Last time we talked about some of the emotionally and physically draining challenges one can encounter as a session bassist. There are also plenty of musical requirements, which can vary depending on how many different areas you’d like to be able to cover as a session player.
In case you haven’t heard, we have to be able to play many styles on command, all while sounding like we have been “owning” that style all of our lives. In fact, you really should be able to sight examples and play from the styles of rock (from Elvis to U2), funk (from Sly and the Family Stone to Lettuce), pop (from Michael Jackson to Bad Suns), jazz (from Dizzy to Daft Punk), country (from Porter Wagoner to Keith Urban), and some others… but you get the idea. To accomplish and be ready for this, here are some musical attributes you must attain.
Theory training is essential to understanding intervals, chord spelling, scales, modes, etc. You must be able to confidently speak the “language” at a session. As a bassist you need to fully understand your musical role as the root of every chord and the proper note spelling of every connecting line that you are going to play. More importantly you must be able to recognize when what you’ve played is wrong so you can fix it. In session situations you can’t just “jam” and play what you want. You must play what you need to play and nothing more.
Pocket is a term for a “good groove” to your playing. The only way you can develop this ability is by listening to the masters of Motown, Muscle Shoals, etc. and examine every nuance – then try to copy them. The time that you invest in this should be equally divided with the time that you spend playing to a click or a quantized drum machine. Only then can you grow your own brand of solid, internal clock. This takes a lot of practice and patience. When you’re on a session and the producer mentions “McCartney style groove,” “Jameson groove,” or “Flea groove,” you’ve got to know and understand exactly what they mean.
The number system is being used more everywhere these days, especially with the advent of 3 or 4 chord worship music. There are books on the system but if you study music theory you will find that it’s the same process as chord analyzing. The difference is that the Roman numerals are replaced with numbers. I’ve worked in other countries on live events where worship leaders understand the value of this system, especially when they start playing a song that the band doesn’t know. The leader merely holds up fingers to indicate the next chord. It makes sense! It’s as simple as knowing what letter key “1” is. If you’re unfamiliar with the number system that’s something you’ll need to add to your bag of skills.
Dictation is a skill that is most important when working in the studio with artists who don’t understand why they make the music that they do, or how to write it down (I encounter this all the time). In sessions, the bassist can often be the “designated chart writer” as easily as anyone else. So it’s important to be up to the challenge (and sometimes they even pay you more!)
The best way to learn this skill is to practice. It’s faster in numbers (easier to write numbers than letters), but either way, start by listening to songs that you know and write your own charts to the songs. It’s slow going at first, but practice makes perfect!