What Makes a Good Bassist?
Q: I was wondering what – in your opinion – makes a good bassist?
A: This will be the most subjective article I’ve ever written, most likely, and I imagine that many of you will have a different view by one degree or another. There are many valid view points to be shared.
I think that phrasing is important. In my mind, the best bassist might not be the best bass player, and vice versa. It’s semantics, but I’m going to define these two things as:
Bassist: Bass player fulfilling the traditional role of the bass player in a group (of any size).
Bass player: A musician who displays a level of proficiency on the bass guitar. Or be called more of a “bass guitarist” (without trying to sound snotty).
Those aren’t definitions to withstand the test of time, but those are what I’ll go with in this column.
I see a TON of very impressive bass players on social media. There are also a ton of great bassists on social media, but you don’t tend to notice those guys as much.
I see a TON of great bassists on the road with various bands with a lower percentage of bass players than that of social media.
I’m sure that you all know where I’m going with this. I think a good bassist is one who selflessly serves the music. Generally, the bassist does that by being a solid bridge between the drummer and the rest of the band. It’s more about time, tone and feel than anything. They have the right sound, they play at a volume that puts the bass right in there with the kick drum and/or balances well with the drummer’s volume. They play at a lower volume than the vocalist and soloists at the appropriate places, and they bring energy to the big moments and understate the sensitive moments. They aren’t afraid of long notes or long periods of rest within a bass line. They aren’t concerned with getting noticed for anything other than being incredibly solid, consistent and making the music sound and feel good.
The Bass Player.
Many great technicians I know are also great bassists. There are also many who are not and can only really function within the confines of their “thing”.
The bass player (or bass guitarist) has achieved an above average technical ability on the instrument and feels like they need everybody to know it. I was this player for many years when I first got my chops together, but before I learned how to be a better team player. I could play chords, play fast licks that ran my fretboard from top to bottom, I could play any line as 16th notes, etc… the list goes on. I was having so much fun entertaining everything that came to mind that I was no longer listening to the music and only listening to myself. When I listen back to recordings, it is painfully obvious that the music was suffering because of my need to show what I could do (or just try and do neat things on the instrument because it was fun). There is a tendency to focus on execution and technicality at the expense of the musicality of the group/song as a whole.
Many bass players tend to lean towards jazz fusion and/or solo bass, as this style tends to lean heavily on chops and the “more is more” school of playing is better justified here. I would argue that if you listen back to much of the gold standard fusion in the early days, there was a better balance struck between technicality and musicality. I find that balance harder and harder to find in newer technical fusion.
One thing I would like to stress is that one isn’t necessarily better than the other. It’s only when a good band and good music are sacrificed because of someone who doesn’t have the best interests of the overall musical statement in their mind’s eye, that I cringe inwardly.
I love all of the hyper-technical solo bass stuff out there in the world. I love seeing what people can do with the instrument. I also love hyper-chop technical fusion (generally in small doses). Generally, when I am listening to technical music, it is because I am focused on the technical aspect of it, and I get immense joy out of exploring much of that stuff. However, when I feel inspired to listen to something because I love good music, that is almost never what I lean towards.
I think that this is why most technical music is widely only listened to by musicians. The general population has nothing to grab onto if they aren’t interested in the technicality of it all.
The true legends of an instrument are generally those who capture a balance of both things (on any instrument). Chick Corea will never over play. Christian McBride, Jaco Pastorius, Oteil Burbridge, Pino Palladino, Richard Bona (goes nuts when playing a solo but listen to his albums and live shows. Nothing but great, tasty bass playing), Etienne Mbappe, Dave Holland, Geddy Lee, John Paul Jones… any genre you pick, if you think of the cream of the crop, they generally play to the music.
Victor Wooten is another one. We all think of his other-worldly chops and rhythmic abilities on the instrument but when he plays bass, it is all rock solid bass lines all of the time. He is all abut supporting the groove when he plays bass. (Before anyone mentions Victor’s first album, A Show of Hands, I actually put this in the category of “listen to get hyped up on some technical stuff” box. I feel like I’m practicing when I really listen to that album. Much of his music is like that for me. I don’t actually listen to much Victor when I’m just putting on some tunes to groove to.)
I’m going to go ahead and create a controversy here. In my honest opinion… I love listening to Jaco, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker on the Joni Mitchell concert video, Shadows and Light. There is so much beautiful playing in that concert and Joni Mitchell rocks. But when listening to it for the music contained, I think Jaco overplays, is too loud in the mix, and it bugs me at times. (There. I said it. I can only pray for the safety for me and my family from here on.)
In all seriousness, though, he doesn’t overplay continuously throughout, but he is so loud in the mix that it starts to sound like it. His volume is mixed up with Joni’s vocals and above everybody else. That’s not really his fault. Jaco was masterful at being active and playful through the changes while never stepping on anyone’s musical toes (much in the same way James Jameson played, but in an improvisatory setting).
Even when Jaco does lay things on a bit thick, he had so much feel and vibe that it still comes across in a musical way. He played jazz and made it feel like soul music. He was a master and an innovator. That said, it’s Joni Mitchell… it feels weird (to me) that you almost can’t not listen to the bassist.
I will say this as well: I started working a lot more once I really started focusing on my feel and playing to the song. I call it the “art of reduction”. Of course, I still play fusion gigs and play a million notes when that’s the tune, but I also learned how to really lay into some simple lines and focus on feel and my micro-timing (laying back vs playing on the beat vs. playing ahead of the beat). I found that there is an art to playing different genres with related to time feel and that is when I really started getting enough work as a sideman to make a living playing music. Basically I started making a living playing music once I realized that the music, as a whole, was the most important thing I was doing when I had my bass in my hands.
Remember, this was a column where somebody asked my opinion on what a great bassist was. I hold love and acceptance for every one and every style. No style, technique, approach is any better than another in my mind, but I do have preferences and I do think some things are inappropriate in particular settings.
Let’s keep it civil in the comments, but let’s also get an honest discussion going. How do you feel about it? What does being a “good bassist” mean to you? Please share in the comments.