Singing While Playing? A Discussion for Bass Players

Geddy Lee Singing while Playing Bass

Photo by Corey Brown

Q: I’ve been reading your columns with great interest for the last year or so, but here’s a question I haven’t seen addressed yet: How do different bass players approach the problem of playing and singing at the same time? I’ve been playing for going on forty years now – both professionally and as a weekend warrior – and this particular aspect still eludes me for the most part. The thing is, fellow bass players I’ve talked to about this seem to fall roughly into two categories: 1) those who do this seemingly effortlessly and hardly understand the question, and 2) those who, like me, find it nearly impossible. Is it a matter of practice, or is it just the way we are wired? I can manage some songs, mostly rock tunes where the bass lines are simple and follow the melody or consist mainly of straight eighth notes. Most of what I play, though is blues and soul, where the bass lines often are more rhythmically complex, and here I just can’t seem to “sever the connection” between my fingers and my mouth. Any thoughts or tips?

A: Disclaimer: I don’t sing whether I have the bass in my hands or not. But the short answer is that it’s really is a matter of independence. Just like the old rub-your-head-and-pat-your-belly demonstration, it just comes down to muscle memory. The more we have to think about doing X, the harder it is to do Y at the same time.

Speaking from personal experience, I was pretty unable to speak even the simplest of sentences while playing, because I was unable to operate on autopilot playing music. It is still hard for me as it seems like human speech and musical expression use slightly different parts of the brain (I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it sure feels like it).

Singing while playing is particularly tricky for many because it’s not just moving our mouths and pushing air. We’re focusing on pitch, tone and articulation – all while focusing on our bass lines pitch, tone and articulation.

You are also thinking of two separate (although hopefully complimentary) rhythms. I think that the challenge may be different for everybody but for me, it was the rhythm that got me. I discovered that if I spoke using the same rhythms I was playing, it became much easier to say, “I-need-more-kick-drum-in-the-monitor”, or whatever it is I was trying to say. If this is your case, the answer is fairly simple: you need to practice rhythmic independence with your voice and bass. It would be fairly easy to invent some exercises for yourself that vary in difficulty level.

For example:

  • Try a simple quarter note pulse on your bass and sing a dotted quarter pulse. Now try switching back and forth, altering which pulse you play on either instrument (voice or bass).
  • Try using your voice to create a drum groove and play along with yourself (start with a simple boom-bap type back-beat and then get more and more intricate with your grooves both with the bass and your voice
  • Try playing a bass line and using your voice to play different kind of rhythms underneath (quarters, 8ths, triplets, dotted quarters, dotted 8ths, quarter note triplets, etc..)
  • Try playing a basic tumbao and use your voice to play clavé (this is hard for me). I’ve also seen people use just their voice to make a click sound for the clavé and sing a tumbao underneath it. Then you could try and play a melody or improvisation over that! (eek)
  • I heard Raul Midon speaking of practicing singing with himself: first unison lines, then harmonies, then alternating diatonic pitches (3rds off of each note but changing them to fit the harmony. ie: major and minor). Then he got into singing and playing different types of lines together. Each step leading to another evolution in his abilities but only by passing through them one by one, over time.

As with anything, all is possible if your work is both diligent and smart. Whatever it is, break it down into its simplest form and make sure that you can do step 1 before trying step 2. Most of us make the mistake at trying to start at step 10 simply because we have gotten that far in other ways. Anything new requires us to build a foundation before we can really own it. Focus on your foundation: rhythmic and harmonic independance. I would start with scales and basic rhythms and experiment with the layering of ideas between your voice and your bass.

If you are playing a bluesy bass line (8th notes) and can’t seem to sing without losing it, switch to whole notes. Then progress to quarter notes before jumping straight to 8th notes. The progression will happen more quickly than it would if you just kept practicing not being able to do it as you want it for the end result. Simplify and take your time.

Okay readers, like I said – I don’t sing and play at all, so you have to help me out here. How do you do it? Did it always come naturally or did you have to develop it over time? How do you practice singing and playing? 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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Leave a Reply to Ben Galinsky Cancel reply

  1. practice…learn your bass part cold then start on the’ll’s a different animal than strumming a guitar and singing..especially if your a fingerstyle bassist…Like anything else musically, it takes practice and repetition…

    • I find vcaol and bass part learnt at the same time helps the coordination fit together more. Each to their own! I guess people starting out should try both ways and see what fits for them. It is a bit of a mountain to climb that’s for sure.

