Fighting The Urge To Improvise
Q: I’ve been a bassist for 14 years now, when I started out (much like everyone, I assume) I played what we know as “bass lines”, the notes that the bassist played on the recording to the song. As I developed and learned more about chord construction and harmony I started to understand how these lines were built. I got really into jazz in high school and in jazz there’s a real emphasis on improvising. While I may not have been improvising solos on every tune I was improvising the walking bass. Somewhere around this time, the notion came into my head that to play a prescribed “bass line” is taboo and a sign of incompetence…Then there’s the funk groove. Often a repetitive “bass line” that really anchors the whole song, in this case, improvising (beyond building the groove to start with) can really throw off the whole thing. Somehow playing this sort of “bass line” is ok with me…for a few minutes anyway. 10-minute funk jam/song, I’m bound to change it. I now mostly play my own music which is more in line with pop-rock/alt, and I find myself building “bass lines” a pre-decided road map of what to play through the changes in the tunes. They sound good, hold the groove of the songs, drive the rhythm and feel of the songs which SHOULD be all I’m after as a bassist. Yet, I find myself feeling like I’m taking the easy way out of not constantly improvising everything at all times. As if by not improvising I am a lesser musician. It’s like there’s a nagging voice in my head saying “you already played that, do something new or else you prove that you can’t!”. What are your thoughts about this? Have you ever struggled with this feeling? If so, how do you go about resolving it?
A: I think that this is something that many musicians likely deal with at some point in their development, especially those that study and ‘get into’ a wider range of styles. There are things that I love about the approach of bassists in any range of styles and it can be fun to cross streams, so to speak.
However, you should always ask yourself whether or not it is serving the music well. Adding advanced harmonic concepts to an already rhythmically happening Timba bass line can be very cool but, conversely, trying to bring a little too much Jaco or Victor to your songwriter gig can get you some serious stink eye from the bandleader and/or singer.
It sounds like you are possibly a little too worried about being impressive or, to put it in a less derisive way, you are possibly overly concerned with maintaining a high level or creativity or artistry through musical spontaneity. It’s easy to confuse artistic integrity with being intentionally complicated or feeling the need to ‘create’ constantly, regardless of the musical situation you’re in.
Often times as a bassist, repetition is a part of what gives the song it’s anchor or grounding, it can also be a part of what makes everything else sound good. Providing a solid bed for whatever is happening on top.
No matter how repetitive the bass line, the most artistic choice is to do what works best for the music as a whole. That may mean that you get to stretch and it may not.
That said, as long as you’re not overdoing it, it’s hard for me to think of a great pop or funk song that doesn’t have at least a bit of groove variation, tasty fills, etc.. in the bass line. (That is, assuming that it’s a real bassist and not a song that was built ‘in the box’ or via midi and virtual instruments. There is a lot of copy/paste happening in the popular music world these days. Thankfully, there’s a reason that the really good stuff out there tends to use real musicians and that’s because you just can’t emulate the human time-feel. Anyway, I don’t want to get on a tangent there).
Every style is different but when you’re talking funk and groove music, that repetitive ostinato is often a part of what makes something really work like it should. It doesn’t have to be a one bar pattern, though. It may be a four-bar pattern. It might be two four-bar patterns alternating back and forth. It could be many things but, regardless, it should be memorable, possibly singable, but it should definitely feel good. A bass line that is always searching for something never feels quite as good as a bass line that works as a hook (in groove music, anyway. Remember that we’re talking about a specific genre here).
When we walk a bass line when playing straight-ahead jazz, we are more in the mindset of creating a linear melody, in a sense. When we play funk, we need to create a low-end hook that the rest of the song can sit on. Often times, the bass line is a massive part of the song (I’m thinking of tunes like Maceo Parker’s “Southwick”). If that has line happened once or twice, only to move on to something else every 4 or 8 bars, that song just would not work like it does. It NEEDS that bass line to do what it’s doing.
So, at the end of the day, it’s our job and duty to not just be bassists but to be music lovers and respect the music. Don’t think of it as copping out or putting your ego in the back seat but rather think of it as honoring the song and respecting what the music wants. If you listen hard, it’ll tell you what it wants and that can bring more satisfaction than anything (both from the musicians AND the audience).