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When to Play with the Harmony: A Discussion for Bass Players

Guitarist and bassist
Photo by Lorri Auer

Q: The (new) guitarist in my band has mentioned a few times that I’m not “holding it down” because I don’t always play the root, and he finds it “detracts from the song.” He is an extremely good musician and I respect his opinion. However the chords in our songs are super vanilla. Our vocalist says she loves the way I play, and she is the songwriting force in the band. What are your thoughts on playing with the harmony in a vocal-centric setting, particularly when you are getting contradictory feedback?

A: Good question. Guitarists are stereotypically sensitive to bass players stepping into the world of “melodic playing” or not hitting whole notes on the root.

(Ok, that was snarky).

Often times, I can’t say I blame them. It seems a lot of bassists overplay these days, at least for my taste. Myself included.

There is a tendency, especially when you have five times the chops or harmonic depth necessary for the gig at hand to have a little too much fun. The problem usually boils down to how well we can actually listen to the music while we are playing. Many of us don’t actually listen all that well to the band as a whole when we’re making music. I’ve probably said before that I try my best to listen to the band as if I was in the audience, and gauge my playing from that perspective. I also try not to play half the fills that pop into my head when on a gig (man, I can fill some space if I’m not careful).

That doesn’t really address your question, although it’s worth mentioning.

If a new player jumps into the band, he also needs to make allowances for the way in which a unit is already operating. This also depends much on who might be considered the leader or – at least – the songwriter in the group.

If you are playing the song the way the composer intended, then I say that you are doing your job! It might be worth a group discussion (watch the ego, everybody, and keep it civil). If your lines sound musical to you and the songwriter agrees, then the guitarist may just have to reorient himself musically. This is especially true if you feel that he is just being territorial and/or trying to keep the attention on himself or herself.

Do you feel that the guitarist is overplaying? Do your lines conflict with theirs? When you stray from the root, are you also doing it in an upper register (stepping on the guitarist’s toes)?

It is also worth mentioning that the function of the bass dictates that we outline the harmony and when we play the 3rd on the bottom, that changes the sound of the chord in a very direct way. If you are playing 5ths or 7ths, then that is even more true. If you are landing on other scale tones, then you are very much changing the harmony of the tune.

Often, the choice to land on a non-root note will work or not depending on the entire context of the line. Are you playing a non-root in order to play a linear, step-motion type line?

Or are you just jumping to the 3rd out of nowhere because the idea appeals to you?

If your line makes sense to your ears, and they have context and support the song, then I think you shouldn’t sweat it too much. That’s especially true if the songwriter agrees with you.

Record a rehearsal and listen objectively. You know what good music sounds like, so listen hard, take yourself out of the equation and judge for yourself (even collectively, as a band). Find out what might work best for the song – not just for the guitarist or the bassist. What’s best for the song?

If everyone is able to truly take an objective approach to the music, I’m sure you’ll come out on top.

Readers, have you experienced this situation or one like it? What have you done? Please share in the comments.

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Share your thoughts

D J Sal Z.

The most important part of playing is passion. If you are playing what you feel, end of story. Why even consider changing your path for the satisfaction of another ? The guitarist is either use to another bass players style, may regret leaving his previous band, or he is attempting to control you and or your band.

Have a meeting and discuss his issues with other band members. Maybe he is not the guitarist that belongs in your band. I would take diplomatic action and find out exactly his issue.