Basses and Skill: Stick to One or Diversify?
Q: Is there any benefit in mastering two (or more) types of basses? I have a 5-string fretted that is my primary instrument, and that’s the one I take out of the “shed.” After finding a great deal on a fretless 4-string at a pawnshop, my thought was this bass would be perfect for playing jazz, and I started studying walking bass lines on it. Weirdly, I have a hard time playing the walking lines on the 5-string. I don’t have a lot of time each day, so I am wondering if it makes to sense to do everything on one instrument. When I see you and other bassists, you all seem to have one instrument that you always play regardless of jazz, funk, country, etc. So my thought is should I really just be doing everything on one instrument, and then just admiring my other basses on the stand.
A: Interesting question! A lot of things come to mind when I think about it and, ultimately, they are all subjective. It’ll be different for everyone.
I think most guys you see that tend to play the same instrument do so because they have found the instrument that speaks to them. Sometimes a bass just feels right, sounds just right, and makes you want to play. You’ll tend to reach for that one every time unless you are going for something specifically different (say for a recording session).
I can relate to your example, because I picked up my first 6-string in college and loved it so much, I sold my other basses (broke college student). This was also a time when I had never even thought about soloing on the instrument and was now working on walking, soloing, chords, etc., constantly. In essence, I learned how to solo on a 6-string!
Years later, I now have an selection of 4- and 6-strings. I love my 4-string Skjold. When I decide to bring that to a jazz gig and have to solo on it all night, I find it a touch more difficult to navigate changes up high on it, because I “learned” how to play jazz on a 6. It’s a mental thing and because of the way I’m wired, I now tend to practice changes and soloing on that instrument because, when I discover something I can’t do well, I attack it.
(Worth noting: 5-strings still confuse me, because I had never owned one until a few years ago. I use my Zon 5 fretless in recording sessions and on the road with Gino Vannelli. It works for me because I’ve learned those songs on that bass, but when I get the bug and bring it to a gig, I find that I have to really pay attention to what string I’m on, which is not the case on a 6-string for me. weird feeling).
I think there’s value in really connecting with an instrument and getting to know that instrument inside and out. The information is transferable of course, but there is something special about a bass that feels like home. A comfort zone, so to speak.
Bassists will play every bass a little differently. There are exceptions too. I never understood how some guys could just buy and sell basses like crazy and never settle down with one. I did that for years, but only when I was looking for the bass that spoke to me. Once I finally learned what I really wanted from an instrument and then found that instrument, I don’t even think about buying another bass that does that thing that bass does.
Each bass will have its own voice and that means it will have a role for certain types of gigs, styles, and sounds. When you pick up a bass, you’ll know how you’re going to play and sound. And that gives you a lot of control in knowing which bass will do the right job.
I wouldn’t worry about it too much, but it may mean that you need to practice a bit more with both basses. If you’re new to bass, I would stick to one instrument for the first few years of development – or until you discover a reason why this bass isn’t quite the one you want to play – or find that bass that really speaks to you.
There is a tendency to get caught up in the collector mentality and think that we need an arsenal of instruments. It’s understandable because there are a lot of beautiful instruments out there and we want to play them but that can be a distraction, if you’re not careful. I don’t know how experienced a player you are or how much you are gigging but, if you’re a beginning or beginning/intermediate player, I’d spend your time working on the fundamentals and really honing your skills on one instrument until you find one that really speaks to you (you’ll know when that happens).
I have a lot of students who have a 4-string, 5-string, 6-string, fretless, acoustic, upright… but still have trouble playing a two-octave scale in the middle of the neck. This tells me that they are more concerned with the gear list or “being a musician” than actually being a musician.
So many people start out on sub-par instruments, and play them for a long time. While this can help build dexterity (ha!), it also provided those folks with the opportunity to play a single bass and learn it.
That said, a new (and better) instrument can help to spark more interest and make you want to play more so, if you’re inspired, go for it! You’re learning though that a bass is not a bass is not a bass. Losing the frets, adding a string – it all forces you to have to take a few steps back and learn some new stuff, which can take away from the time spent making forward progress but can also inspire new ideas.
Do what you think is best in your development, and follow the feel, the sound and how it impacts your desire to play. If you are digging that fretless, dig into that bad boy and learn how to make it speak! A fretless is always a good idea because it forces you to clean up your technique (if you want to play in tune anyway) because you have to be so intentional with note placement. It’s also a huge bonus skill for potential studio work, makes you more valuable to band leaders and it just sounds cool.
Readers, what’s your take? How many instruments do you have? How many are your go-to basses? How do you handle switching? Tell us about it in the comments.