Bass Players: On Staying Motivated and Avoiding Unhealthy Comparisons

I posted a request for questions for this column recently. The question below was submitted by a friend of mine (and old student). I knew that his comment was tongue-in-cheek, but it also stuck out to me because I suspect that he was only half-kidding and because I have asked this very same question to myself throughout the years.

Bass Player in Silhouette

Photo by Bill Gracey

Q: How do I come to terms to the fact that I will never be a Damian Erskine-caliber player? How do I keep myself motivated to learn when I am always comparing my sucky playing to much better players? Why would anyone – especially another bass player – want to listen to me play?

A: To a certain extent, in order to reach some of the highest levels as a player, it requires not only intense discipline and dedication but also requires either:

a) That you are supremely confident from the get-go and never doubt what you have to offer the world

b) That you are able to overcome any level of doubt (from the subtle to the crippling) and set aside a nature that may be somewhat self-conscious or hyper-critical.

While this is a bit of a blanket statement and there are surely exceptions, a vast majority of great players I know seem to either never question their contributions or have had, at some point in their development, to overcome self doubt.

I have written about and mentioned more than once that I was, for quite a long time, a fear-based player. Honestly, it still rears its head every once in a while. Part of the problem is that bass is my second instrument and I had glossed over a lot of very important things in my development, because I never expected to play this instrument professionally.

Added to that, I didn’t grow up liking or internalizing the music that I tend to play now, so my vocabulary is not as strong as it could be. Imagine scoring a great gig as a public speaker in a language that you only spoke conversationally and on a topic that was never your focus. That’s pretty close, I’d guess.

This was all compounded by the reality of existing in the web/YouTube era where we can all watch hours and hours of videos of people doing things we never dreamed possible. I know more than one wonderful player who has been crippled by the “I can’t even compete with that” kind of self-doubt with all of this going on.

My goal for this column is to convince you that we all have something to offer. Whenever I play a song, snippet or video for a student and I can sense them feeling defeated instead of inspired, I have to remind them (and myself) of those things that we can do that are unique to us. Every one of us has a musical perspective and approach that is somewhat unique. If we all had blistering chops, what would that do for music? If we all played bebop solos on the bass, if we all could slap like the dickens and play 32nd notes with four fingers at 200 beats per minute… if we could all feel and internalize deep Cuban, African and Middle Eastern rhythms and tonalities… where would the variety be?

I was recently working with a phenomenal guitarist who was commenting on how nice it was to play with an electric player who still played bass. I asked him what he meant exactly and he went on a very polite rant about the new generation getting obsessed with technique and soloing and commented that many of these guys (to his ears) are completely neglecting the role of their instrument when it is very much time for them to be playing bass. A great bass solo is fantastic, but a great bass player is preferred 100% of the time. Someone who can truly do both is worth their weight in gold.

As I’ve said, nobody cares about a technically astounding and harmonically enlightened bass solo nearly as much as they do as rock-solid bass player who can carry the song on their shoulders, freeing up the other instrumentalists to play without having to take up the slack… except for other bass players.

We should all take the wealth of musicianship and mastery out there and praise it, appreciate it and love it. Then take it all in as inspiration to explore new avenues and leave the insecurity on the curb.

If I listen to an amazing African bassist playing the music of his heart, why would I ever feel like it reflected any kind of failure on my part? He likely couldn’t play the music of my heart in the same way either. We are all leaves on the tree of music, and we are all unique and beautiful in our own way. We should be thrilled that there is so much variety and beauty out there and use that inspiration to embrace our own voices on the instrument.

In other words, worry only about being the best you on the instrument. Follow your ears and gut and pursue the music that speaks to you with all of your might. Don’t stress about where you are, but rather get excited about where you are going. This slight shift in perspective can energize you like you wouldn’t believe, and that serves to help you work harder and get “there” more quickly!

I also know a lot of older players who wish that they had been studying jazz or playing fusion music their whole lives and regret that they may never be “good enough” because they are starting too late. This is another crippling way of perceiving your place in music. We can’t worry about what we’ll have time to do or how good we’ll get before we get “too old”. If you love something, start immersing yourself in it. Even if you are horribly inept at X, but really want to understand and play X, then every discovery and breakthrough will be an enlightening and thrilling experience! Even if you only get to a moderate level, you will have had the time of your life getting there.

