Building Confidence: Thoughts for Bass Players

Music happiness by Gonzalo G. Useta

Q: I’m a 16 year old bassist from England, and I’ve been playing for around three years. Ive been told I am very good for my age but I struggle with my confidence sometimes. One day I want to be as good as yourself or people like Janek Gwizdala, Marcus Miller or Victor Victor Wooten, but I think I put too much pressure on myself to try to progress too quickly! I just want to enjoy myself and love music and bass (Which I do) without feeling pressured by my own brain!

A: I understand completely where you are coming from, friend. The thing that amazed me most, when I played my first gig or two with guys I had categorized as “on another level” was that they have exactly the same fears, insecurities, thoughts and issues that I had.

I’ll let you in on a some secrets…

First, everyone faces moments when they struggle with confidence. Most musicians who present themselves as having not a care in the world, or “I’m the baddest dude around” or “nothing scares me” are full of it. They feel like they have to present themselves a certain way to be taken seriously.

The rest of them have such a wealth of experience and have worked so hard at what they do that they’ve have actually had the realization that they can handle anything that’s thrown at them. They can more easily remind themselves that they don’t need to be nervous, scared or overwhelmed anymore. Those guys also tend to continue working and developing and are often the musicians that many of us listen to and aspire to play like.

You wouldn’t believe the caliber of musicians I’ve seen having reservations or getting nervous and wound up about a gig with this musician or that musician, giving a masterclass, or even meeting one of their musical heroes. I’ve seen musicians I perceive as among the best in the world tell me that they are scared out of their mind about X, Y or Z.

The biggest difference is that they work hard, prepare and do the best they can. When it goes well, they realize they are up for that task and add another notch on the experience stick. Of course, that develops another level of confidence.

Personally, I am someone who operated for too many years as what I call a “fear-based player”. I felt like the student, not the teacher. I constantly felt like I was up to my neck on important gigs and could drown at any moment. If I actually did well, it was just because “I had a good night” or “lucky break”. It took me years to realize that I knew what I was doing, and while I might not be the best at this or that, I was experienced enough and have put in enough of the work to be solid on most any gig.

This confidence comes one gig at a time. One lesson at a time. One masterclass at a time.

And you know what? I still get nervous about doing X, Y or Z!

The thing that serves me most in my musical life is a fear of inadequacy. The big mental shift for me was when I decided to turn it into a motivator and not a handicap. Instead of shying away out of fear or being so nervous that I couldn’t play, I use it as motivation to over-prepare.

Here are a few examples:

I was invited to play with my uncle – Peter Erskine – for a tour in South America. I had spent my life watching him play with Jaco, Marc Johnson, Scofield and so on… How could I expect to operate at that level?

What I did was practice the material… hard. I ran the tune list two or three times a day, every day until the tour. I made loops of difficult passages and drilled them into my hands. I listened to the music (even the piano demos) in the car. I wanted the music in my head. The result? A wonderful tour and a great hang with a musical hero of mine.

Same thing when I went to Japan with the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, guesting alongside Richard Bona. I said yes to the gig, hung up the phone and had a full-on panic attack.

“What to do?” I kept thinking, “Bona sounds more like Jaco than Jaco did. How can I possibly do anything worth hearing next to him?!”.

What did I do? Practice every song, every day for the two months before the tour. Shed! As a result, I knew the material backwards and forwards. I was as prepared – or more prepared – than anybody on that gig. It went beautifully, and I was able to relax and have fun. On the flight home, it occurred to me: “Holy cow… I totally DID THAT and did it well!” Another notch on the confidence building stick.

I worry about gigs with people who nobody has heard of as well. I treat most every new gig or session very seriously. The trick is to prepare properly.

