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What Makes a Good Bassist?

Bassist in the light

Q: I was wondering what – in your opinion – makes a good bassist?

A: This will be the most subjective article I’ve ever written, most likely, and I imagine that many of you will have a different view by one degree or another. There are many valid view points to be shared.

I think that phrasing is important. In my mind, the best bassist might not be the best bass player, and vice versa. It’s semantics, but I’m going to define these two things as:

Bassist: Bass player fulfilling the traditional role of the bass player in a group (of any size).

Bass player: A musician who displays a level of proficiency on the bass guitar. Or be called more of a “bass guitarist” (without trying to sound snotty).

Those aren’t definitions to withstand the test of time, but those are what I’ll go with in this column.

I see a TON of very impressive bass players on social media. There are also a ton of great bassists on social media, but you don’t tend to notice those guys as much.

I see a TON of great bassists on the road with various bands with a lower percentage of bass players than that of social media.

The Bassist.

I’m sure that you all know where I’m going with this. I think a good bassist is one who selflessly serves the music. Generally, the bassist does that by being a solid bridge between the drummer and the rest of the band. It’s more about time, tone and feel than anything. They have the right sound, they play at a volume that puts the bass right in there with the kick drum and/or balances well with the drummer’s volume. They play at a lower volume than the vocalist and soloists at the appropriate places, and they bring energy to the big moments and understate the sensitive moments. They aren’t afraid of long notes or long periods of rest within a bass line. They aren’t concerned with getting noticed for anything other than being incredibly solid, consistent and making the music sound and feel good.

The Bass Player.

Many great technicians I know are also great bassists. There are also many who are not and can only really function within the confines of their “thing”.

The bass player (or bass guitarist) has achieved an above average technical ability on the instrument and feels like they need everybody to know it. I was this player for many years when I first got my chops together, but before I learned how to be a better team player. I could play chords, play fast licks that ran my fretboard from top to bottom, I could play any line as 16th notes, etc… the list goes on. I was having so much fun entertaining everything that came to mind that I was no longer listening to the music and only listening to myself. When I listen back to recordings, it is painfully obvious that the music was suffering because of my need to show what I could do (or just try and do neat things on the instrument because it was fun). There is a tendency to focus on execution and technicality at the expense of the musicality of the group/song as a whole.

Many bass players tend to lean towards jazz fusion and/or solo bass, as this style tends to lean heavily on chops and the “more is more” school of playing is better justified here. I would argue that if you listen back to much of the gold standard fusion in the early days, there was a better balance struck between technicality and musicality. I find that balance harder and harder to find in newer technical fusion.

One thing I would like to stress is that one isn’t necessarily better than the other. It’s only when a good band and good music are sacrificed because of someone who doesn’t have the best interests of the overall musical statement in their mind’s eye, that I cringe inwardly.

I love all of the hyper-technical solo bass stuff out there in the world. I love seeing what people can do with the instrument. I also love hyper-chop technical fusion (generally in small doses). Generally, when I am listening to technical music, it is because I am focused on the technical aspect of it, and I get immense joy out of exploring much of that stuff. However, when I feel inspired to listen to something because I love good music, that is almost never what I lean towards.

I think that this is why most technical music is widely only listened to by musicians. The general population has nothing to grab onto if they aren’t interested in the technicality of it all.

The true legends of an instrument are generally those who capture a balance of both things (on any instrument). Chick Corea will never over play. Christian McBride, Jaco Pastorius, Oteil Burbridge, Pino Palladino, Richard Bona (goes nuts when playing a solo but listen to his albums and live shows. Nothing but great, tasty bass playing), Etienne Mbappe, Dave Holland, Geddy Lee, John Paul Jones… any genre you pick, if you think of the cream of the crop, they generally play to the music.

Victor Wooten is another one. We all think of his other-worldly chops and rhythmic abilities on the instrument but when he plays bass, it is all rock solid bass lines all of the time. He is all abut supporting the groove when he plays bass. (Before anyone mentions Victor’s first album, A Show of Hands, I actually put this in the category of “listen to get hyped up on some technical stuff” box. I feel like I’m practicing when I really listen to that album. Much of his music is like that for me. I don’t actually listen to much Victor when I’m just putting on some tunes to groove to.)

I’m going to go ahead and create a controversy here. In my honest opinion… I love listening to Jaco, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker on the Joni Mitchell concert video, Shadows and Light. There is so much beautiful playing in that concert and Joni Mitchell rocks. But when listening to it for the music contained, I think Jaco overplays, is too loud in the mix, and it bugs me at times. (There. I said it. I can only pray for the safety for me and my family from here on.)