I borrow a lot from African and Cuban rhythms when I play. I also have zero foundation in that music, but I love playing in Salsa bands and all types of Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban music. I got my musical butt kicked repeatedly when I first started (and I still do) but every time I learned something, it was if I were seeing something wonderful for the first time. Every time I accurately understood something happening on stage and reacted accordingly, I would do a little happy dance inside. And when one of the percussionists would come up to me in between sets and try to help me understand why I should do or not do something, I took it as an opportunity to grow and learn – not as a criticism that should cause me to wither with embarrassment.

When I play with somebody who soars above my abilities, I get goose bumps. I ask them for lessons and pay whatever they want. I encourage them to take me apart after the gig and give me homework, suggested listening, and so on.

I will never be able to play the music like Andy Gonzalez, Cachao, Panagiotis Andreou, Lincoln Goines, Oscar Stagnaro, Felipe Cabrera, Munir Hossn or any number of guys. But, instead of feeling defeated because I may never get to that level, I choose to be inspired to try and learn just one more thing so I can understand this lovely music even just a little bit better.

Hierarchical thinking is not a helpful way to perceive anything in life. We all have something to offer that’s unique to us. The biggest part of the equation, in my mind is this:

a) Put in enough time on the instrument to make playing in your style as effortless as possible. If your instrument is an obstacle, then you still have much more work to do before you can truly be free to express on it.

b) Never let fear or ego be the driving force in your playing or decision making. If we put the music above our egos and the opportunity to learn before our fear of saying yes then the rewards you reap are only limited by the intensity of your work-ethic.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

This is my way of saying that when you feel insecure or just spent three hours comparing yourself to “bass gods” on YouTube or instead of feeling down and defeated, harness that energy and attack. Push that much harder. Practice more, even though you may want to play less because you hate the sound of yourself right now. Transcribe that tune that you wish you could play. Transcribe even just one lick. Don’t walk away until you’ve learned at least one thing. Forward momentum is key. You have to be willing to look what you want in the eye and charge towards it.

One small step at a time. We all only get there one small step at a time.

How about you? What helps you stay motivated and avoiding unhealthy comparisons? 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. Glenn

    I couldn’t agree more. I especially like the bit about “bass playing”. Too many younger (and older) players are busy with solos, etc. That is not “our job”. I equate it to going to listen to an orchestra, and waiting for the tuba solo.For certain types of music…fine. But I for one am quite happy being a rock and roll bass player. And for motivation, I simply listen to my instrument and everyone digging that sound. I play in a band with 3 electric guitars, one harmonica player and a keyboard player. And you know what…I’m never outnumbered. They need us more than we need them
    Remember, no one dances to a guitar solo.

  2. Wayne Renardson

    Mr. Eskind is worth reading. His comments are thoughful, lucid, make solid points and good sense, and this reader appreciates his writing. Thank you.

  3. Marco

    Top. Love this colum.

  4. Jim

    On the $!!

  5. Dave

    Such a great read.To me just being a solid bass player instead trying to be a solo God has for many years kept me working with a variety of bands and playing with some of the top players in my area.I’ve always tried my best to lock in with the drummer to lay a solid foundation for the rest of the band to do their thing.

  6. If you get the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, in the accompanying CD there’s a brief interview with James Jamerson, Jr., (a great player) who quotes his dad (arguably one of the greatest bass players of all time) saying “You’ll never be me and I’ll never be you, so just be who you are and play what you feel.” I’ve always remembered that.

  7. Shawn

    So many players tend to forget that the bass is one part of a “rhythm section”. Just one bass player and a drummer can get an entire stadium moving. All the great bass lines are simple and you want find too many folks who can hum guitar solos. But good bass lines stay with you!

    • Taguba

      “Just one bass player and a drummer can get an entire stadium moving.”

      Love that idea. Sly & Robbie are masters at that.

  8. As frequently said on the game show “Family Feud” Good Answer!
    Mr Erskine, you are a fountain of wisdom

  9. I’ve commented in the past that the different “levels” of playing bass don’t get enough recognition. Jamerson took root-five to a level no one had imagined before he did it. Jack Bruce could play a pentatonic blues scale 100 times in a row to serve a song, and THEN cut loose when the opportunity presented itself. Serving the music, anchoring the song, are the primary responsibilities of the “bass player.” Shining on a solo, demonstrating amazing/unique techniques are frosting. Being able to count to four (or five or eleven) and always knowing where the ONE is, those are the bass player’s responsibility. Being able to emulate your favorite low-end-hero is something that’s strictly between you and your ego. As a white boy in a soul band I’d much rather be told “Man, you’re solid!” than “Man, that was a great solo!”

