The bass is an incredible instrument. It’s never too late to start playing and there’s always something to learn for those who have already started. But sometimes we hit ruts in our growth that will wear us down. That’s why we’ve compiled advice for up-and-comers from ten of the world’s foremost bassists across a variety of styles.
If you or someone you know is looking for a little inspiration, take it from these guys.
The first thing I would do if I was teaching someone to start is I would make them listen to every record they can find, particularly music they like, and try to identify the bass part. Just try to hear it and try to get your head around what makes the bass sound like the bass and what notes that they choose.
The next thing is just play your bass. Get a book or a teacher just so you don’t develop any horrible habits like I did. Then listen and start to try to connect the notes that you play to the music in your ear. I used to learn the bass parts off of different records all day long. Even records I didn’t like.
You know, just learn the bass lines as best as you can. You’ll start to see different patterns as you learn more and more songs. You’ll start to see the same things happening over and over again. You’ll start to recognize what makes an effective bass part. Try to develop your ear along with your fingers. It’s really important.
The thing I think is important, too, is to not limit yourself. You’ll read about guys who say, “I don’t fool around with solos. I’m a feel player.” Or other people say, “I don’t practice rhythm because rhythm will take care of itself. I focus on my solos.” I think that both of those ideas limit you, particularly if you are young. If you’re older and you realize that you have limitations, that’s fine. You do what you do well. But as a young guy, you should really try to be a complete musician. You don’t hear piano players say, “I’m just an accompanist,” or, “I just solo.” Everybody else is required to be complete, and I think bass players should have the same responsibilities.
Well, luck [is] probably a big part of it, but I’ve also worked hard and have always tried to be a team player. My advice to young players would be to practice hard and learn as much as you can about your instrument, and even more importantly, learn how to work with other people. A good musician who is easy to work with will make it a lot farther than a great musician who’s a pain in the neck.
[Nowadays, bassists] have to their advantages a lot of tools that we didn’t have growing up. Even like when our first Sly and the Family Stone albums came out, a lot of folks didn’t even know what I was doing on the bass until they saw us on television or saw us playing live. There was very limited access to learning other techniques.
Now with the internet and other tools you can go out there and find whatever kind of music you’re looking for, and instructional videos of how to do it. Even the method of being able to learn a song with digital recorders as opposed to when I had to teach myself “Okie Dokie Stomp” on the guitar, it was a record. You’re trying not to scratch it and put [the needle] in the last place you left off… you know, it’s much more difficult. I would just say take advantage of all the learning tools that are there. Don’t take them for granted, but take advantage of them and use them. Do your homework and put in the work.
You’ve gotta put in the effort, because that’s what’s going to help you be more creative so you can create your own style of playing or bass lines or create your own music. We’ve kind of gotten away from that in the electronic age. A lot of people bring their kids to our shows to show them what live music played by live musicians is like. I think that’s a good thing.
Like most students of the bass, I struggled with inconsistencies while working on Sevcik and Simandl. Becoming frustrated, I asked Richard Davis how to improve my “bad days” of playing. He asked me if I had eaten, if I had a good pair of shoes, if I had warm clothes to wear, if I had a secure apartment, etc… I answered affirmative. He then said that I needed to address the bass with essentially the same expectations and quality as my daily activities. “If you take care of the bass, it will take care of you.” Needless to say and over 31 years later, I’m still following his advice.
My number one top tip would be become a “Yes Man.” Any gig you are offered, take it. Play as many shows as you can with as many different people. Trust me, it’s fun. A few years ago I decided to take this approach, and it opened my eyes and ears to a huge range of music and people I would never have normally encountered. Sure, I played many gigs that I didn’t necessarily love, but it was all good fun and eventually led me to where I am in my career at the moment. Give it a try, see where it takes you.
Go your own way, and if you get a teacher, get one that helps you develop the way you want to play instead of teaching you how to play like everybody else.
Sometimes [your] interests change, but the craft never does. Even if you’re the biggest rock star bass player on the planet, make sure you can do everything yourself. Make sure you can run your rig and make sure you practice until everything is easy. That really never changes whether you’re a superstar or getting ready for a local show or playing someone’s garage. It’s always the same.
