Bass vs. Guitar: The 6-String Debate
Q: I mean this in the most respectful of ways but, when I listen to six string bassists who play a lot of chords and solo. I can’t help but wonder why they don’t just play guitar.
A: I’ve heard this question before, and thanks for being respectful.
I’m a 6-string player, so I’ll share my views on the subject. Many of us who progressed into playing chords and soloing started on the bass, not the guitar. So that’s our instrument, that’s where our comfort zone is, and that’s where we love to play.
I primarily use chords and soloing in the beginning as a means of practicing harmonic concepts in a new way. I was simply trying to expand my vocabulary on the instrument. The shift to a 6-string while I was in college made it simply more fun to do that stuff, so I got really into it.
Fundamentally, the approach to music as a bassist shouldn’t be a question of whether it suits a guitar better or not. I have all of my students work chord shapes in every inversion over jazz changes, even if they don’t aspire to be a jazz bassist. It’s just a great way to expand your ability to see the notes on the fretboard. That, in conjunction with solo concepts and explorations, can really expand your harmonic concept and, hence, add to your bass lines, as well as your soloing.
Learning chords, voice-leading and different ways of navigating changes can really help you see how different chords relate to each other, and helps one to not treat each chord as a new tonality but, rather, a variation of the current tonality.
The real key is taste and moderation, which is, admittedly, where some folks get tripped up when playing a 6-string bass. When I’m playing bass, I’m playing bass. I’d argue that you have to resist the urge to throw chords over everything and jump up high and get “notey” just because you can. Exploring these things helps one to grow musically, but you also have to develop the maturity to use none of it when it’s not called for.
I’ve said this before but I take it as a point of pride when I’m recording a bass track and the producer or engineer have no idea that I can do the other stuff until they hear me noodling on my own, or something like that. When I’m playing bass, I want to be the best bass player I can be. I also do a lot of jazz gigs, and that setting demands that I have to take a solo. When I solo, I want to solo like a horn player or guitarist, not a (root oriented) bassist. That can only happen if you’ve spend a lot of time exploring the soloing process, melody and so on.
I know this can be a hot button issue, and I welcome your comments here.