Solo Bass and the Art of Metaphor

METAPHOR: something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.

Music is art. It is a most powerful medium capable of describing in detail the world around us, emotions, abstract concepts and shades of meaning.

Bass is beauty. It is deep and foundational and at the same time melodic and rich, capable of the deepest melancholy and the most frenetic highs.

Since my formative years as a musician, I’ve always seen the bass as a melodic instrument. I still think ultimately, my favorite bass player is Geddy Lee from Rush. He always seems to be able to bridge the gap between holding down a groove, locking the band together and still being able to play so melodically – often emulating vocal lines.

Those early years of emulating such progressive players as Geddy, I think finally led me to where I find myself now, on the verge of becoming a solo bassist. It’s not that I’ve abandoned the years of supportive playing – I actually still very much enjoy it when I get the chance to play in a band.

I do however, find a “profoundness” in solo bass. It is highly conducive to experimentation, and “good” accidents. I find an affinity with how physical and tactile the bass is; how it takes effort to play (particularly my upright).

So… metaphor. As I said earlier, bass is capable of melancholy and highs – but also strength, tension and the unexpected. So what about the detail of such things? How to use the bass descriptively or even to tell a story?

I’m a visual person. When I play, I see pictures and have “impressions”.

… stay with me

Maybe it’s my sensitive nature, but I have come to use solo bass as a way of conveying particularly my emotions. The instrument seems to contain everything I need to put across the most abstract metaphors for what might be going on inside of me, or affecting me at the time of writing. Here are some of the techniques I have used recently (some of these relate to upright bass, but can easily applied to electric bass). I hope you find them useful for your own work:


Long and deep arco notes with complimentary melodic pizzicato runs with varying weights of notes. (I definitely exploit my love of the harmonic minor scale here!) Fretless bass really comes into it’s own here, being wonderfully expressive.


Again, long arco sections, but this time bowing near to the bridge and at angles to create scratchy, false harmonics. Notes can either be fingered on the neck, leaving strings open or a combination of the two.


Short stabbing notes, false harmonics, angled bowing and deep a-rhythmic riffs – as random as possible.

The Unknown

Slowly undulating and repeating arpeggios; maybe with use of a looper convey a journey.

Open Spaces

My favorite bowed harmonics but this time used with acres of reverb and leaning towards major or neutral scales for melody. Use of simple melodies and solitary notes. Reverb and delay helps too!


This is where the looper comes into its own, to produce repeating sections on which to build.

Beauty and tenderness

Chordal work / double-stops with a complimentary melody.

I hope this has given a small insight into how I relate to my instrument and creative process. Maybe it has inspired you to go create. I have found that playing solo bass has given me a channel through which to express myself artistically, but also a means of release.

Ref. “Blue” (a work in progress) by Russ Sargeant

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  1. Neat. Did you ever see Steve Vai’s Martian Love Secrets column in Guitar Player? A similar theme about expressing emotions through music.

  2. Thanks Phil. I didn’t see that no. Don’t know whether I could track it down..?

  3. Dig it man, you are so right!
    Solo bass is melodic. There is tension and beauty and at times tenderness.
    There are so many greats who fill the bill.
    One is Jack Casady–check out his lines on the 1st acoustic Hot Tuna LP. Especially on Mann’s Fate (think there is a video of this available on No Treble from a PBS broadcast in 1970).Talk about momentum!
    Also check out his bass solo on their 1st live LP (First Pull Up Then Pull Down) on Candyman–Phew!
    Then head over to their 1st studio LP, Burgers, and listen to Jack’s melodic playing on Water Song, Highway Song, and Sunny Day Strut.
    He may be playing with the band but it’s almost all solo too–really hits the characteristics you discuss in your essay!

  4. Correction: Also check out his bass solo on their 1st live electric LP (First Pull Up Then Pull Down) on Candyman–Phew!

  5. Thanks JoJo, I’ll check that material out when I get a moment.

  6. Dear Russ,

    Thanks for the above. Your ideas are very like mine. I also love the sound(s) of long arco notes, etc. In fact, SOUND is such an important part of what identifies as musicians, along with choice of notes, that I think it’s essential to spend time on exploring one’s own sound in depth. My practice routine involves playing very long notes at a very slow tempo, focusing on time, pitch and tone. Where can I hear some of your playing?