Going Unnoticed: Our Role as Bassists (Or: The Not-So-Obvious Compliment)

Bassist in the shadows

There’s an old saying in the musical world that goes a little like this: “I didn’t even notice the bass until it wasn’t there!”

While this may seem a bit unfair – as if all of the other instruments receive the listening attention they deserve while we stand in the back – it happens to be a great compliment. Of course we want people to listen to our bass playing… the groove we establish, our clever passing tones and the careful attention we pay to band dynamics… But in certain situations, it’s preferable not to be in the spotlight. A great bass player has the ability to give the listener freedom to hear the music as a whole, and not just as individual parts.

This doesn’t mean that you have to oversimplify what you play, or that you’re not allowed to add your own personal touch to the music, but it does assert the importance of understanding how your notes influence the overall sound. Even though you may not be in a position to add many fills, sticking to a specific part and playing it with consistency and confidence can, in and of itself, put your own stamp on the music. Other musicians will be able to rely on your presence, your tasteful note choice, the groove you add to the music, and the fact that you leave space for the other players. This is particularly important when you’re playing with a larger ensemble where many instruments and voices are competing for the same sonic space. If your playing can make people step back and say “wow, that really sounded like a band!”, then you can give yourself a pat on the back.

This concept of “going unnoticed” also comes into play with certain genres more than others due to the function of the instrument within the music. For instance, in Latin or African music, the bass helps to define the genre with its specific rhythmic pattern or time signature. A slight variation in the feel or pattern may imply a different subset of the genre, so it is obvious when the bass is playing an incorrect part (or isn’t playing at all). If the bass seems to fit right in and continually plays a great groove, the music will lend itself to dance or to highlighting the vocalist or soloist. This kind of groove music can go on for long periods of time and creates a kind of trance, hypnotic, or “zen-like” state. Listeners rely on the unified feel of the music, so an awkward rhythm or interruption of the groove can easily grab people’s attention. How to avoid this? Keep on keepin’ on!

Similarly, in blues or country, the bass provides the feel of the music while clearly identifying the harmony. If the bass plays a wrong note, especially on beat one, it’s signaled out against the rest of the instruments. However, if the bass player locks in and knows the tune, there’s a positive transparency to what they play. The fact that they go unnoticed can be appropriate for the music and the bandleader will certainly admire your ability to play for the song and not for yourself. You don’t necessarily need to show off your technique or your knowledge of scales and modes, but you do need to make sure that band members are glad that you’re the one playing.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “but wait! I don’t want to go unnoticed!”, then try relating this concept to other “there and not”-types of music. A great example of this is film scoring. If there’s a striking scene in a movie, it’s always accompanied by an equally dramatic musical theme or soundtrack. This draws your attention into the scene as a whole and can give more emphasis to the action going on in front of you. You may not directly pick up on the music at first, especially if it is subtle, but you certainly would notice if the scene were silent. The same thing applies to playing in a band; you don’t want to overpower the action on stage, you want to enhance it.

At the end of the day, you want listeners and band members alike to realize that the band sounded great, and that you, in particular, played an important part in making that happen. While you may not be highlighted as the almighty bass player extraordinaire as you’re playing the gig, your playing will most likely resonate with everyone afterwards and chances are, you’ll get called back. You may not get an opportunity to step out and solo every night, but you will always be noticed for providing the groove.

As always, I love hearing your thoughts and feedback. Please add your voice to the conversation in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. I always equate playing bass to being the director of a motion picture. It’s an important role, but when Stephen Spielberg is directing E.T. you don’t really know that he’s there. If the directors role is obvious on screen, the movie is going to suck.

  2. As a country bassist, I always keep in mind the old joke about how being a bass player is lot like being a plumber… Nice piece!

  3. That’s why we have big hair and dress loudly.

  4. However, don’t the BEST bass players, i.e. the ones who contribute the most to the music, make NOTCEABLE choices in what they Are or ARE NOt playing. Surely a great bass player can add lots to the music in terms of quality, which may often mean playing a lot of fills and suspension with ‘getting in the way’. I’m not keen on the way this article seems to propose it’s not the responsibility of the bass player to add any interest to the music….

