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Singing and Playing: A How-To Guide for Independence for Bass Players

Singing and playing bass

Q: I have great vocal chops, which I exercise frequently in my alter ego solo acoustic guitarist thing. I play bass in a blues/R&B band and have the best vocal talent in the band. But I can’t sing over a bass line to save my behind. Can this be learned? Any tips?

A: Keep in mind that I am one who has never sang a note and, whenever I try, I quickly decide that I’ve done the world a good deed by not singing.

However, it sounds to me that this is a question of independence. Independence of any kind simply takes some thoughtful exercising compounded with time and patience.

Just like a drummer needs to gain limb independence (hands and feet) – and we as bassists need to gain independence of fingers (left hand fingerings and right hand plucking patterns) – a singing musicians needs to be able to separate his voice from his hands as well. In other words: separate the part of the brain focusing on the lyrics and phrasing from the part of the brain focusing on playing a line.

As with any independence exercise, I would start slowly.

Here’s a checklist to get you started:

  1. Start simply. Pick a tune you know well vocally and then try to just play quarter notes through the tune. Stick to root notes at first, and start upping the ante as you progress and include other notes in your bass line.
  2. Pick a song with a simple ostinato pattern that doesn’t move around at all. Start with one key. You can just focus on one section of the song at a time, if necessary.
  3. See if you can start singing the melody while maintaining a solid ostinato. There may be phrases that are easier to play in tandem than others. You should isolate these and learn them one by one… slowly. Then, piece the song together like a puzzle, always stopping when necessary to work a phrase out.
  4. Pick a handful of tunes to learn one by one and work them all up slowly (“Message in a Bottle”, anyone?) These songs don’t have to be ones in which the actual artist sang and played simultaneously, but do find songs that will push the envelope of your abilities while not being completely outside of your realm of possibility (so as to not get frustrated and quit. Perhaps skip over the Geddy Lee stuff for a bit. We need to allow ourselves little victories to inspire further development.)
  5. Write down the rhythms of the vocal melody against the bass line and see how they intertwine. Or, you could record both of them separately and meld them. Listen repeatedly and focus on how they intertwine. Internalize it and try again.

At first (and for quite some time) you will probably want to have a specific pattern you play on the bass while you are singing but, eventually, you could practice improvising over a tune while singing the melody.

Check out this video of Raul Midon practicing playing “Giant Steps” while singing unison, harmonizing, and doing both independently of each other! He explains how this developed for himself quite nicely… and then proceeds to blow your mind.

This will not come quickly, but as you master your respective instruments (voice and bass) and continue to push your limits on both (in tandem and independent of each other), it will slowly become more and more natural for you.

As with all things, all it takes is time and determination (and not just practicing but practicing well)!

Readers, what have you done to develop your singing and playing? Tell us about it in the comments!

Photo by ClintJCL

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