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Self Expression: Thoughts and Discussion for Bass Players

Bass Face
Photo by Michael Gallacher

Q: Most pros say that playing with other musicians is one of the most important things a bassist can do. After practicing alone for a few years, I’ve returned to the band setting. I love gigging and I love band practice, but I find myself playing very conservatively. In no way am I trying to get crazy and show off double thumbing or 4-finger techniques, but I find myself afraid to step outside the box and try even as much as an appropriately place fill. However, one cool result of playing so conservatively is that I’ve learned how much existence of the pocket depends on the bass and dynamic choices are as vital as note choices. My fear isn’t so much with stepping outside the box… it’s with stepping into self expression. So I’m wondering is if you could share your journey of discovering your voice and what you have to say with it.

A: Well, first I’d like to commend you for your self-restraint. I had to be beaten into understanding how much more effective a solid pocket bass line was as opposed to my flurry of arpeggiated, upper-structured, flying-fingers-of-doom licks at the drop of a dime (you wouldn’t believe the junk I could cram into something as pure as a Beatle’s tune, for example).

More specifically, I learned to play fast before I learned how to play bass. Thankfully, the right combination of things happened for me to get over it:

  1. Coaching
  2. Constructive criticism by musicians I admired
  3. Listening back to recorded works objectively (appalled at myself most of the time)
  4. Getting approving looks from bandmates when I would lock it down without flair

It finally dawned on me that while I may be technically playing this instrument at a high level, I was actually making music poorly. What’s interesting to me is that I never even really liked overly indulgent music that much. None of the music I listened to ever had anything to do with how I played the bass when I got it in my hands. I was just having my own little party in my own little world for (far too many) years.

Thus began my process of reduction.

My current method is simply this: if I hear it in my head and is sounds good to me, I will play it. If I feel like I should do something fancy, then I won’t play it. Never play a lick because you think you should or because you think somebody wants to hear it. Play it because you hear it in the song, in that spot and in that moment.

There are genre-specific exceptions to the rule, of course. Fusion almost requires us to let it all hang out (although, I don’t think it needs to. It’s just whats expected).

Try to put yourself in position to have the same sort of feedback I’ve listed above – coaching, peer review and reaction, and listening to yourself.

And avoid feeling like you have to succumb to the peer pressure. Sometimes I feel like Youtube bass videos are like drug pushers, telling kids to play more, more, faster, FASTER! Nobody actually wants that outside of other bass players (though not all of them), or shred bands.

I say, bask in the glory of your gigantic pocket! (I know that your bandleaders likely do!)

Readers, how about you? What’s your approach to self expression on the bass? Please share in the comments.

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