What Makes a Great Bassist? Part 1: Playing For The Song

Playing For The Song

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the “hows” of bass playing: scales, chords, arpeggios, slapping, tapping, harmonics… Maybe you’re working on getting that one awesome lick just right so you can use it someday. With so much information to digest, sometimes it’s best to take a step back and remember what it is we’re actually working toward.

What is our end goal? Why do we play? And ultimately, what makes a great bassist?

To get a little perspective, we’ve been asking some of the world’s most renowned bassists to answer that very question. We also polled our Facebook friends to get an even broader sense from the bass community as whole. The best responses have been compiled for this series, where we dive into what we collectively think makes a great bassist.

This installment focuses on bassists who speak on versatility, being a team player, and playing for the song.

David Ellefson

David EllefsonYou know, there are two types of bass players. There are artists and there are sidemen. I tend to kind of be a little bit of both. Early on in my formative years, I was a big fan of rock and roll and hard rock, and eventually heavy metal when I got turned on to it. Everything from Aerosmith, KISS, Ted Nugent, kind of ’70s American rock and roll I grew up with.

And then of course I got into Iron Maiden and Rush, with very progressive bass players. It’s interesting because Gene Simmons, Steve Harris and Geddy Lee are all artist bass players. You know, they’re songwriters as well as bass players. Another great artist bass player is Bob Daisley, who played on the first two Ozzy [Osbourne] records and on Rainbow, Long Live Rock and Roll… Again, just a great songwriter bass player.

Same with Geezer Butler, another great songwriter, artist bass player. What’s funny is all those guys are also really good lyricists, and I think what that does is when you’re not only thinking from the bass point of view, you’re thinking from sort of the bottom of the tune as you build it from the bottom up, but you’re also thinking melodically on the top of it. You’re thinking about singers and how a vocalist is going to sing and how to phrase words into melodies. Lyric writing is a whole other part of our craft as well. I really like that side of it, which is why I’ve put several of my own bands together, like F5, because I wanted to continue to have a creative outlet.

On this other side of that is sort of the sideman bass player, which requires a whole other skill level, most predominately being versatility. That bass player needs to be really quick on his or her toes. He or she needs to be musically very astute, be able to read and understand chord charts, and be able to read manuscript and notations. [These players] also have to have a very good ear. In fact, that’s what I’m going through as I learn the songs for this clinic this week, because I’m having to learn a lot of other people’s songs, which is something I haven’t really had to do for about a year. It’s actually kind of stretching my brain to get back into that mindset again, because I can’t go up there and play like an artist. I have to emulate how another bass player played. I don’t hold with those who think cover musicians are subpar musicians. I think cover musicians are some of the most astute musicians on the planet because of their ability to emulate what other people may have played or, in the case of a session bass player, be able to come in and create something on the spot. The recording bass player is kind of a whole other side to the sideman bass player. In any case, a bass player has to have great tone and great timing.

Ra Díaz

Ra DíazIt’s not about being great, it’s more about fitting the gig and being the ideal person to play those particular songs. Being the best you can be, and do your best to become the player you wanna be and be comfortable with yourself. There’s no such things as “the best” or “the greatest” bass player/musician, or at least, no way of knowing if you are “it”. There are just too many people we might have never heard about playing, who knows where… But you CAN be or become the bass player YOU want to be, and get those gigs you feel you should get. It’s about loving what you do, hearing everything around you, serving the song, playing your heart out, being strong, determination – and last but not least – making those booties shake on the dance floor! Maybe BADASS is a better word, hehe.

Rob Reck

Rob ReckA great bassist must have a commitment to the ensemble above all. It starts with a determination to bring to the group the musical elements, the communicative energy, and the positive personal interaction, and the realization that doing an awesome job of all these will not frequently result in any recognition by an adoring public.

They know, other bass players know, many musicians know, but many people will not realize the essential contributions the bass player makes.

And a real bass player is good with that.

Everything, time, chops, musical taste, an artistic sense of how to best communicate the musical moment, and knowledge of how much musical space is (or, more likely is NOT) available and how to fill it… all of this flows from the bass player’s personal commitment to excellence as outlined above.

Regardless of genre, great bass players have this happening. I could write a chapter or two, but that is is at the heart.

Alex VanPortfliet

Alex VanPortflietThe best bass players don’t necessarily wow you with their amazing virtuosity.