In all seriousness, though, he doesn’t overplay continuously throughout, but he is so loud in the mix that it starts to sound like it. His volume is mixed up with Joni’s vocals and above everybody else. That’s not really his fault. Jaco was masterful at being active and playful through the changes while never stepping on anyone’s musical toes (much in the same way James Jameson played, but in an improvisatory setting).

Even when Jaco does lay things on a bit thick, he had so much feel and vibe that it still comes across in a musical way. He played jazz and made it feel like soul music. He was a master and an innovator. That said, it’s Joni Mitchell… it feels weird (to me) that you almost can’t not listen to the bassist.

I will say this as well: I started working a lot more once I really started focusing on my feel and playing to the song. I call it the “art of reduction”. Of course, I still play fusion gigs and play a million notes when that’s the tune, but I also learned how to really lay into some simple lines and focus on feel and my micro-timing (laying back vs playing on the beat vs. playing ahead of the beat). I found that there is an art to playing different genres with related to time feel and that is when I really started getting enough work as a sideman to make a living playing music. Basically I started making a living playing music once I realized that the music, as a whole, was the most important thing I was doing when I had my bass in my hands.

Remember, this was a column where somebody asked my opinion on what a great bassist was. I hold love and acceptance for every one and every style. No style, technique, approach is any better than another in my mind, but I do have preferences and I do think some things are inappropriate in particular settings.

Let’s keep it civil in the comments, but let’s also get an honest discussion going. How do you feel about it? What does being a “good bassist” mean to you? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian? Submit it to the Ask Damian Erskine Forum. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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Share your thoughts

Harold

Harold

Very well written column. I guess I would fall under the total of bassist and not bass player. I’m a self taught novice at best who’s only gig is playing with the worship band at church. (In my mind, the most important gig I could ever have) When I play, I mostly just hit the root notes and make the rhythm groove with the song being played. I enjoy your columns, keep ’em coming!

Steven Jr

Steven Jr

Fantastic column. As a bass player I feel that I need to let the song tell the story, while I keep the bottom grounded. I try not to over play unless I really have something to add. I have found when improvising with other I have the ability to change direction more that the other, with just one note. That’s the power we have!

Scott

Scott

Generally, I agree with your comments re: Jaco on “Shadows and Light” – but I do feel his playing on the tunes on which he accompanies her on the “Hejira” CD is pretty much perfect. To me, its as if he and Joni (his playing + her voice) perform a dance together as equal and necessary partners, at quite an elevated and exceptional level. Quite different from “Shadows and Light”… JMHO

Ken Kinter

Ken Kinter

Thought provoking, to be sure. I went the other way regarding your definitions; bass players play the bass, while bassists attempt to take the bass (and themselves) to new and unknown places. I alternate between these roles, as I have no desire to “ruin” a classic rock song with a lot of extraneous playing but love to play stuff that lets me stretch out and experiment. Each makes the other better, in my opinion.

    Damian Erskine

    I’m with you there! I like being able to live on both sides of it all. Like I mentioned in the column, so genres dictate that you play a lot. Like you, I’m totally down with that.
    Actually, I agree on your definitions as well. I felt the need to make some kind of distinction but was never entirely happy with defining both of those terms as opposites. I guess it’d be bassist (same as bass player) and…. frustrated guitarist? lol

mbka

mbka

All agreed and well argued. But I think there’s a hidden issue in there, the reason why people go for chops. I suspect that many musicians have a nagging feeling that they may not be “good enough” (I sure do). And this is why they get caught up in adding chops. For some, it becomes a goal in itself. But ideally, once it’s all there, self esteem restored, it should be easy to lay off and just be yourself.

My best recent example is Nathan East at the Clapton at 70 Albert Hall concert. He is at once invisible, and a giant towering over the performance. Physically, figuratively, and musically. His chops are beyond doubt as we all know here. But most naive non musicians probably would never guess even though it is he who holds it all together.

I crave to be this kind of musician. But my chops are barely good enough to manage classic rock or funk standards. So while I want to lay off the technique (really!), I sort of need to challenge myself to at least play the classic bass lines the way they were intended, all the notes in the correct order, note length, articulation, and groove. I could make my life easier by simplifying the lines but at this stage I feel I need to get better still. Obviously I am miles away from your average Youtube star.

My point is, it’s maybe normal to go through a chops obsession stage. It’s just one of these things you have to have had, so you can leave it behind.

