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How To Be a Great Blues Bass Player (Part 1)

Ok, I admit it; I’m not the person that you think of when you envision a “blues bass player.” I’m exactly five feet and one quarter of an inch tall, I’m a 24-year-old girl from a suburban neighborhood in Philadelphia, and, as many people point out, the bass is bigger than I am. I don’t know whether it was the “learn how to play a blues progression” part of the VHS tape that came with my first bass or the fact that I was obsessed with the Blues Brothers movies, but I’ve learned so much about playing, listening, groove, jamming, working in bands, gigging on a regular basis, and improvising through blues that it’s hard not to share the knowledge that I have.

As the first installment of a series based on playing blues, we’ll be focusing on how to be a better blues bass player by learning what your bandleader wants and the advantages of understanding common terminology for the genre. Although most of the examples will be geared towards blues, the fact is that bass players are almost always playing in ensemble situations and some of these lessons can apply to multiple genres.

In a blues band, the roles of the instrumentalists are very specific: the drummer provides the feel and tempo, the bass player locks in and outlines the chord progression, and the other instrumentalists (keys, guitar, harmonica, horns, etc.) comp and solo. The focus of the audience is typically on the vocalist or the soloist, so as a bass player, you must be confident in your ability to back them up appropriately. You want the bandleader to know that you’re watching them and paying attention so that if they call stops or expect a shift in dynamics, you’re right there with them. Learn how the members of the band communicate beginnings, endings, stops, changes in dynamics, how they pass solos from one person to the next, and how they change arrangements of a tune.

Before doing a blues gig, if you have the opportunity to jam or rehearse with the band or leader, go out of your way to do so and make mental notes of what they expect from you. Or, if you’re stepping into a gig cold, think about these things so that by the end of the night, you have a good handle on what to do. Here is a checklist for things to pick up on:

1. How do they call and start tunes? The bandleader will be the one to dictate how the song is played, so listen closely when they explain a song to you.

  • Do they tell you the key? Although some songs are done in the original key (“the record key”), it is often adjusted for the singer or soloist.
  • Do they tell you the feel? The feel is what separates one blues song from another since the chord progressions are often similar. Your ability to understand different kinds of feels will help you establish a great groove.
  • Do they expect you to know certain tunes (blues classics or originals)? Some “standards” include “Red House,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Pride and Joy” and many others. Take a listen to some of these songs and familiarize yourself with a bandleaders’ original material.
  • Do they count off and expect everyone to come in at once? Or do they play a lead line and expect you to come in a different place in the progression? The bandleader may want to begin with a solo section and have the rest of the band join a bit later. He or she will usually explain this before the tune.
  • Do they have and adhere to a set list or do they randomly call tunes? If they do adhere to a set list, you can anticipate what will be played next and prepare yourself for the next song. If the bandleader randomly calls tunes, make sure your attention is directed at them before the start of a song.

2. How do they signal stops, endings, and dynamics? Observe how your bandleader communicates both verbally or non-verbally. If you can learn how to read their signals, you’ll be able to anticipate what will happen by interpreting their body language.

  • Do they put their hand in the air?
  • Do they make a motion with the neck of their guitar?
  • Do they give you a head nod or a quick glance?
  • Do they explain stops at the beginning of the song and expect you to know where they are without signaling?

3. How do they pass solos around? Every bandleader goes about this in a different way. As a bass player, you want to be aware of who is soloing, when, and for how long so that you can do your best to back them up.

  • Is there a strict “two times through the progression” solo form? This is most common, yet the bandleader may often take extended solos.
  • Does someone solo until they signal that they are done?
  • Do they limit solos to one or two solos per song? This limits the length of the song and decreases the monotony of solo…after solo…after solo…
  • Do they say “let’s hear that bass!” and expect you to solo? Soloing over a blues form is a great way to get started with exploring melody. Try practicing along to some standard blues songs and do your best to follow the progression throughout your solo.
  • Do they ever cue the ending of a song or stops while soloing? This is common as well. Keep your eyes open so you won’t miss an abrupt stop.

4. Is there anyone else in the band that is familiar with the material and knows how to give good cues? Can you rely on the drummer, guitarist, or keyboard player to help you? If you’re lucky, there will be someone in the band that knows the arrangements and is able to communicate with you. Try to keep one eye on the leader and one eye on your “helper-outer.”

5. How do they expect you to play?

  • Would they prefer you to adhere to “the bass line” the whole time or can you stray away from it? Some traditional blues tunes call for one specific part (and one part only).
  • Do they say “let’s do a funky blues…” and expect you to come up with something? Take a few moments to think of a cool bass line to play, then go ahead and start the groove. It may be alright for your bass line to evolve throughout the course of the song, but do your best to establish a feel right away.
  • Do they play you a specific bass line and want you to mimic it? Use your ears for this one!
  • Are they very “authentic” in how they play certain tunes or do they allow for a more modern twist? This will impact the level of improvisation that you will have with both the notes and the feel of your bass line.

6. What is the drummer like? As the other member of the rhythm section, you want to lock with them. The drummer is also the one that can make or break dynamics, so try to feel out what they are doing.

If you can pick up on some of these tendencies, your bandleader will certainly appreciate it and will feel more at ease with the gig. Also, understand that there is no “right way” every time… each performer has a different approach and it can vary throughout the night. Ultimately, by keeping these questions in mind, you’ll do a better job on the gig and will help the band sound more like a band.