Bass Is The Place: How Being A Bassist Made Me A Better Musician

I play several different instruments but in the capacity of an actively performing musician, I am primarily a bassist. And like many bassists, I started out as a guitarist. I had been playing guitar for about five or six years and in that time I had already dabbled with several different styles of guitar playing: electric and delta blues, finger picking, bluegrass flat picking, slide guitar, fusion and straight ahead jazz guitar (talk about your Attention Deficit Disorder).  I had been getting heavily into the Grateful Dead when I met another guitarist who was farther along in playing their music and we decided we should start a band. At that moment, I decided I would play bass rather than guitar. I figured that there were always enough guitarists around and it would be much harder to find a bassist. I also thought that since I had a good knowledge of the fretboard and of music theory that it should be relatively easy to pick it up. Hell, Phil Lesh (the bassist for the Dead if you didn’t know and the obvious model for my leaning the bass at that point) started as a trumpeter/modern classical composer before becoming a bassist and at the very least, my dexterity on the guitar would transfer to the bass. And so the Long Strange Trip began (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

Side Bar: Lesh’s style is very far from the norm of bass playing and, as much as I love his playing, he would not be the best bassist to emulate when beginning to learn the art of bass playing (unless you plan on only playing Grateful Dead). This was a GD tribute band so playing in such a style was an obvious requirement. It did however, get me started playing bass and that led to playing in a lot of different people and styles. So I started as playing complicated “out” stuff and eventually learned to simplify my playing lines as the situation required.  If you don’t adapt your playing to best serve the music, you’re not going to keep your bass gigs.

Becoming a bassist made me a better guitarist. It made me a better musician. How? First, learning to play bass meant really learning scales and arpeggios in every position of the neck. You really need to know exactly where you are on the fretboard in relation to the harmony of the song. Guitarists can (and often do) play over the harmony. As a bassist, you need to play in the harmony. Second, to play bass means you also must become a team player. I like the analogy of being a offensive lineman on a football team. You open up the running and passing lanes so the singer and guitarist can be like the quarterback or running back and make “the big play” (and, as in football, you’ll usually only appreciated by “students of the game”). Third, playing the bass makes you more conscious of the rhythmic value of the notes you’re playing. When playing bass, I became much more aware on how things like playing a eighth note instead of a quarter note affected the groove. Even more importantly,  it made me aware of how not playing a note made an impact.
Ultimately, the bass ties together the three cornerstones of music: rhythm. harmony and melody. You are defining the rhythmic framework of the harmony in a melodic manner. That’s pretty heavy stuff when you think about it and maybe that’s another reason why the bass is so cool: the true virtuosity of the bass isn’t in the execution of what you play, it’s in the conception.

I will be discussing specific bassists in more detail in future posts but for now I want to call your attention to an amazing but unsung bass performance. The cut is “Texas” by Buddy Miles from the album “Electric Church”. It’s a great example of what I was talking about. It’s a walking bass on a slow blues but it provides the forward motion that allows the vocals, guitar and organ to strut their stuff. It’s a textbook example of playing a slow blues groove that’s simple, supportive and also incredible melodic.
The bassist is Bill Rich. He also played on the early John McLaughlin album “Devotion”, an under appreciated classic of jazz-rock. Ever hear of him? Didn’t think so. So goes the life of the bassist.

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Posted in Bass, Improvisation, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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