The Lightbulb Moment: Never Have I Ever…

Ah, there’s nothing like a 4:30 load in for a 7pm show. At a local club. With backline. That means that you arrive at the gig, hope that all of the other band members show up, watch the soundman set up the stage, and do a quick check before the doors open. In other words, hurry up and wait. This waiting game may be accompanied by any number of things… pizza, drinks, discussions on how to end a particular song, last minute set changes, and plenty of story telling. Sometimes, you get bored enough that you begin playing games in an effort to “one up” one another. A personal favorite: musical “Never Have I Ever.”

Never Have I Ever… played “Autumn Leaves.”
“No way!”
“How is that possible?”
“Didn’t you go to school for jazz?”

The responses are all the same: complete amazement from the other band members who have played the song forwards, backwards, in every key, and with every feel.

Never Have I Ever… played “Sweet Caroline.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I thought you did the cover band thing!”
“I’ve been on the wrong gigs…”

Again, responses that may express disbelief, a little sympathy and compassion, and perhaps a bit of envy.

Never Have I Ever… played “Amazing Grace.”
“Hey man, we played that in church every week.”
“You’ve gotta listen to Victor’s version!”

It doesn’t take much to get everyone involved, especially when the band is comprised of an eclectic group of sidemen. In addition to passing the time, you end up learning a lot about your fellow players. This seemingly innocent game exposes your strengths and weaknesses, showing off the music that you know, your mental bank of tunes, and your gigging experience. It reflects your cultural upbringing and musical preferences, your field of study and musical expertise. While you grew up playing rock music in your basement, others developed their gospel chops in church. Every player gravitates towards songs or styles that ultimately construct their unique musical “home.”

After announcing, “Never Have I Ever Played ‘Spain’,” I was met with plenty of wide eyes and quizzical looks. Most of my peers assumed I went to school for jazz and were quite surprised by my confession. Knowing how to play “Spain” is a rite of passage in some circles, especially if it’s played at blazing speed. It’s a song that people often play to impress and push one another, though it simply never made it’s way into my repertoire. On the other hand, “Never Been To Spain” has been called on a gig at least a dozen times this year.

This got me thinking about what we consider standards. If you grew up playing jazz, you probably learned the Real Book standards such as “Take The A Train” or “Blue Bossa.” These are the tunes that you learn first and foremost, the ones found in the middle school jazz band’s repertoire, and the ones you’re likely to play during the cocktail hour at a wedding. They are so commonplace that people simply assume that you know them. They are part of the vocabulary… if you play jazz.

The reality is that there are many different sets of standards. Some are designated by genre, others by the types of gigs you’re likely to play on. If you work the blues scene, you probably know at least three different ways to play “Stormy Monday” and “Crossroads.” If you go to sub on a Top 40 gig, you’d better be able to play “Don’t Stop Believing” in your sleep, along with a handful of Tom Petty songs. And if you happen to play in a “corporate” band doing weddings and private events, you’ll have to have “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” at your fingertips. When you get hired for a certain type of gig, it’s assumed, if not required, that you speak the language and know the songs.

Part of being a well-rounded player is being familiar with these different sets of standards. The greater your repertoire of songs and styles, the more likely you are to get called for gigs. If you’re more interested in playing as a hobby, writing original music, or jamming with friends, then you may not have to worry so much about learning thousands of songs, though it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Playing this musical “Never Have I Ever” was quite the treat, though the voice in the back of my head wondered if I should to admit to not knowing certain songs. The desire to compete and impress is one of the negative traits musicians tend to have and, unfortunately, a game like this can be somewhat revealing. Hopefully, my reputation can survive unscathed. Over the years, I spent more time learning Rolling Stones songs than I did “Donna Lee,” though I’ve realized the value of learning both. All I can say is, the next time I play “Never Have I Ever,” I’m taking notes and heading home to practice.

What is on your “Never Have I Ever” list? Please share in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Never Have I Ever…played a song who’s name I’ve forgotten, but the guy leading my set at a blues jam called out the title and started counting it off.

    “What key?” I yelled.

    “D,” he yelled back, a little exasperated, “just like the record.”

    “What record?” I thought. “Which artist? From what decade?” I just hit whole notes until I figured out what sort of feel the song should have, and I got through it. My point is that his standards were completely uncharted territory for me, and probably vice versa.

    • Butch

      ya that’s so true,I play hundreds of “rock” songs but every now and then i’ll play with new people and they look at me odd when i have never heard of some song……….i’ll notice on the radio though a week later

  2. steve jr

    I run into this a lot! been playing over 30 years, and played in quite a few different styles, but you can never now all the “standards” for every style. I also love it when they say, “Oh it’s easy” well yes, most songs are easy once you know them. but until you know it, maybe not so much!

  3. mojobass

    Funny and very true.In every genre of music there are a lot of standards.Being open to step out of ones comfort “standards” zone is a good way to open more bass doors & learn a bit more.Thanks for the article,Ryan.

  4. Marco

    Oh it is so true to know Top40 songs in every key. Every band i played with used different keys so you have to adapt to the situation. Hopfully they tell you the key before the gig. haha
    As far as jazz goes it is so difficult for beginners or newcomers to the jazz scene to gain an overview. So many songs, keys, personal favorites of bandmates and on and on and on.

  5. Hey Ryan, nice reading from you again! Hope you’re doing well.
    About standards: I don’t do them. I only play what I like with my band and my musical friends. Besides that, I hate it when musicians react annoyed when you don’t know their standards. I’ll bet ya they don’t know standards other musicians know. I have not been going to jamsessions for years now, just because of this.
    I hate musicians, but then again, I love being around musicians… The nice ones that is :-)
    Well, that’s just my blunt comment. For what it’s worth :-)
    Have fun, Ryan! Even with standards… :-P