Bass in an Acoustic Setting: Knowing How to Play Your Role

Acoustic trio

Q: I think I have a good suggestion for an area you may have not covered: the role of a bassist in an acoustic setting. No drummer (maybe a Djembe), just acoustic guitar, bass and vocals. How do you keep it grooving, how do you fill the space, how do you make it sound good? I’ve had to play a ton of acoustic gigs lately (more than I’d like) and at first it’s just really hard to figure out your (new) role in the band.

A: That’s a great suggestion and question and well timed, as I’ve just returned from the Oregon Country Fair (which may be the world’s coolest hippie festival) where I did four shows with a local songwriter, Alice DiMicele. The shows ranged from nine pieces with horns and multiple guitarists to a trio, depending on the stage. The trio slot consisted of Alice playing guitar and singing, myself and a trumpet.

Scenarios like this are going to be a little different every time because it very much depends on the artist and what they are going for musically. Alice likes a bassist to “get her booty moving” (her words), in addition to – on occasion – simply providing a nice melodic bed for everything else to lay on during the more atmospheric moments.

Generally speaking, I always say “put the song first”, but – especially when there’s no drummer – it can help a lot if you take on a slightly more rhythmic role in these situations. Again, it very much depends on the song and the artist. When there’s less rhythm happening in the instrumentation, I try to provide at least enough rhythmic motion to keep the band tight and locked together. If the artist is playing guitar, has solid time, and can keep it together for the band rhythmically, you may not have to do anything different unless you’re really feeling it.

My advice is to avoid forcing anything inside these smaller group settings. There is much more room for melodic and rhythmic support. There is room for more melodic content too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you start putting fills everywhere. Keep it musical, but there is definitely an opportunity to play a bit more lyrically.

In thinking about your role, you very well may want to use a bit more rhythmic information. This could mean:

  • More pulses in your line (as opposed to half and whole notes)
  • More ghost notes (to provide time, but not fill up the harmonic space)
  • More leading lines (i.e. walk-ups) to help guide the band to the next section or even just to keep everyone on point with the time
  • Any, all or none of the above depending on the music and artist

If there is a Djembe or other type of percussion, try to lock with them in much the same way you would a kit drummer. If it is just an acoustic guitar and vocalist, then definitely make sure you alter your playing in such a way that you are:

  • Providing the necessary harmonic support for the song
  • Providing the necessary rhythmic support to keep the group locked up tight with the time and form
  • Provide enough lyrical content to have a conversation with the music and provide overall musicality
  • Not overstepping your bounds and your role as the bass player

The one thing you don’t want to do is use it as an opportunity to fill up all of the holes but, rather, help provide whatever may be missing due to the lack of other instruments doing their respective jobs.

The most important thing is that you have a strong inner clock, support the vocalist, serve the overall musical statement and listen, carefully.

Again, this all depends on the artists you are working with and what their expectations of you are (and you can feel free to ask how you can better serve them musically). You may also all enjoy the freedom of not having a drummer and be a bit more elastic with the time. It can be nice to flow with the lyrics and singers sense of phrasing and stretch or compress some things here and there.

In essence, just make sure that you are providing the necessary support, helping to really deliver that song and make everything feel nice and organic. Do this and I can (almost) guarantee that the songwriter will absolutely love you for it!

Readers, what’s your approach to these sorts of settings? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Photo of the Bombay Bicycle Club by gustaffo89

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. Acoustic is Acoustic….Justifying don’t make it right. Sure you can do what you want…Just don’t ask me to believe it…That ain’t happening.

    • I used to play acoustic with three guitarists, heavy skilled soloing guys, who were also singers, like covering “more than words” with three vocals. Just made it as I could feel it, bringing some melodic ideas when needed, and just “rythming” the stuff on others times, to help my mates keeping going on over difficult tunes. When you feel it, when you are “in shape” with your bandmates, that’s always good. Let’s talk about music and feelings, not always bad or wrong tastes.

  2. The biggest piece of advice I can offer for playing without drums (from my own experience of doing is wrong for many years) is DON’T become a “pseudo drummer” or try to push the time forward. Keep a pulse going accept that in an drummerless setting there will be a certain ‘push/pull” to the time and go with it. Hammering out a beat to the imaginary drummer in your head actually drags down the time.

    Also, take your timing/feel cues from the vocalist or lead instrument as opposed to the guitarist. For whatever reason, this seems to work better for me and makes the band sound more cohesive.

  3. I think you hit it on the head here. I have a lot of experience in the acoustic setting, and I agree that taking a more lyrical approach can be desirable, but you do have to keep in mind that you are often the main rhythmic core. Doing lead in’s to phrase changes definitely helps helps with the tightness. Listen to Gordon Lightfoot’s early recordings. It doesn’t get much better than Stockfish for a role model.

  4. Depends a LOT on the kind of music and even more on WHO you are playing with… in fact, depends almost entirely about these two factors. I’m doing a couple gigs like these every week, and they are completely different.. In one of them, one of the the main reasons I was hired is because I can do a more percussive role to fulfill the lack of a cajon player (percussion it’s not allowed in this bar)… The other one, on the last week, the guitar player asked me to play more softly and groovy, avoiding those percussive runs I was used to do… And I can say that the setlist is almost the same.. mostly pop music from US and Europe.

  5. In my experience, much depends on the guitarist. If you play with someone who has strong rhythm chops best to let them drive the tune, especially if they are also singing. I did a gig once with guitarist and djembe player that did not go well. I was never able to lock with the djembe player because he was out of sync guitar players rhythm playing. Now I follow what he does and support the appropriate feel and lines. Fortunately, it’s groove oriented stuff so makes it easier.

  6. It all goes back to the song dictating what is needed. I have a gig this coming weekend and one or two of the songs are just me and a vocalist. In a full arrangement this is a real groove peice, and I have to fill in for missing instrumentation. The advice Damian give here is spot on, as well as Mr. Shaughnessy’s suggestions. Great discussion.

  7. Good article with sound advice, Damien. I have played with primarily acoustic musicians for many years now. The essentials are the same: lock in with the hand drummer percussionist, follow the main rhythm instrument (usually guitarist or pianist), find the groove, listen to the vocalist for phrasing, and play to the song. A lot of the work I do is with root 5 situations, which can be tempting to overplay. I do not mind asking for advice on what the others want me to play either.

  8. I’ve been playing in this setting for about 2 years now and it really depends on what the song needs , its easy to fill up the space but then it’s overplaying , the main concept we follow is the space , songs do require some space to breathe it just seems to come naturally in this setting , I’ve never played in aband so I’m used to this and I don’t have this ‘imaginary drummer’ problem so many seem to have , just feeling it is best , harmonising at points where it’s tasteful and just keeping in tight with the guitarist as there’s no reward for showing that they’ve made a mistake it’s best just to flow and feel eventually if you’re playing with the same person you get to know what’s happening and just go with it , the guitarist/vocalist I play with never plays the same song twice there’s always some changes and we always have each others backs in these changes , just be tight and flow , tasteful and not overplaying.