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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!

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