Playing a Gig with No Prep Time: A Guide for Bass Players

Q: I will soon be filling in on a gig with no rehearsals or charts. I’m a little freaked out. They said we’d get a few minutes during sound check to run through a tune or two, but how can I expect to play well when I can’t really prepare?

A: I feel your pain, friend! In the scenario you are describing, you likely have a few things going for you.

Luck is for the unpreparedFirst, If they expect you to “hear it”, “feel it” or find your way, then the music can’t be all that difficult. If it is, then it is no fault of your own if it goes poorly. My bet is that the gig is most likely be a blues-based or very tonal (i.e. one chord funk vamps)-type band. Familiarity with the style might be a key factor too, if you can find that out.

Second, the band leader will likely keep an eye towards you to cue things.

And last but not least, no matter how bad it goes, there’s no blame that can befall you if the bandleader never gave you any music, charts or indication of what to expect.

Hopefully it doesn’t resort to that, and here are a few things you might want to consider:

  1. Find out the style and roots of the music you’re playing (i.e. blues, funk, standards)
  2. Spend as much time as possible listening to music of that style and paying special attention to common chord progressions, themes and – especially – the bass lines.
  3. Really try to hone in on the vibe and space that the bassist creates in a typical setting for whatever kind of music it is.

While listening, think about what the bassist is doing with each tune. Does he or she leave a lot of space? Play mostly roots and fifths? Syncopate? What else?

Every style is different. Get as familiar with the vocabulary as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

If you can create the right vibe, a few missed notes won’t bother anybody.

Here are a few additional things to keep in mind:

  1. Keep your head up and look for cues
  2. Don’t concentrate on your playing so much that you aren’t listening to the music around you.
  3. Play a bit on the quiet side… keeping yourself low in the mix will not only make any mistakes less likely to cause any trouble but it will also allow you to really hear the harmony going on around you. You need to remember to listen to yourself in the context of the band
  4. Simplify! Make it your mission to quickly learn the harmonic progression and lock in with the drummer. No more, no less.

These are the types of gigs that you only get good at by throwing yourself into the fire, so to speak. This is where your practice habits and routines may help greatly or expose themselves to be a bit less functional than you might have hoped (i.e.: have you been training your ears and transcribing a bunch? Those Victor Wooten triplet licks won’t help you here!)

Trial by fire is a fantastic way to gain insight into your strengths and weaknesses. Use it as an opportunity to learn about yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you take a licking on that stage. Just go home with a fresh attitude and a new motivation to work even harder on whatever it is you’ve discovered needs work!

Anybody else have any suggestions that I may have missed here? Leave a comment!

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. Also, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with traditional chordal structures as much as you can, e.g. lots of ear training, AND some of the greatest, most simplest advise I’ve ever gotten is to listen to the ride and bass drum pattern of the drummer and lock it in. As Damian so eloquently put it, keep it simple.

    I’ve done many of these types of gigs, and the thing that has helped me most in situations like that is to work on ear training, and the best thing I’ve ever done for that is TRANSCRIBE, TRANSCRIBE, TRANSCRIBE. Not only does it train your ear, but it also opens your world up to a whole spectrum of musical qualities in rhythm, dynamics, accents, styles, etc., etc., etc.

    Best of luck to you!

  2. These kind of gigs are akin to being dropped off in the woods with a knife and a pair of boots, I love it! Good advice. Always ask yourself “what purpose am I serving here?”, and a simple answer will carry you through to the closing tune with a smile on your own face. Trust your fingers!

  3. I’ve been there, done that.
    yes volume should be lower than typical gigs, it helps you hide in the mix if you make mistake.
    don’t expect a good out come- if they are giving us a hard time, all we can do is try our best. even pros will make mistake on spot in situation like this, but more or less , that is up to your experiences from the past, and your knowledge of music style. if you are funk, and you walked into a funk gig without prep you definitely can get away with it, but not with best result.

    also, ask em to send you song list, you can listen it off somewhere, or even try play along, simplify the line.

  4. If you don’t already, familiarize yourself with playing while not looking at your fingerboard. This goes in line with the keeping an eye on the leader/guitar player/drumer/kazoo player/etc… during the song to get visual queues. A good way to do this is to close your eyes while playing your different scale forms, modes, tritones, and even fun little bass lines. It builds muscle memory in your fingerboard hand, and when you play a gig with music you know and have prepared for it makes it easer to interact with other bandmates and the crowd.

    Aside from that, listen! Have the rhythm guitar or keys (which ever instrument is not lead and provides the chordal foundation) the highest in your monitor. I always suggest standing high-hat side on the drummer, since that will most likely be the most consistent time keeper. And finally, relax! Have fun, act like you know the tunes and don’t react when you make a mistake.

  5. Lots of good advice here, I should transcribe and put the Wooten licks at a lower priority!

  6. I hope they pay you well for that gig.

  7. Good article! Most gigs I do are like this since the majority of them are jazz standards gigs, it pays to know at least 50 common jazz standards (easier said than done!). Many jazz pros will know 500+. I second Damian’s advice if it’s a funk/blues gig, you will have a great time grooving and locking in with the drummer!

