On Time And In Tune: Bass

“In the beginning there was a bass. It was a Fender, probably a Precision, but it could have been a Jazz – nobody knows. Anyway, it was very old … definitely pre-C.B.S. And God looked down upon it and saw that it was good. He saw that it was very good in fact, and couldn’t be improved on at all (though men would later try.) And so He let it be and He created a man to play the bass.”

History Of The Bass by Tony Levin

Bass players are often the unsung heroes of the band. What, and more importantly, howa bass player plays his or her part is often the difference between a forgettable band and a band that is totally locked in. Here are a few tips for bass players that will help make that difference:

Stick with the kick. Most of the time (and by that I mean about 99%), a good bass part will mirror the rhythm of the kick drum. The rhythm that the kick drum and bass play are called a pattern because there needs to be a repetition to them that is consistent from section to section of a song. This means that the drummer and bass player need to communicate the pattern to each other. If your drummer is playing a different kick pattern every other measure, stop the band and get it sorted out. It will immediately make things tighten up.

Be deliberate about note cut-offs. Just as important as where you attack the note is where you cut the note off. Bass is a big sound in a band and can make things muddy very quickly. Thinking about your cut-offs will also really help tighten the groove. For example, cutting notes off just before the snare hits on 2 and 4 will make the backbeat on the snare pop and crack a lot more. This also goes for straight 8th notes. There are many ways to play 8ths on the bass and it’s more about where the notes cut off than where they begin.

Tone. Deep, growly, thumping, punchy. These are all common descriptive words for bass tone. But how do you get there? Again, a complimentary tone with the kick drum is important. A good bass guitar tone isn’t just about being deep, fat and round. The upper mids (around 5k) of a bass guitar can really make the bass more defined in the mix of a full band. Also, just a bit of overdrive, even on ballads or music genres you wouldn’t think would call for it, can give your bass tone some character, as can playing with a pick. Do a YouTube search for “isolated bass track” and listen to some bass tones – they might surprise you!

Embrace your role. Bass is not guitar with fewer strings. The best bass players love being bass players. They get off on playing the right parts – often simple parts – that create a foundation for the song. Back to The History Of The Bass, here’s what happened when the bass player got too busy:

“Now God’s wrath was great. And His voice was thunder as He spoke to the man. And He said, “O.K. for you, pal. You have not heeded My word. Lo, I shall create a soprano saxophone and it shall play higher than you can even think of.” “And from out of the chaos I shall bring forth the drums. And they shall play so many notes thine head shall ache, and I shall make you to always stand next to the drummer.” “You think you’re loud? I shall create a stack of Marshall guitar amps to make thine ears bleed. And I shall send down upon the earth other instruments, and lo, they shall all be able to play higher and faster than the bass.”

“And for all the days of man, your curse shall be this; that all the other musicians shall look to you, the bass player, for the low notes. And if you play too high or fast all the other musicians shall say “Wow” but really they shall hate it. And they shall tell you you’re ready for your solo career, and find other bass players for their bands. And for all your days if you want to play your fancy licks you shall have to sneak them in like a thief in the night.” “And if you finally do get to play a solo, everyone shall leave the bandstand and go to the bar for a drink.” And it was so.”

Bass players, what other things have you learned that have made a difference in what you bring to the band? Let me know in the comments and if you haven’t subscribed, subscribe via RSS or email so you’ll know when the next set of tips is up!

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