Making Music: Pro Bassist Insights on Composing
Gigs tend to dry up for bassists during the winter months (besides holiday work), making it the perfect time to start composing new music for the spring. Whether you’re a seasoned composer or just starting out on the bass, writing music will help you grow as a player and musician.
We compiled some advice from the world’s top bass players on how they find inspiration, write music, and work on being an overall bandleader. Take some hints from the pros, then get to work!
[Musical ideas] come from just living. You do have to pay more attention after you’ve been writing music for about 30 years to try not to repeat yourself [laughs]. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Oh, that sounds nice. That sounds nice… Oh yeah, that’s because you already wrote it ten years ago.”
So I gotta really keep looking for a new way to look at things, but it’s not like you’ve got to look hard. In the same way that there’s only 26 letters in the alphabet, there’s eight notes in an octave. You just look at it from a slightly different angle and then suddenly a whole other set of possibilities emerges. Same thing with playing the bass. If you just look at things a little differently… [Say] you’re in Africa and you hear this Gnawan trance music, where the main instrument is a version of an acoustic bass guitar. When you hear the guy come at it from a little different angle, that can just open a whole new door for you. So it’s not like you have to kill yourself [to stay fresh], you just have to be open.
When I realized that I had the gift, talent, blessing or whatever you’d like to call it – to be able to compose or create musical pieces not coming from a traditional musical background I realized that my inspiration comes from seeing pictures, colors and scenes, which have a deep impact on my emotional feelings, soul and heart.
It depends on the emotion and energy of the song. Some songs begin with just a bass riff, some begin with melodies that I compose in my head and others are sketched with harmonies. I tend to write more on the piano so that I don’t compose comfortable things for my instrument. There are songs that are written in one hour and some have taken years. But every day I am always composing something. Patience [is key]. Take inspiration from all the great leaders throughout history. Seek out examples outside of music. Last but not least I will quote the words of a wise shaman, who said to me: “Snow Owl, never hide your feathers!”
It’s obviously different for each group I’m in as far as the dynamic between the players – how well we work in a live setting with each other as opposed to working at our homes and sending each other material. It all starts with me in my bedroom sitting at my desk and I do all my demoing right in Reason. Now that you can record audio tracks right in the program it makes it so easy to work in, demo drums, string and keyboard arrangements, etc. So I’ll usually open Reason and begin plucking around on guitar or keys (for Between the Buried and Me and ORBS), or on bass (for Trioscapes). For some reason people are always shocked that we all write guitar parts in BTBAM, even after I wrote three whole songs on the last record [laughs].
From there it’s sharing it back and forth. Trioscapes will always come in with some things worked out, and then just heaps of sheet music and improvisations that help carry the compositions to new places. BTBAM has never been good at “jamming,” but that’s ok. We’re just real mechanical and save the on-the spot stuff for arrangement tweaks, transitions, etc. And ORBS is our keyboardist Ashley [Ellyllon] and I sending songs to each other; usually pretty well composed and fully laid out, and then Adam [Fisher] adds vocals to them. Ashley and I work well in person as well, she’s an absolute master on the keys so she can just be fiddling around and I’m like “yeah! what was that?? something like that, but then let’s do this…” and you would never get that just going from file to file long distance.
I keep things fresh by thinking about the sounds of each person. First of all, mood kind of directs the compositions I write. So maybe I’ll think, “Ok, I need an exciting song.” Then I think, “I need an exciting song for Jeff [Clayton] and for Terrell [Stafford].” Then I start thinking about Terrell and Jeff’s sounds, and I think, “Where do I want to go with this,” because I’m hearing how they sound when they’re really exciting to me, and I’m hearing what Gerald is doing on the piano when he’s really exciting to me. When I have those elements in place, it takes me down whatever road. That’s what keeps it really fresh for me. I just think about the musicians and what they do and how they impress me, then I go from there.
It starts mentally first, with everyone being aware of what’s going on. That’s the first thing. Everyone has to understand that we have a lot of low-end up on the stage. You have to think not from an instrument perspective but rather from a musical perspective. Yeah, the instruments we’re all playing are low-end instruments, and that’s their traditional role, but you have think of it from a compositional standpoint. As a composer or orchestrator, I understand that there are more frequencies to be represented than just the low ones. I have to be aware of that, and the band has to be aware of that.
One of the first things I told the band was, “Whenever two or more bass players are playing, the person playing the main bass line needs to keep your bass fat. If you’re not playing the bass line, thin your sound out. Roll off the low-end.” Otherwise, we would just be piling low frequencies on top of each other. This way, the basses cut through at different frequencies.
Obviously, composing requires various skill sets. You need some way to communicate the best way to other people to play your music unless you can compose music and record it and have that method. That’s great, too. Find the way you’re best at communicating music, whether it’s scoring or recording demos or whatever it is. Call upon the people and technology that you need for that and book it.
For example, if you’re like me, I write down music. I use Finale and type it up. Then I say, “Hey, I’ve got some new music. Can you guys come over on a specific day next month?” Or maybe I won’t even have it finished. It’s really about setting the goal. Put it in motion. Make it happen. That’s kind of a logistic thing.