The best bass players make you notice the rest of the band’s virtuosity.


Omar Domkus

Omar DomkusA great bassist knows how and when to place notes within the style they have been asked to play. Sometimes it is the understanding that even though you could play many notes within a section, less is actually more.

It has always been my mission to teach younger players, and the general listener, that a great bassist sings with their instrument. Think of your favorite bassist or bass line and I am sure you can hear that the bassist is singing just like the vocalist is. It is a counter melody to the main melody, just like classical music.

A great bassist is within each one of us, because we are all unique in our expression on this wonderful instrument. Sing out my friends and let your voice be heard.

Missy Raines

Missy RainesYou know, it would be easy to say, “it just takes a really great player and someone with a lot of skill.” Of course, those things are obviously important. But you know what I think it takes more than anything? I think it takes a team player mindset. You know, somebody who is really comfortable with being a support person. We’re not all wired that way.

There are players who are really wired that their time not playing their thing is just time they’re waiting so they can play their thing. And then there are the people who are playing for the sheer joy of actually playing with people. They’re enjoying what’s happening when it’s not their time as much as any. It sounds like I’m making some sort of moral statement about someone’s character.

It’s not really that deep, I just think that bass players maybe more than a lot of other people are more comfortable and happy just being part of the whole groove and the foundation and everything that happens from the moment the song starts to the moment the song ends. It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy our time to shine, but we see the whole picture. When I talk to other bass players, they get that same enjoyment out of that. A lot of other musicians see the whole song as a way for them to say what they have to say.

John Rowland

John RowlandA great bassist plays the song the way it feels.

A great bassist understands that sometime two notes are better than 16.

A great bassist compliments, not overwhelms.


Matt Wiles

Matt WilesIn addition to being a fantastic player, a bassist (or any musician) must also be easy to work with. Playing is only part of the picture – being on time, being easy to work with, doing your homework – are all part of what it means to be a musician.


How about you?

Please add your voice to the conversation! Share your thoughts in the comments.


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  1. The Bass is so important to a band.The bass is melodic with the guitar and keys and it is percussive with the drums..The bass needs to be solid in all aspects of a song.

  2. Too many young bassists get caught up in that “CRAM AS MANY NOTES AS I CAN ON THIS PASSAGE” frame of mind. You shouldn’t run circles around the music, you should come up with something that complements it.

  3. 3 words to live by.

    Less is more.

  4. After someone subbed for me recently, I asked the drummer how the guy did. He said “He was a great player, but he overplayed a bit”. This made me curious, because ever since I had recently joined this jazz quartet, I had pretty much played anything and everything that popped into my head. So I asked “He overplayed? That’s hard to believe seeing as how I’ve been playing this gig”. His answer was “there’s overplaying, and then there’s overplaying”. I had to laugh, but his point really was, it doesn’t matter how many notes you play if the groove is there and you’re making the band sound good. Seeing as the other bass player is touring with an internationally known artist, that made me feel pretty good. So, it really is about listening and contributing to the whole, no?

    • That’s a nice compliment! I struggle with that myself. It’s a little like add spice to food. Add a little and it’s really good, add too much and well, it’s too much. I can only hope that my tastes match those whom I play with and those who listen.

    • Sometimes a band is only as good as one person. Be it the lead singer, the keyboard player, etc. But to me a great band is one thats as good as the band as a whole. None overpowers the others, rather they compliment each other. I’ve seen you with quite a few bands, Different styles and different types of music. I have never felt you personally were trying to out do anyone, but they sure would have sounded like shit without you, and vice vresa. A good band is a GROUO of talented people that can show their individual talents both solo and as a whole.

    • You are spot on Dean. We played for years together and always seemed to stay in the groove!

  5. a good bass player, in my experience, is one that fits the needs of the band, with good taste and elegance, then there are the geniuses of the instrument can become protagonists regardless of the band.

  6. I think a good bass player is one who can take you on that ride, make you feel what he is feeling at that very moment! happy, sad , or just make you want to dance! one who is not held back by any one style but can bring the groove to any situation.