  10. that bass guy

    Here’s an idea for a goal – work on developing your playing so that you want to hear YOU play. Once you determine what that is, you’ve got the beginnings of a concept…

  11. basser

    Some great concepts, and much appreciated. However, the idea that because we play the bass guitar (or upright, or tuba, etc) we should be expected to play a “role” as timekeeper in order to free other musicians, is destructive towards the expression of our full potential and freedom as human beings and as musicians. That phenomenal guitarist should recognize that the size and shape of the piece of wood in one’s hands has no bearing on what _should_ come out of it, and that in any gathering of musicians, mutual support (literally, as in supportive playing) and freedom needs to be equally distributed. This is not to say that there will not be be situations when some players have more experience, or more to say as soloists, but only that if we are at least some of the time in this to create art rather than working as hired hands, old preconceptions of roles are as diminishing as women being relegated to the kitchen and men to the field.

    • Agreed. Thanks for saying it.

    • that bass guy

      My thoughts exactly. Just because I play bass doesn’t mean the rest of the band doesn’t have to count. I don’t feel that it’s essential to hit the “one” that is the only thing on a lot of bass players’ list. But the job of every musician is to push the music forward, regardless of how many notes you feel compelled to play. There is way to much prejudice between bass players as to what constitutes a bass part, or whether the number of strings on your bass is any kind of indicator of what kind of player you are. The hardest part for any player is walking that fine line between expression and showboating. Listen to Jaco’s part on “The Chicken.” He plays chords, skips the “one” often, plays up upon the hallowed “money positions”, and basically plays a very asymmetric, non-repetitive line, but he is always pushing the tune forward…

  12. Mike Matthews

    Excellent article Damian. Really good stuff to think about. Truly, I appreciate your contributions to NT. Thank You!

  13. mike

    Lesson learned a long time ago “Slow and Steady wins the race.” Excellent article

  14. Damian, this is why you are so wonderful to play music with. Because you understand that music is not really about the notes… It’s not really about the technique. Yes those things are important. Most important, however, is the how people FEEL when then here you play. Do the sounds and vibrations evoke emotion? In your case I would sing a resounding YES! Thank you for playing with heart and soul. It’s always an honor to share musical space with you.

  15. sanwin17

    Thanks Damian. That is one of the most enlightening columns I have ever read.

  16. Andrew Flashman

    I remember seeing Victor Wooten perform with Bela Fleck over 2 decades ago. My wife and I had seats less than 15 feet from the stage in a small club and (of course) Victor totally blew my mind! Furthermore, we had the chance to speak with him after the show and he was a truly warm and wonderful human being. I was so demoralized by his incredible playing that I semi-seriously contemplated selling all of my basses. For about 24 hours. Then I just had to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get on that, ummm…. BASS, again! I do what I do and I have my strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve never even really wanted to be able to be a mad slapper, or soloist, so why would seeing perhaps the most accomplished modern electric bassist do these things make me so depressed? Ultimately, it didn’t. I strive to be more of a pocket player, a la James Jamerson, and to continue along that path I’ve learned that you just have to accept who you are, in addition to being inspired by other types of players, and just keeping working on being the best that you can be. Corny, I know, but true. For me, anyways… Thanks, Damian.

  17. "iceman" al

    just play and try to be the best you can….Ya don’t have to be great…just solid…most bands want someone to be “in tune” with the drummer so they can have a solid rhythm line…that’s way more important than technical expertise…unless you are playing classical or jazz where theory is a priority

  18. Gregg

    Damian, your articles are a great source of inspiration and education. I find myself often going back to your articles, and each time I do I get new perspectives and become more inspired. Thanks.

  19. Nicely stated Damian ….Confucius stated something along the lines ,”He who conquers themself is the mightiest of warriors .” With that in mind, all roads lead back our way .
    The one thing I have noted over the years is we bass players as a whole, are normally a positive, humble , and generous bunch. There is always something to learn from each other , and always something we can share. BASS ON !

  20. I look at my kids and see them learning the most basic of things and remember, “We were all like that once.” That keeps me going, the idea that we are all noobs at one point or another.

  21. jimstinnett

    Nice explanation Damien. :)

  22. Slammin' Mike Wedge

    Excellent article that, in theory, could apply to all aspects of a person’s life… To me, there’s no greater feeling as a bass player to be laying down a solid bass line that allows everyone to shine, that feeling of being strong support laying the groundwork and being musically dependable and playing “heads up”. It’s interesting that the other instruments are typically called lead instruments, when in all actuality a good, solid bass player is actually leading the way. There’s a lot of power in subtlety… On another note, there was an excellent documentary a number of years back by Mike Gordon called Rising Low that should be required viewing for bass players that at first started out as a recording of sessions of Gov’t Mule after Allen Woody passed away where they brought in a who’s who of bassists and which ultimately morphed into a documentary that asked “what makes a bass player”. Definitely a must watch! Thanks again for the great article, Damian!!