    • Carol H.

      I was a vocalist first, for many years, then picked up bass (can’t live without it, thank you very much!). I agree with Trent – learn one part then the other, then put them together. That seems to work well for me, anyway. And on some more straight-forward songs, I can learn them both at the same time.

  2. For me it does not come naturally on either part but over years the confidence is developing. Effectively you are often simultaneously performing counter melodies and counter rhythms, similar to when a west end choreographer asks you to perform a certain dance that bears no resemblance to the music you are playing. Notable uk session bassist Guy Pratt I recall said something along the lines of ‘you have to LEARN to sing and play bass’.
    When I encounter difficult parts I try to find where they coincide so I know where the beat is, and gradually work on the subdivisions. Muscle.memory and repetition also play a big part.
    For me, Guys point has been true and has improved my bass parts (check out Sting for the ability to write cool and considerate lines) and my understanding of the song. As I progress it becomes addictive ?

  3. Matt Seeley

    The only song I’ve tried doing this for is ‘The Pretender’ by Foo Fighters. Most of it is simple enough, but the bass and vocal rythms in the chorus are quite different which threw me for a while. I practiced the bassline until I could play it without needing to think about it, and then added the singing in.

  4. Danny Austeen

    I play bass guitar and sing at the same time since close 40 years. I spent a lot of time to be where I am.

  5. Danny Austeen

    If Lemmy, Geddy Lee and Gene Simmons can do this, why some of us can’t do?

  6. I don’t think there is an easy answer to this. I have been a bass player singer for over 40 years both professionally and as to quote “week-end warrior” and have been asked many times how I manage to do both especially for songs that cross the beat. Simply put, when I first started to play bass I sang the bass parts and my fingers then followed and then sang the lead vocal line to ensure I had the chord changes nailed. I will point out that I could sing before I played bass but in my early days I just sang harmonies as I wanted to improve as guitarist and had no designs on being the “lead” singer. Other players will have different takes on this though during my career I found the more difficult the bass line and lead vocal the better I became as a musician.

    • Seeflow

      *this is basically my story. Im not that many years into it, but I started playing guitar first and singing harmony. When i switched to bass it took about 3 years to get in the groove and sing naturally. But this is practicing almost every day. Now it flows

  7. Bob Gross

    More than anything it’s practice. I’ve gotten more comfortable singing and playing over the years, but it did take some work.Most of the time I find it pretty easy but sometime the rhythm of the bass and the rhythm of what the vocals are doing are different enough to make it a little difficult. For those songs I try to get the bass part down so it’s on auto pilot. Then I can concentrate on the vocals. For me singing is harder than playing.

  8. I sing and play bass in most of my bands. It started by default with my first band because I was the only one that could sing even a little bit. I never thought about it being hard until I started doing more professional gigs and people would come up and ask me how I do it. I didn’t think anything of it but then people just kept asking me all the time.

    I finally realized that I actually learn each song three times. First the bass, then the vocals, then the bass and vocals together.

  9. Rob

    Paul McCartney is the master at singing and playing bass, even the most syncopated parts, he rules…I am a singer first and I think that is the approach I have always taken. I also do a lot of original music and tend to write my lines and melodies to weave in and out of one another. I think you have to be able to separate your playing from the singing…working on getting your bass part down where you don’t have to think about it, then concentrating on the vocals…
    My personal favorites:
    #1Paul McCartney
    #2 Sting
    #3 Geddy Lee

    • Phil

      Paul never played a lot of his more complicated bass lines whilst singing at the same time. I am not saying he couldn’t but I once had to do the entire SGT Pepper albums from start to finish live and I can tell you Lovely Rita was the pig.

    • Neil

      I also started out as a singer/front man. Bass came later and when I started out I would simplify the bass runs while singing but as time went on I got better at doing both but I think my bass playing suffers when I sing at the same time. As for Sir Paul, he is the master of both. Watch “Drive my car” live and sing and play the verse the way he does it. I’ve been at it for 50 years.

