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Going Unnoticed: Our Role as Bassists (Or: The Not-So-Obvious Compliment)

Bassist in the shadows
Photo by philippe leroyer

There’s an old saying in the musical world that goes a little like this: “I didn’t even notice the bass until it wasn’t there!”

While this may seem a bit unfair – as if all of the other instruments receive the listening attention they deserve while we stand in the back – it happens to be a great compliment. Of course we want people to listen to our bass playing… the groove we establish, our clever passing tones and the careful attention we pay to band dynamics… But in certain situations, it’s preferable not to be in the spotlight. A great bass player has the ability to give the listener freedom to hear the music as a whole, and not just as individual parts.

This doesn’t mean that you have to oversimplify what you play, or that you’re not allowed to add your own personal touch to the music, but it does assert the importance of understanding how your notes influence the overall sound. Even though you may not be in a position to add many fills, sticking to a specific part and playing it with consistency and confidence can, in and of itself, put your own stamp on the music. Other musicians will be able to rely on your presence, your tasteful note choice, the groove you add to the music, and the fact that you leave space for the other players. This is particularly important when you’re playing with a larger ensemble where many instruments and voices are competing for the same sonic space. If your playing can make people step back and say “wow, that really sounded like a band!”, then you can give yourself a pat on the back.

This concept of “going unnoticed” also comes into play with certain genres more than others due to the function of the instrument within the music. For instance, in Latin or African music, the bass helps to define the genre with its specific rhythmic pattern or time signature. A slight variation in the feel or pattern may imply a different subset of the genre, so it is obvious when the bass is playing an incorrect part (or isn’t playing at all). If the bass seems to fit right in and continually plays a great groove, the music will lend itself to dance or to highlighting the vocalist or soloist. This kind of groove music can go on for long periods of time and creates a kind of trance, hypnotic, or “zen-like” state. Listeners rely on the unified feel of the music, so an awkward rhythm or interruption of the groove can easily grab people’s attention. How to avoid this? Keep on keepin’ on!

Similarly, in blues or country, the bass provides the feel of the music while clearly identifying the harmony. If the bass plays a wrong note, especially on beat one, it’s signaled out against the rest of the instruments. However, if the bass player locks in and knows the tune, there’s a positive transparency to what they play. The fact that they go unnoticed can be appropriate for the music and the bandleader will certainly admire your ability to play for the song and not for yourself. You don’t necessarily need to show off your technique or your knowledge of scales and modes, but you do need to make sure that band members are glad that you’re the one playing.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “but wait! I don’t want to go unnoticed!”, then try relating this concept to other “there and not”-types of music. A great example of this is film scoring. If there’s a striking scene in a movie, it’s always accompanied by an equally dramatic musical theme or soundtrack. This draws your attention into the scene as a whole and can give more emphasis to the action going on in front of you. You may not directly pick up on the music at first, especially if it is subtle, but you certainly would notice if the scene were silent. The same thing applies to playing in a band; you don’t want to overpower the action on stage, you want to enhance it.

At the end of the day, you want listeners and band members alike to realize that the band sounded great, and that you, in particular, played an important part in making that happen. While you may not be highlighted as the almighty bass player extraordinaire as you’re playing the gig, your playing will most likely resonate with everyone afterwards and chances are, you’ll get called back. You may not get an opportunity to step out and solo every night, but you will always be noticed for providing the groove.

As always, I love hearing your thoughts and feedback. Please add your voice to the conversation in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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