The Bass Solo: A Guide to Soloing More Freely

The Bass Solo: A Guide to Soloing More Freely

Q: I am at a stage with playing jazz where I feel confident playing bass lines, such as walking through challenging pieces. Given time to learn the chord sequence, I am pretty confident at playing solos over the top of backing tracks and grooves. My problem is that when playing with a jazz band – when everyone cuts out for the bass solo – my playing falls apart and I get lost (unless I have spent time arranging a specific solo). How do you advise learning to improvise interesting solos, which reflect the tune’s harmony, without just playing arpeggio licks for each chord?

A: I think most bassists can relate to that feeling (making exception for actual solo bassists, of course). We spend all night supporting other players and helping to help them sound good when they play and when it’s our turn to get the spotlight for a second, every drops out completely!


This is a historical remnant, I believe, left over from days before quality amplification and, of course, electric basses.

Here are a few things I’d recommend:

  1. Get some support
    Mention to the pianist or guitarist that a little accompaniment would really help. Even horn players can play root motions here and there to help move things along.
  2. Use the melody as your guide.
    If we learn the melodies to the tune, not only can we hear it in our heads (hopefully), but it can serve as the entire foundation for our solo. Nothing wrong with one solid chorus of an ornamented melody. Now, if you’re going to play multiple choruses, you might not want to just repeat the process. A solo needs to develop and lead somewhere, so you’ll need to continue to develop your playing in order to have something to say on your own.
  3. If it’s solo, you’re free!
    One thing that’s nice about everyone dropping out is that it doesn’t always matter if we follow the form. We can, in fact, abandon the tune all together and go off on our own planet (groove solo, for example) and simply cue the band back in by going back to that last A section (for example) and leading everyone back in gently (or even better, by playing the end of the head).

In addition to the options listed above, I think the answer only really lies in further study, development and experience. It should be easier to keep your place if your are indeed using the chords as your guide. Playing more musically through changes will continue to come – slowly – with practice and experience. Make sure that you are practicing playing through changes in different ways (arpegiatically, with inversions, linearly, considering chord scales, voice leading melodies through changes, and so on).

Practice playing along with Band in a Box, iRealb or any other play-along method and try muting other instruments and just playing the tune with the drums.

Practice doing exactly that which you are having trouble with and you will inevitably get better at it, in essence.

How about the rest of you? How do you handle the “entire band goes to get a drink at the bar during the bass solo” phenomenon? Tell us about it in the comments.

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

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  1. As a bass player I’m used to playing to what the other players are doing ( to make sure that they sound good) I’m always adjusting what I play according to what I hear. When everyone else drops out harmonically, I can’t feel the music in the same manner. I usually don’t care about solos anyhow, the way that I play, I feel like I’m soloing all the time :)

    • I usually do the same. I do like to stand out ever-so-often though. It’s fun to throw some fills in where the song seems to get a little too empty.

  2. I have found the Victor Wooten method works best for me in that it is essentially my job to take that solo but doubly to keep them off their seats and on their feets which means lock in the groove and solo AROUND it but not exclude it.

  3. Keep playing the bass-lines to the song with a few rhythmic and harmonic variations…no need for instrumental acrobatics…you’re already the coolest cat in the room! Why sweat it out?

  4. With getting lost I found that when I made my solos more simple it helped a ton. I was always trying to be a saxophone player (8th note runs all through the changes) but when I did that I would get lost and not know where I was. I changed my mind set to always knowing where I was in the form, then laying a good solo over it. More melodic lines. I practiced that for a long time. Now I can play what ever I want through the changes and (most of the time) I keep my place :)

  5. If the whole band cuts out im the bass solo i just play a few notes here and there and give the piano player or guitarist a nod to join in and if that doesn’t help a stare and most people join in. Then in the break i mention it helps to get insipired by the voicings there playing or rythmical support from the drummer.. i once had a gig with trumpet , guitar , and bass it was going nice trumpet player was great…but in the bass solo i was left alone… So I asked the guitarist to join in ..the dufus reluctanly did and after in the break mentioned that “this was something we had to discuss before hand! ” I said well you left me out to dry ( he was continualy lost the whole night and I had to point out in his chart our current position) I said

