We bassists often employ what I refer to as the “FedEx approach” to delivering our bass lines (if any of you work for FedEx, btw, I love you and use your services all the time) but it’s like we are handing a clipboard to the listener requesting a signature for the 16 bars of 8th notes in A that we are delivering. And that’s about the extent of the emotional involvement we have in the transaction.
I view my role as a musician in the worship environment as one of trying to musically convey what is happening lyrically and spiritually. To that end, I seek to express the emotion of the moment; if it’s a celebrative praise-fest, I’m trying to convey that joy and exuberance, or if it’s a David-in-the-Psalms sort of heartcry, I’m trying to emote that sentiment on my bass.
By the way, I’m not advocating emotional manipulation, but rather seeking to avoid a musically schizophrenic statement… where there’s a conflict between the lyric and the music.
Emoting on your bass involves more than just “feeling” it as you play (e.g., I’m scowling so my bass line will sound “mean”). In the same way that speech is hugely impacted by how the words are being said (shout vs. whisper, in-un-ci-a-ting every syllable vs. letting the words flow together, etc.), how we phrase our bass lines has a dramatic effect on what is being conveyed.
A big part of making our bass lines more impactful is effective use of phrasing, including dynamics, note duration, slurs/hammers, vibrato, register… the elements that I refer to collectively as the spice.
In its most fundamental sense, dynamics refers to how loud or how quiet. Just like speech, the same word can convey very different sentiments if whispered vs. shouted at the top of one’s lungs. In a musical context, it’s good to minimize extreme ends of the dynamic range (your audio engineer will thank you!), but the effective use of dynamics in your bass line is a great way to help the song say something on an emotional level. Try dropping down dynamically when the statement is more intimate or introspective, build into bigger sections where the emotion is heightened or broadened. Simple stuff but makes a huge difference.
The exact same bass line played staccato (notes cut short) vs. legato (each note ringing all the way to the next note) will say something quite different. 8th notes can alternate from sounding funky or quirky to driving and aggressive simply by manipulating note duration. This is controlled primarily with the fretting hand, but the plucking hand is also involved. Experiment with leaving some air in the bass line (during the verse?) and letting the notes ring in a bigger chorus. Or perhaps cut your notes short to leave room for the snare drum during the verse but play legato 8th notes during the chorus? Context is everything; listen and see what works.
Plucking or picking each individual note is sometimes cool, but can also sound a bit stiff or mechanical depending upon the context. Slurs and hammers involve movement in the fretting hand following the initial attack. Slurs can be in the form of sliding the fretting finger up or down to another note after the first note is voiced (i.e., without plucking the string a second time). Hammers typically involve striking a higher note on the string with another finger on the fretting hand subsequent to playing the initial note. Any of these approaches can make a bass part sound more lyrical and expressive. Instead of abruptly jumping to the higher register, perhaps experiment with sliding or slurring into that higher note… and maybe adding a bit of vibrato? Keep reading…
There are a number of different approaches to vibrato that can be employed on the bass guitar, ranging from subtle to quite overt. This “shaking” of the note can give a sustained note a singing quality (as when employed by a skilled vocalist). The depth and speed of the vibrato can make the part feel alternately relaxed or nervous. A funkier approach involves an exaggerated, wider and fast vibrato spanning both sides of the fret between two notes. I refer to this approach as The Abe after the iconic bassist Abraham Laboriel, Sr., who uses it to great effect. A good starting point for incorporating vibrato is adding a bit to sustained notes.
This basically refers to how low or how high a note is played. The A at the 5th fret of the E string obviously sounds quite different from the one at the 19th fret of the D string. However, slightly less obvious but nonetheless profound are the timbre variations between the A’s found at the 2nd fret of the G string, 7th fret of the D string, 12th fret of the A string and 17th fret of the E string; all of those notes are the exact same note, but voice quite differently due to the variation in string gauge. The lighter strings lower on the fingerboard give the note a delicate thinness while the same note up the neck on heavier strings sounds thicker and warmer. Pick the register that best suits the musical statement of the moment.
As a side note, the register can even affect the apparent dynamic level (e.g., playing a note with the same dynamic level an octave higher will sound “smaller”). I frequently employ this, typically on heavier strings and higher up the fingerboard to keep from sounding too thin, when playing earlier verses in “up” songs where dynamic contrast is needed while still keeping the overall energy level high.
Here’s a fun exercise to get the ball rolling. Turn on the TV and plug in your bass. Mute the TV volume and provide a sound track to everything you’re watching (including commercials!). Try to use the spice to express and support the emotion of the onscreen images.
Additionally, listen to your favorite musicians (including singers) and see if you can hear the above phrasing elements in their music. Emulation is a great place to start… use that as a springboard for your own exploration.
Have fun & groove hard!