  7. Being kind of an “old school bassist” I think what makes a great bass player is the one who can take charge and drive the rhythmn section. After all, bass is one half or one third (if percussion is involved) of what makes people want to move! And it doesn’t matter if you play original music or cover music, you can have the best singers, guitar players, keyboardists or whatever……but if the bass and drums aren’t tight, then it’s just noise! I often joke about the differences between rock bassists and jazz bassists; that being rock bassists play 4 notes for 4000 people, and jazz bassists play 4000 notes for 4 people! And most bassists that I know trying to emulate guys like Victor Wooten or Stanley Clarke can’t really play a simple song if they were asked. I have to remind them all the time that they are bass players, NOT guitar players ON bass!

    • OMG this is what I always say God I hate those 6 string basses, I was telling this to a good friend of mine who is a bass player Jaco only used 4 strings and was on of the greatest it’s all about swing my brother I am with you 100 %

      • Shoe

        I like the six string bass for many reasons. It gives me a full range instrument and allows for epic harmonizing with the guitar (or any other instrument). Chords in the upper register sound beautiful and I can comp my own bass lines without racing to the top of the neck and back. The neck feel is very conducive to slapping and other means of percussive playing, I never understood it while playing a four string, but to my hands, on a six string neck percussive playing makes perfect sense. It’s a different animal, and the extra strings did throw me off at first while playing some songs I had written parts for on a four string (where the F**k do my fingers go!?), but it’s worth getting used to and open up new possibilities for your own playing.

        Yes, Jaco did primarily gig with the ever recognizable “Bass of Doom” (yet owned many more instruments, including a Five string acoustic) and James Jamerson again only needed four strings, but I’m not Jaco or James Jamerson, hell even Victor Wooten usually only uses four strings, however, because there are notable people playing a specific instrument does not mean anyone should limit themselves to a mindset, especially if the tools are available and players such as Steve Bailey and Les Claypool to lead the way.

        However, I’ve found that many it’s rare to find a bass speaker to reproduce frequencies below 40 hz (but have also found speakers that drop below 20 hz), so in most cases the low B string (which vibrates at just under 31 hz), is not given it’s full potential. In some cases, even the low E string is not given it’s full potential with many speakers that cut out at 45 hz. This can be remedied by adding a sub-woofer to the rig (and then you can even drop down to a Seven string). And high C is right above the Guitar range so anything higher becomes redundant in the wrong hands (my own) and breaches the tonal range of “bass” and is therefore no longer JUST a bass. However, in the right hands, such as Jean Baudin’s, it’s incredible.

        At the end of the day, it’s just a tool to make music, despite how many strings it has, even if it’s just one (ie Gut Bucket or Whamola) or a Chapman Stick with twelve :)

    • Most people I know would argue with me on that “playing guitar on bass” thing and most of them play 6-string basses. Don’t get me wrong though. I like to play 6-string in trio type situations where I have to fill in a lot of dead space, but to do that all the time…..not happening! I can definitely get by on a 4-string with a D-tuner or a 5 with a drop A tuner!

    • John Enwhistle with the Who was a master of the bass. Good read.

    • Sorry don’t know what all this means but, you definatlly sound like you know you are talking about. I guess I need to learn!

    • Numbers of strings doesn’t matter. Jaco had 4 but played plenty of notes. Sting had 4 and played a fraction of what Jaco did. It’s all about listening and knowing what your role is. I find that no matter what instrument, the guy who is not listening is usually the one who is overplaying.

    • @ Michael…..I agree totally!! I mean there are always going to be times where the bassist gets a chance to shine (Although it’s been proven that most people like to talk DURING bass solos! LOL!), but in the meantime, play the song. If there’s a chance to throw a slick, tasty lick in there, fine. But I say don’t make that the main focus and concentrate more on what’s going on with the song and the other musicians.

    • Women and rhythm section first!

    • Nadine Torres Viruet I find that 6 strings actually give me a nice mean low end and give me the ability to do good solos/fills/soft distortion effects. Very versatile, though I do agree most show off on them rather than write a good driving rhythm.

    • Create the groove and feel the funk!

  8. A great bassist knows that sometimes less is more. The correctly placed pause, knowing when not to play is a gift.

  9. a great bassist can make one note sound infinite.

  10. A good musician doesn’t need to play a million notes in a second with only one pinky. Doesn’t need to play the major 7 with a 6th and a flat 9th just because they know how to. A good musician, bassist, guitarist, drummer, cellist whatever, a good musician only has to play one note and make it beautiful. Make it so beautiful that you know they could play 3 hours of notes and everyone would be beautiful. The implication makes the musician as good as what they actually play.