  23. Ken E. Kent

    I am an old newbe. Started playing seriously at 53, 3 years ago. Staying motivated is an issue. Of coarse I will probably never be great or even good but average is O.K.. you know. Good enough to play clubs which I already have. Where to focus my attention to stay motivated is the issue for me. Bands can be a hassle and draining on a persons drive to excel. I feel I am always ready at rehearsals and then lose my motivation as others are not and things drag on. I have to keep asking myself why is it and how do I attain the goals I desire with this instrument. I don’t compare myself to others. I know where I am at and what my capabilities are at present. It just seems hard to press forward when I feel I can not find other players with similar conviction and drive. I know I need to constantly work to improve and maybe that is the key to moving forward. I don’t have a question so much as the comments I have posted. Thank you.

    • Jamie van der Hagen

      Similar struggles here, Ken. Played a lot when I was younger and set it aside for “family time” and am just getting back into it at 42. I’m taking the route of just getting myself out there and playing whenever with whomever I can to start to (re)establish a name for myself in the local scene. I’ve stumbled upon some good gigs and some not-so-good gigs. Network and be the best player you can be. The good news is, good bassists seem to be hard to come by and if you hang your placard out there that you are available, you might find the elusive set of musicians who are as inclined as you are to push themselves.

  24. Mike

    I felt the same way when I saw Stanley Clarke for the first time. Got over it and now I can play as good as Stanley was when he was 7.

  25. Paul Moersch

    Thank you very much for your insight. I really needed to read this -right now.

  26. I wish I had written this ….

  27. jose

    Hi Damien, great article, this is something that I’ve struggled with since I returned to playing after a long, (16 year) “break”. When I originally picked up the bass in H.S. and after hearing what’s possible on the instrument (listening to Jaco and Gary Willis, John P.) I was intent on becoming a world-class bassist, practiced for 8+ hours a day (luckily I went to an arts high school) thinking that one day I’d be a “giant”. Graduated H.S and chose not to pursue music as a major and eventually “life” took over (that was my excuse anyways). I stopped playing and only picked it up 3 years ago after my first son was born with the intent that I’d have something nice to teach him and soon fell back into my original fantasy and went bezerk practicing thinking I’d be able to make up for lost time and regretting every one of those 16 years that I spent not working on my craft.

    Work began to suffer, sleep, parenting, etc. I was getting in 5 hours a day and finally just came to terms with the fact that I won’t get to where I want to be, not in the next 2-3 years anyways and that it’s a long term, life long endeavor. What you said about forward momentum being the key is what helped me come to terms, if I can sustain forward momentum over the next 10 years then yeah I bet I’ll be able to realize my original goal of being a world-class bassist. “Getting old” isn’t a fear anymore as long as I can still navigate my instrument.

    Part A of your equation has been my mantra, it’s part B that I need to work on. I’m at a point where I’m only going to grow if I have an opportunity to play with musicians who are better than I am and that involves getting out to jam sessions in the area and getting past the “I’ll get out there next week when I’m playing better, etc”. Reading this article’s inspired me.

  28. I -really- enjoyed reading this. I feel like I need to print this out and read it every so often to remind myself to not compare myself to the point of musical defeat; we’re all on this journey and we don’t need to take the same path, or the same destination. So many points rang true as I was reading this and this article came at the right time for me. Thank you.

  29. I am not a pro but I consider my self a “serious amateur”, you know practicing everyday for like 10+ years and so on BUT I don’t make a living with music, I mention this because I sometimes feel bad about it, as if I am not a “real” bassist. This, added to the YT videos you see of megabassists sometimes gets to me…. but thanks for this inspirational column, its a relief.

  30. Damian:: respectfully, the fist line I really responded to was ” Part of the problem is that bass is my second instrument and I had glossed over a lot of very important things in my development, because I never expected to play this instrument professionally. That is not part but most of the problem . As a player i had to move for health reasons, from Bass to midrange to lower upper voice. The sound always starts at the bottom, sure the blend is easier to find but it is found. The glissandi and trills that so thrill the non players in the audience, are cool to the bottom. But the bottom makes the music.

  31. Damian, Thank you for your insight. So good to hear this from a great bassplayer. This helps me to overcome my ‘down’ moments.

  32. Man. You can sure write. Looking forward to hearing you play. This is great stuff, and deep.

  33. I was almost kicked out of the band for not being a good enough bass player. Even if this is not my profession, it lead to a small identity crisis for some days.

