Cover of "The Bassist's Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydecoby Tim Boomer, author of The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco

The most common role for a bassist is, of course, to support his or her band rhythmically and harmonically. Bassists are not limited to any specific role, however, as we can do considerably more, such as playing the hook (or the melody) and soloing, improvising, and comping.

Providing a solid foundation for a band is still, however, the usual role of the bassist—especially if you play in a dance band. The bassist is the bridge between the melodic players and the rhythm section. You live in both worlds: melody and rhythm. You are that bridge.

There is truth in the saying that “You make most of your money below the fifth fret.” You establish the chord being played and the basis of the pulse simultaneously by playing the root note of the chord on the first beat of a measure (and at most chord changes). Next in importance to the root, usually, is the fifth, then the third or seventh. Pretty simple stuff, but it works.

It is also common to play patterns. Bass lines. This does not prevent you from varying the pattern in a musical way by slightly changing the notes played, note duration, or by adding a little syncopation, but over the course of a song there will still typically be a pattern. This might seem obvious, or easy, but you need to lock in with the drummer, be aware of solos, notice when the lead singer changes the form, watch the dancers on the floor, try not to knock over your drink, and still keep it interesting.

You can learn a lot by watching the dancers and seeing the effects of your playing. A groove is a pattern, a predictable sound that dancers can follow. Watch them. Bassists (and the rest of the band) may get bored playing the same lines over and over again, so, of course you’ll fill and vary the pattern in other ways, but if you break the groove too often, dancers will get out of sync, the thread will be broken, and the dancers will stop.

One way to be creative, and keep dancers happy, is to understand playing “in the pocket.” This is often described as playing in such a way that the groove is very solid. The bassist locks in with the drummer and never wavers. Using the standard rock beat as an example, the drummer plays kick drum on beat one (the downbeat) and also on beat three, and the snare on beats two and four. The bassist also plays precisely on the downbeat, followed by a pattern. That pattern can be a little ahead of the beat or behind the beat or exactly on the beat. As long as the drummer and bassist are in sync with each other, and play/feel the downbeat at the same time, they are in the pocket. You know it when youre in it, as it feels like the music is playing you, or the entire band is one instrument.

If you are not playing for dancers, you can leave the groove at any time—but returning to it provides resolution in a song. For instance, in jazz, the bassist (or more often a horn player or pianist) plays the “head” (the melody played in the first verse of a multi-verse song) after several choruses of solos to bring the tune to a close. And the audience will recognize it—“Oh look, theyre playing that theme again”—and any improvisation that came before the final statement of the head will seem intentional.

In the same way, once you have established the basic foundation of a song, look for holes where nothing much is happening—a sustained note or chord perhaps, or a straight groove. You can then find a space to develop an idea—either melodically or rhythmically. You can repeat a note, syncopate, or play (a) note(s) outside of the pattern you’ve established.

You can also intentionally leave holes by resting, as in Reggae bass lines. This sets up a pattern that extends across measures rather than a pattern that repeats within a single measure. It still allows complexity, but in a relaxed context. It also allows your bandmates a lot of space. Study Miles Davis to learn about the spaces in music.

Developing your own style has a lot to do with knowing when to play and when not to. In a few words: “If in doubt, lay out.” Typically, if there are vocals, you simplify and come down in volume to allow the focus to be on the vocalist.

Another important aspect of playing bass is to learn to use fills tastefully. Fills are usually played at the end of four– (or eight- or twelve-) measure patterns that lead to a new section of a song or the repeat of a verse. They are not played in random places.

This doesnt mean that a bassist must strictly follow rules. Jazz musicians and jam bands often break rules, and often get away with it—sometimes with brilliant results. It is simply helpful to know that some styles sound better when you play patterns typical of them.

The bass now encompasses everything from standup bass to electric bass to synthesized and sampled bass. Basses themselves now feature not just 4 strings, but 5, 6, and even 12 strings; theyre produced with up to 28 frets. There are both fretted and fretless basses, acoustic bass guitars, piccolo basses, and onboard-MIDI basses. And its certain that more variations are waiting in the wings.

The technique of playing these instruments has also evolved greatly over the years. Bass technique is virtually unlimited now. You can combine nearly any style with any other, from anywhere in the world. You can use effects, tap, slap, pluck, pick, thump, play with a bow (or an e-bow). You can lay down an unmistakable heavy groove or take extended solos in a jam format. You can also just play roots, fifths, and octaves on a standup or a P-bass and be happy.

As one of my deepest influences, John Entwistle from The Who, said when asked what he thought when he saw another bass player, and what he felt about the camaraderie of bassists: “The first thing I think of is poor fellow” (and, paraphrasing, “poor bastard”). We are underrated and underappreciated, but essential.

I love bass. Thank you all for being bassists. We need more of us.

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