    Damian Erskine

    Good point and one that I completely agree with. I always tell my students that they should strive to have more chops than they need to play what they are playing, so that they can play effortlessly. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Rodney

I agree whole heartedly with you! Nope I can’t slap, can’t tap, and really don’t do much with chords but, a pro drummer friend of mine loves the way I play. He says I have “it!” The feel, the groove, the pocket. I’m a self taught guy and always tried to feel where the song takes me instead of how fast or how many runs I can play in a song. That to me anyway is my theory on being a “bassist”!

Monkeygroover

Monkeygroover

Damian, Mr Anthony Jackson is a perfect example, to my opinion, being a rock solid bassist serving (and lifting) the music, as wel as a virtuoso bass player who puts his skills and chops at the right place and thr right time, everytime, while still serving and lifting the music. I think this man combines both while maintaining a high level of musicality.

matteo

matteo

Let me, politely, disagree on this. Similarly to the way things are put in the column, I do agree that there is two dimensions to what we do with the bass: musicianship and craftsmanship. The former is the pursue of musical beauty, the latter is the pursue of technical dexterity. Certainly, it is very difficult to excel in both – we’re all humans after all – which also means that we are all forced, one way or another, to set priorities and make choices about that. Yet, I wouldn’t want to look at this as an either-or, zero-sum game. I rather believe that both dimensions are important and that one is only as good as his/her weaker link here.

This may sound subtle, but it brings in an important change in perspective. Good musicianship is no justification for poor execution, and great technique is no justification for poor musicianship. Most importantly, though, good music needs not to be limited from a technical point of view. There is tons of beautiful music one can play with a bass, and I don’t believe that the same music played on any higher-pitched instruments will necessarily be better, so much better that we’d better just leave it to other band members.

Here is where I disagree most with the picture coming out of the column: that the most musical and beautiful thing you can do with a bass is to support the ensemble. I believe it’s only half of the story: modern basses can support the ensemble in very beautiful ways, but also lead them in very beautiful ways. There is plenty of playtime in a CD or on a concert, so why in the name of god one needs to stick to the former all the time (and/or assume that the latter is only a show of dexterity)?

My answer to the above is that music is at times surprisingly conservative, socially speaking. See it this way: tone, feel, solidity and awareness are crucial for all of the rhythm section, yet one expects the bass player to be the competent one there, not the guitar player or the drummer. Yet this also means that the bass player will have to play all the time – which is too bad given the beautiful music one can make without the bass (yes, there is such a thing) or with the bass in different roles than laying the foundations.

I recently heard a cellist talking on the radio and praising the role of the cello suites for the development of the instrument. She said something like: “This music is so important because it allowed us (cellists) for the first time to speak with our own voice”. She didn’t say: “to freak out with the instrument”. It showed that you can do beautiful things with the instrument, beyond supporting other fellow musicians playing other instruments. Today, we take this for granted, but it wasn’t always like that. I wish the world of bass would one day achieve this sort of consciousness.

    Goldhawk

    Goldhawk

    “Good musicianship is no justification for poor execution, and great technique is no justification for poor musicianship”

    Very well put…

    Bryan Allen

    Bryan Allen

    THIS IS pure BEAUTY in prose Matteo!

    I could not POSSIBLY agree more. I could even extrapolate this argument to even more aspects of music and musicality. The Theme of your position is “balance”, and seeking to achieve in both pursuits relative to the “bassist vs. bass player” problem posed above. And above all, you are correct in that it is NOT a zero-sum situation… One can (and in my view, should) pursue individual chops vigorously… Always with an eye to practical application in a working or creative situation with others.
    E.g. the “self-taught” myth… There really isn’t a such thing as a “self-taught” musician that Ive ever witnessed. It’s always a balance between what you pickup from others (ALL good musicians keep their ears open at all times and will shameless apply other player’s good ideas to their own thing. NO EXCEPTIONS HERE. a good musician cannot become so on their own without influence from others… Hence the “myth” of self taught)… and what one explores on their own. No matter if you did the “traditional” lesson/academic thing or not, if you are even a little bit capable I promise you, you are not self-taught.
    Again it’s about balance. My view on that is one should vigorously pursue academic/ theory concepts but also put that same effort into physical/fretboard training. And even more broadly one must balance all of this with the CREATIVE pursuit of music. Because after all music is a creative art in the 1st place and what’s the point of being able to use your theory training, being able to execute brilliantly etc… If you don’t use it as a creative tool and a method by which you are so physically competent you can “feel” the music without having to ever think about notes/rhythms/scales/harmony etc in your conscious mind?

