Finding Your Voice vs. Conventional Bass Playing

Q: I have really been obsessed with wanting my own unique voice and approach on the bass. Do you think that I’d be doing myself any harm in the long run if I avoid conventional approaches to learning (like scales, changes, learning blues lines, etc…) in an attempt to develop something new?

A: That’s an interesting question, (and one that is perfect for a continued discussion in the comments).

When I read your question, I immediately thought of Wayne Krantz and how I’ve heard that he tells his bassists to not do anything that anyone would expect the bassist to do. (I’m paraphrasing). Basically: avoid all the stock lines and licks. But if you make a list of all of his preferred bassists over the past 10 or 20 years, they are all seasoned pros who can cover a wide variety of musical aesthetics, principally because they have done their homework and understand the various idioms and stylistic tendencies.

If you avoid learning what others have done before you, yes, you might come up with something completely new (and hopefully, functional) but you will also most certainly miss out on a lot of things as well.

After thinking about this for a second, I came up with an analogy. Let’s say that you want to develop a new style of kung fu. Would you:

a) Specifically avoid learning anything about any other martial arts?


b) Start by building a foundation of many styles to best learn what works best for you from “this” and what works from “that”?

I would assume that one who first spends years devoting time to tai chi, wing chun, karate, kung fu, grappling, various weapons, and so on would have a much stronger foundation and likely develop their own unique style (a kind of personalized ‘best of’ all of the styles). Much more so than the person who just goes into the back yard and starts trying to come up with new moves.

How about golf? Do you think that you could develop a stronger form or better accuracy without instruction? I know that I couldn’t.

I would think that the same holds true for music and musicians. Doing anything well is difficult and we must master the basics before we can transcend our own limitations and discover true expression with an honest voice.

The more you understand different styles of music (with depth), learn common turnarounds, learn stock bass lines and common patterns, the more unique a player you will actually be!

Our voices are really the culmination of everything that we know. I’d would rather learn what came before and explore my own voice through that lens than start from a place of complete ignorance. I don’t mean that to sound so harsh but that’s what a blank knowledge base is: ignorant. We all start out ignorant but learn through experience and exploration and learning history so as to better be prepared for the future.

Readers, do you have any further thoughts on this? Think of your favorite players… Can you think of anyone who didn’t learn by learning songs and/or studying with a teacher? 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. Miloš

    When you asked about golf, I was sure that you’ve read the book “The Practicing Mind” by Thomas M. Sterner. If not, read it. Todd Johnson recommend that book to all musicians, and to reread it. Share what you think of this book with other.
    And about this topic, I think it’s rare to grow up and play on your own without influence, like 1 in a million.
    I’ve heard few guys that have same note patterns (and rhythm in those notes) in few songs, and I recognize the player just by that 1 second of song. Also your tone can be your voice. Working on songs is just gonna get you better. Janek Gwizdala once said that classical pieces on piano have really given him a lot of ideas, new chops, new things to work on (on bass ofc). But do what you think it’s best.

  2. Knowing the rules well helps you break them efficiently.Those “stock” bass lines are such because they work well and the ear feels drawn to them. Listeners of all backgrounds internalize these and build expectations upon them. Once you as a bassist are familiar with these expectations, you can subvert them, and once you’re musical vocabulary builds from repeated playing and learning, you can subvert them artfully.

    I like what Damian says about idioms. There’s a podcast called Welcome To Night Vale that likes to open their show with odd, slightly ominous twists on old sayings.

    Ex: First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then nitrate. Then olives. We’re not letting you go until you alphabetize all of these nouns.

    Like musical style, the writers wouldn’t be able to have that land without us knowing the cliche. They have a point of reference we identify with, and then they take us beyond that in a direction of their choosing.

  3. Here’s my 2 cents and after playing with guitarists for many years with their own sound (David Fiuczynski, Vernon Reid, etc) it really made me rethink this whole concept. So in my experience, finding your own voice is definitely not something you want to overthink. For me, it wasn’t a search, it was more of a process. You are a product of everything you have ever listened to, practiced, liked, disliked, been inspired by, not been inspired by, etc. It happens completely organically. And for better or for worse, you have to embrace those things that make you who you are without fear.

    There is always pressure to sound/play like whoever is popular at any given moment. You need to be who you are regardless of that. If you are trying to play with all kinds of musicians as a side musician (as many of us do), then you have to know and understand the craft of bass playing as it relates to the music that you are playing. Sometimes there has to be joy in a part that is basic. That’s what we signed up for. Excluding things that are part of the universal vocabulary of music won’t get you any closer to your goal but learning to dissect and extract from that vocabulary absolutely will.