  10. Pete Bremy

    I am a professional rock bassist and have been playing for 49 years. I sing both lead and harmony while I play bass. I agree that for me, it’s also mainly a rhythmic and independence issue. Once I get past the rhythmic challenge, however, the pitch usually falls into place with it. That said, I also play drums. Singing while playing bass is far more difficult for me than singing while drumming. Go figure. I haven’t. I also notice there is no rhyme or reason as to what bass rhythms I have trouble singing with. Sometimes the simplest bass lines give me the most vocal troubles, and the busiest grooves give me the least. Once again, go figure. Last year, I recorded an album where we arranged the songs for the album but hadnt yet played them live, even in the studio. We recorded the music tracks and then the vocal tracks. We recorded as we arranged. Not totally abnormal. I had never sung the background harmonies with the bass lines. Then came the album promotional tour and shedding for rehearsals. In one song there is a repeating super fast descending modal scale with syncopated vox harmonies over it. Rut-roh. What I did was listen closely to the track and determine on which, or in between which, actual bass notes the vox notes fell. I did it by ear, but of coarse if youre a good reader, you could chart both over under and see. I played the riff painfully slowly and added the vox notes where they belonged. That took a while. Then I gradually sped up, which wasn’t too difficult once I got it. For me, the “hump” is mastering the independence of the phrase even at very slow speed. To this day, I cannot fluidly sing the lead to the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction while playing Bill Wyman’s simple (but great!) bass line. Crazy.

  11. Remember that pianists often have two hands going independently, and many still manage to do a third thing: sing. It’s simply a matter of practice. Practice the vocal and bass parts independently, once you have them down, integrate them slowly with a metronome or session training software. Once you have them up to speed, practice a bit faster and slower, and in one or two adjacent keys. Once you have this last part down, you can be confident that you really have it down. And BTW, this kicks my butt every day.

  12. Some songs are relatively easy to sing and play. Most take a lot of work getting used to. Some, for me, can’t be done at all. For example, the song Low Rider — it’s quite a simple song actually, but after hours of trying, I just couldn’t timing of the vocals and the bass line coordinated. So I ended up cheating. I made up a bass line that I could sing to, without being different enough for people to notice. So far, it has worked.

  13. Frank O.G.

    I just started as the lead vocalist/bassist for GRIND out of Cocoa Beach, Florida. The theme here is pretty constant . . . practice. I didn’t think I could do it . . . but once I put some time an effort into it . . . it sounded great. I often get lost in the music . . . but gathering my musical wits is a whole lot easier when I practice.

  14. One song I can recommend is Eight Days A Week by The Bealtes – try to sing and play the bass line and you see that they almost go hand in hand :)

  15. Here’s one useful method that’s worked for me to learn how to sing and play bass at the same time: think of the two melodies – the bass melody and the voice melody – as one melody. Put the two melodies into a single melody – joining the two by either by writing the single-melody that combines them out, or by hearing the two in your mind’s ear. Now it’s just a matter of practicing a single melody in which the note comes sometimes from your bass and sometimes from your voice. You will only be able to do this at a very slow tempo at first. This has really helped me get started with tricky bass + voice lines.

    • That’s a great perspective…it is very much a single part created out of a fusion of the two….I think that’s how our brains can best process the information

    • Mike Matthews

      Love the perspective Doron. I’ve never looked at it like that before.

  16. Bri

    When I did copy material, that was really tough. You’re trying to emulate someone else’s talents, and you’re brain may not work the way their brain does. Especially when the lead singer doesn’t play an instrument, and he or she is free to sing whatever they want. Alice in Chains is a great example, that stuff used to kill me. But, when you’re writing your own music you can build the music and lyrics around what works for you. You may think it’s easy, but who knows, your musical ideas could confound others. If you’re doing copy material, I learn the bass parts first and then the vocals, and try to never play the song without singing again so it becomes ingrained in your head. Practice enough and you’ll get it!

  17. Jeff Dawson

    This is a great question and an issue that I’ve been struggling with for a while. On originals, I try to write bass lines that are within the same rhythmic universe as the lyrics. On covers, it’s more difficult. I find that I sing the bass lines in my head as I’m playing which leaves little room for singing lyrics. It’s hard but I’m finding that repetition is the key. Just keep doing it until you can do it. I record myself so i can hear an accurate representation of what it sounds like outside your head. Sometimes, it’s just not gonna happen!