    Anyway I LOVE MATTEO’s take on this and I simply added another short example to demonstrate that you could apply this “balance” theory to So MANY ASPECTS of music and musicality!!!

    Great stuff man!!!

Chance

I am currently a professional tech and previously played professionally and taught. I have thought about these sorts of distinctions of role and intent a great deal over the years as I have watched our instrument grow. Regardless of which words make sense to your internal organization the basic premise is solid. There is a role called bass in most music that we would commonly play on our instruments. This role could be filled by an electric bass, upright bass, keyboard bass, cello, baritone guitar, deep bass voice etc. The job description is to glue the relatively non pitched percussion instruments to the primary harmony/chordal instruments in a way that can really only be done by a “voice” moving in the lower registers. This means that if you are wanting to work in situations playing rock, pop, country, blues, dance music, etc., you will be playing from this mindset. Supportive, connecting the sections, and really trying to sell that groove. Also if you choose to be a student of the instrument most of the history of the instrument is going to be made up of this type of playing.
The other approach is to view the bass a a tool/sound generator and to explore with an open mind all the possibilities that it has to offer without worry about whether something can be worked into Mustang Sally or behind a singer/songwriter. This approach is what opens up new techniques and approaches and can be tremendously rewarding for some players as their sort of inner artistic quest. To me they are both wonderful and beneficial. Someone has to keep the history alive and continue to raise the bar of the basic craft. It is sublime to go to a small club and hear a fatty P bass tone lovingly delivering a classic soul line. Or to hear a new pop record with some A list session player doing subtle wonderful things in, under, and around the tune. It is also great to hear some of the amazing things coming from expanded range basses, and from players comfortable with tapping, slapping, looping, creating new voices with processing and composing music where our instrument can step out of the bass role and showcase it’s beauty as a chordal or melodic or purely percussive device.
The rub comes, as it always does, when people feel threatened. The player who spends years learning every blues/r n b tune so the s/he can drop into any working situation seamlessly usually can’t also spend five hours a day on double thumbing and tapping chops and vice versa, the artist bent on composing their own music and using the bass guitar to make every sound they hear in their head can’t also learn every top 40 tune from last fifty years. This means there is no reason or even way for them to compete and there it should end. The wacky tapper enjoying a fine performance by a pocket player and said pocket player getting a kick out of how creative someone can be with our beloved basses. Respect to all! Not everyone has the discipline to sit in the pocket and sweat the details of note length and dynamics while following a singer and not everyone has the courage to try something new or step out front on an instrument not known for that.

don hastings

Brilliant. This applies to drumming too. The teamwork between bass and drums is supportive to the front men, not in competition to them.

Mike

Mike

Larry Graham echoes exactly what you are talking about in this 2 minute video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-vPM-MlCLs

Don’t over complicate things and you’ll be well on your way to being a good bassist :)

Phil chen

Phil chen

Damian all bass players r great it depends on ur taste like food ! a great player put his soul n heart into whatever he is doing I am not a fan of jazz fusion r Taco Bell dat does not mean it’s no good ? if JACO is too loud blame de mixer r turn down d bass ,he was not called d greatest n ur right too it’s jus ur taste which we all have? I guess u hate reggae n Family man where de bass is upfront in Bob Marley mixes? it’s a Jamaican ting RASTA no one is right or wrong it’s a matter of taste! great article yes ur brave n truthful about ur taste we all hav our opinion! War is not d ANSA only luv can conquer hate de great Marvin Gaye n de great James Jamerson I thank you . all great bass player enhances d song check out Pino de PRANNY -EVERYTIME you go away classic , AJ love of money, jimmy Williams ain’t no stopping us now , Charles Rainey rock steady , Herbie flowers walk on d wild side ,Richard Davis moon dance ,Ron Carter first time ever I saw ur face etc etc d list n beat goes on ! one ❤️Rasta 🇯🇲🇯🇲🇯🇲 papa Rass c

Joel Reynolds

Joel Reynolds

Damian, great article! I agree with your assessments of the Bassist and The Bass Player. Of course you are correct that some of the icons of bass have characteristics of both. I consider myself primarily a Bassist: filling big spaces with fewer notes, but notes that appropriate for the song. My new mantra is going to be “Time, Tone and Feel.” Can I put that on a T=shirt?

Mike Hendy

Mike Hendy

Thank you Damian. Well written article and helpful to remind me of where I want to be as a player (bassist). I often see technical players on youtube and wonder why I don’t have “chops”. However, it’s rarely anything I would choose to listen to as “music”. I am obsessed and in love with bass but rarely moved by a bass solo or when a bass player “goes off”. I was lucky to play with a very established, skilled drummer for a couple years and one day he described my playing to someone as, “he doesn’t know any of the bad stuff”. I guess that was a compliment of some kind.

