During sessions, whenever a musical “train wreck” occurs, a common phrase you’ll often immediately hear is, “Wow. Music is hard!” In the studio, there’s enough pressure for everyone with first-take expectations, winning/impressing clients, and just plain ol’ making a living. With all of that said, at least you can go back and do fixes! Playing live, there is no going back. I began my career as a session guy, and when I began playing live with groups I realized that there are a whole different set of rules . . . and it’s a lot harder!
The bass has to be correct on the downbeat. There is a certain solidity that is present in the music when the bass is where it is supposed to be.
The bass has to be correct on the downbeat. There is a certain solidity that is present in the music when the bass is where it is supposed to be. It adds comfort to the music, the song and to the moment. It is sorely missed when it is absent, leaving the music with no “pedestal” for the spelling of chords to rest upon. It also can supply a thunderous effect in the music when an approaching dynamic calls for it. The bass is meant to be played with fortitude, and to supply a proper foundation. This requires skill, courage, and restraint. Its staying power and consistency carries the entire band. Essentially, the bass sets the stage for the ensemble. No pressure!!
A fundamental part of the bassist’s role is to supply the root, or “beginning” of every chord. It is the single most deciding factor that indicates the harmonization of the chord. Being the lowest note heard, it is always the first one listened for by everyone who is trying to determine the harmonization of a chord. Bass is the most important tuning reference for every instrument or voice in a band or ensemble. It can instantly affect the feel of the music and change everything about a song. Bass can make everything right or wrong in a split second. Yikes!!
Sonically, the bassist’s tones go everywhere. It’s the most difficult-to-tame audible element in almost any live sound situation. We must constantly be aware of our volume and tone. Along with that, because of our awareness of time fluctuation and groove, it’s our responsibility to listen to everything else that is going on. I often tell people that bass players are the “time police” of the band. It’s easy to assume that this is the drummer’s gift, but more often than not this is not the case. Bassists typically have this innate ability.
Concerning melodic issues, the bassist can make or break the connection between rhythm and melody. Bass is crucial to the music, and is completely related to everything else going on. It can set the tone of the music with a hundred notes, or just one. In a sense, we lead the band by outlining the tonality of the music and marking out the significant notes of each chord. Our bass lines are a lot like signposts along a path. When we supply these signposts well, everyone in the band is made more aware of where they are in the chord progression of the song.
Of course, one of our primary goals is to keep precise time and “lock in” with the drummer. This is critical! The bass and drum relationship is vital to the groove. You can still find your own “voice” in that process, but always remember that it is not about you – it’s about everyone else that you share the platform with and what you have to offer to ensure synchronicity and flow. Even more pressure!
In live situations, we have the ability to make everyone else in the band sound better. If the other musicians are less seasoned, then we must strive to lead them to greater heights, firmly holding down the low end and occasionally filling in the gaps when needed. If the other players are very accomplished, then we offer them support. Either way, if we do our part to help them sound better, we will all sound better.
It’s our responsibility to produce bass sounds and dynamic levels that contribute to the overall sound of the band from song to song. We must be careful to not overpower the band by playing too loudly, particularly in the softer sections. Adjusting the tone at the amp to fit the room or the stage helps. Too much bass volume will have a negative effect on the stage. A bass level that is too low can cause a type of insecurity in the music. The bass tone can drastically change the effectiveness of the bass’s purpose.
The most important thing is that we do not desire or seek to draw attention to ourselves. Remain humble! Always keep in mind the gifts of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…you can’t have any of these things without humility.