Q: I’ve been reading through your No Treble columns and had a question pop into my head. I’ve been asked to play more solos recently at a lot of different gigs from jazz to R&B. I find that half (or more) of the time, when it comes to the bass solo, everyone stops playing except for the drummer. How do you deal with gigs where the piano player or guitar player completely drop out during your solo?
A: You are not alone! It is a bit of a running joke among bass players and a serious pet peeve for many. I’ve always assumed that the habit was one carried over from the days of unamplified upright players, where the band really had to lay out or drop down to almost nothing for the bassist to do his thing. It also likely has to do with the frequency of the instrument. Lower frequencies just don’t cut like higher frequencies do (of course, depending on your tone and the range of your instrument, this may not be a factor).
Regardless, the fact remains that most of the band takes a short vacation when it’s the bassist’s time to take a solo. This drives me nuts for one reason: the lack of harmonic support! Without the chords or some kind of bass line happening, my lines don’t have anything to operate against and play off of. The ♯11 sounds cool, in part, because of the way it plays off of the chord tones. The half-step tension between the ♯11 and the 5th, the tri-tone rub against the root. Without any foundation, now my ♯11 just sounds like another note. Our lines are forced to function as a melody in and of themselves without any context.
So, my first suggestion is typically to let it be known that I’d prefer to have something to play against.
1. Make your preferences known.
Whether the pianist can lay down some chords, maybe the guitarist can give me an ostinato of some kind to work against… something. Just tell everybody that you want something to work against and to not be shy. Give me the support that I’ve been giving you all night, essentially. Your solo will sound better, and you’ll likely play better, and the band, as a whole, will benefit.
In groove-based music, like R&B or funk, the hardest thing for me about bass solos is that there’s no bass player! The bass carries much of the underlying meat of the tune with the drummer, and I always feel my inspiration for anything deflate as soon as I stop playing bass. I feel like there no longer anything to play against. So, for groove music (R&B, funk, blues, pop), if everybody drops out? I make it a groove solo.
2a. Change it up.
I’ll take my already existing groove and change it up enough to stand out, adding rhythmic information as I feel it, and I’ll try to lock into some kind of cool 1 or 2 bar pattern that I can operate from. Working from that, I might use that as a home base and launching pad for some melody or licks but coming back to that groove (i.e.: groove for 2 bars with your upgraded groove and launch off for some high wire solo stuff for 2 bars and then come back to the groove for a while. Rinse and repeat as necessary).
2b. Start simple and work your way up.
If you have hyper-rhythmic slap or finger-style chops, you can also start with a simplified groove and slowly evolve it rhythmically (and harmonically) into a “super chops” groove monster-type peak and give a nod for the band to come back in when it feels right. Groove solos have the benefit of keeping the audience engaged while also not feeling like the bottom dropped out when the bass player “gets some”. In a way, we are set up for failure in that way in the context of a groove solo. Everything sounds so full and complete while the band plays, but as soon as everybody drops out and it’s nothing but bass and drums? To my ears, continuing to groove is the only real option. Again, my default is to request that at least one person in the band gives me something to work against. Chords, bass line, melodic ostinato… something. Make your preferences known and work to your strengths.
3. Outline those changes.
In a jazz or more melodic setting, I find that the best course of action is for me to worry less about chops and worry more about the changes. Focus on those chord tones and try to make use of those extensions if you can. You can also use the melody of the tune as a bit of a starting point. Nobody wants to hear the bassist noodle endlessly over a scale or two, no matter how fast or impressively you can do it. What tends to keep both the music and the audience engaged is hearing a sense of the song and the motion of the changes in the solo. Often times, a simple melodic statement that clearly marks the harmonic motion of the tune will have a deeper impact than a blistering solo that doesn’t seem to relate to what was happening before or comes after. Play the tune, keep it in the spirit of the tune. Grab little rhythmic or melodic motifs from the song and try and develop them. Move them through the changes. Have fun with it.
The one benefit a bassist has when everyone drops out is that we are no longer beholdant to the changes. We can take it anywhere and do anything but we have to be careful here. If we completely abandon the song, we will likely lose everybody. I find that it’s best to play as if the band is still supporting us. Hear the song in your head and play the changes. Sure, you have the freedom to depart from them as well but come back to them. It’ll make that departure all that much more impactful!
Here is a video I found online of a solo I took while doing a clinic with Marko Djordjevic and Jeff Ellwood. This trio is drums, bass and saxophone which means that I am almost always supporting myself during bass solos (although Jeff was great at playing bass lines on his sax underneath me on occasion).
Notice how you can hear me playing some changes. After being frustrated the first few times we played at what I could do, I started just looking at the chart and playing through various sections of the song. This tied the solo together in a musical way and also gave me something to work off of. If I remember correctly, I wasn’t even playing the tune as it is written, but rather grabbing little sections here and there and sticking with one chord or set of changes if I felt like it. I kept it free and my options open but had fun with the song.
I hope that helps!
Readers, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you handle truly solo bass solos? Please share in the comments.