Let’s face it, sometimes we find ourselves in not-so-ideal playing situations. In a perfect world, we would always have our favorite drummer on the gig and could lock in and groove all night long. We would never have to compete with the busy left hand of a keyboard player, stay alert during the 15-minute guitar solo, or back up a singer who doesn’t know the key of the song (or can’t sing in the key they called).
Unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect, and there are nights when you’ll spend your ride home regretting the decision to go out when you could have stayed in and practiced.
On nights like those, I urge you to see the upside of playing in any kind of situation, good or bad. Playing with other musicians is one of the most important experiences for a bass player and it takes a special ability to make a less-than-stellar group of players sound good. Even in some of the worst situations, you can demonstrate your skills by acting as the glue of the band and giving appropriate direction to the other players. Sometimes, when it seems like all hope is gone, all you can do is try to make the music a little better, so let’s discuss how.
First things first: rhythm! As a member of the rhythm section, you are fully responsible for keeping time. Although the drummer is labeled as the “beat keeper,” your job is to play together and establish a feel for the rest of the band. Great rhythm sections are comprised of players who have a tendency to feel time in the same way, meaning that their internal sense of groove makes it easy for them to play together. Chances are, when you go to jam with other players, you won’t find “the one” to complete your perfect rhythm section.
If you find yourself with a drummer that doesn’t keep steady time, do your best to remain consistent and act as “the rock.” This will come in handy particularly when the drummer misses a beat here and there or has a tendency to drop sticks. Try communicating with the drummer by making eye contact or use the neck of your bass or the “bass player head bop” to visually mark the time. If that doesn’t work and you seem to be drifting apart even more, you may have to shift to where the drummer is. Sometimes, the sacrifice of a few BPM’s can make all the difference; if the music sits better at a slightly faster or slower tempo, then you might have saved the song.
And then… melody! While there are some truly great vocalist/musicians out there, you may find yourself backing up a singer that isn’t so sure on how a song goes. They may not pick the correct key and can very easily begin a phrase at the wrong time. Therefore, you need to be able to adapt to the situation. If the singer comes in at the wrong place in the chord progression, they’re probably not going to start over and correct it. Listen to where the melody is and accompany that… hopefully the rest of the band is on the same page and they’ll join you. If you’re unsure about what to play in this situation, try to reach out to the players and give them the “where are we?” eyes. It’s always easier (and arguably less noticeable to the audience) for the instrumentalists to shift to the melody than for the vocalist to interrupt what they’re singing.
Some singers also have a tendency to create their own form of a song, so you need to be flexible about what goes where… sometimes you’ll play the last chorus five times, or maybe the bridge will go missing from the song, or perhaps you’ll play the bridge twice. Who knows? The point is to be aware of the song being interpreted in different ways. My musical partner back in Philly would remind me of the fact that the song is in charge and that your ego is not. This means that you’ve got to put aside what may be the “right” thing according to what you’ve learned from the record and allow the song to take shape in a live setting. Your job is to make it feel as natural as possible.
And finally… harmony! One of the great joys of being a bass player is playing on beat one. We don’t have the luxury of hesitating much, so it’s apparent when we’re unsure of what the chords are for a song. At the same time, we have the ability to strongly dictate what a chord is, so if we need to define the harmony of a song to the other players, our “beat one” is a dead giveaway. This can work to your advantage in two different situations. First, when you know the song and the others don’t and second, when you’re playing a song with somewhat ambiguous chords. If you know the song, try to call the changes to the other players. It takes a certain amount of practice to get the timing right… you need to call the chords before you play them so that everyone can hit together, but not too early to imply switching chords in the wrong place. When you’re playing a song with changes that aren’t obvious or that people interpret in different ways (think of the bridge to “Georgia”), your “beat one” dominance will hopefully give some direction to the other players if no one knows what the correct chord is.
If you’re a frequent jammer, I’m sure you’ve experienced these situations on more than one occasion. You can’t always avoid the train wreck, but if you’re aware of how to lessen the impact, then it’s probably a good thing that you’re the one on bass. Some say that the most important part of a song is the band starting together and ending together, so if you can make that work, and make the song go as smoothly as possible, then you’ve done a good job. Be careful about taking the leadership role when you clearly don’t know what is going on (and someone else does), but if you’re the only one who does knows the tune, step up and help out the other players. We all find ourselves in unfortunate playing situations now and then, but rather than stand back and count the seconds until the song is over, try to exercise your ability by making the band work. Like I said before, sometimes all we can do is try to make the music a little bit better.
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