    (The parameters are much wider when you’re doing your own music, of course…)

    The biggest threat to finding you own voice is actively worrying about it. Just embrace who you are. Define what your concept is. Stick to it. Be musical. And do it without fear.

    ***Also, if you really want to be original, I’d totally avoid YouTube unless you’re going to watch cat videos. Seriously. Don’t ever watch it again because there are tons of people who sound just like each other. It’s harder not to be affected by whats out there than it was in the pre-YouTube era when Damian and I were coming up. (We’re close in age)

  4. Rob

    In general, I think people that are wanting to “find their own voice” are too intimidated and/or lazy to face the extremely hard work it takes to really master an instrument. First of all, you have to master the physical aspect of playing your instrument if you want to develop any voice at all, because if you can’t physically execute the “voice” you hear in your head it really doesn’t matter, does it?

    So just because you’re practicing traditional stuff doesn’t mean you aren’t seeking out your own voice. I forget it if it was Coltrane or Parker that I heard would practice 12 hours a day in one key. If you’re practicing in one key that much and that frequently you will know that key inside out and upside down and eventually will be able to say what you want within that key.

    I think if you look at all the musicians who were said to have their own voices you’ll find that they all put in the hard work and mastered their instrument through many of the traditional means. There may be some outliers that were extreme prodigies, but that’s like a one in a million chance.

    So hunker down, study, and eventually your voice will start to come out. If you just sit around hoping to someday come up with the worlds greatest shit I think you’re in for serious disappointment.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • Rob

      And to reply to myself…I just read Steve Jenkins’ post above mine and I totally agree with him as well…if you’re actively looking to have your own voice you probably won’t find it. I don’t think many, if any, of the players that are considered to have their own voice sat down and thought, “gee, is what I’m doing today helping me to have my own voice?” I think they played and put in the hard work because of their love of music, and the rewards came naturally.

  5. Ben

    I like Damien’s martial arts analogy, so let me extend it a bit. Building a foundation of moves from karate, kung fu, etc. would almost certainly result in eventually creating a style that is technically superior to what you would have come up with by building from the ground up. On the other hand, it would also result in a style that is highly derivative and unoriginal.

    If you want to make a living playing bass, then it makes good sense to learn the fundamentals and stand on the shoulders of giants. If your goal is just to have some joy expressing yourself musically, then why the hell not give your plan a try? The likelihood that you’ll create something truly original and musically pleasing is low, but at least you will have given the thing a shot.

    One bit of advice, though. If you do take the road less-travelled, stay the hell away from other bass players–in real life *and* in forums like this. I don’t know if there’s a group of musicians more dedicated to enforcing orthodoxy than bass players, and we’ll eat up your soul criticizing you for overplaying, using a pick, playing a bass with the “wrong” number of strings, and otherwise giving you hell for not being a “real” bass player (whatever that means). Good luck with whatever path you choose.

    • Hahaha I recognize myself so well in what you wrote !! “that dickhead is using a pick in a x-strings bass, and he’s playing 4 times what he should!!”
      But yes, above that I totally agree… my goal is to become a good blues bass player, and I have a very orthodoxic vision of my instrument (I see it as a small double bass) but I think that everyone should do whatever he wants as long he has fun !

  6. Anaughtybear

    Once you find your voice, everyone you play with will be freaked out by your unique style. Even though the bass players that people talk about are mold-breakers like Cliff Burton, Les Claypool, Billy Gould, etc… what everyone seems to want is the most boring one-note bass player they can find.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, that ecstatic sound of your soul will unnerve simple guitarists. It’s worth it though. I would rather play joyous inner music for my cats than play covers at the bar every night.

  7. Doc.Hoc.

    Damian thanks for your suggestions. I can no longer use the plucking fingers of my right hand as of last month , my fingers are curled up from a problem in my cervical spine. I can still rotate my wrist & pluck with my thumb & slap. When challenged it makes me more eager to overcome obstacles like this, the possibilities are limitless.

  8. Dave

    I’m looking at this on my phone, but one quick thought: the more abstract art created by, say, Picasso is interesting at least in part because he was such a talented draughtsman, that he could draw portraits and paint landscapes that were as realistic and technically beautiful as any in the world, and that he decided not to do so. Some artists (and genres, like punk) find their unique voices partially due to their limitations, but when considered in terms of education and pedagogy, there’s something to be said for knowing the rules you intend on breaking

  9. Depends what you wanna do. Some of my favorite bassists are those whose idiosyncrasies made them great, IMHO: Mike Watt, Joe Lally. But those guys aren’t session players who can knock out tracks quickly in a variety of styles.

