Accompanying “Smaller” Instruments on Bass

Accompanying bassist - photo by Dean Zobec

Photo by Dean Zobec

Q: I have a question in regards to the best way to accompany “light sounding” instruments such as a ukulele, mandolin, banjo, or even just auxiliary percussion. I find that whenever I’m playing with these types of instruments I have to limit my style to playing more open, simple lines so as to not drown out the other instrument. The problem(s) with this is it gets boring quickly, and all the songs sound similar because of this. How would you address this?

A: I wish we could hear an example of you playing with these instruments, because you could be experiencing any number of things.

My first guess would be that you are simply: a) playing too loudly, b) have too much low-end in your tone or c) both.

I’ve done a fair amount of playing with mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar and violin, and I’ve never had that problem. This includes settings where everyone is playing acoustically except for me, where I’m playing through a normal bass amp.

The key (regardless of style) is blending with the instruments in volume and not dominating certain frequency ranges. The instruments you mentioned are a lot of high-strung instruments, and there is plenty of room for the bass – electric or otherwise. Generally speaking, an acoustic bass tone (which is more traditional for that instrumentation) eats up more low end than an electric bass does – unless you’re too loud.

That style of music also doesn’t demand a lot from the bassist beyond fast, 2-feel walking type lines, unless you are going for a new-grass/Victor Wooten with Bela Fleck type of thing.

Regardless, I would imagine that your bass is the kick drum and the mandolin is the snare drum when setting your volume and tone. It is far too easy to dominate the mix with a bass amp – even if everyone else is plugged in – because we can easily create a big, thick wall of boom with the twist of a knob.

Mind your tone and mind your volume. You’re not supposed to be on top, so try turning down and sitting under the mix a bit for a while and see how it feels and sounds. Get acquainted with that blend and then slowly and fractionally, turn yourself up a little bit until you find that sweet spot (or at least find where that “too much” spot is and then back off). Be mindful of how tubby or muddy your tone is. You don’t want it super clicky and bright, but you do want it to have at least a blunt edge and cut a little bit.

You might also consider how you are playing your lines. One things double basses do not have is a ton of sustain. Sometimes things can sound “off” simply because your notes are too long (or too short, depending on the style). I don’t mean that you should play staccato necessarily, but listen to how double bassists play in that context. Hear how the notes come through and then quickly, but evenly fade off and leave a little room?

If I were you, I would do a little listening and transcription. Deeply explore some recordings that you love and really consider how the bass is sitting in the mix and how they are approaching their sound.

There is plenty of room for the bassist to have fun. You just need to explore the sound and find something that works both for your playing style and the music!

I’d love to hear how some of you readers have worked the electric bass into other traditionally acoustic settings. 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. Andre

    I would also ad that you state you are accompanying these instruments. Your job is to make them sound good. If you are bored as well, then you are not in the moment making music but thinking about how boring your gig is and doing a diservice to your band mates. I would look at why you are bored and change your attitude so you can have fun playing music no matter what style and how many notes you play. Remember there is this thing called space. You do not have to fill it.

    Also, the above statements about listening and transcribing are valuable. WIth information and style, you can then use your voice leading skills to create a bass melody that compliments what is going on in the moment. Playing with others is about playing your part.

    Good luck

  2. Lim

    Weird, I find the reverse is true when accompanying the ukulele. Suddenly you have access to the entire neck without overlapping the other instrument which gives a lot of melodic freedom.

    Clicky and percussive normally doesn’t work, as that is where the ukulele excels. Its nice to cut the bass loose from the rhythm section and soar on mellow soulful wings once in a while though.

    • JB III

      I’m with Lam on this. I’ve played a lot with mandolins and the opportunity to voice chords is so much broader without guitars & keys doing all the comping. But the first thing I needed to learn was volume & tone, which is much different from the power trios I was used to!

  3. Good suggestions,Damian…Also,leave some space,good tone,and sustain notes when appropriate. Feel the music moment with these fine instruments.I find that they encourage you to move in different musical directions that are fun and even adventurous.Good articulation of the notes is also important.BASS ON!

  4. Cliff Bragdon

    I play a 6 string bass alongside a tenor ukulele in a duo. When there is no drummer, the bass is the percussive element, the root, and a harmonic compliment to the small instrument. Sometimes this means we must play simply, to accompany. To make the small instrument be heard and sound great. Less is more! The ukulele, as well as mandolin and banjo, provides the melody and also provides a percussive element that the bass can follow or play another rhythm that compliments the strum pattern, picking, etc. Volume and tone are equally as important. When playing with acoustic instruments that are higher on the frequency spectrum, it’s important to not be too boom-y, nor loud. Add a slight bit of mid-range to an ample amount of lows and you’ll find your sweet spot. Ukulele and bass are amazing together! We have so much fun.

  5. John Thisdell

    I play with a bluegrass trio, guitar, banjo, a little fiddle and harp and I mostly play an electric upright although I’ve also played my electric with this group many times. I feel it works well when I play in the lowest register (std. four string tuning) and then we each have our own sonic space. Bass on the bottom, guitar in the middle, banjo on top. I also am mindful that I am the entire rhythm section and I play what I can only describe as “ghost” notes, little notes that are just barely there, especially when the guitar player does a flat picking solo and there really is not much other holding the beat. This is not very “traditional” but I cannot for the life of me play a strict root & five line. However, this works for us.

  6. Mark

    Damien, thanks for the thoughts. After playing ukulele for two years I just bought a bass to be the accompanist for the rest of the group and this gives me some good pointers to experiment and follow up on.

  7. Bradlee TheDawg

    Wow – well unless your name is Stanley Clarke you need to remember your place in the gig here. Read “Andre’s” reply a dozen times or until it sinks in. Your first job is “do no harm”. Remember – half of music is sound.. the other half is SILENCE. Nothing wrong with leaving a lot of space – If that means simple and ‘boring’ – oh well, do that. Most people listening like simple and boring – thus top-40 songs for the past 70 years. But seems to me you should be able to ENHANCE the Uke with some well-placed counterpoint or something – remember Ukes have no tenor/bass capability and they are very limited harmonically – so fill in their missing lower register with your upper register. They also often leave out the R-3rd-5th in favor of chordal extensions – if so – that also opens the door for you somewhat. Just PLEASE don’t step on the Uke or the Singer. Lay down a nice clean bass line/groove and make sure that’s working before you go crazy. Good luck. (PS – Remember… Sound… Silence. If you’re going to add counterpoint pick the spots – just like when you decide to ‘walk’ – make it count. Nothing worse than an over-playing bassist)