Competing with the “Bass Virtuosos”


Q: I have been feeling a bit defeated lately. I want to be a professional bassist more than anything but whenever I watch YouTube, I feel like I just don’t have what it takes. I see nothing but a sea of players with blazing chops, piano like chordal abilities, solo players who sound like an orchestra (with loopers, etc..) and I’m sitting here thinking that, yeah, I’m a good bassist but how in the world can I possibly compete. I don’t have those kind of chops and it’s not how I play. How do I even get noticed online anymore? Do you have any advice?

A: To start, I can tell you that you are very much, not alone.

I go through this myself and I can assure you that others do as well (including some big names that you very likely know and might have even been thinking of when you wrote that question). For the longest time, I felt that I needed to be the best at everything. If I took a solo, I would later berate myself for not playing as lyrically as Jaco, as technically as Hadrien, with as much jazz vocabulary as Jeff Andrews, with hip bebop lines like Federico Malaman. When I played bass, I felt better about my playing but would still find faults and compare myself with Rich Brown’s creativity and tone, Pino’s minimalist perfection, Anthony Jackson’s ability to only ever play the seemingly perfect thing. You get the picture…

I put pressure on myself to be unrealistically good and always fell short in my mind. I came to a happy, middle path when I realized that if they wanted “X” or “Y” player, they could hire “X” or “Y” player. But they hired me, so I would only worry about playing the music as well as I could and not try to force anything. The more I relaxed into that mindset, the better I played and I eventually realized that, “hey, I’m pretty good at this.”

That said, there does seem to be this pressure, especially when thinking of posting to YouTube, to be better and bigger than life on the instrument. In order to combat this I would recommend simply ignoring the doubt and post anything you do, warts and all. Do the best you can in any given situation, but unless there is an obvious and glaring mistake or horrible performance, let it pass as a reflection of where you are and hope that you continue to improve.

If you’re worried about internet trolls or harsh reviews, you can always disable the comments, but I wouldn’t let any of that stuff get to you. Pick any of your favorite videos online and dig through the comments. You’ll see it’s just a part of it. There will always be that one person (who likely can’t play at all but feels the need to let everybody know how much they stink). Online anonymity breeds trolls. Ignore them.

Self-doubt can be crippling. The only thing I’ve found to counter it is a blind faith in the process. Just try to always play musically and naturally. Try not to let yourself succumb to temptation when it comes to showing off or feeling pressured to play something “astounding”. Just try to play the music. I have had a few instances lately where I have had to record demo videos for one thing or another. It’s hard for me to not feel dejected after doing that because I simply don’t operate in a solo bass environment. I literally don’t know what to do without a band surrounding me, so I noodle. I’m such a band guy (I call it being a team player) that I feel naked and handicapped when someone sticks a bass in my hands and says, “go!” It is 100% not my thing. But, what can you do? You do the best you can and try to relax, breathe and play a groove or something.

I won’t name names, but I’ve had heart to heart conversations with some of the younger badasses on the scene and have heard more than once that they feel pressured to always be astounding and impressive when the reality is, they don’t feel like they can blow the doors off of the joint every time they pick up a bass. Some folks present themselves as supremely confident and some really are. They don’t question what they play and immediately accept it as art. I wish I had that thing, but I don’t. I have, however, accepted my personal limitations on the instrument and try to be honest with myself about those limitations. Then I try to work on those limitations if – and only if – I feel that they are inhibiting me from being the player that I want to be (NOT the player everybody on YouTube wants me to be).

I have recently decided to stop trying to be all things to all people and really focus on who I want to be musically. I’m focusing on working on being the best bassist I can be, going back to the shed with very specific goals in mind. I decided that it’s okay if I want to be a Suburu or Prius (super solid and reliable) and stop trying to pretend to be a Ferrari. All I ever wanted was to be an above average bassist who made a modest living from music. I think that is a lofty enough goal, honestly. Why beat myself up about not being able to blast diminished licks at 200 bpm when that has nothing to do with my desired musical identity?

My advice to you is to focus on determining what kind of player YOU want to be and to work tirelessly towards that. Don’t feel pressured to put out YouTube clips of yourself playing outside of any musical context that isn’t of your choosing. Let the solo bassists be solo bassists and you be you. I wasted far too much time working towards being a player that I didn’t really want to be. I’m glad for what I learned in the process but it led to me having almost a split musical personality and heightened anxiety levels because I was getting myself into musical situations which felt forced, personally speaking.

It’s just music, and if we relax and listen it’s usually not too hard to play musically and organically. It’s the pressure that we can put on ourselves that usually messes things up.

I don’t think Andy Warhol ever berated himself for not being Rembrandt. I don’t think Tool ever thought “we suck” because they weren’t Chick Corea Elektric Band…

Learn everything you can about who you are and who you want to be. Hear that player in your head and focus on being that – nothing more and nothing less.

The most important thing is for us to get to know ourselves on every level. Once you really know who you are and what you’re about, the idea that someone would want you to be something else seems ridiculous.

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.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts