I asked 11 of my favorite bass players a series of questions designed to reveal a little bit about who they are, how they play, and what they like. These guys have played on 100’s of recording sessions, and many hit records and major tours. Most of them have influenced me in my formative years. They are established session and live players that play everything from Rock to Jazz, Latin, R&B, Pop, Country and more. There is a reason why they are the choices of so many producers, artists and executives. They get it done fast, with a great sound, and great ideas. Their answers in this survey may only serve as interesting facts for some of you, but for me they provided insight into why and how they do what they do. Anyway, on to the results.
1. The first question was “What is your favorite string configuration, 4, 5 or 6?” 7 chose 4-string, 2 chose 5-string, and 2 chose 6-string. I am with the 4-stringers. I play some 5, and can appreciate 6, but a sweet 4_string just puts me in the mindset of playing “bass”.
2.“Would you consider yourself self-taught?” Actually 8 of the 11 considered themselves self-taught. That doesn’t mean they never had a formal lesson. I also consider myself self-taught, even though I have had a few lessons over the years and have studied extensively through print material and various other media.
3.“What is your favorite bass cabinet speaker size?” The options were 8, 10,12, 15 or 18. 5 chose 10’s, 3 chose 15’s, 2 chose 12’s, and 1 chose 18’s. I personally like the clarity and low end response of 10’s, but I have heard great things about 12’s, and of course you can get some interesting results from combining different speaker sizes.
4.“Do you like bass in your monitor on stage?” 4 chose No, the other 7 like a healthy dose of bass in the monitor. I would rather not have it ideally. My struggle at times is to get my bass to sound like “bass” in the monitor. If it doesn’t I find it very uninspiring. If you have a good monitor engineer, or can clearly explain what you need to the monitor engineer, it can be great, and it also minimizes stage volume.
5. This next question addressed their use of effects, the options were if they use them “once in a while for a solo or special effect”, “not at all”, or “all the time”. 9 chose once in a while, 2 chose not at all. I am probably a once in a while type guy. I do like them for a change of pace, especially in a solo, but depends on the venue. I don’t think they translate as well in larger venues.
6.“How important is it to be able to solo well?” For this question I used a scale from 1-5, 1 being not important at all and 5 being extremely important. Of course these results are going to be tied to the individual players skills set, genre preferences and other personal preferences. Six chose 3, kind of in the middle, probably indicating soloing is good to be able to do, but not critical. 1 player chose 5, extremely important, Two chose 4, and Two chose 1, not important at all. I am with the 3’s, I can appreciate being able to solo well, but it is definitely not something I emphasize, as a matter of fact I de-emphasize it while a student is grasping the fundamentals.
7.“How would you categorize the action on your bass?” The choices were high, medium, or low. 8 players chose medium, 1 chose high, and 2 chose low. This result surprised me a little bit. I thought more players might choose high, especially since studio legends like James Jamerson and Chuck Rainey attributed high action to their stellar sound. Maybe the advances in instrument manufacturing and recording processes have diminished the need for high action. I would probably fall into the medium to high category. I tend to like my action on the high side, but I have recently had setups that were more medium and felt pretty good.
8.“Was bass your 1st instrument”? For 9 of them it was not, the other 2 were bass players from the start. I was a bass player from the very beginning. One thing I have noticed though, not as a rule but it seems that many who start on a melodic instrument bring that melodic approach to their bass playing, creating some very “un-bass” like and innovative approaches to the instrument.
9. The final question was my favorite,“On what song did you record your favorite bass part?” This question was a bit selfish because being a fan of all of these guys, I had my own favorite bass performance of theirs. Did their answer match up with mine? In most cases it did not, but that’s ok because it gave me some listening homework. You will find their answers at the end of the blog. After listening to their choices I now see why they chose those specific songs.
10. As a bonus I asked them to list their favorite recording by another bass player. Of course anything by Paul McCartney or James Jamerson received many mentions. Others were “For the Love of Money” by the Ojays, “Reverend Lee” by Roberta Flack, “Young and Fine” by Weather Report, “I Was Made To Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, and “What Going On” by Marvin Gaye. All amazing songs and bass performances.