    Personally, I was a guy who started out with a knowledge of how to tune the bass and a few needed notes. Everything else was picked off records, or in the case of my own original bands, pulled out of my a$$.

    It wasn’t till many, many years later did I learn the “stock” bass parts that enabled me to hang musicially with a variety of players.

  10. Daniel Pagdon

    Musicians imitate,emulate or innovate.Some are like Silly Putty;they copy what impresses them or is popular,listen to the same sources,read the same articles,buy the same gear,learn the same songs,practice the same techniques,then are disappointed when they are anonymously interchangeable and go unrewarded for being uniquely derivative.


  11. To put it from a slightly different angle, my old teacher once said that you can’t really be a good pro AND a good artist at the same time. Things will go in parallel for a bit, and talent may help take some shortcuts, but from a certain point on internalising styles and cliches will draw creativity out of your musical soul. Hence the choice is between being a good artist (composing your stuff, playing your gigs with your projects and your musicians) or being a good pro (playing whatever people ask you to play). The former is way, way harder, frustrating and ultimately haphazard, but *may* shoot you to the top.

  12. Nate

    I was reading about Bill Evans and he was discussing finding your voice on piano. He essentially said you can’t find your voice intentionally, it just happens. If you are honest with yourself and serve your muse then you’ll get glimpses of what’s best for you. Sometimes influence doesn’t come from other bass players, sometimes you just do things or you copy other people. I have my own style I suppose but sometimes I sound like other people. I’ve done quite a bit of study but I know there always will be more study to do. Stock licks can be pretty fun, useful, and if I just play the way I play and think the way I think, it’ll sound like me.

  13. Cool topic . I can speak as someone who spent much of my younger years having little interest in learning about music theory , reading , or other styles of music I wasn’t into . For me , I just wanted to go and figure out things for myself without hearing about a “right ” or “wrong” way to do things .
    As I got older , of course I began being drawn to other music that was beyond what I was capable of doing , or at least would require a lot more guess work in trying to figure out what was going on . I started getting tired of that approach LOL !
    Not until I was older did I go to music school . It was the best decision I made . As opposed to knowing it all when I was done , and I did learn a lot of course , the most comforting / awesome thing ingrained in me is that I’ll never know it all ! It’s freeing . This language of music is infinite , and the continual learning process I think is what keeps so many of us drawn to it .
    Whatever route you choose to learn is rad , it’s a big pot to pull from . No matter what we do we are all actively involved in creating music regardless of what we know / don’t know .

  14. Jim Nichols

    Music is a language; fluency is a requisite to participation in meaningful conversations. Refusal to read or learn scales is just intellectual laziness. What about different time signatures? Dotted notes? Triplets?

    • JohnSwartz

      Absolutely awesome topic.

      This is something I have been grappling with lately.
      The other thing I’ve been battling with is effective practice routines.

      Unique voice first…

      I’ve just recently taken up teaching bass. Which is a first for me.
      And teaching bass by no means makes me the best bassist alive.
      I’ve always found it difficult to clearly convey what I’m doing to anyone else.

      Ok. Unique voice.

      A student asked me a couple of days ago.
      “How do I become a unique bass player?”

      I actually had to tell him to save the discussion until I next saw him, because we were burning up lesson time debating.

      I used the analogy of Bruce Lee, and Jeet Kun Do.
      We all know the story.

      Bruce Lee believed that form and stance of traditional martial arts was too rigid and of no real use in the real world. Mind you, he had a wide and insanely in depth knowledge of many martial arts. What he did was adapt them, shape them, style them as he best believed them to be useful to his own way. And thus was born his own martial art.

      I believe this is in essence what it is to be unique.
      As he said. Take what is useful, discard what you do not need.
      And for every bass player, that will differ – which, in essence, is already a step to being unique.

      As musicians we need to learn as much as we can. On the journey, we can keep what we believe is useful, and discard other parts. But you would first need parts for use or disposal. Learning various styles, licks, riffs, scales will give you the depth you need, and from this depth you can form and create your own style and your own way.

  15. Mikael Berglund

    Playing bass is just as life a different experience for every unique individual. My though on this is ‘keep living – keep playing’ , follow your heart and instinct and you will find what’s your voice.
    There is no right or wrong way of doing this.