the course of 3 or 4 60 minute sets of 80s cover material.

Embrace the obscurity

Good bassists are hard to find. Everyone wants to play guitar or drums, and a lot of times someone gets relegated to playing bass and not consciously learning the instrument or focusing on improving. I can say for sure that I would have rather been a smokin’ guitarist, but I got gigs because I was a competent bassist fluent in a variety of styles. There is always a band looking for a good bassist.

What this meant, largely, was that I did not garner the same attention at gigs and elsewhere as a result. Now I will grant you that I’m not the most attractive person, and certainly wasn’t expecting any particular attention, nor was I someone who joined bands to “get girls”, but I think it’s important to note that notoriety is something musicians will at times strive for, and that is part of what leads them down the path of guitarist or vocalist or drummer. Generally speaking most bassists go comparatively unnoticed.

I will stipulate, though, that other musicians will be aware of your contributions and will take notice, and that’s much more important. At least it is to me.

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Categories: Informational, Music
  1. Wendy
    May 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    For your information, Robert, Singer’s take notice of your contributions, as well as your attractiveness 😉 Love the IE video~you rock your socks off! Miss you!

  2. Joseph Shepheard
    August 19, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Great write up!

  3. David
    August 24, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Truly truly you have said it all ,it does come from the heart its gelled and feels combined with emotion with the band, that’s the role of a bassist, ,,

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