Posts Tagged ‘Bass guitar’


Pinche Blues Band and Michael Zubay

Pinche Blues Band at Boondocks Lounge a few years ago. Michael Zubay is at left playing bass guitar.

My good friend and on-again-off-again bass player for the last eight or ten years, Michael Zubay, died last night from cancer. I loved him. We clicked both musically and personally. If I wanted someone to talk to who I’d trust, Michael was the guy. He was honest, helpful, tremendous fun to be around, and tremendous fun to play with. He also was funnier than hell and had a good, dark sense of humor. He was a very good friend and a very good musician.

Michael was an atheist, and in place of a religious service there will be a day-long jam session and party for all of the musicians he played with over the years. No date yet, but I’ll post video if and when it’s available. (Update: The jam happened yesterday on November 11; Jay Werth videoed it, and I’ll post links to some of the videos once Jay has them up on Youtube.)

Here’s probably the best recording I have of Michael from back in 2014 when we had the Pinche Blues Band together. His bass lines are absolutely wonderful (check out the syncopation and how much the bass line drives).

Michael wrote a number of songs, and we’ll record his best one, “No Job Blues,” on our next CD (probably as Stone Dead). I’ll post it once it’s available.

More later.

 


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.


An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rck, Jazz and Blues Musicians

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who don’t play music have asked me one question over and over: “I want to learn an instrument — what should I learn?”

At that point I ask, “Why? What do you want to do with it?”

If they just want to  learn one for their own pleasure, just want something to play at home, I tell them to learn whatever they want, but that they’ll probably be happiest learning an instrument that can produce chords (basically guitar or piano), that they shouldn’t spend more than a few hundred bucks for it, and that they should bring along someone who already plays the instrument when they go out to buy one. (As a beginner, if you walk into a music store by yourself and buy an instrument, chances are you’ll be reamed — or at least end up paying twice as much for a new beginner’s instrument as you would for an identical used one on craigslist, where beginner’s gear is always plentiful.)

One note here is that of the other popular learn-to-play-at-home instruments, the flute is probably the easiest and the violin is very probably the hardest to learn. An additional advantage of flute is that the fingering is the same as for the sax, so if you ever decide to learn sax and already play flute, you’ll be most of the way there.

If someone wants to learn an instrument to play in a band, my answer is a bit different. I still tell them not to spend more than a few hundred bucks and to bring along someone who already plays the instrument when they buy one. In most cases, however, people will want to learn guitar or, less commonly, piano, and I advise them to learn something else. Here’s why:

  • Guitar — guitar is relatively hard to learn, and there are far more guitar players around than players of any other instrument. In addition, audiences are used to a very high level of musicianship from guitarists, much higher than from players of any other instrument in a typical band set-up. So, it’ll take a relatively long time (probably several years)  to get your playing up to an acceptable level to play in a band, and even once it’s at that level you’ll face a hell of a lot of competition. That’s why guitarists in bands commonly haul around the p.a. system (a major pain in the butt)  and do the booking (a perhaps even worse pain). If you’re an adult beginner, want to play in a band, and want to learn guitar, my advice is simple: don’t —  learn something else. If you’re dead set on learning guitar, though, also learn how to sing: that’ll help in finding bandmates, and if you learn to do it well it’ll eliminate a major headache: dealing with vocalists. (I’d phrase it “egomaniac vocalists,” but that would be redundant.)
  • Piano — learning to play piano well is perhaps even more difficult than learning to play guitar well. There are fewer keyboard players than guitar players, but unless you’re content with staying in the background and serving as support in simple styles (most types of country and rock), it’ll again take a long time to get your playing up to an acceptable level. Audience expectations of keyboard players aren’t as high as for guitar players, but they’re still pretty high.

That brings us to the instruments I’d recommend to beginners who want to play in a band:

  • Electric Bass — This is probably the easiest instrument to learn, and if you practice an hour a day your playing should be good enough to be out playing in a rock, country, or blues band within six months to a year. Another advantage of bass is that decent bass gear is cheap: if you know what you’re doing, you can put together a (barely) “gigable” used bass rig (bass guitar and amp) for three hundred bucks. One disadvantage of bass is that while there are fewer bassists than guitarists, there are still a lot of them, so you’ll face plenty of competition. Another disadvantage is that bass isn’t a whole lot of fun to practice by yourself. A third disadvantage is that bass gear is heavy. (Bassists seem to have a thing about massive amps. Years ago, I played with a friend who used an SVT. The cabinet alone weighed 155 pounds, and it took two of us to lift it out of the bed of a truck. Bass combo amps aren’t as bad, but they’re still quite a bit heavier than guitar amps.)
  • Drum Set — The advantages of drums are that it’s relatively easy to get your playing to an acceptable level on them, they’re a lot of fun to practice, and you can buy an okay, gigable set used for around four hundred bucks, maybe a little less. Another advantage is that if you have good time, a good kick foot (playing the bass drum pedal) and a good backbeat (on the snare), you’ll have a relatively easy time finding people to play with, even if your chops are only decent. (Few things are more aggravating than playing with a rushing [speeding up] or dragging [slowing down] drummer. A drummer with good time, a heavy kick foot, and a heavy backbeat is worth his or her weight in gold; chops help, but are secondary to those three things.) Still another advantage of playing drums is that while the number of drum patterns is virtually endless, you can get by in most rock and blues bands playing only two patterns: the standard rock beat and the standard shuffle. Add in a few others (probably polka, standard surf, soca, mambo, waltz, 12/8, and two-step) and you can handle a good majority of gigs.  The primary disadvantage of drums is that hauling them around, and setting them up and breaking them down, is a major drag.
  • Saxophone — Sax is relatively easy to learn, very easy to haul around, and there are considerably fewer sax players than bassists or drummers, let alone guitarists. So, if you can play sax decently, you should have a relatively easy time finding people to play with, and you almost certainly won’t get stuck hauling around the p.a. or doing the booking. One disadvantage is that the saxophone of choice in almost all styles of pop music is the tenor sax, and a good used one will set you back about fifteen hundred bucks. However, alto saxes can be used in almost all styles, you can buy a decent one for around three-hundred to four-hundred bucks used, and the fingering is the same as for the tenor (and baritone and soprano), if you’d ever want to upgrade to a tenor.

If you’re thinking about learning an instrument, I hope this is of some help to you. If I’d known these things decades ago, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and grief by taking up sax or drums rather than guitar.