Playing As One

I’m pushing the pause button on questions this week thanks to an experience I had just last night, which is a great lesson for all musicians.

I’m traveling to Tokyo with the Jaco Pastorius Big Band at the moment. Last night, we had our warm up concert in Sunrise, FL. After the gig, I got into a conversation with fellow bandmates about how well the horn section plays as a whole. Every member really listens to the entire band, not just themselves. They pay close attention to dynamics, length of notes, articulation and the length of spaces in between the notes.

This is the critical foundation for what it takes to be a great band. You can hear it in the great rhythm sections past and present, from Motown’s Funk Brothers to Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan, to Victor Wooten and JD Blair, and Marcus Miller and Poogie Bell.

I think that this concept is one that often takes us bass players a while to really grasp. This is especially true in this modern age of the technically astounding bassists and drummers, and the progression of the bass and the bass’s role in music. The art form of locking together through listening and offering up the appropriate reaction is lost on many players today.

Hopefully this column will plant the seed in the minds of technically great players to aspire to be equally great musicians. If you’re in a band, you want to be a great band, not a bunch of individually great players.

While there are plenty of gigs awarded simply on the merits of pyro-technics and ability, the vast majority of bigger, or A-level gigs are awarded based on this ability.

Even the attempt to be aware of these things can help to make you a better musician in addition to becoming a better (and more in demand) bassist.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t really let it all hang out if that’s what the gig calls for. It’s often the guys who know how to shine when it’s time, but also know how to sink in to a groove and play as a unit that really start to get the calls.

Here is a list of things to help get you in the mindset of being a band member over a player:

  1. Listen to your volume. Is your bass louder or as loud as the vocalist, soloist or lead melody? It shouldn’t be!
  2. Listen to yourself and how you are aligning your feel with the drummer. Are you guys really locking in together and not just playing in time together? Are you responding to each other? How does your bass line lock with the kick?
  3. Are you planning licks and fills ahead of time? If so, it will often feel forced. Try not to play anything that you don’t hear. Interact with the music and not with what you want people to hear you play.
  4. Are you being more rhythmic than is necessary? Sometimes all a song really wants is some nice long tones. Don’t be afraid to not be noticed.
  5. If you get a solo, are you letting it breathe? Don’t be afraid to make good use of space. Sometimes playing absolutely nothing for a few bars, and then coming in with one nice melodic line can really pull the audience in to what you are about to do. Don’t feel like you need to blow people minds right out of the gate.

What would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Omar Findlay

    for those of us bassists who like to use effects *raises hand* I’d also add “know when to kick in the effects and when to back off”. It’s related to being more rhythmic than necessary as well as volume – some effects can take the bottom out of the bass, and that’s not a good thing all the time.

  2. Bill Harrison

    Damian, Excellent advice, esp (as you mention) given the expanded role of the bass and the explosion of technical brilliance among bass players in general. Know thy role!

  3. Adam Chin

    Great words/advice! Become the music/song first……

  4. Barry Irwin

    Absolutely spot on Damian.I would say tone is equally important.Having the right sound for the kind of gig/songs you playing makes one feel more involved, makes the music sound more realistic, it also makes it easier to play, and makes the overall sound of the band that much better from the bottom up.Pretty much a point Omar is making.Creating that cohesive element with the bass.The first time I heard drummer Abe Laborial Jnr. play in Boston I was so taken by HOW he played.He responded instantaneously to what was going on around him, rather than having a fixed way of laying it done.Fluidity is also important when laying it down.Moving with the unexpected.

  5. Serge Van Camp

    The absolute truth! And thanks for reminder!

  6. Maurizio Rolli's Tones

    Bro’!!! Bullseye!!! let me share it!!! i agrre with you every time you say anything!!! you’re great!!

  7. saw the concert in Sunrise, dude, and you were fine! How can you keep playing those 16th notes on Invitation for so long without straying out of the pocket!
    I think you were amped loud for the gig but hey, it’s the Jaco Big Band, the bass is always going to be a featured instrument, just as it was in JP’s day. Hope you enjoy Japan!

  8. These rules apply to EVERYONE in some way. Well put sir.

  9. Great advice. I am a new player at 59, just a few years of playing and have so much to learn and I know that I don’t have the level of expertise of the players here. I’ll add something I saw in an instructional video which I think was Stu Hamm and as he’s playing he says, isn’t that begging for some guitar? I don’t get to play with bands a whole lot but I try to lock in with the drummer. Also want to say that this site has a lot of very good info.

  10. Great thoughts and right on the money. Now how do I get my guitarist to read it?

  11. One of the major things we bassists need to concern ourselves with is why does the audience slip into a coma or head for the bar when we have our shot at a solo? Answer provided by Victor Wooten. When we get to that moment when everyone gets out of our way and we get to do our thing, we jump right out of the groove which also screws the drummer up. It also loses the attention and feel of the audience. Build your solos AROUND the groove.

  12. Sometimes, playing one whole note really good and on the spot is better than playing 64th’s (said a good friend :-)).