  8. I am a drummer and I will tell you that we get the same type of gigs. Play your bass like you invented the style and look for the rhythm pocket with the drummer/percussionist. You two guys are the foundation. I doubt they would ask you to jump in like that if they had any doubts as to your ability to perform.

  9. Funny. This situation happen to me last Sunday for church service. I got a call Saturday to fill in for a bassist who couldn’t make it.

  10. Get a set list and then get busy on YouTube. I was in exactly this situation about 2 years ago. The band had a 4-hour gig coming up with no rehearsal and one other sub on guitar as well for that night. I asked for a set list and then proceeded to camp out with You Tube. I managed to get through the entire night without music with the exception of one tune that wasn’t on the set list. Also be sure to ask what keys the songs are in. Just because the original is in E-flat doesn’t mean it won’t be played in some other key, especially if there’s a singer involved or a guitarist who can’t transpose (“Shit – I left my capo at home!”).

  11. All well said! This happens to me frequently. The only thing I would add to this is make sure to keep it simple as already stated – not just paying attention to maybe root/fifth patterns, but simple pentatonic, etc. I always find that when I do find the groove with the drummer I will try to add harmony and over complicate. That is where the mistakes come…..

  12. Wear your big ears and keep your head up for cues….most stuff we see on gigs follows familiar formats….(except Beatle tunes…..I have to sit and learn that stuff ahead of time)…..listen carefully to the 1st 8 as the bands sets up the groove, find your pocket & lock in with the drummer while supporting the melody….and keep it simple (do that anyway!). ‘May the Schwartz be with you’!

  13. Great article. Lock in with the drummer, keep your head up and your mix low. Good luck – have fun!

  14. Whenever you are fortunate enough to play a note that you know is right play it like you mean it. Fake it like your life depends on it. It better sound like you rehearsed. If you break a string no one should know but you.

  15. Remember. It is actually possible to prepare to play a list of 25 songs the night before. The more you do it the easier it gets. It’s my specialty. Listen Listen Listen Feel Feel Feel Express Express Express Groove on.

  16. I got pulled into a church band. Bass, keyboard and drummer. Keyboard couldn’t read music at all and only knew the songs because someone else had showed him years ago. So, that meant my ears were out like freakin’ RADAR all day. Most of it was basic R&B gospel changes. I quickly saw the vast majority of it followed the same intervals but in different keys. So, I also noticed the congregation was a dancin’ bunch so once I got the interval thing figured, I threw some funk lines in here and there and they all loved it. Here’s the thing, though. You may just run into that kind of nightmare where the keyboard or guitar player can play the song but doesn’t have a flippin’ clue what notes or chords thy’re using. Practice. Scales. Intervals. Hit ’em hard and mix ’em up during practice. All the suggestions I see in the comments are 100% helpful. You and your bass have to be one and let your ears guide your fingers.

  17. You pretty much covered it!

  18. I’ve got a hint, which (unless I missed it) wasn’t mentioned. Set up (or at least stand) near the keyboardist, if you know how to read his/her left hand. Otherwise, set up (or stand) near the guitarist to read his/her fingerboard. This also allows for verbal communication. While on most gigs the bassist is near the drummer, in this situation it pays to be near a someone who can verbally or visually give you cues about the changes. It’s also handy to ask how they cue keys – fingers up for sharps or fingers down. Of course this only helps if everyone knows their key sigs (which they should). I asked this as recently as two nights ago, playing with a new band. Lastly, keep your head up and eyes open for cues, but (at least for me) that’s ALWAYS a rule, no matter how many times I’ve worked with the others on stage. Lastly (#2), relax. We all do better when we’re relaxed and breathing. Good luck.

  19. I play a lot of these type gigs, as well. And second the advice to have a good view of a rhythm guitarist or keyboardist’s left hands (if you can read them)…heads-up for that, and ears-up for the drummer, lock in with the kick and the top fills will seemingly magically appear.

  20. First and foremost train your ears to identify key centers quickly (what key the song is in and whether it is major or minor) and common chord progression (e.g. II V I, I VI II V, I IV V, etc). Also, practice identifying and anticipating song forms (intro, verse, chorus.. maybe a verse and a chorus are coming up now.. is there a bridge after that?) One good way I have found for training for the unexpected is simply sitting down with my bass in hand and have the radio play a random station; then I try to play whatever comes up as if I was live on stage. You can even try figuring out the songs on the radio without your bass, just by ear, while driving for example. Lastly, always remember to carry a small notebook or writing pad to those kinds of gigs with you in case you need to write down a small chord chart. All the best!

  21. This is good advice except for one point which I vehemently disagree on: “And last but not least, no matter how bad it goes, there’s no blame that can befall you if the bandleader never gave you any music, charts or indication of what to expect.” NO NO NO! You just put your reputation at risk by accepting the gig. The audience doesn’t know/care about your little back story. It’s also on you to insist that you get as much as you can to help do your best or pass on it.