Fishystick

Fishystick

A working bass player makes a good bass player, If u not working something wrong. Different bands think different bass.Can’t make everybody happy.I go with what i hear on radio.They make money for studio time.I also watch dance floor no matter the band,an its usually good many people.A singing bass player probably makes the most money. Some are good but some stink

Lee

Lee

As a lead guitarist transitioning to bass, the most difficult aspect to grasp is being back in the rhythm and letting the music tell the story. For many years I was the soloist, shredding through the highest frequencies my instrument would allow. Going to the bass I felt I had to be able to shred that too. Once it dawned on me that that was why I could not land a gig, I actively try to fall back in the pocket and stay there. Of course, now I am too afraid to come out and show my technique in a solo aspect. But, I will get there learning to balance the two demons of the bass. Great column, well written. Keep them coming.

Macky Macaventa

Macky Macaventa

Very insightful article. Agree on your thoughts as to what makes a good bassist. I believe as a bassist, you owe it to yourself, your band mates & the audience to have the right judgement when picking the right notes at the right time. As Nathan East or was it Lee Sklar once said, “You gotta have the discipline to lay back & ability to go on overdrive if the situation arises.”

David Kahl

Of course, I agree with everything you’ve said here, Damian, but you also know that I’m seriously biased in your favor. There is much to be appreciated about your observations and opinions, especially the distinction between a player and a member of an ensemble.

When I was 19, I had the honor of getting a sit-down meeting with Charles Mingus, who asked if I played. “I work at it” was my response. A condensed run down:

“What are you working at? What are you playing?”

“I’m working on blues form and that’s mostly what I’m playing?”

“Form or that greasy gutter shit?” It was more of the last than the first. His response said it all — “that’s a lifetime right there.” We got into who I listened to, how, and why. Of course, I mentioned him, but it was Willie Dixon that caught his attention. He simply said, “that’s a lot of lifetime there.”

It took far too long for me to fully appreciate what Mingus was getting at – the context of space, tone, and character in support of the story.

This is why, knowing full well your profound technical proficiency, you were always the easy first call to sub on my “greasy gutter” gigs. It’s always been about your sensibility.

Jerome

Jerome

Here is an interesting video about the development do bass instruments through the ages. Well worth a look. https://youtu.be/fIWEGYDG-Ig

Ryan Harrison

Ryan Harrison

I agree with you that a lot of times Jaco overplayed (I believe there may have been a little chemical influence…).Honestly, for my money, as far as fretless players are concerned, Pino is where it’s at. Definitely captures the essence of “bassist” and “bass player.” And his ability to cross genres so seamlessly, speaks to his understanding of what it’s going to take to move the music where it needs to go. Good read!

Bunk McNulty

Bunk McNulty

I don’t worry about chops. In the words of a Nashville session guy I know, “I’m not an artist. I’m in the service business.” Am I any good at playing bass? Not for me to say. But somehow I’ve managed to keep working for several decades now. The secret of success is pretty basic: Learn the material. Be pleasant and be on time. As Michael Rhodes says “50% of it is the hang.” That’s about it, really.

Nat

Nat

So well put. Discipline in playing bass is a must, as you said, it’s about the music.

Peter Feldman

Peter Feldman

Great article, and I agree with the definitions completely. I describe myself as a bassist with average chops, but with a great ear and great sense of feel, which makes up for a lot, chops-wise. I was in a cover band that did some Stones material, and I wasn’t feeling right with my playing. I went back and listened to Bill Wyman, and I found out why. I was over-playing, pure and simple. Wyman’s genius was that he played “in the song”, no more or less than necessary. He and Charlie Watts were the secret of what I call the Stones’ “studied sloppiness”—their records always sound, to me, that the music’s hanging together by the thinnest of threads; that it could fall apart in a heartbeat. On the other hand, Rocco Prestia with Tower of Power is a busy player most of the time, but the arrangements are written with that in mind. I asked him once how a typical Tower tune comes together, and he said, “It always starts with David [Garibaldi, the drummer] and me. Everything else comes after the groove is established.” James Jamerson, and to a degree, McCartney, combine the two—very melodic playing. Don’t get me wrong, I admire people like Jaco and Victor Wooten; I just don’t aspire to play like them. Maybe it’s because I’m a lead and harmony vocalist as well; the only way one can do both is to make the bass playing unconscious, which almost always means nothing too flashy.