If you’re looking to get into it as a bass player… this sounds like a terrible answer, but you just have to do it. If you want to get into it, just do it. One way to do that is to think of the kind of music you’d like to write and then try writing something like that. Say you like the tune “The Peacocks”. Try writing a song that sounds just like “The Peacocks”. You don’t have to worry about it being derivative or whatever because it will be and it had better be, because that’s how music works. It’s never not going to be you coming out. If you just sit down and do the work and listen to your musical ideas, then you’ll do it.
You have to set creative limitations. Don’t try just anything. Try doing something in particular. That’s always going to generate the most creativity. If you’re a creative person, you don’t want to be bogged down by all the possibilities.
I’m not the guy that writes every day. I tried that, but I didn’t find that it helped my writing. It didn’t yield better results. My style now is to assemble fragments of thoughts sporadically as they pop into my head and keep a scrap book of ideas. Some of it’s a mental – a conceptual scrap book of ideas. But I’m also a big fan of singing ideas into my iPhone as I’m walking down the street, or capturing ideas on piano and putting them into Logic. Wherever any idea comes up I’ll try to document it in some way and get a bunch of pieces together. The process of composing then, is to put the pieces together and try mixing and matching them in different configurations and orders. The process involves a bit of trial and error. I keep experimenting until things start to sound good.
There’s an intellectual process that’s essentially problem solving, For instance, how to get from point A to point B? I try something and see if that sounds right. I’m constantly going back and forth between thinking about music analytically and then just feeling it on an emotional level, using my aesthetic judgement to be sure it sounds good to me. Sometimes I don’t actually know what I’m writing. I go totally by feel and then try to figure out what it actually is from a technical standpoint. You can almost see that in my Pledge Music video where I’ve written some stuff down and [guitarist] Steve Cardenas is reacting to it. At one point we start discussing what we’re going to call the harmonies [laughs]. We’re defining terms. He said, “Well, it’s really a minor chord with the sharp four but the five is there too.” Yeah, that’s what I wrote, that’s actually in the music, it’s just that we’re trying to figure out how best to notate that to convey that information. This is how music comes together.
I don’t have a single method of composing. A lot of pieces start to form while I’m playing bass, some come while I’m playing other instruments, some just come in my head. A lot of compositions work themselves out slowly through a painstaking process of collecting ideas, refining them, listening, re-working them and trying to make the best decisions at each step. Others arrive fully formed. Some tunes seem to need to be nothing more than general concepts to explore without over-thinking them. Often what ends up working is a combination of approaches.
It’s a hard thing to describe, perhaps because I’m so close to it, but if there’s any over-arching directive I use in composition it’s to allow the ideas to follow their own inherent logic. Sometimes the process is mostly intellectual, sometimes more emotional or intuitive, but usually a lot of all these things. Music is a fantastically deep art form and I hope to bring as much of myself to it as possible.
Well it’s always different, you know. Sometimes I’ll have a lyric or I’ll get a line stuck in my head and start building around that. Sometimes it’s a bass part… “Lee Van Cleef” was me sitting around with my dobro bass just twanging away, and I came up with that lick and I really liked it. I had this notion of wanting to write something about Lee Van Cleef, and I just stuck the two together.
For me, I have notebooks full of various ramblings and rantings and writings. Then there’s tapes full of riffs, but I tend to lose those [laughs]. But it’s always different.
Every song is supposed to tell a story, and every song I play is about something… about a book I read, or a person I met, or a meal I had… you know, it’s about something emotionally. When I name a song is when it comes. I’ve got a ton of chord progressions and grooves, but they’re not a song until they are about something. Once they coalesce into something then it’s easier to write the song.
One thing is to just be aware that there is sort of a perception, at least in the concert presenters and clubs and stuff, that a bass player really isn’t a leader. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just they have a hard time seeing it that way. That can make it a harder sell to put together a group. It’s a little different if you’re a person of extremely high visibility like a Ron Carter or Ray Brown, but throughout history there weren’t really too many bass player leaders.
Number two is that it pays something to know about arranging and about the other instruments and writing for them. Even for that matter, just preparing music for them. I mean, I’m learning stuff all the time about that. That’s a whole other issue.
Beside that, the best lessons you can take with you if you’re going to start leading a band is having been a bass player as a sideman. I just try to think about all the leaders I worked for and all the pleasant things that made my work more enjoyable, that made me feel more productive, made me feel more eager to play and make the leader’s vision come to life. I also think about some of the negatives about how band leaders might treat people and all that. It’s not hard for me to see everybody’s role through the eyes of a sideman. These guys that I worked for, like Horace and James Moody, they were leaders at a pretty early age so they were always bandleaders. Well, I’ve always been a sideman so I can see things through those eyes.
When I hire guys I kind of think about things that I always like to see in a bandleader. Don’t waste their time. Pay them as soon as the work is finished. Whether you get paid or not, that’s your problem. No excuses. Try to provide as much information to the band in advance so they have an opportunity to prepare adequately. Then whatever you’re asking them to do, whether it’s being on time or dressing a certain way, you make sure that you do that all the time.