  11. Chicks come to see the singer, guys come to hear the guitarist, but they ALL dance for ME! Electric Jed (1962- 1986)

  12. From Jamerson to Sir Paul to Jaco to Flea to Esperanza: a great bassist serves the singer, the song, and the soloist.

  13. This may be a verbose explaination but I’m going for it. I feel its like any other aptitude, talent and aquired skill. When anyone of is is articulate and adept, it originates in the persons personality and how they are able to express themselves in a way broadly enough to get others to understand the statment or point being made with a natural, instinctive ability. The foundation for any discipline in 1. Exposure, 2. Curiosity 3. Discilpine 4. Awareness and 5. Personal expression, neither of which singularly exclusive to become what you are to become and it an exceptional communicator through the discipline of your craft. I think the foundation of rudiments and a person’s ability to adopt and use them as building blocks to expand and adapt to express your interpritation of the piece will so profoundly prove that less is more. If you listen to any of who we regard as the greats Listen carefully. They are very rudimentary in their approach to the instrument, but their timing is perfect and phrasing is always fres because each conversation requires a different dialouge in communcation; All of this is being done on a casual level without contrivance unless like in spoken communication, we are lying to who we’ve engaged in the conversation. Now the simple condensed version of this is: Some of us are born better equipped to communicate to others artistically because of inherent and applied aptitude.

  14. I think I probably come under the ‘old school’ title that’s been used in earlier posts. however, I think that the Bass, and it’s player can be anything they want to be. Here’s three examples: Cliff Williams of AC/DC, Cliff Burton of Metallica and Les Claypool of Primus – all doing totally different things on the Bass, and also the same – driving the song, expressing ideas and complimenting the other players, often all at the same time. Bass players have the best job in the band!

  15. I think you take a little jack Bruce, a little Dave Ellefson, and some billy sheehan and you throw it in the cd player through some reall y awesome headphones on 10 and get the rage out of your playing through listening to the players that lay it down and don’t overdue it. I have seen Dave Ellefson, one of my all time favorites. He is one of the guys that first wanted me to use a pick. I tried it. To this day, I hate it. But I hate it because I cannot make my bass sound like his. I cant make my notes come out like his. I cannot sit in a band and hold the bottome end in in style the way he does. BUT then I realized.. IM NOT DAVE ELLEFSON! SO, I sit back, listen to everything he ever played on and try to find cool licks he does and work them into my playing, In my own way. If you try to hard to impress, you lose the game. Hold the bottom together and let it rip.

  16. I remember reading this somewhere: Bass players must have an unshakeable grasp of the blatantly obvious. It never left me because it applies to so much of what I do.

  17. length of notes, a good chordal knowledge, great ears…are the hallmark of a great player..I’ve noticed in some of my students over the years having a tendency to overplay, put too much emphasis on ” chops” and too much scale practice. after ” testing their assumptions” of real world pro music — they start paying attention to the first three points of this post…. I would say concentrate on being a musician who happens to play bass..if you satisfy the requirements of the gig first…you then can bring something within you to the music…the very definition of a great player regardless of the instrument…

  18. Knowing that the space between the notes can just as important as the notes themselves. And, being that essential part of the group, playing it tight and fitting the song.

  19. If you have good time, a good sound, an understanding of the music.Come mentally and physically prepared, open minded to play with your heart and soul, always putting the music first, before your ego and your chops, chances are people will want to play with you.Its like any relationship.A combined effort.What you bring, and how you use it, that will determine the bass player you are.

  20. A mentor once told me “Remember, you’re a musician first and a bass player second.” These words have always stuck with me. When I write bass parts, I always strive to be musical, not technical. When you try to squeeze something technical where it doesn’t fit, it just sounds forced.

  21. The best bass-player is the one that plays like Jimmy Johnsson :D

  22. Eventually, we all see ourselves locking in to the music we really enjoy listening to. Hopefully, we can get to play that which we like more then any other. Until then, we become exposed (hopefully) to many different styles and so we have to learn. Listen. Absorb. Practice. Sure, I find myself sneaking in Marcus and Stanley licks where I can BUT it’s gotta fit the song and it’s gotta compliment the whole approach. Otherwise, you not only wasted the lick but the other musicians look at you like you trippin’ or something. It ain’t a bad thing to dream of playing like our heroes. I’ve seen Marcus many times lay back while others did their thing especially with Miles or Herbie. They don’t NEED to be the star all the time. Real pros don’t need the ego trip.