Everybody deals with stress and expectations of “greatness” differently. Here’s a list that might help you stay sane:

  1. All you can do is the best you can do
  2. You sound better when you’re having fun
  3. You are more likely to have fun if you have prepared properly (you’ll be more relaxed, which helps)
  4. It is only music! Played a bad solo? The world kept spinning! Nobody cares nearly as much as you do about a bad solo, awkward moment of confusion, or the fact that the bass player got lost for a bar or two. The chances of your screwing up royally go down the more you’ve prepared so if you did your homework, chances are the gig will go fine – at least.
  5. Every time you get your butt kicked a little bit is an opportunity to learn. Don’t dwell on the negative. Instead, analyze what went wrong and work on whatever it is that you should’ve had under your belt to better navigate that musical situation. Now that mistake you made is one more thing that you are good at doing.
  6. It’s not a race or a contest. Don’t compare yourself to others in a stressful way. Don’t think how much better X player would do on the gig. Think about what the best YOU can sound like is on the gig ad work towards that. Don’t worry about sounding like or doing as well as Jaco, Bona, Janek, me or anybody. Think about how you want to play the music and work hard to realize that sound and learn the music well enough that you don’t have to think too hard on the gig.

The more we think, the less we listen. This is why it’s crucial to do the work ahead of time. Also, at 16, no matter how good you are, you just don’t have the experience or musical maturity to be your best – yet. That will come naturally and with time. Don’t think about what Jaco sounded like at 20 and “how will I ever get there?!” Think about what you need to work on and continue to work on it. Chances are that you very well may be the guy that people are asking about before you know it. Comparing yourself to others can be crippling and serves no good purpose (aside from possibly motivating you to continue working).

Just get to work and keep at it.

Readers, how have you overcome the confidence thing? Please share your stories in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Nice read, Damian! I’ve struggled with confidence quite a bit… so much so that when I began playing out, I was so worried about hitting a wrong note that I turned down my amp so no one could hear any mistakes (and coincidentally, anything at all). It took years, and many people begging me to turn up, for me to realize that people actually *wanted* to hear me play.

  2. I did like Ryan, until the conductor of the brass band I play in convinced me I was playing good and sounded better louder :)
    I have my first gig as a bass player in a Southern Rock band next month. This time I won’t sit behind my score-sheet but will stand with the guitar player, singer and drum player. I don’t feel very confident, but I do practice the set daily and this is only a gig in a small village.
    I’m a beginner, although I’m 42 :)

  3. The way I beat my confidence issues was to not focus on the crowd at all, just on having fun. If anything at the start I would just wear sunglasses, that combined with the low lights made faces impossible to make out. It made me feel like I was just jamming with the boys, so eventually I became so comfortable that I didnt need the heat shades, and am now the stage clown. The best feeling is when you have people come up to you and say WHOA you where giving her hard man! ive never seen so much dancing, headbanging and bass faces in my life! Now when I play gigs, its literally just playing, like a kid rocking out and boy I tell yeah it feels great.

  4. wonderful article, thankyou. People tell me I played well usually after I’ve had fun and enjoyed myself with my band. A happy player is a good player

  5. Hey, Damian, I’ve always loved your answers. You reveal yourself as a sensitive, mature, wise person. What you said here applies as much to life as to playing bass. I’m count myself fortunate to have worked with you.

  6. Thanks, Damian! I don’t play shows on a regular basis as if late, so every time I do head out I am scared to death. I practice and write or record hours every day, but stepping in front of people (especially room full of noted bassists), always scares the tar out of me. The funny thing is that I love performing more than anything, I just loose the ability to focus for a little bit. Good read!

  7. Great post! Always learn something from Damian’s experience.

  8. This is quite possibly the best read on the internet for bass players. Real life concerns, questions and road blocks addressed and written with care, humility and “confidence” taken from real life experiences. Good stuff Damian.

  9. Jaco always said don’t think, concentrate.

  10. Damian: spot on! And inspiring. Thanks.

  11. lance sutton

    Nice article. I fight the ‘I’ll never get the concept’ everyday. I’m a bit older starting the bass. I’m 52 for heavens sake!! I played t-bone for almost 20 years starting in elementary but haven’t looked at a bass clef since high school. Very frustrating having to control both hands and have something resembling a riff come out. I’m finding that good ole’ father time works best. Keep working and eventually you have a song learned! :)