  6. Ok its a long story but after the break when his time came to solo i just stopped playing….hahahaha he totally messed it up and the trumpet player was snickering and when his sad solo was done i kicked in with the trump blazing after he leaned over and asked what’s up …i said sorry we did not discuss that i had to back your solo’s! The greatest solo’s I find are the interplay between musicians then beautifull things can happen

  7. Knowing the melody is paramount. You can blow off that. Always having “time’ in your head whether its from your foot or head nod is very important…it allows you to lose yourself within your playing and also the band will feel the groove, and then you to feel the vibe on stage which can help you not to be self conscience.

  8. Don’t stress about it. Maybe you’re over thinking it. Whenever I get a band drop out, I don’t think at all. It seems weird, but I don’t think about the key or melody or rhythm or scales or chord structures, I just play. usually it sounds good and leads to some cool (I think they’re cool) explorations. maybe give that a try, stay calm and just play, don’t think. Feel.

  9. I like having harmony and rhythm play during bass solos, because I play off of both. It’s hard to play chord extensions, foe example, when you have nothing to “extend” from. Most of the guys I play with know what I like. If they don’t I just tell them to keep playing, but play “less” and bring the volume down. In either case though, always keep the melody in your head – both as a placeholder, and a springboard for ideas. For me the toughest part of a bass solo is getting out of it and back into the groove, especially if it’s a specific bass part. At the end of the last chorus, I try to create some sort of bridge back into the groove, or make it really obvious that I’m wrapping it up so the band can come back in (the operative word being “try”).

  10. Just solo the entire song.

  11. Hehehe… Ok, the quick and easy (some would say dirty) way that works for me is this: I take the song I’m playing in, the key, the melody etc, and combine all of that into a solo from another song, which I play to in my head… So, when it comes to my solo in Song A, I recall another solo, bassline, melody line, whatever, from a different song, and then play my solo for Song A to the one I’m hearing in my head from Song Whatever. So, for example, if my band wants me to solo over Mariah Carey’s Always Be My Baby, I might take the melody line from, say, Boys II Men’s End of the Road, and then play a solo to End of the Road (which I’m hearing in my head the whole time). Obviously, the song is Always be my Baby, but no one knows that the melody I’m playing to in my head is End of the Road. So the band/audience is hearing an amazing solo, without knowing that its not the end result of years of theory and improvisation. It sounds strange, but it really works for me, and if you try it, you will be amazed at how good it sounds. I think its really the ‘comfort’ of playing over a melody/bassline/solo that you already know (albeit you’re hearing it in your head) that allows you to bust out and do amazing things. It’s almost like the song in your head gives you a framework, and all you then have to do is fill in the gaps with the actual notes. This all being said, though, you still need to know what notes sound good, what notes will work and which ones won’t, how to work the rhythm, and so on. This is not a ‘magic’ method that will have you soloing when you started playing two weeks ago. But it will provide a nice foundation for you to do complex, and interesting, solos…

  12. I like playing melodic solos, so I usually ask for the rhythm to keep going.

  13. During an almost 9-10 year continuous tour with different Top 40 bands in the 80s – 90s, I was fortunate many times to play with musicians who looked forward to jumping out the box many times on different songs. Though I knew nothing about Victor Wooten then, I did see readily the audiences were reacting to the foundation set up by the drums and bass and so when it was my turn, I immediately locked in a tight groove and then played off it while still maintaining the framework to keep the audience focused and feeling the thing. In later years, having learned of Victor’s approach, I really didn’t have to change things much.

  14. Anticipate solos ahead of time, when possible. My first band – I was playing along with the tune, and then out of no where, the lead singer yells, let’s hear that bass! The Keyboards and the guitar drop out, and its just me and the drummer. Oh crap. Since then, I make sure I know the song well enough that I can solo if it is ever dropped on me like that again. (The song was a cover of.
    “I’ll Take you there” by the staples singers. So the solo was bland, but not awful.)

  15. Two words: Be prepared.

  16. I like it when the bass is backed when soloing.