  18. I’m a singer who learned to play bass. I’ve been playing for almost thirty years now. Initially, when I’m trying to learn new material, I match the melody to the notes of a piece and gradually separate them as I become more comfortable. Over the years this process has become easier, but repetition is the key. Practice, practice, and more practice.

  19. Some Years ago, I saw Michael Manring playing Police’s Spirits In A Material World. He was playing the bass with the right hand, tapping the guitar line with the left, beating the drums with the feet and singing. It almost made me kill myself.

  20. Chris

    Good question and I feel your pain! I’ve been playing bass for about 25 years and there are a handful of songs that I can sing and play, but I find if I don’t know every word of the song perfectly, it is much harder to sing and play. I guess it’s one less thing to think about. Next, I have to know the bassline really well. I guess that part falls in the muscle memory department as mentioned in the article.

    That all said, I started playing guitar about 5 years ago and can sing and play just about anything when I’m playing guitar. Weird.

  21. Mike 'Oz' Richman

    Not sure this works for everyone, but when I practice playing and singing, I find that closing my eyes helps a lot. Not sure if it reduces the amount of ‘input’ my brain needs to process, but it works for me. Good luck!

  22. Alec Johansson

    Learn the bass lines first, then learn the lyrics, but MEMORIZE both parts will make it much easier and remember….If you’re thinkin, you’re stinkin ! Luckily, it just comes natural for me and I feel bad for players that have to struggle so much, but with practice, you’ll get there

  23. A few things I found help – Firstly playing bass and singing is many magnitudes harder than guitar and singing but here’s a few things that I find really help –

    1. If you learn the bass part AND the vocal simultaneously it saves time, you don’t have to ‘reverse engineer’ the bass line to figure out the independence. Learning a line on it’s own if you’re going to sing over it could be a waste of time because it feels so different to play the line and sing over it.

    2. When practising, if you play the bass very very gently it helps to focus on figuring out the coordination.

    3. Pay special attention to when you should/shouldn’t breath, good breath control is the key to having strong control of your pitch and rhythm together.

    4 DON”T GIVE UP – I ‘couldn’t’ sing and play bass for over a decade until it became a necessity and I drilled it alone at home for around four months and eventually got the hang of it., It can take a while to break through that first barrier but once you get there it gets easier to learn new parts.

    5. Sining and playing the bass is fucking awesome, people will think your a superhuman.

  24. Vines

    Try humming that work for me

  25. It’s about learning the nuts and bolts of each individual part and then putting the two of them together and seeing what sticks. Ultimately there will be areas that trip you up, but just break these areas down and see how the phrase or vowel sounds are falling over the beat and if you do it enough times and your muscle memory should kick in and you won’t have to think about it. In my case i’ve found less is more, and knowing where the one always falls also helps

  26. Start with something you have down cold as far as playing. Try singing the lines over it.

    For me (wa-a-a-a-a-a-a-y back) it was Sunshine of Your Love. The bass line complements the vocal line while the drum syncopation tries to throw both off. BUT since the line is so old and so iconic for so many, it’s easy to sing regardless what the drums are doing.

    There are still some songs that I won’t sing harmonies on just because I’m fortunate enough to have other singers in the band to cover three parts so I can cover the groove without getting into brain-hurt territory. That said, I’ve also found that there are times when I’ll suddenly find myself singing a high 5th or an octave after we’ve been playing a song for months. Apparently my “muscle memory” is capable of reporting to my brain “yeah, we got this now” and my brain responds by “Cool! Sing! [dickweed!]” :)

  27. Eli

    I started playing piano as a kid and got in choirs early, so I’ve always sung and played. Also learned to read and transcribe music in standard notation, and that was crucial to my method now. I wish I could remember what song it was… but the first time I found I couldn’t coordinate singing while playing a bass line, I wrote out the two parts on parallel staves (like a piano chart), being careful to line up the beats vertically. Then I could *see* where each vocal note fell within the bass part, and I was able to put the two together, slowly at first then faster each time. So I guess I base the whole process on the bass, then fit the singing into it.

    I do tend to learn the bass part first and get it into my hands, on automatic pilot as some have mentioned. Then I can kind of leave them to play, and concentrate on the vocal.

    For those that can’t read or write standard notation and need to do the whole thing by ear, it might help to first learn the vocal and bass parts separately. A metronome would probably be helpful at this stage. Then play the bass part slowly and have *someone else* sing the vocal while you play bass, so you can hear them together without having to do them together. Then gradually start singing with the other singer, while playing.

