Playing Etiquette While Subbing


Q: While I am stoked that I have been asked, I am a wee bit apprehensive. I have been asked to be a substitute bassist for a classic rock cover and original band by the band leader. My current gig is as a bassist in a trio which plays punk and alternative originals. The slight apprehension comes from not knowing exactly “how” to do it so to speak. Does a substitute play it straight as written, that is to say, note for note nothing added nothing removed, or is it acceptable to add a little something here and there? Nothing crazy, nothing to embarrass the bandleader and the primary mates etc., but something just a little? This is the first time I have been asked and or offered such a position and I am completely stoked, just want to hold the pocket etc. and not disrespect the band, my position, and most importantly the band leader. Any advice and or sarcasm is appreciated. Thanks.

A: Congratulations on the gig!

Whenever I enter into a band with an already established repertoire, I always begin by playing it safe. I learn the tunes, paying special attention to any bass parts that seem to be built into the tune. I figure that if I can kick it off by literally being a solid replacement for what was already there, then I’m in a good place.

There is always room for interpretation and most bands appreciate tasteful personalization. It always depends on the band leader and what the intent of the band is, though. Take your time and feel out the vibe before you stretch too much. If’s it’s primarily a cover thing, I would try to cop the album bass lines, feel, tone, and vibe as much as possible. More often than not, the bandleader will say something like, “Man, that sounds great. Feel free to do your thing with it, though”. Once you hear that, have fun and explore your space in the music. Don’t force anything or try to be super impressive but, rather, play the music as you hear it. I’ll often ask the bandleader to let me know if they would prefer anything different or to feel free to guide me as to their preferences (often quite an appreciated sentiment by the band. Let them know that you wasn’t to crush the gig and give them what they want at the same time).

You’ll likely get a feel for how you will fit into the music pretty quickly. Because you’ll have done your homework, you should pretty quickly hear whether or not the other musicians are adhering to a strict representation of the albums or if they make allowances for being more ‘in the moment’ and interacting with each other, musically.

Don’t worry too much about it. Just do your homework, learn the material, make sure that you understand the sound and feel of what you will be playing and have fun with it! as long as it feels good and everybody is having fun, I can’t imagine anything but a happy bandleader and many more gigs to come.

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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