    What happened was that the new drummer complained. He is our latest member, but has more experience than the rest of us combined. He simply stated that he was used to better players that could lock in with him properly to build the foundation of the music and the band.
    It was almost an ultimatum.

    I almost decided to quit for the best of the band. Almost. But then I decided to step it up and make a few changes. I knew in my core that I can do this, even with a limited experience. First, I decided to develop no grudge towards the drummer. His motivation for bringing it up was sound. In the band meeting, I asked for a couple of months to see if some changes could cut it. I got my grace period.

    What I changed was focus. I had focused on sound and tonality, and also tried to do backing vocals. I told the band that vocals would have to wait. I ditched all my pedals except the tuner. Stomp boxes are great, but not if they distract you. Most importantly I told the band that my focus would now be locking in with the drummer. I moved further back so I could see what he was doing. The goal of all this was simply locking in with the drummer, both in rhythm and intensity. I am happy to tell this worked. It has now been only about 4-5 months, but it has not been brought up again. My confidence and sense of rhythm have both had a boost. I have done away with cheat sheets which was also a source of distraction. This means practicing every song till I know it by heart. It was tough at first, but evidently a skill that improves by practice, too.

    I am more rhythmical as a bass player now, and I have started to develop my intuition towards scale based fills that suit the moods of each song. It is great fun, and the best of all is that the band thinks I’m better. I’m sure that I am, but without projecting that confidence, I don’t think the others would have noticed.

  34. David Guettler

    Damian, that’s an excellent answer to my question. Thanks, buddy!

  35. eventhough it’s easier said than done, this: the only person worth comparing yourself to is the person you are yesterday.

  36. Merle

    I was asked recently if I minded being in the background. I said not at all. I used to struggle with what the article talks about. I finally came to the realization I will play like me. I will do the best I can do to be a solid rhythm player along with our drummer. We have two very good guitar players and I love to sit back and listen to them play.

  37. Grace

    I so needed to read this. All of my bassist friends are prodigies who can play a million notes a second and consider everything else far beneath them and refuse to play it. I started out as a violinist. I only became a bassist when someone handed me a bass and said “Here, we need a bass player.” It was several years later before I started actually learning how to play, and by that point I’d developed tendinitis in both of my arms. It’s hard onto compare myself to them. I’ve always thought the point of a bassist was to be rock solid. And honestly I’d rather be rocking out with my bandmates and interacting with the audience than playing something ridiculous and complex.

  38. paul h.

    The obsession with flashy playing might be a result of there being so many good players that individuals are looking for a way to stand out. But the most important technique is supporting the music. A lot of YouTube show-offs would be helpless in a real-life gig. Few guitarists have been as valued as Freddy Green, the master of chord playing. Jimmy Cobb got the gig with Miles not because he played flashy fills or solos – he wasn’t so great at that – but because his beat was irresistible. Even Ringo, who would never win any drum battles, owes his fame to his perfect timekeeping and intuition for what his bandmates needed from him. Music is a group activity and knowing how to complement the playing of other musicians is the most highly valued technique.

  39. interestingly this applies very nicely to photography too! Possibly to any art form…

  40. Taguba

    I think a great way to realize that I “don’t suck” is to record myself every couple of weeks. Don’t even play anything special–it’s just a different way to hear myself and there’s always something good to note and something new to hear that needs some work.

    This has been particularly useful as I recently started studying baselines for jazz standards. I’m 45 years old and finally learning an organized way for how to work in a few chromatic lines has made a world of difference to my playing — jazz or otherwise.

    The other thing that helps is knowing what I’m not happy with and then finding ways to fix this — or learn to live with it.

    These things — and getting enough sleep — tend to keep me feeling fairly good about my playing. Besides, just the act of playing makes me feel good.

  41. Pana

    Damian brother thanx again for the mention, I think I don’t belong in the list of people you mentioned!!! I’m very honored though!

      • Pana

        I had a great chance to teach some great souls in India. I realized when I was there that the majority of the students could not realize that their own music culture would turn any western “musician god” to a mere mortal :) the article is so spot on. Congratulations Damian. Not many people make time to share THIS kind of knowledge nowadays. I still have hope though, we humans are capable of great things ! I hope we get to hang soon!

  42. Eamon

    Great article! As someone who is just getting back into playing after a long absense this is exactly what I needed to read. Thank you so much for this!

  43. Kenneth Jennings

    Thank you so very much for this one. I read it right before getting a wee bit frustrated. Now I’ve bookmarked it for future use. ;)