    Hope this helps.

  28. Jim Remsburg

    Here’s a thought. If you have ever used a notation program that has a scrolling line that shows what is being played at any given point in time, then as a bassist you only have to do a max of two things at the same time. Keep at it! It gets easier over time. JUST DO IT, BABY1

  29. Jim

    Being mostly a classic rock player, I have found that closing your eyes while singing/playing removes some I the stimuli from the brain. Don’t know the science behind it but it works.

  30. Mike

    I’m 49 and I’ve been playing since I was 14 and I still find singing while playing nigh impossible. I have great respect for the Geddys, Stings and Phil Lynots of the world. I’ve tried many times and I just don’t know how people do it. I know it’s not impossible, but there are some people that can speak six languages too. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

  31. Ron Lukowski

    My method is to always memorize the words first, without bass in hand. Then add the bass, which comes naturally if you have been playing for a while. This advice came from the late great Steve Jacula. The less you need to think about , the better the music flows. There is no escaping practice. Believe me, I tried.

  32. As a professional bassist, I sing leads, and harmonies while playing regularly. as a teenager learning to do this seemed impossible even though I could sing and play guitar easily. For me the secret to developing “independence” was examining carefully how the melody and bass line interact rhythmically. I went through my first song (The Weight) note by note. First I looked at where the notes in the vocal synced up with the bass line rhythmically. Once you have this skeleton of the song, figuring out where to put the melody notes in between the bass notes is easy. After going through this process for a few songs, I started to have “independence” which I realized is really just an intuitive understanding of how these “independent” elements interact. If your anything like me, trying to learn each part seperately is little more than a waste of time, it’s all about the interaction between the elements. Now I have total independence and can sing songs and play bass parts of most songs by ear immediately. But for especially tricky songs, I still use the same process above, underscoring the fact that my bass playing and singing aren’t really independent even though they appear to be.

  33. Nick

    I’ve only never really done backup vocals, but the method I use is nail down your bassline first, and then slowly add the vocals on top as you get more solid with the bassline.

    It also helps to know the lyrics very well before you start everything. This probably applies more to a cover band, and I do have very good lyric and bassline retention woth helps this process, but it does end be quite helpful when I decide to approach the microphone.

    Also, don’t be to disheartened by it’s difficulty. I’ve found it much easier to sing whilst playing guitar over bass. I kinda theorize that it’s because guitar and vocals are more compatible given there are both more melodic instruments whereas bass is more rhythmic.

  34. Richard

    I sing both lead and harmony in my band, but only developed the ability to play and sing over the last three years or so. For years I told myself that there was no way I could sing and play at the same time. But then I just started doing it. Does it come naturally? No! It takes practice and lots of it. There is no magic bullet that makes it happen.

    A few strategies:
    1) learn your bass line first and have it down cold.
    2) learn your vocal part second and get it down cold.
    3) Listen for points where the rhythm of your bass playing aligns with the rhythm of the vocal. That’s a great way to keep the two in sync.
    4) if it helps, simplify the bass line as much as possible, especially as you are learning to sing and play a song. Over time, as you get more comfortable, you’ll be able to modify your bass line and make it more complex.
    5) Remember–you are not Paul McCartney, or Sting, or Geddy Lee, or Phil Lynott, or any other great singing bass player. You are you and your only goal is to be the best you you can be. If you f–k up, who cares?

  35. pat

    **** dUg Pinnick ****

  36. mojobass

    A ton of great recommendations….Bottom line, one method does not fit all.Like Damian, I do very little vocals, and when I do it is back up.I do believe it is dedicated practice to get the brain wired to comfortably perform both, playing and singing. BASS ON, MATES ??

  37. BC Anagnostis

    The “rub your belly and pat your head” analogy hits the nail on the head. I had already been singing and playing guitar when I made the switch to bass, so my entire bass playing career(started at 16, now I’m 52)I’ve always sang lead or harmony vocals while playing. Something that might help is playing simple lines while singing(I saw Sunshine of Your Love mentioned, also Midnight Rider, Born to be Wild, and many classic rock tunes from the 70s), do them over and over(with a click or metronome)and you’ll get there.

