Bass in the Spotlight and Overcoming Self-Doubt

Bassist in the spotlight

Photo by Ulf Klose

Q: A couple of months ago, I quit my band and because of the state of the guitarists in my area, I decided to start go small, with bass, drums and vocals. Now that some time has passed, I feel that everything is falling apart, which is depressing. Do you think it is a good idea to put the bass in the spotlight like this? And, how do you deal when you get in this hopeless state of mind?

A: Putting the bass in the spotlight has certainly worked for many, and it is becoming more and more common. It doesn’t sound like that is the issue so much as just your general musical state in this moment.

While I don’t have much experience starting a band that is bass-centric (and all that goes with trying to book and market such a band), I do have a lot of experience with the frustrations of trying to make a living as a musician as well as simply trying to achieve a state of satisfaction with my musical surroundings.

Without knowing anything about you, your music, or your band, I can think of a few suggestions for you.

You left your old band because you felt you needed to do that, then you started your own project. I assume the new project was to take control over both the music and to have a say on who you work with. This may take patience and time, but I always suggest that people follow their gut. The best hope you have to wind up where you want musically is to follow your musical passions. While often not the easiest path, following your heart and ears is usually the most rewarding in the end. Nothing worth doing ever comes easy. If you have a vision, pursue it regardless of any short-term road blocks. Keep a laser focus and pour everything you have into it.

That said, if you only left your old band because you didn’t like one member or found them hard to work with, you may be just as happy looking for new bands to join.

Starting your own project takes a whole new level of commitment and time management as opposed to just playing in a someone else’s band or even a collective. When you put yourself at the head of it, everything falls on you and when any number of things go wrong (a poor reception by an audience, a shady club owner trying to short you on money, booking agents not returning emails or calls…), it can weigh much more heavily on you. You need to make sure that you have the drive and determination necessary to charge forth regardless of what stands in your way. If you feel that you may not have the will, you might be better served auditioning and exploring other projects.

But like I said, if you have a vision and know what you really want out of a band? You may not even have a choice in the matter. Dig in, work hard and make that thing happen. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it. That’s not your concern, though that attitude is easier said than done. I would suggest that you watch a documentary or two on your favorite bands and artists. Read a few artist biographies. Most of our heroes faced seemingly unscalable mountains of rejection in the beginning, but sheer determination and an unfaltering sense of dedication and hard work is what it takes to reach the pay off. That combined with a clear vision of where they wanted to take their music is a near unstoppable force.

You also need to be brutally honest with yourself and disallow yourself from taking shortcuts. Is your playing up to the standard you want to set? Is your songwriting up to it? Most will rarely answer “yes”, which is why most work themselves to death before realizing any success. It’s the hard work and 24/7 attention to every detail that winds up paying off in the end.

Listen to recordings of your performances objectively. If something isn’t right, fix it. If you hear potential, foster it. If it is totally crushing, keep pushing and try that much harder because you know it is good.

If your playing and songwriting is up to the task (again, brutal honesty and critical self examinations are worth the price to your ego in the end) keep going! If it’s not, work your butt off to rise to the bar you’d like to set for yourself.

We all go through major bouts of frustration with our playing. But if you love playing music, that is what will push you to rededicate your focus and work that much harder. These feelings should pass and you come to realize that you can play, and it is fun.

Try not to compare your ability with someone else – especially your musical heroes. This kind of comparison can be quite defeating. You’ll likely find that you get more productive when you focus rather on what you wish you could do better and work to that end, regardless of how anybody else sounds.

Always bring yourself back to center and look at your own playing, sound and what you want that to be. We may never have Jimmy Johnson’s gigs, Rich Brown’s melodicism, Bobby Vega’s soulfulness, Jamerson’s lines, Janek Gwizdala’s work ethic, Hadrien Feraud’s speed, Christian McBride’s all around strength and presence on the instrument, Avishai Cohen’s compositional chops or Bill Frissell’s unique voice, but none of them can sound like you, either.

In those moments of doubt, bring it back to yourself. Here are some questions worth thinking about for yourself:

  1. What do you do that brings you joy, musically speaking?
  2. How can you foster the sound you are seeking?
  3. What do you want to play like?
  4. What music do you want to create with others?
  5. Where can you take yourself on the instrument, regardless of where anybody else has gone?

Readers, as always I look forward to what you add to these columns. What have you found helps you work through the tough times? 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. Hi Damian, I find .you not only to be an excellent bassplayer, but a wise man too. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. Hi Damian, your columns are one of, if not the best, part of this or any music oriented site. Insightful and thought provoking, You bring your experience and wisdom to the table in a friendly, “wise uncle” manner. We readers are fortunate. Thank you

  3. Wow, this was inspiring. Going through something similar and has me wanting to just give up but your article has encouraged me to keep trucking along. Thank you!