What Makes a Great Bassist? Part 1: 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.
You 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.
It’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.
A 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.
The 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.
A 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.
You 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.
A 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.
In 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.