  38. Wade Hankins

    Do not over think it. If you think about when you are singing and playing, that is when it gets tricky. At least for me.

    • Yep, been playing bass and mandolin, since 1962!! but only started lead singing 10 yrs ago… still find harmonies difficult, and sometimes if a long intro, the first few words seem tough to pitch in some key`s and not others`s…. but belief helps, and of course liking the song,,…..especially if its your own…

  39. Neurological images suggest that when musicians improvise, the language centers of the brain are active. I find I can’t converse and improvise simultaneously. Singing ballads was easy, except I didn’t work on my vocal delivery. It’s way easier if you’ve memorized both parts.

  40. Linc Gurley

    I learn the bass part first, to the point I can play it in my sleep. I have to put the majority of my concentration on vocals. Staying on key, remembering words or harmonies etc. 25 years of singing and playing drums probably doesn’t hurt either. Practice practice practice.

  41. pat

    For me as a child i start playing Acoustic guitar & sing at the same time…So later on when i switch to bass it was just naturely easy & never had to think about what so ever apen…just in my adn i think!!! ;-)

  42. I have been a bassist for 47 years. When I play simplistic bass lines or standard blues scales that you “feel” more than you structure I found it challenging but easier to be a vocalist while playing. I believe, as bassists some of us enjoy pushing the edge of the technical envelope because ironically we are most likely frustrated lead guitarists (LOL). I find when I play pieces like Rush’s Cameras Eye, Red Barchetta or other artists bass lines that are entertainingly complex when my mouth opens my left hand loses it’s memory. Probably because of the intense concentration it takes to play such complex pieces correctly and keep the band in time while changing time signatures (thanks Geddy LOL). Hats off to those that can and especially Geddy who with pedals, triggers, loops, keys, bass and vocals manages to do it effortlessly. I thought for just a moment that he was going to turn into Julia Child and still play when I saw the Chicken rotisserie on stage and thought, well he’s Geddy Lee, this is just another interesting challenge for him. LOL.

  43. Rodney Bowe

    It’s a matter of separation first then bringing the vocal line together with the bass line so you can recognize the rhythmic similarities as well as their differences. Depending on the complexity of either line and the variations of each will dictate whether you can learn them simultaneously or not.
    I’ve been singing and playing bass for over 40 years singing tunes from Stevie Wonder to Elton John. Normally I will learn the vocal line (melody) first. I pay close attention to the minute rhythmic variations, closely paying attention to the bass line and how it fits with the melody. I then will learn the bass line and its variations and relate it back to the melody both rhythmically as well as harmonically.
    Lastly instead of attempting to put them together at full tempo, I will slow the tempo and instead of singing I will talk the vocal line while I am playing the bass line. i do all of this with a metronome or a drum machine for tempo reference. After several repetitions at the slower tempo I will practice singing and playing the line. When I become comfortable, I’ll speed up the tempo and there you have it. Any phrases that give me problems will get more attention. If there is a line or phrase that I can’t quite perfect then I use my own imagination and ingenuity.
    Believe it or not, it really helps to do all of this in front of a mirror so that you can develop an independence from watching your hand and so you can see what you look like singing and playing bass. It’s quite revealing.

  44. Two songs that, for me, created the breakthrough I needed for singing lead and bass together are: The Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ and The Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Especially the Animals tune. I think you’ll see what I mean instantly.

    • JB III

      I was looking to see if someone had mentioned “We Gotta Get Out” – this one was key for me. Any ostinato is awesome for practicing vocal independance while playing. Also, try playing the simple bass/tenor riff in All Blues and scatting the melody – that one is endlessly challenging!

  45. Pierre

    The first days I picked up a bass I was told by a bassist to sing too as I started to learn the instrument… I never did as I wasn’t interested in singing at the time. 25 years on and I’d love to play bass and sing, but it became impossible. a few years after I started playing guitar, then I made an effort to sing as I learn, and now I can sing and play guitar… but sing and play bass is still a no no…

  46. I am in this person’s boat. I’ve not yet reached the point where I can play a rhythmically complex bass line without trying to focus on it, and seeing guys like Geddy Lee and Les Claypool doing it effortlessly seems like wizardry to me!

    There is never enough practice.

  47. Anthony

    Esperanza Spalding has some great clips on YouTube where she talks about excercises she developed to help play and sing so well at the same time.

