With the right attitude and good chops you can easily be a steady working bass player, so here are some tips I can offer younger bassists after having done it for nearly 30 years. These tips are generally geared toward playing a club date or cocktail gig, and might not necessarily pertain to all situations -- such as backing up an artist with a set show or limited repertoire, or where you'll be required to do a lot of reading. Think of this as your club date survival kit.
1. Read the following quote and remember it. (Interviewer's question:) "You've been playing with world-class musicians for a long time. But what advice do you have for a working bassist who's stuck with mediocre bandmates?"
(answer:) "Let's say someone asks me how I get to do the gigs I do. I'll ask him what kinds of gigs he does, and he'll say, "Man, I'm in this cocktail band, and the drummer drags. It's just a drag -- it isn't even a gig." And I'm like, how do I do what I do? Not thinking like that!"
"When you go on a gig, you have to remember that it's a privilege to play any kind of music -- even sitting in your house by yourself. Music is this wonderful, universal language. It's meditative and spiritual. A lot of people get caught up in the frustrations, and they lose it, the way a preacher loses the calling. When you pick up an instrument, realize how blessed you are. It doesn't matter whether you're playing for 50,000 people or by yourself. I'm not saying I'm a guru of this stuff. It's just that when I pick up a bass, I'm conscious of how much it has given me, and I try to take that onstage with me wherever I go."
- bassist Darryl Jones, who’s played with Miles Davis, Sting, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, and many others.
2. It’s All About The Song. This goes along with what Darryl is talking about when he says it doesn’t matter if you’re playing in front of 50,000 people or by yourself. Your job as a bassist is to play the song; there is no musical difference between the song you’re performing to the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden or the same song to John and Mary at their wedding.
Suppose you play in a top 40 band and you’re sick of playing Celine Dion's “Because You Loved Me” for the 500th time. What if Celine called you tomorrow to join her band for a sold out year of shows in Vegas? Would you like playing the song more? If your answer is yes, you’re not doing your job as a bassist. “Because You Loved Me” has the same chord changes no matter where or for who you’re playing it, and that framework should be your focus. Your role is to make that song sound and feel as good as it possibly can every time you play it. The audience should never factor into the way you approach your performance or the energy you put into it.
3. Hear Everything. It’s also your job, as the person in charge of laying it down, to hear everyone else in the band at all times. It’s not enough to just hear the drummer and it’s not enough to just lock into the groove. You’ve got to hear it all, the horns, the vocals, anyone who’s contributing sound. Keep your ears open and be able to react musically to what is going on around you. Let your bandmates know you’re listening to them, converse with them musically, keep them engaged. As a bass player you are the person that is driving the band and you have to accept that responsibility. You can only do that when you hear every part of the whole.
One way to develop your ears to hear more sound is by getting involved in studio production. This can be as simple as recording song demos at home, but the experience of putting musical parts together, refining a production, and listening to mix after mix will train you to hear more, and before long it won’t even be a conscious effort on your part to listen when you’re playing on the bandstand. You’ll be hearing everyone and everything as if you were listening to all the parts of your mix (for better or worse).
4. Make the vocalist look good. Sure we want to believe that all eyes are watching us lock down a nasty groove and the crowd is marveling at the great basswork we’re coming up with back there. Guess what… not! In reality, when there’s a vocalist out front, that’s where the attention is going. Unless you’re doing some Jaco-esque jump off a stack of speakers, chances are people will feel you but not see you – and that’s just fine.
As bass players, we’re there to make the vocalist look good. Once again: it’s all about the song. And when the vocalist isn’t exactly on his or her game and is taking it to the bridge a measure early, you go there too. There’s no ego here, no reason to prove that you know the arrangement better than they do. People want to hear a song performed well, and they’re listening to the singer, so when the singer screws up you smooth it out for them on the fly. Go where they’re going and make them look good. By the same token, learn to sense when the vocalist is uncertain and help them know where the song is supposed to go. Sometimes just a slight build in volume or a setup note is all you’ll have to play to keep them on the same page. Remember that the vocalist who’s unsure of the song form is listening to you for support or guidance, so be there for them.
5. Keep an eye on the bandleader. No, you don’t have to stare at him like he’s your long lost uncle. Just keep the leader somewhere in your peripheral vision, or if you’re going to be looking away know when to look back. Learn to anticipate when the bandleader is going to call the next tune or when he or she needs your attention. One other thing – sometimes you have to be a mind reader. Not every bandleader speaks the same musical language, in fact some bandleaders don’t speak any musical language. Obviously things are easier when a good bandleader knows how to communicate, but that’s not always going to be the case. In those situations, it’s your job to figure out what he wants.
6. Be professional. Get to the gig on time, maintain your equipment, look good. Be prepared as well. Try to anticipate what music you’ll be playing and be ready with charts if you need them or know more or less what the repertoire will be for the gig. When you play a tune on a gig that you’ve never played before, write the title down after the set is over, and go home and learn it. Make sure you know it the next time it’s called.
7. Learn the original bass part. You wouldn’t expect a vocalist to get up to the mic and ad-lib verse after verse of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” or make up their own words to “At Last”. So why would you just plow your way through the chord changes of a tune? Learn the original parts, and stick to them whenever possible. That doesn’t mean learn them note for note, but at least know the basic lines. Have you ever thought about how much time the writer, producer or bassist spent in the studio trying to come up with the perfect bass line for a song, and how they fit it in with the other instruments or the melody? This is especially true in genres like dance, hip hop, Motown, disco and R&B. When you’re playing bass lines originally recorded by legends like James Jamerson, Verdine White, or countless other studio pros, it’s not your place to reinvent the basic bass lines of a tune, which are often masterpieces within themselves. Sure you can play around with it, add to it, subtract from it, but obviously you have to know it in the first place before you can do that.
On the other hand if you’re playing standards that have been covered a hundred times, or blowing through jazz tunes, there is no one “right” bass line, and that’s your opportunity to get really creative.
8. Throw away the chord charts. Reading notation is one thing, but there’s no reason to rely on a chord chart unless you’re playing a tune you’ll probably play twice a year, or perhaps someone has requested some obscure song you’re not familiar with. Once you free yourself from a chart, you’ll approach the song more completely. You’ll also find that the more you memorize tunes, the easier it becomes and you’ll learn to trust your memory and ears. Not to mention eliminating fumbling around for sheet music while the band is already halfway into the first verse.
9. Play with personality. Use dynamics, throw down every now and then, find melodic lines to express yourself. Just because you’re holding down the bottom doesn’t mean you can’t speak your bass voice, but do it tastefully and never at the expense of the groove.
10. It’s not always about the money. Sure you deserve to get paid what you're worth, and you have every right to ask for it. But be flexible, there are times when the gig is not only about what it pays. Be willing to take less and see the bigger picture; you might be playing for someone quite influential or in need of your services that will pay dividends down the road. Consider the venue, the audience, and exposure that comes along with a particular gig when stating your price.
11. Relax and have fun! It’s just music, and you’re doing what you love to do. If you can’t enjoy it consider another line of work and stop bringing down your bandmates.
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