Ask Damian Erskine: Saying Less With More
Q: I’ve recently found myself really inspired by guys who play a lot less notes and leave a lot more space in the music, in particular Charlie Haden. I was wondering how you would approach playing less/leaving more space yet still creating a bass line that is interesting, enjoyable and challenging to play?
I was also wondering if you thought there was a reason that, speaking very generally, electric bass players seem more prone to overplaying than upright bassists?
A: I love this question! So much came to mind…
I’ll answer each question (or give my opinion on each question in this case) separately.
How to approach saying less with more:
Really, this boils down to confidence, I believe, and a fully realized understanding of how to speak through your instrument. I find that you have to really have the confidence to play less and still feel like you’re doing as good a job as your hero might. You mentioned still feeling challenged by the line. A simple line, while not technically challenging, can still be challenging in any number of ways. I find more joy out of focusing on time, tone, inflection and phrasing with a simple line with a good songwriter than I do playing a Chick Corea head perfectly, for example. While one is exciting, the other can be more artful (both can be artful, of course, but you get what I mean in this example).
Sometimes the simplest of lines is the perfect choice and it demands that you:
a) Have the self-confidence to play whole notes or quarter notes and not feel somehow emasculated or not ‘hip’
b) Have the ability to play the hell out of those quarter notes or whole notes!
An example that comes to mind is my favorite way to play “Superstition” when someone calls it. When you’re with a slamming drummer, nothing feels better to me than really playing quarter notes for the verse. In fact, I once had a horn player turn to me and mention that he had hated playing that song for years until I sat in with the band. The quarter note can be that effective if you really put your heart into it.
Not just executing it, but nailing the time, giving the note life with a bit of vibrato (for example) and paying attention to the full life of the note (many forget that every note has not only a beginning but a middle and an end! Pay attention to how long you hold that note… Where does it end? And what you do with it while it’s living (vibrato, slurs, etc.).
Some electric players that come to mind are Will Lee, Tim Lefebvre and Pino Palladino. Those are a few guys who have had and continue to have amazing careers and very cool gigs while laying down some solid bass work. No flash unless it’s called for. In a world of Victor’s, Bona’s and Sheehan’s, 90% of the working musician world wants a bass player to be a bass player.
While a huge majority of my Youtube videos are solos and flashy stuff, the vast majority of what keeps me gigging most nights of the week is the rest of it. My ability to play bass well and not over-step my bounds on stage.
Upright vs. Electric:
I just had this conversation with a friend recently. I do believe that there is a huge difference in the way one can say less with more on an upright versus an electric bass.
The upright has infinitely more depth of character, in my opinion, tonally. A whole note on a nice full-bodied upright has an infinite amount of magic to it as compared to an electric. While one can have a lot of fun with electric tone, etc.
One can play a simple root, 5, 9 and let that 9 hang in space on an upright and it can have so much more presence than on an electric. Notes are just inherently thinner and, while having more sustain, do not have as much body to them while sustaining.
You can hit one note on an upright and let it ring… listen to it! It does so much before finally dying, while on an electric bass it just kind of hangs there in comparison.
I’ve always believed that I would play much less on an upright than on my electric. The only reason I don’t play upright is that I simply haven’t been able to afford a good one and haven’t had the gumption to buy a cheap-o and fry my fingers on it.
I definitely think electric guys overplay more than compared to upright bassists (that was the original question, right?) There may be many reasons, but I think that, for most, it boils down to two things:
1. Uprights have more character and therefore need less ‘filler’
2. Electrics are way easier to play and require less strength
That’s a recipe for noodling if I ever heard one!