    • The way I see it the typical bass role is to accompany, but it can also add a lot of depth like you’re saying by doing something that is atypical for accompaniment i.e play root notes for the first 2 repeats of a chord progression and then do 2 more but arppegiate. It’s a whole different timbre to use – no harm in exploring that.

    • *without ‘getting in the way’

    • Gareth, with all due respect, I’d suggest you re-read the column, especially the second half. Approached right, the bass is never a non-contributor, and I think the “there and not” example is excellent … just as the music can add to the emotional impact of a scene, the bass can, by playing the right stuff, add to the impact of music, even though you might not be aware of how much unless it was not there.
      I don’t think she’s saying this is how it always should be, but rather that in some situations it’s exactly right.

  5. Thank You for straightening out my perspective! I’m a big fan of No Treble and I enjoy the material they post. But I found myself feeling more and more discontent and inadequate as a bass player because I lack the skills of those highlighted in the posts. I play in an eight piece church orchestra and we play by sheet music (which I learned to read after joining the group 4 years ago). I am able to add a little hear and a little there but everything is still pretty structured. Everyone tells me they really appreciate what I bring to the music but I keep feeling that I needed to play like Victor Bailey or Richard Bona (which I cannot) to really help the music along. This article helped me realize that I don’t have to be a soloist to produce good music. Now I feel better about telling people I’m a bass player. I think I’ll tack this article to my wall for when my perspective starts to slip again.

  6. It’s the groove, baby! Every song begs for it. Find it and play it and you can’t go wrong. How do you find it? Listen! Listen to what the song wants (needs). Everyone in the band needs to listen as well. Don’t get caught up in trying to fit your favorite lick into the song, that should happen naturally if it is ‘to be’. Don’t fall asleep at the switch, either. Keep listening and keep grooving. There is great joy in the groove!

  7. A lot of this, in my opinion, is a question of why you play music. Some people are very impressed with themselves and play songs in order to find get feedback from others about their “skills”. Songs are very secondary to their desire to “be special”. There are bassists like that. And then there are musicians who serve the song and as such, can become seamless with the song. They are often “unnoticed” by the people who just want to get positive feedback about themselves and don’t really care about the song. It’s really up to why you play. You’ll find bassists in both camps. Bass, in itself, is just a vehicle.

    • That’s a very good point. When I’m writing I start from the bass and then work onwards, with guitar parts and vocals so on. Maybe I’ll do it differently from time to time but most of the time I will do it bass first. This means that I’m trying to make a cool and ‘different’ bassline that people will notice. So I probably fit into the first category, but at the same time I disagree with what you’re saying. It’s basically saying that a song has to be really simple otherwise the musicians are just ‘showing off’.

    • Well, I was really trying to say that if you play for the song, you may very well be unnoticed. Because you’re playing for the song. If you do your job right, people will notice the song, not you. But if you play to impress people, welll…

  8. Nice article…I don’t care if I ever play a solo. I enjoy what I do and contribute as all bass players should..
    I rarely slap and pop..I may pop a few notes here and there where it sounds cool. but that’s it..
    Guys like Marcus Miller are monster talents, and for good reason..They have worked very hard at what they do. It’s fun to do something fancy sometimes, but not usually necessary…and we’re usually the better dressers..LOL.

  9. Take out the word “bass” and replace it with “any instrument” and then I’d agree with this article. Otherwise I get a little tired of the oppression that we as bass players force on ourselves.

    • My sentiments exactly. I also get tired of people telling me how “modest” I am when I don’t turn my amp up, or play (upright) without an amp. That’s not modesty, that’s doing what you have to to make the music sound better.