    I have never been able to do it. If it does not come naturally, you can get better at it. MeShell NDegeocello has certainly come a long ways with singing and playing simultaneously.

  48. In my mind, the two things are interconnected to the point that I don’t know if I can play a solitary bass line without keeping the vocal melody in the forefront of my mind. When I write, I write to the vocals and I think of them as one thing.

  49. Not natural at all for me but I got their in the end.

    I started singing the same time I started playing guitar (some years after I started on the bass), that was easy. But making the transition wasn’t.

    I started off with songs here the vocal follows the bass line a bit, ‘Pea’ by RHCP is a great start here.

    Thinking about it I find when I’m singing and playing bass, my body is moving with the rhythm but my brain is focused on the melody. So my advice is, feel the rhythm think about melody.

    Funnily enough, I now find it pretty easy to sing and play drums, easier than singing and bass (I’m not a good drummer but I love hitting things).

  50. Craig V.

    Let me say one thing….it’s a bitch when you first start out. I like your suggestions Damian, good and solid. What seemed to help me out the most was having my parts down dead nuts. Then the vocals over the top weren’t as tough. Putting a new song together has been the tough part, especially with the whole group. Because my bass lines are new and the groove winds up being a bit different than when I wrote the lyrics, there is quite a learning curve. As was noted by Damian, I tend to simplify during the vocal parts then let the creative lines flow between verses and complimenting the guitar solo parts. After performing the songs for a while it’s easier to relax and let my fingers separate from my head so to speak. Main thing is it takes a good amount of repetition and, I might add, not for everyone. I’m no Geddy Lee by a long shot but I’ve been able to hold my own for sure. Hope this helps and I wish you much success in your endeavor.

  51. With me it all becomes one motion. Ask me to sing a song without my bass, or play a tune I usually sing on with someone else singing I have a terribly hard time doing it. Plus any song where the vocal and bass lines differ rhythmically I have a tough time with. Sometimes I need to simplify the line (where it’s not an egregious sin to do so) or sing around the bass part. It can be done guys!!!

  52. I have been the primary singer and bass player in my bands for almost 40 years. I started out as a singer who played bass – that is – I sang and had to concentrate more towards the bass lines. As I’ve gotten older and more accomplished with my instrument, I’ve definitely become more of a bass player who sings. It really depends upon the song your doing for the most part, but really honing in on the bass lines in the song and owning the part allows you to put more attention toward the vocals. Practice makes perfect. That’s the bottom line.

  53. Mark A

    I played drums for 18 years..
    …singing and playing – no problem
    I then played guitar for about 15 years..
    …singing and playing – no problem
    I have now been playing bass for over 20 years.. and yes, it is supremely difficult.. that is; unless you have the tune completely under your fingers and completely in your head.. It takes a quite a bit of practice to get a new tune down.. it can be done..

  54. I’ve been playing bass for over 35 years, mostly R&B, funk, and blues. For the first five years at least I was essentially a mute when playing the bass – couldn’t even talk to my band mates, let alone sing. My “light bulb” moment came when I realized I was thinking (and feeling) too much about the bass part. When I mentally disengaged myself from the bass line, I suddenly found that I could sing. The best way to describe it is being on autopilot in terms of the bass line. Obviously, you need to have the bass line down cold to go on autopilot. But for me it was mainly this mental brain trick that was the breakthrough.

  55. Scott Cranston

    I have found two things helpfull along the way.

    1) a pick – the movement seems to keep me better aligned to groove . Not always possible or necessary but it definitely works on syncopated pieces or when bass part is rythmically different than vocals.

    2) understanding tricky/conflicting vocal phrases: find your trouble spots and synch self to particular syllables and bass notes.

    * oddly seemingly complex but repetive riffs don’t give me much problem when singing.

    After doing this the hard way , I learned that both sting and Paul leverage pieces of the above as well.

  56. I found that the bass drum, snare, and high-hat helped Me, vocally. Specifically; sitting behind the kit and keeping a basic beat for the song and singing along. When I picked up the bass and sang the song it felt so much better and sounded better.

  57. John

    I play bass and sing and it really has a lot to do with understanding that if its hard to do it’s probably not right. Phrasing singing and playing a part all has a place I the correct space and time Can you dig it?

