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Ask Damian Erskine: Finding the balance

Q: How do you discern whether you’re playing “appropriately” or over-playing?

A: This is completely subjective and depends on:

  1. style of music you’re playing
  2. bandleaders interpretation of appropriate
  3. taste
  4. other things too, but that’s a good start!

For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume we’re not talking fusion or jazz here.

One simple thing to keep in mind is “does the MUSIC sound good??” (notice I did not write “Do I sound good?”! I mean, if you listen objectively as an audience member, would you think the over-all music is as good as it could be?). Many of us make the mistake of listening to ourselves instead of the band as a whole!

It’s understandable, though. We’re in a world of information and youtube and we watch these cats on the inter-webz just blowing the doors off with chops, scales, arpeggios, sweeping, tapping, etc. It’s truly phenominal!! But to try and apply techniques and sounds like these if you’re not a solo bassist or fusion guy can be tricky (and often, just distasteful for most non bass players). One must always consider the genre and setting they’re in.

For example, most of my youtube videos are fast solos, busy grooves, etc… it’s the flashy stuff. That’s what I put on youtube for BASS PLAYERS because people are interested in it. I don’t imagine many NON-bass players watch them, though and they probably wouldn’t want to watch me do it on a gig either. The reality is… not only is it NOT what I enjoy the most about playing bass, it’s just plain NOT what I do most of the time when on a gig! I do most of my playing with songwriters, pop bands, funk bands and then do also play quite a bit of Salsa, Jazz and fusion stuff. Quite honestly, I am happiest when rocking my four string in the context of a great song! That often means that I’m not playing very much! I’m happiest tho, not because I may or may not be impressing anyone with my playing. I’m happiest when the musical statement is a complete one! No matter what genre.

This is only because I’ve finally trained myself to listen to the group BEFORE I listen to myself!

I spent years over-playing and thinking that the annoyed band-leader “just didn’t get it!” When I listen back, I’m horrified! (I’ve actually written emails to band leaders from my early days mentioning how embarrassed I was listening to an old recording and apologizing)

I implore each of you to do this on a pop or R&B gig.

  1. try playing an entire song with not more than one bass fill (and try and keep that below the 9th fret)
  2. listen to what you’re playing. Play HALF of that rhythmically and/or harmonically. Now listen to the group as a whole. How does it sound?
  3. try as hard as you can to close your eyes and listen to the song. Are you playing the song or trying to impress the drummer?
  4. try singing what you’re playing as you play it. Does THAT sounds like music?

I try and think of every song I play as I would in the studio. When you’re recording with a good producer, you can learn a LOT about what makes the song great. It very often is NOT that amazing triplet lick that sounded like all of the notes just fell down the stairs. It’ll often be a perfectly placed half note with just the right duration, tone and feel.

The same applies to busier styles of music, as well! Just because the band is burning and every can shred doesn’t mean that everyone should… all the time! Try and keep your role as foundation provider strong!! PIck your moments and embellish with intentionality, don’t just fill all of the holes.

When I’m at a bass bash at the NAMM show or some such bass player event? Yeah, I’ll do my best to stand up and blow with the rest of em’. But when I’m on the gig the other 99.5% of the time? I’ll only ever play what I think the music wants me to play. Sometimes it’s tricky or impressive, sometimes it’s not. But if the music is speaking as strongly as possible, then everyone hearing it is much more likely to be in tune with it and enjoy it!

My advice?

Music is for everyone, not just bass players! Play it that way!

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