Accompanying “Smaller” Instruments on Bass
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.