  58. Ed Brenton

    Learn each part so you are not thinking and practice! Have patience and focus until you do not have to focus.Sometimes I use the “space between”. Noted are flying, no fox, x comes in, bass goes subtle. Kind of a shift back and forth.

  59. Straight rhythms or rhythms similar to the melody do thw trick.

  60. Charlie

    Lots of great advice from previous posts. I would add that on more complex parts, it helps to write out the rhythms so you can see where the subdivisions line up. The hardest bass part and vocal I ever had to learn took me three days of working on it. It wasn’t until I saw the parts on paper that I finally got it. It was fairly easy to preform it afterwards, although I remember being very nervous about messing it up. (The song was Ambrosia, “Living on my own”.) Eventually I became more capable and confident. Both my bass playing and my vocals improved over time, and I am hired often because I can sing harmony and lead vocals, and play many styles. It really helps if you can sing and play. My vocal blend is absolutely as important as playing the bass with my regular band. We have around 16 years of singing together now. So YES by all means sing. it’s worth it, even if it’s only baby steps at first.

  61. Kelvin

    Initially I started out playing and singing background vocals on simple songs with straight eighth notes bass lines. The Cars, Def Leppard, oldies. Rock stuff. Always start with learning background vocals first to improve your skills. Then I graduated to blues and I started singing lead. The best practice for me currently has been playing syncopated bass lines from r&b songs. Try playing “Let’s Get It On” real slow and sing the vocal melody. Also try this with reggae, another genre with strong bass lines.

  62. Dave Livingston

    I’m an old fart and play Jurassic rock. I never thought I could do it, but I play bass and sing to many of the songs we play. The most challenging for me are two songs: “Lady Madonna” and “Psycho Killer” (in particular, “Lady Madonna” or any Beatles song heightened my respect for Sir Paul).

    I, as many of the comments here have stated, found I could do it by committing the bass lines to muscle memory and then focusing on the vocals. I noticed that if I screw things up, it’s because I’m thinking about the bass.

  63. What I’ve found is that it’s easy to underestimate the singing part of the equation. If you’re just singing without playing, or even usually with guitar, you can kind of “sing by ear” and be fine. Playing something that demands mental bandwidth for both pitch and rhythm means that you have to think about the pitch and rhythm of what you’re singing as well, and if you aren’t used to working with your voice in this way it can be very daunting.

  64. Wow, a lot of great ideas here in the comments! An insight from a School of Rock teacher that helped me is that once you consider yourself a good musician, you may think that singing is comparatively “easy”. For practically everyone though, its not. Since playing a song well enough now comes easier to me than singing well. I do the harder job of learning to sing a lead or harmony part first, and then bring in the bass playing.

  65. eli bennett

    One thing to keep in mind (especially if singing is your “second” instrument!): sing into the mic like you mean it! Nothing wrong with looking down at the bass, but if you’re going to do that, position the mic so it’s picking up your voice in the position you’ll be in while you’re singing. Also, I see lots of players step back before the vocal line is over, losing the last word and a half. STAY on the mic for the WHOLE vocal line. Again, sing like you mean it!

  66. Just a morsel of info. Of course you may want to stand while doing this, but march in-place while practicing singing & playing. It keeps you in tempo and if you’re learning to sing too, it will make it much easier. Try it!
    (Look at George Harrison’s more recent videos. He marches in place while both singing & playing guitar. Who could argue with him?!)

  67. Mike Mattocks

    I agree with Trent. Slow things down. I practice on acoustic as well. I play root notes first while singing then fancy it up when I can. Takes time.

  68. Heiko Steinweg

    I agree. Playing bass and singing simultaneously for almost thirty years, I’d like to emphasize one thing: You should train yourself to play bass without having to look at the fingerboard. Learn to visualize the fingerboard and where your fingers are without looking down. I’ve developed a peripheral sight that allows me to peek at my bass/fingerboard whenever necessary. But mostly I focus on my vocals while visualizing my bass playing. To acquire this you should learn the bass line first, and automize it playing in front of a mirror, or just looki g straight, NOT at your fingerboard. Once accomplished, learn the vocals, then start combining the two. Practice diffcult spots individually, note by note and extremely slow, if necessary. Increase speed until you’ve reached the original tempo. For some tempo headroom, increase speed a little beyond, just in case the drummer counts you in faster than usual at a gig.