  23. breath. You need it to live, and you need it , as a bass player.Leaving space and knowing (feeling) how long to hold a note/cut it short lets the music breathe. It increased dynamics. It lets the melody shine thru.

  24. Alex VanPortfliet? Is that Phalex I see?

  25. For me it’s knowing and seeing what my singer writes in the lyrics that help me write a bass riff or even a starter riff that I can show the band and start writing from there and within a matter of 3 hours have a full song finished and walk away confidently know I started that and watch it progress into something beautiful, At the same time I like to put my own twist on it by adding a simple octave or even a riff that pushes out the chorus and the beginning of a song that catches people and makes it stick in there head for the rest of the night or even the day after.

  26. Lots of people try to sound like Billy Sheehan or Vic Vooten but forget about playing musical and rhythmical. They think that playing in a virtuoso manner makes them sound better. But “you get the girls” by making them dance, with pumping rhytm and deep tones. Even Jazz does not live by lots of tones, but by rhytm. Bring out the main point.
    This is for all them frickling “Solo-Guitar-Bassists”: Don’t forget: There’s no money above the 7th fret.

    • This is for all them frickling “Solo-Guitar-Bassists”: Don’t forget: There’s no money above the 7th fret.
      Geil.. Das trifft doch auf den punkt..

  27. I am among the ‘old school’ crowd. I started playing in the late 70s and everyone around me told me to listen to Jaco or Stanley Clarke. Yes, they are great musicians, but I am the type of person – if I dont like the music, I wont get into the player. Yes, I got into some players that played a lot of fast notes and I went down that road, but over the years I have simplified my playing and just hold the bottom – groove and drive. I want to back thee band, not have the band back me.

  28. A great bass player is one that plays melodic and powerful bass lines accordingly to the song. He is one that is able to “squeeze” in fast and intricate bass fills when the song calls for. He must also be able to groove and “feel” the music and not play a single note on a single string like what every other bassist now days do.

  29. Timing is everything! Locking in with a great drummer and really becoming the song. Play with feeling and love what you do!

  30. I think that some of the best bassIst anything a good bassist should do, keep time, lock in with the drummer, Ect. But do more, some add chords, some play the guitar lines with the guitarist, arpeggios, maybe ever sweeps, and yes less is more is still a good principal to live by, but don’t make it the staple of your style

  31. Technique and musical understanding come first, both in a more academic way. You have great technique then you have great time, tone and feel. You have great understanding combined with great technique and you get someone who knows what to play and can play it. Then add an understanding for the genre and a musical ear and you have someone who knows what to play, what not to play and when to play it, and when not to play it.

  32. I am in awe of many of the current bass virtuosos, but In Victor Wooten’s recent class, he kept asking “what section are you in?” The answer? “The rythym section” The foundation of every band!
    Bass players rarely get paid for playing chords and melody lines.

  33. Matthew Baldaccini

    No matter what with any art form music, film, drawing, etc. There is no such thing as a master or the best. Most people shoot to be that but in Reality there shooting to the best they can be, and that’s it. A great Bassist (or a great anything) shoots to be the best they can be either when they know it or not. Either through practice, playing with others, learning all they can learn, or just having fun with it. (Which all these things hold some strong level of importance to a degree) Society and/or anybody can not tell you if you or that guy are the best you can be. Only you can, only you will know or feel that as the answer cores through you like a cold shiver on a cold winters night. or a hot sweat dripping down your back on a hot summers day. But not what the perceptive state of a Conscience mind can tell you. But only the true UnConscience state of your mind that you can not control could tell the that answer either satisfactory or not. A great bassist isn’t great by how many or how little notes he or she plays in a segment, a piece, fill, bridge, or bar. Nor is it if he or she can read sheet music or knows numerical chord formula. Or even the skill level of talent (on which these things are important to some strong degree. Not to contradict myself) but that he or she is giving it there all in every aspect of there bass playing craft and as well with there Ability to be kind, nurturing, and relatable to another human being (in this case musician).
    That to me is what You may consider a master or the best.

  34. Jonathan Cruz

    Playing for years and different styles, many people try hard to learn complicated runs and notes. The meaning between a great bassist is the heart behind each note and the ability to give the audience the emotions you feel. If it’s 60 notes or 3, make the listeners feel what you are feeling.