Versatility: A Guide for Bassists


Q: Like a lot of the guys out there on the scene, you make a living playing a wide variety of styles. I have a hard enough time trying to play well in any one style of music. How do you get so comfortable in so many different kinds of musical settings?

A: I think that a part of it may be perception – meaning, how you’re categorizing different styles mentally. For me, it’s all music, plain and simple.

True, every style of music has it’s vocabulary. There’s also a need to be exposed to different styles to get an understanding of them. And that’s the biggest point I want to make:

Expose yourself to all types of music!

Much of how we play is dictated not only by how we practice but also what we listen to. In order to play any style of music, you first have to know how it’s supposed to sound and feel.

This involves listening. A lot of listening.

You could study tumbaos out of a book for a lifetime, but you would never get them to feel right unless you also listened to the music and internalized how it is really supposed to feel.

Swing is much the same. There are plenty of guys who can put the right notes in the right places and it just isn’t happening. Mathematically, it may be correct, but music is about feeling.

I come across this a lot with my students and they often look at me with a confused face when I say that it’s more about the feel than knowing the right notes and having good time. This is because we spend much of our time focusing on controlling tempo, owning rhythm and sub-divisions and learning what notes might sound good over any given chord type.

This is all nuts and bolts stuff, and you have to know this stuff to be a versatile, working bassist (for the most part).

But the plain and simple truth is that none of that matters at all if you can’t make the music feel right. I’ll even go so far as to say that you could ignore all of the “right notes” and sound better with good feel than the inverse (play all of the right notes but with a bad feel).

An example:

I was working on some tumbao lines with a student and the chart was moving by pretty quickly. The written line had a lot of syncopation, so in order to keep his place with the music, the student was slamming his foot (whole leg) in really quick quarter notes. While he was playing the line correctly, he was frustrated because he could hear that it wasn’t sitting right… The music didn’t feel good.

I simply asked him to pick a 4-bar phrase that he could memorize (so he didn’t have to look at the page in order to keep his place), and then I told him to loop that line.

Next, I told him to stop stomping out the quarter notes and move his body in half-time back and forth, almost like a dancer might sway to the music. His notes began to shift – ever so slightly – and they were no longer exactly on the proper sub-divisions but rather sitting just where they were supposed to in the line with the percussion. His bass line began to sound like music.

I used this trick myself when I had to play “Invitation” with the Jaco Pastorius Big Band. That line is busy and the tempo is fast but it needs to feel relaxed and sit almost like a good funk groove or R&B line would. Like so many of Jaco’s lines, the trick is to approach them from an R&B perspective with regard to feel. At first, I had trouble technically playing the line properly at the tempo the band was taking it at. My solution? I moved my body in quarter time!

I swayed to the music with an entire bar going by for each step of my foot and sway of my body. This caused me to relax into it and everything fell into place. Simply by feeling the whole note pulse with my body instead of every blazingly fast quarter note, I could immediately not only play the line but could make it sit just where it needed to.

We’ve gone on a slight tangent, though. Your question was about playing in many or any style with authority and what that takes. Here’s my suggested list:

  1. Listen to and seek out all kinds of music I love watching the CMA’s for example because the bands are so good and those singers are ridiculously talented. Leaving yourself open to every kind of music and actively seeking out what you enjoy and could learn from every style of music can only enhance your overall musicality.
  2. Don’t think “What am I supposed to play here?!” Instead, listen to the music as a whole and think “what do I want to hear here?” It’s a subtle difference in approach but the ability to listen to the band as if you were in the audience and react to the music as a listener is a huge leap, often with regard to the overall musical result.
  3. Watch YouTube videos and go to concerts of every kind. Pay attention to how the musicians feel the music physically, by watching. The jazz guys don’t dance much (LOL), but you can glean a lot from the drummer, for example. Even on an up-tempo bop tune, how are they breathing and moving with the music? This could gain you some insight into how they are feeling the bigger pulse. Afro-Cuban, Salsa, etc.. you can learn a lot by watching the musicians here. They dance!
  4. Music is music. You can’t force it. Simply pay attention and listen, hard. Don’t over think but, rather, let your body and your ears tell you how to feel the music. This part isn’t academic… it’s emotion, really.

Save the hyper-vigilant problem solving for the shed when working on changes and internalizing those subdivisions. Then, when it’s time to play music, stop thinking and feel it!

As always, I love hearing what you guys have to say on these topics. Please share your thoughts, advice and techniques in the comments.

Photo Credit: -Jeffrey-

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Great article and great advise. I listen to as many bands and as many styles as I can. That includes listening to tons of music from countries not considered ‘western’. I wish I could live to be 10000 years old so I’d have a chance to listen to more of what the world has to offer.

  2. A well written article and so aspects to take on board. When I used to play predominantly covers we all started out as close to the original as possible but after a while it fell into its own groove and although it represented and could be easily recognised as the original there were subtleties that made it ours. Its the live band vs a midi backing track. a midi track has all the notes in all the right places but a live band breathes, has its own pulse etc. If you go out on a session then the band around you has fell into its own groove. The best you can do is take the key hooks from the original piece and for the most part listen to what’s going on around you rather than the dots infront of you.

  3. Great Article! and I agree, Youtube is one of the best tools ever for opening yourself up to different kinds of music, live and studio versions.. I also find recording yourself while learning new stuff and going back and just listening really helps..

  4. Great advice! Back in the days before internet arrived I used to turn on the radio, tune it to a random music station and tot to play along with whatever was on. You could do the same with YouTube or Spotify… Good training for your ears and versatility!

  5. What are CMAs? Not a term we have/use around here (or at least I doubt you mean Concrete Manufacturers Association).

  6. Great article! I always stand while playing bass, even in the studio. And I always find myself dancing to the drums while playing. This helps me to feel the groove of the drums, more than to analyze where the one and three is placed;) My first teacher told me to work with body language to get the feel – lean backwards to be laid back, lean forward to play before, even facial expressions – this always helped me a lot and worked well for me (and looks funny;).