When to Play with the Harmony: A Discussion for Bass Players

Guitarist and bassist

Photo by Lorri Auer

Q: The (new) guitarist in my band has mentioned a few times that I’m not “holding it down” because I don’t always play the root, and he finds it “detracts from the song.” He is an extremely good musician and I respect his opinion. However the chords in our songs are super vanilla. Our vocalist says she loves the way I play, and she is the songwriting force in the band. What are your thoughts on playing with the harmony in a vocal-centric setting, particularly when you are getting contradictory feedback?

A: Good question. Guitarists are stereotypically sensitive to bass players stepping into the world of “melodic playing” or not hitting whole notes on the root.

(Ok, that was snarky).

Often times, I can’t say I blame them. It seems a lot of bassists overplay these days, at least for my taste. Myself included.

There is a tendency, especially when you have five times the chops or harmonic depth necessary for the gig at hand to have a little too much fun. The problem usually boils down to how well we can actually listen to the music while we are playing. Many of us don’t actually listen all that well to the band as a whole when we’re making music. I’ve probably said before that I try my best to listen to the band as if I was in the audience, and gauge my playing from that perspective. I also try not to play half the fills that pop into my head when on a gig (man, I can fill some space if I’m not careful).

That doesn’t really address your question, although it’s worth mentioning.

If a new player jumps into the band, he also needs to make allowances for the way in which a unit is already operating. This also depends much on who might be considered the leader or – at least – the songwriter in the group.

If you are playing the song the way the composer intended, then I say that you are doing your job! It might be worth a group discussion (watch the ego, everybody, and keep it civil). If your lines sound musical to you and the songwriter agrees, then the guitarist may just have to reorient himself musically. This is especially true if you feel that he is just being territorial and/or trying to keep the attention on himself or herself.

Do you feel that the guitarist is overplaying? Do your lines conflict with theirs? When you stray from the root, are you also doing it in an upper register (stepping on the guitarist’s toes)?

It is also worth mentioning that the function of the bass dictates that we outline the harmony and when we play the 3rd on the bottom, that changes the sound of the chord in a very direct way. If you are playing 5ths or 7ths, then that is even more true. If you are landing on other scale tones, then you are very much changing the harmony of the tune.

Often, the choice to land on a non-root note will work or not depending on the entire context of the line. Are you playing a non-root in order to play a linear, step-motion type line?

Or are you just jumping to the 3rd out of nowhere because the idea appeals to you?

If your line makes sense to your ears, and they have context and support the song, then I think you shouldn’t sweat it too much. That’s especially true if the songwriter agrees with you.

Record a rehearsal and listen objectively. You know what good music sounds like, so listen hard, take yourself out of the equation and judge for yourself (even collectively, as a band). Find out what might work best for the song – not just for the guitarist or the bassist. What’s best for the song?

If everyone is able to truly take an objective approach to the music, I’m sure you’ll come out on top.

Readers, have you experienced this situation or one like it? What have you done? Please share in the comments.

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. I find that spending time on other instruments widens your perspective and hearing. Having a direct relationship with other instruments can give you a deeper perspective and a greater satisfaction playing more ‘appropriately’.

  2. Very good column. Many years ago, I was told by a bandleader that I was overplaying and should stick to the basics of the songs. In other words, my role as a bass player was to provide the framework of the song upon which the singer and lead instruments could do their thing. I took that advice to heart and have stuck with it for over 30 years. My career has mostly been spent in cover bands. As Damian aptly put it, I play as if I was in the audience. I always keep in mind that the vast majority of the audience is not there to hear how many notes I can play or what tricks I can do. I learned a long time ago that what an average audience considers “good” bass playing is not necessarily what another bass player or musician considers to be good. I always search out people in the audience and observe whether their heads are nodding or their toes are tapping. When I see that, I know I’m doing my job.

  3. good advice Damian it can be difficult in a band to put egos aside and listen for what is best for the music/song

  4. Simple song, bass landing anywhere but the root:

  5. I have often been called out for just following the root, but i focus alot on the kick pattern. So i am not always playing exactly what the guitar plays but the root note of the song. then there is always room for melody lines sometimes in choruses and elsewhere. And there is always a spot for a signature fill that lets everyone hear you. I’d say listen to the other members. it may not be always that they expect you to be locked in to the root. Start new tunes simple and then add your flavor as the song progresses while asking for feedback.

  6. If the guitarist has a problem with what you are playing, please ask them to write out a chart with the bass line. I find that kind of quiets them down a bit. For me, guitarists are a pet peeve. Most barely know their instrument, don’t know much theory, and don’t play chords without roots.

    I usually play to the song and stick to roots if the song really needs it. On the other hand, I like to color my bass lines with non chord tones and by movement to and from chords. As my bass teacher told me a long time ago, “you play a bass melody and not just a bass line.” Granted, that was in a jazz context but in the classical world, there are great bass lines.

    In the above example, I think that the guitarist needs to rethink what he is doing. If the singer likes what you are playing and writes the tunes, I would go with that person’s opinion. The guitarist may need to change what he or she is playing. The band may get a better song out of it.

  7. i see what you mean. Try arranging a song with a drummer who thinks that you should only play when he hits the kick drum.

  8. “If your lines sound musical to you and the songwriter agrees, then the guitarist may just have to reorient himself musically.”…and there would be the heart of the problem. A BIG problem I notice with guitarists in general is that they are too focused on licks they practiced in the bedroom, rather than listening and responding to the group.

  9. The most important part of playing is passion. If you are playing what you feel, end of story. Why even consider changing your path for the satisfaction of another ? The guitarist is either use to another bass players style, may regret leaving his previous band, or he is attempting to control you and or your band.

    Have a meeting and discuss his issues with other band members. Maybe he is not the guitarist that belongs in your band. I would take diplomatic action and find out exactly his issue.