If you want to be part of a band and use that as your only vehicle, that’s fine. Then do everything to get that up and running and stay busy. Unfortunately, the industry has changed so much that I feel for the younger cats out there. There’s just not as many opportunities out there like there was in the ’80s and the ’90s, you know? I tell young bass players to really hone in on your instrument, work hard, be versatile, and be open-minded to any styles of music so then when the opportunity comes and you get the call to play bass on a certain genre that you’re not as familiar with, you’ll be prepared. There’s a lot of ways you can look at it. I believe in being versatile and available. If you’re a bass player, be a bass player. Try to learn what your function is within any kind of format: quintets, trios, quartets, pop, rock, salsa, latin jazz, funk. For the longest time, I stayed busy because of that. I got a bit of a reputation as the guy you could call that could play lots of different styles. That kept me busy.
That worked for me. Again, it’s a personal thing. If you have a kickin’ band and you have your brothers in arms and you’re all shooting for something and your common denominator is to write great music and get a deal, then that’s great, too. If you really break it down, you know we have a lot of time available and there’s a lot of down time. For the bass players coming up: decide what you want to do with your life. If you want to be a bass player, learn your craft to be ready for any given situation and take it from there. Maybe on your down time you can start another project that will be something more challenging for you. I was constantly doing that because no matter how big the project, you just couldn’t stay busy enough. Twelve months out of the year – even with a bigger band – you’re touring five or six months out of the year. Seven if you’re lucky, so you have a lot of down time. That’s when I started realizing I could be creative on my own. I could put my own projects together.
Challenge yourself. That’s my point. Push yourself and see how far you can go. The things that are really scary are the ones that challenge you. Those are the ones you should start paying attention to. That’s my philosophy, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
For aspiring players, I mean really just try to be a sponge and take in as much music as you can and never shy away from a playing opportunity. I’ve played in over 10 bands since I was 12, multiple symphonic orchestras, jazz big bands, small jazz combos; and even in musical theater productions of “Evita”, “Footloose”, “Phantom” (Yeston’s version, not Webber’s) which have played such a big part in my love of writing theatrical concept records with Between the Buried and Me. You seriously never know when you’re going to find inspiration so never turn away from an opportunity.
I would first of all just say play what you love, because it will always work better that way. Obviously, you have to learn your craft, get familiar with instrument and get comfortable, but don’t run headlong into some genre [just because]. If you don’t want to play straight-up hardcore jazz because you don’t like it but you feel like you should have to learn it because you’re not cool if you don’t, well [screw] that. And if for some reason it’s the other way around and you just want to play pop music and be straight-up commercial, that’s cool, too. You don’t have to learn how to play a million notes in order to be a successful musician. Play what you love, and usually you play what you’re listening to.
Then after that, once you get your instrument and chops together, then I’d say try to show up as someone that other people are going to want to be around, and be reliable and fun. I don’t always live up to that standard, but I try. I think that when you’re going to be a freelance guy, it’s one of things where you want other people to want to call you and talk to you. And the other way to do it is if you want to be a guy that just has their own project. You’re the one doing the hiring, you’re the one doing the organizing. I kind of slip a little more easily into that role. It requires more work but I think some more of the Type A personalities might feel a bit more free when it comes to that. In that case, make your own rules. There’s no right way to do this. There’s only the way that you make up and make it work. Anything has a chance of working and the very first step of that is believing that you can make it work and starting to put in concrete steps that will make it possible – one little step at a time. Don’t think ahead five or ten years. [Think,] “What am I going to do tomorrow? What am I going to do today to get where I want to be?” And then just do that day after day after day after day. I didn’t have a successful career in music until I was 38 years old. Before that, I was working a job. I liked that job and it was fine. I learned a lot about business. It takes some people a long time to figure it out. If you want to be a musician, don’t give up.
On the hardcore business stuff, there’s no substitute for just going out there and having a real job in a corporate environment. That’s where I learned my business chops. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody – not everybody’s into that sort of thing. Some lessons in business are universal: there are costs, revenues, fixed expenses, varying expenses, promotional expenses. At the end of the day, there’s your brand, which is more valuable than anything. It’s who are you as a brand. Your social media posts and the way that you present yourself to the world should be consistent with the brand that you’re trying to produce. I always ask people, “Can you describe what you do in ten words?” If you can’t, you haven’t thought about it for long enough. That’s a difficult exercise for someone who’s not comfortable selling themselves. It’s not like when you come up with those ten words you need to go post them everywhere. That’s not the idea. The idea is just to think in your own head, “What is it that I do? What is it that I’m trying to project? What is it that I’m trying to sell?” If you want to be that guy – if you want to be the person who is up on social media trying to make a brand for yourself or at least a product and wanting to get hired by certain things. It’s worth it to figure out what it is that you want in your own head first, what it is that you want to project to other people, and then let those ten words inform your actions.