About a year ago I hit Craigslist really hard looking for music projects to join. A week later, I was in 4-ish bands. A couple weeks after that, I bought a shortscale bass off one of my friends and I played that in 3 of the bands.
Playing bass is underrated and underutilized in many genres and in many peoples’ minds. In my relatively small experience, the differing role of bass means adjusting to being responsible for a whole different set of song functions.
In fact, there was a band in Tallahassee called BAET that had two bassists for a while. It really added to the fullness and depth of their sound. One bassist would stay in a lower octave while the other would often jump up and add little flourishes and occasionally jump on synths instead.
They were pretty awesome, but going into a new band with that in mind didn’t work out particularly well (they do their own thing and they do it well!). Instead, I learned a few key things about the role of bass in a band and how to make the most of the position:
1. Silence is often just as important as playing
Bass drives. Even in a really chilled out jazz song, it gives a pulse that connects the drums and the ‘lead’ instruments. So on certain repetitions of a section, it can perk listeners’ ears to have the bass drop and remove the vibrations in the chest that tend to put the audience in a groove or trance. This showcases the other instruments and is often very useful when fine-tuning a song’s momentum. (It can also be helpful to drop out when you aren’t quite sure what to play, in a noobie zen kinda way… speaking from personal experience ;D)
2. Bass carries song structure in a big way
When I first started sitting in on bass, I kept trying to be too aggressive with my parts and the song usually fell apart as a result. As a guitarist, I loved being in a position of just sprinkling textures or fast little legato licks over a song that stood on its’ own already. With bass, it is often more important to anchor the harmony with basic root notes, then flesh out more movement once the chords are ‘rooted’. It helps maintain the momentum of the song and can really spice up the chord changes if the progression of the song is a I-IV-V or the like.
3. Bass can inject a new genre very easily
I used to almost never listen specifically to the bass in songs. But certain rhythms at certain times can point to a surprising diversity of musical idioms. Reggae bass is generally quick 8th notes in little groups on only a few notes with strategic spaces in between. Jazz bass is usually walking and touching the color tones. Rock is boring. (sorry rock bassists, couldn’t resist! hehe) Point being, changing the groove can totally flip the genre associations people will have with the song.
4. You really do have to pay attention to the drummer
I like to do my own thing when jamming. Partially because I haven’t practiced enough to keep the harmony, timbre, and feel in my head all at once; but it’s much easier to sit in when you pay attention to what the drums are doing. I remember one of my old bandmates explaining that the bass should mimic the kick drum, if for no other reason than that was how a rock track would be mixed. Recording aside, it makes it easier to pull out a great groovy line while staying in the pocket if you match at least one part of the kit or rhythm. Then it’s just a matter of adding in a subtle counter-rhythm or melody and you’ve got a tasteful bassline coming along nicely.
5. You can spend a lot more time thinking about overall composition
There’s a learning curve for bass if you come at it after playing guitar for a while, but once you get the technique down, you might often find yourself in a position where your fingers can go on autopilot for brief stretches of time. It’s easy to write that off as ‘boring’ but sticking through it can be extremely beneficial. It gives you the (sometimes rare) opportunity to really listen to how everyone’s parts interact in the moment and assuming your band operates like a democracy or meritocracy, you can keep the re-writing process going. Any writer can tell you that re-writing and editing are where most of the work comes in and that is often true of music as well. In other words, if you push yourself to brainstorm and actively listen during practices, you can benefit the composition and the arrangement.
I had been hesitant to play bass in a band because it didn’t seem like as much fun as guitar, and that has been unfounded for the most part. Helping to hold down a great jam is an amazing feeling: you get to watch other people rip it and respond to their changes and all you have to do it keep it smooth! It definitely took a little while to find a good fit with a group and find my footing on the neck, but it always does (at least in my experience). Also, while these little tips are mostly for the bass, the same concepts can apply in a number of different scenarios and lineups.
Thanks for reading!