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Bass in an Acoustic Setting: Knowing How to Play Your Role

Acoustic trio

Q: I think I have a good suggestion for an area you may have not covered: the role of a bassist in an acoustic setting. No drummer (maybe a Djembe), just acoustic guitar, bass and vocals. How do you keep it grooving, how do you fill the space, how do you make it sound good? I’ve had to play a ton of acoustic gigs lately (more than I’d like) and at first it’s just really hard to figure out your (new) role in the band.

A: That’s a great suggestion and question and well timed, as I’ve just returned from the Oregon Country Fair (which may be the world’s coolest hippie festival) where I did four shows with a local songwriter, Alice DiMicele. The shows ranged from nine pieces with horns and multiple guitarists to a trio, depending on the stage. The trio slot consisted of Alice playing guitar and singing, myself and a trumpet.

Scenarios like this are going to be a little different every time because it very much depends on the artist and what they are going for musically. Alice likes a bassist to “get her booty moving” (her words), in addition to – on occasion – simply providing a nice melodic bed for everything else to lay on during the more atmospheric moments.

Generally speaking, I always say “put the song first”, but – especially when there’s no drummer – it can help a lot if you take on a slightly more rhythmic role in these situations. Again, it very much depends on the song and the artist. When there’s less rhythm happening in the instrumentation, I try to provide at least enough rhythmic motion to keep the band tight and locked together. If the artist is playing guitar, has solid time, and can keep it together for the band rhythmically, you may not have to do anything different unless you’re really feeling it.

My advice is to avoid forcing anything inside these smaller group settings. There is much more room for melodic and rhythmic support. There is room for more melodic content too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you start putting fills everywhere. Keep it musical, but there is definitely an opportunity to play a bit more lyrically.

In thinking about your role, you very well may want to use a bit more rhythmic information. This could mean:

  • More pulses in your line (as opposed to half and whole notes)
  • More ghost notes (to provide time, but not fill up the harmonic space)
  • More leading lines (i.e. walk-ups) to help guide the band to the next section or even just to keep everyone on point with the time
  • Any, all or none of the above depending on the music and artist

If there is a Djembe or other type of percussion, try to lock with them in much the same way you would a kit drummer. If it is just an acoustic guitar and vocalist, then definitely make sure you alter your playing in such a way that you are:

  • Providing the necessary harmonic support for the song
  • Providing the necessary rhythmic support to keep the group locked up tight with the time and form
  • Provide enough lyrical content to have a conversation with the music and provide overall musicality
  • Not overstepping your bounds and your role as the bass player

The one thing you don’t want to do is use it as an opportunity to fill up all of the holes but, rather, help provide whatever may be missing due to the lack of other instruments doing their respective jobs.

The most important thing is that you have a strong inner clock, support the vocalist, serve the overall musical statement and listen, carefully.

Again, this all depends on the artists you are working with and what their expectations of you are (and you can feel free to ask how you can better serve them musically). You may also all enjoy the freedom of not having a drummer and be a bit more elastic with the time. It can be nice to flow with the lyrics and singers sense of phrasing and stretch or compress some things here and there.

In essence, just make sure that you are providing the necessary support, helping to really deliver that song and make everything feel nice and organic. Do this and I can (almost) guarantee that the songwriter will absolutely love you for it!

Readers, what’s your approach to these sorts of settings? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Photo of the Bombay Bicycle Club by gustaffo89

Have a question for Damian? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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