It took some distilling to narrow things down, so let me make a couple of quick prefaces:
- “Consistent practice” didn’t make the list because it pretty much goes without saying. If music is a priority for you, I encourage you to prayerfully consider blocking out woodshed time in your schedule. Even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, if it’s EVERY day, you can still make decent progress. But 20 or 30 minutes is even better. :^)
- There are countless other considerations that are hugely important, but which nonetheless got left on the cutting room floor (developing a broad vocabulary, the ability to play with subtlety, emoting, the importance of reading music, etc., etc.). In my 3+ decades of playing bass, I’ve found the 5 items below to be the most critical for success as a worship bassist.
- Heart issues are obviously right at the top of the list, but there are many great volumes written on those matters, so we’ll focus on just the music-related stuff.
Ready? Here we go.
Passion for the Groove
Anyone who has been to one of my clinics, watched one of my DVDs, or spent any time with me at all will know that this is perhaps the most important musical consideration for me. There are many amazing harmonic and melodic things that you can do with the bass, but none as essential as the rhythmic aspect. Developing a focus upon and passion for the groove is perhaps the single biggest thing you can do to elevate your musicianship. There’s no such thing as a boring bass line once you have a passion for the groove.
Play for the Song
Many otherwise capable musicians greatly diminish their musical contribution by using the song as a mere vehicle for whatever they feel like playing. This is commonly encountered when players have no other musical outlet other than Sunday morning, or who lack a fundamental understanding of their role in the worship band. We are there to serve. If the song arrangement is in the style of Coldplay/U2, it’s a distraction (and sounds ridiculous) to incorporate slapping or bebop licks. If the best thing I can do to support the particular song is tied whole-notes (or even laying out), that’s what I want to do. I view my role as one of musically conveying what is happening lyrically and spiritually.
Please note that I’m in no way saying anything disparaging about double-thumbing, tapping, bebop licks, etc.…but simply that they should be played only when the song is served. I usually reserve this sort of playing for my other musical outlets.
It’s been said that it’s not how fast you can play, but how fast you can hear. Developing your ear is hugely important, particularly in the area of relative pitch (given a particular note, being able to immediately discern what another note is and what the interval is between those notes). This expands to being able to identify chord quality (major, minor, dominant, diminished, etc.)
Have you ever been in a service when the worship leader deviated from the agreed-upon road map of the tune? Having solid relative pitch allows you to immediately identify the root or chord and respond appropriately to keep the band on track and prevent a distraction (at the minimum) or even a complete train wreck. :^)
Attention to Tone
Some of you are thinking, “FINALLY – I’ve been meaning to buy some gear!” Ha!
Actually, your tone is a function of both gear and your technique. The reality is that the latter is by far the most significant factor. I’ve observed this time and again, when an audience member plays a few licks on Marcus Miller’s bass after a concert, for instance. Nothing has changed in terms of gear, signal path, eq, etc., but the sound has dramatically changed. The only difference is the player’s touch and technique.
Develop your technique to be able to access a broad range of tones. What part of your fingertip is coming in contact with the string? Is your fingertip (or the knuckle closest to it) tight or loose? Is your fingernail hitting the string? How close to the bridge or neck are you plucking? How much force are you using to pluck? All of those factors have a big effect on your tone.
And yes, having adequate gear is also important. Research the gear preferences of your favorite players. But don’t be one of the many who spend thousands on expensive equipment to address something that’s fundamentally a technique issue.
Which ties into our last point…
Emulate the Masters
There’s no substitute for listening to and emulating people who do it really well. That doesn’t mean you have to become a clone, but I firmly believe there’s a fantastic place somewhere in the middle. All of your favorite musicians came up emulating their influences. Then they took all of those influences, infused them with their own musical creativity, and emerged with something unique.
I encourage you to listen analytically to a broad range of great music. Try to cop the note choices, note durations, rhythms, phrasing, and overall feel. Perhaps even take a minute to analyze the note choices compared to the chord (i.e., why that note under that chord?). There’s so much to learn about music by listening to and assimilating what brilliant musicians have played.
Have a blast & groove hard!