  10. Lay down the groove, be there on the downbeat, let the lead guitarist jump around. Have your gear, attitude, clothing, and arrival time all radiate “Professional”, and you’ll be just fine. That’s how you get gigs. A quick story, then something EVERY bassist should read. First the story: A few years ago I was hired to play the show CATS. After the first rehearsal I asked the director if she was satisfied with the bass (what I played, how I played, the mix, etc.). She said, “Don’t be insulted, but I didn’t even notice the bass.” Perfect. That comment said: I fit in perfectly, supplying bottom and support, never too loud, never missed in the mix, just right. Thank you, director. Now, Tony Levin. This tongue in cheek piece says it all.
    ————————————————–

    IN THE BEGINNING.

    In the beginning there was a bass.

    It was a Fender probably a Precision, but it could have been a Jazz—–nobody knows.

    Anyway, it was very old…definitely pre-CBS.

    And God looked down upon it and saw that it was good. He saw that it was very good, in fact, and couldn’t be improved upon at all (although men would later try). And so He let it be and He created a man to play the bass.

    And lo, the man look upon the bass, which was a beautiful sunburst red, and he loved it. He played upon the open E string and the note rang through the earth and reverberated throughout the firmaments. Thus reverb come to be. And it was good. And God heard that it was good and He smiled at His handiwork.

    In the course of time, the man came to slap upon the bass. And lo, it was funky.

    And God heard this funkiness and He said, “Go, man, go.” And it was good.

    And more time passed, and, having little else to do, the man came to practice upon the bass. And lo, the man came to have upon him a great set of chops.

    And he did play faster and faster until the notes rippled like a breeze through the heavens.

    And God heard this sound that sounded something like the wind, which He had created earlier. It also sounded something like the moving of furniture, which He hadn’t even created yet, and He was not so pleased. And He spoke to the man, saying, “Don’t do that!”.

    Now the man heard the voice of God, but he was so excited about his new ability that he slapped upon the bass a blizzard of funky notes. And the heavens shook with the sound, and the Angels ran about in confusion. (Some of the Angels started to dance, but that is another story).

    And God heard this—how could He miss it—and lo, He became bugged.

    And he spoke to the man, and He said, “Listen man, if I wanted Jimi Hendrix I would have created the guitar. Stick to the bass parts.”.

    And the man heard the voice of God, and he knew not to mess with it. But now he had upon him a passion for playing fast and high. The man took the frets off the bass that God had created. And the man did slide his fingers upon the fretless fingerboard and play melodies high upon the neck. And in his excitement, the man did forget the commandment of the Lord, and he played a frenzy of high melodies and blindingly fast licks. And the heavens rocked with the assault and the earth shook, rattled and rolled.

    Now God’s wrath was great. And his was thunder as He spoke to the man. He said, “ OK for you, pal. You have not heeded My word. LO, I shall create a soprano saxophone and it shall play higher than you can even think of.

    “And from out of the chaos I shall bring forth the drums. And I shall make you to always stand by the drummer, and he shall play so many notes thine head shall ache. ”You think you’re loud? I shall create a stack of Marshall guitar amps to make thine ears bleed. And I shall send down upon the earth other instruments, and lo, they shall all be able to play higher and faster than the bass.

    “And for all the days of man, your curse shall be this: that all the other instruments shall look to you, the bass player, for the low notes. And if you play too fast or too high all the other musicians shall say “wow”, but really they shall hate it.

    And they shall tell you you’re ready for your solo career, and they shall find other bass players for their bands. And for all your days if you want to play your fancy licks you shall have to sneak them in like a thief in the night.

    And if you finally do get to play a solo, everyone shall leave the bandstand and go to the bar for a drink.”.
    And it was so.

  11. Bass players are just like Offensive Linemen in Football. Playing for the good of the team/band. No one in the public can name even one and they only get their name called when they are really bad. Yet, nobody would be foolish enough to play without them.

