How to Deal With Bandleaders That Change Your Part

Band Performing on Stage

Q: What about dealing with a bandleader that writes parts via piano? My current situation: I just received a few new shows for a cruise/riverboat gig. As I was going over some songs that he had written, I found some issues with my written lines – songs I’ve learned in the past, note for note. I presented it to him in a kind and gentle manner, and he said to “play exactly what’s written because it’s a smaller group,” which I do understand in some ways. But I’m talking things that won’t affect the harmony of things, etc. Basically a piano player, in this case, doesn’t write lines that I would play, and it hurts my ego a bit because I’ve put a lot of work into my playing and the feel. And it may hurt his ego that I brought up mistakes. Needless to say, I’m not so pumped to water down my bass playing.

A: That can be a tough one but, at the end of the day, our job as a freelance, hired-gun musician is to give the bandleader, producer, songwriter, or client exactly what they want. No more, no less.

Set your ego aside until it’s a project/labor of love/art. Save it for your own project or something that you’re emotionally invested in musically. Now is not the time to show the world what you can do. I’m not suggesting that you’re trying to double-thumb slap your way through a ballad or anything but when hired to be a sideman, it’s your job to make the leader happy and support the band as best as you can, in the way that they want.

I too have had gigs where I really thought that the direction of the bandleader was affecting the overall quality of the music but forcing their hand and playing the way you want can lead to dissatisfaction, an unwelcome confrontation or even the loss of the gig. Of course, there’s the chance that everything will sound better and they might never even realize that you are ignoring their direction but, at least wait until you get to know the bandleader, otherwise it’s a risk.

I have also had gigs where I’ve initially followed all instructions to the letter but, after many gigs or even years, come to realize that there is some wiggle room with regard to certain things. Many bandleaders really just want the show to be as good as possible so you may have room to let your musicality dictate some decisions you make, in opposition to what you were instructed but, at least initially, I’d play it safe. Defer to the bandleader. For all you know, they have specific arrangements and orchestrations in mind and, as we all know, the bass line is crucial in determining the foundation of what is happening on top. Give the bandleaders direction a chance to pass or fail and then make incremental adjustments as per your instincts, if it’s just not happening.

I can remember one of my first touring gigs. I overplayed like CRAZY. In the van, the bandleader and I would debate my approach endlessly and I was unrelenting. “Nah man, you’re just not hearing what I’m going for here”. Thankfully, we were friends and I kept the gig but, when I listen back? Phew… I’m amazed that I wasn’t abandoned at a gas station in the middle of Kansas somewhere.

Don’t let your ego get in the way of fostering a good reputation with a potentially happy bandleader. Think of it as an exercise in taking direction and providing the client with what they want. It’s a cruise ship gig (or similar). It’s not high-art necessarily. It’s a great opportunity to work a ton, make some money, and get some great practice and experience. Those types of gigs are very much ‘jobs’. Treat it as such and try to do the best job that you can. Your job on that type of gig is to not stand out, typically. Often on those types of gigs, the bandleader is happiest if they aren’t even aware that you’re there. If you and the drummer can lock and create the strongest, most reliable foundation ever, you’ve done your job admirably and people will notice THAT.

Additionally, you mentioned that the lines were written on piano and not necessarily things you would have played. Try and look at it as an opportunity to explore a different approach (if it sounds good). Some of the most interesting bass lines I’ve had to play came from the minds of pianists.

Play it safe. Keep the gig. Make the bandleader happy and see how it feels and sounds. Give it time to work… or not and then, if necessary, make adjustments to improve the quality of the overall show.

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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Share your thoughts

  1. Raymond W Hayes

    Excellent advice Damian.

  2. Jeff Michael

    It’s a JOB. Do the job, or quit and find another.

  3. Sandy

    Not only might you get fired or rehired you may also get bad mouthed and possibly lose future better gigs.