Ask Damian Erskine: Becoming a Well Rounded Player

Q: Through the years I have often heard the term “well rounded player”. I have been wondering what makes a “well rounded player” in your opinion?

A: Well, I would imagine that any well rounded player has more than just a few tricks up their sleeve, but is instead both versatile and flexible in their abilities and approach. This concept is something that I’ve always put at the top of my list of things I aspire to accomplish. I’ve always wanted to be able to play in any setting with any artist and sound like I was born to do that one thing. It takes a certain type of personality type and focus, though.

I see a lot of players who wind up becoming the “jack of all trades, master of none”-type of player when going the freelance “I can do it all” route.

You have to be able to really listen to the music as a whole and play what you would want to hear there. It takes a long time to muster the confidence and musical maturity to play the music and not play to our ego. If you’re thinking, “what would really make everyone think I did an amazing job here?” or “I wanna play a lick soon that’s going to make everyone go ‘DAMN!'”, you’re not listening to the music.

When I’m playing, I try and remove myself from the act of playing and really listen to the music as if I was in the audience or control room. If you can put your ego in the audience and put your heart into the music, it’s much easier to really play some great bass and it also becomes easier to fit into many different situations!

Technically speaking, I would say that a truly well rounded pro player should have a solid working knowledge of various music types and feels (funk, R&B, Samba, playing tumbao, walking lines, country, blue-grass, etc.), but also be able to slap a bit, solo at least moderately well, have decent intonation on a fretless and also be able to cop many different sounds from the bass (as is appropriate for whatever style it is that you’re playing) and also be able to read well.

For the generally well-rounded player I would suggest just simply listening to and playing many different styles of music. Be able to play a country song like a country bassist would or play a funk style bass line and really sit in the pocket. Work on soloing a little bit, work on playing over jazz changes and learn to read.

Basically, when I use the term “well-rounded”, I usually mean that the player is versatile stylistically and can think musically and outside of their own box when handed something new to them. A well rounded player doesn’t need a month to shed a tune but can at least cop the vibe and get through it fairly immediately. Primarily, because they are listening to the music and have exposed themselves to many different styles of music.

He/she would certainly have it nailed by the second get-together, because they would have the work ethic that dis-allows them from being incapable a second time.

Well rounded musicians typically have a few things in common with each other, in my experience. They just simply love music and love playing it. They never have prejudice against any music and are open minded as well as open hearted when it comes to the sharing and playing of music. Was it Duke Ellington who said “There are only two types of music… Good and bad!”?

I’ve never heard a well-rounded player say “I just hate _______ style of music”. They might not like Keisha, but they might dig Justin Timberlake or not like Tim McGraw but really dig on some old Hank Williams. They might say that they hate the angry and aggressive nature of NWA but kind of dig Dr. Dre’s beats on todays more modern hip-hop.

In order to be a well rounded musician, one must also be a well rounded person. Eliminate prejudice, hatred and operating from a place of ego from your everyday life and you will naturally treat music with the same respect (and maybe vice-versa to a certain point?). To play it all is to love it all.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Spkrwill

    Great points Damian! A thought I have used to stay centered in more complex forms, is to be the bridge between lead/chordal instrument and drums, always moving forward to set up changes and being a solid cradle for soloists! I agree that exposure to as many forms as possible is necessary, but the sorting process of what your true interests are, should be the main goal, as in your ‘master of none’! And sing, at least harmony! Bassists who don’t sing get less gigs, or specialize in being in backup bands!!!!