  12. I always say my job is to make the music feel good, so women will be attracted to the singer and guitar player.

  13. We out there to make the band/music sound great and whatever it takes to do so. With bass playing, the bottom line is always about harmony and groove, playing the right notes and lines, and about being focused, present, and supportive.Slap tap pop whatever, is relevant to the style of the band and music you playing.I think all bass players should incorporate composition and arranging into there practice schedules because its about being a musician e respective of what instrument you play.Learning the piano won’t hurt either.Music is not about playing the bass but rather how you use the instrument to contribute to the whole.We have so many great players to listen to and learn from.Be strong about what you do, but also sensitive to others you playing with.Dynamics, tone, and discipline about your playing, from the first note to the last.

  14. Yep, that’s how it is.

  15. BLAHBLAHBLAH.. for the people who don’t care about attention and getting noticed.

    no I do care.. I am human I need a compliment , I want be a great bass player.. if u don’t care about that.. its only one of 2 things..

    1st.. u have no ambition and no dream.
    2nd.. u r frustrated to be noticed so u decided not be have an interest as well!

  16. Good points made. I was always told from the time I played in a jazz band, that the bass player is the guy that holds the band together, the bridge between the drums and the other instruments. When I first switched to bass from playing lead guitar, my bass lines were all noodly and crazy, and after becoming more of a groove player, I went back and listened to those old recordings. They sounded bad. Now I am playing in a three piece blues band, and the dynamics are different because I have to be more “out there” but still try and maintain that groove, even though I do add fills here and there.

  17. This article fit in perfectly with an online conversation conversation about an admired local bassist. Aces!

    • I know it goes with the job but it’s a shame that most people have never heard of most bass players. Like of my favorites, Carol Kaye. She played on everything and is virtually unknown. Probably broke now because she was just a session guy.

    • James Jamerson spent his time Standing In the Shadows of Motown

    • I met CCR when I was a kid and asked Stu Cook why he didn’t do a solo, “That’s not what I’m here for.” He said.

  18. I slightly disagree. Yeah, there are points when a bass should groove out like any instrument, but being wooden and background isn’t for everybody. All the best music in the world has intricacies that pop out like crazy. When you listen to Lucy in The Sky, the bass is one of the most magical pieces, and it does far from groove, it almost leads against the rest of the song.

    I’d argue that music in general has gone past the idea that groove is this chunk of mystery meat that people eat and enjoy as long as it tastes good and you can’t pick out the flavors. The fact is that the best bass players that people love and compliment get that way by knowing what each individual song needs to be interesting. Sometimes that’s a heavy drum, bass, guitar groove, but the most famous know that there are songs where everyone plays a different part, and the groove is based off the interlocking between instruments. Bassists like Tony Kanal from no doubt and Tim Commerford from rage have fantastic bass lines that get a deserved spotlight, and as a result they’re an irreplaceable personality of the band. That doesn’t mean they don’t know how to groove, but they certainly know how to give their stuff some character, some kick, so that people are listening intricately.

  19. I love this, it points to a couple of the First Rules of being a BP.
    #1) The Song is King!
    #2) Serve the Song!
    Whatever we do should ‘Add To’ the song by making it better for Everyone and Not by Distracting from the song just to ‘Draw Attention to ourselves.
    It’s all about the Music!
    Not our egos.

  20. Great article Ryan! First and foremost, our job as a bass player is to be the link between the tempo and the melody. Locking in with the drummer is paramount. Of course you have to tie that in with the guitar, piano etc.. That being said, there are infinite ways to do this. Remember, people may not notice us, but EVERYBODY notices when we are not there. Being a musician is sometimes a curse. I can’t listen to a song and just enjoy it. Immediately my brain is splitting up and dissecting the song and analyzing all the parts and cool hooks and techniques. But most people listen to the SONG. So as long as it’s good, most regular people will be happy. But we know deep down we are playing to the guys and girls in the back of the room, leaning on the wall with thier arms crossed…you know, the musicians! The best compliments I get are when someone comes up to me and says they loved my sound. That makes my night! So do it anyway you want, but lock in with the drummer!

  21. They may not hear the bass, but by God, they’ll feel it.

  22. Me and the drummer just get drunk and no one notices a thing. We are that tight. LOL!

  23. I like the fact I don’t have to learn the chords and just make the song one note at a time.