At this time let me give a special thanks to my all star list of bass players who participated in this survey. Simply the best, please familiarize yourself with their playing if you are not. Leland Sklar, Nathan East, Freddie Washington, Gary Lunn, Reggie McBride, Jimmy Haslip, Rickey Minor, Ruben Rodriguez, Bobby Watson, Bob Glaub and Francisco Centeno Discography of their own favorite performances “Stratus”-Billy Cobham “Tears from Heaven”-Eric Clapton songs from “Feets don’t fail me now”-Herbie Hancock “I Will Be Here For You”-Michael W. Smith “Perfect Angel”-Minnie Riperton “Time is a Magazine”-Jing Chi “I Will Always Love You”-Whitney Houston “Palabras Del Alma”-Marc Anthony “Rock with you”-Michael Jackson “The Pretender”-Jackson Browne “Night Song”-Noel Pointer
Do you want to create bass parts that move people emotionally?
Here are 7 tips that will Help you breathe life into a song using dynamics!
Note: Though these 7 tips are designed for bass players, they can be adapted to any instrument. 1. Short and long notes- This is something I have preached for years, ever since my friend, guitar player Fred Schreuders, pointed it out in my playing maybe 10 years ago. He described how he really liked my variations in note lengths. I had never intentionally varied note lengths before that, I was just trying to be musical, you know, serve the song, take the audience on a musical journey. But now that I am more aware of it, I explore this concept even further by strategically placing staccato and legato phrases in most every bass line I play. It is my go to concept whether performing or teaching.
2. Technique- Use different techniques to create dynamics in a bass line. I may start a bass line playing pizzicato or finger style, then evolve into slap bass on the chorus, maybe muted with my thumb on the bridge, all to create a change in mood, different flavors. There are many techniques you can use, various thumb techniques, slapping and finger style as I mentioned, playing with a pick, using double stops or chords, tapping, they all have the potential to make a bass line more dynamic.
3. Busy and sparse- Many times I discourage over-playing, but there are times to make your bass lines busier. Going from a section where there is more movement in your bass line to a more sparse or simpler bass line can be effective in creating dynamics. Look no further than James Jamerson, Jaco, or even Paul McCartney to observe the effectiveness of a busier bass line.
4. Soft or loud- This is the essence of dynamics. Playing softer in sections and louder in other sections will make your bass parts stand out. You can use this effect in conjunction with some of the other approaches like various techniques or short and long notes for instance. These are all things that are done solely with your hands, not requiring a change of bass, amp settings or equalization. I appreciate the value of a great bass, but ultimately work towards your sound being in your hands, not as dependent upon the instrument or amp.
5. Expression- Slides, trills and various other forms of expression can also create a more dynamic bass line. Executing these at the right time can lift a section of music and make a bass line more animated. Placement is crucial because you don’t want to over-use any of these expressions and risk them becoming predictable and ineffective.
6. Crescendo/Decrescendo- Not only is playing softer and louder an effective way to create dynamics, you can also gradually become louder or softer. All these work best when the whole band is doing them together, but you can spearhead the effort and ideally the other band members will hear you and play something complimentary. There is nothing like an 8th note build, or a band gradually bringing their volume down to a whisper, very powerful.
7. Tacet- This last one may seem obvious but few things are as powerful musically as not playing at all in the right spot, and eventually coming back in to create a huge dynamic shift. What you don’t play can be as musical as what you do play. I love using this effect, not only does it make the song more interesting, but your bass line is more pronounced when you re-enter. The point is not to draw attention to yourself, but enhance the listeners experience by creating a dynamic shift in the music.
Some of the synonyms associated with the term “dynamic” are lively, compelling, energetic, influential, powerful, productive, vigorous, magnetic or effective. I don’t know about you, but these are definitely the traits I want associated with my bass lines. Depending on the genre there are exceptions, but in general most listeners will be better served by a more dynamic presentation.
It really does not. I was so excited to tape my first instructional video. This process was all new to me, and because of my inexperience I prepared 4 times the amount of material I needed to prepare. Just before the red light went on to record the video I was informed that I couldn’t read from any notes. What? Over 50 pages of details and information! Can you say uh oh? So we finish recording, 2.5 days for 8 hours a day, and I get back home to Los Angeles feeling pretty good about what we accomplished. Eventually I get a copy of the video to approve, I was shocked by what I heard. There were so many uh’s and umm’s in my commentary. I was totally unaware. If it was in any way practical, I would have recorded the whole 7 hour video again. I went from being so proud of that video to totally discouraged. Now after time has passed I have come to realize that despite the issues with my commentary, there is a boat load of useful lessons and instruction in that video. But the point is, had I not heard the recording, I wouldn’t have any idea of what I really sounded like. Tape don’t lie.
When recording bass for others in the studio they occasionally want to solo the bass, or more often solo the bass and drums together to see what they “really” have. When I first experienced this I used to cringe while listening back, it was like being under a microscope. Of course the experienced producer looks past the small imperfections to focus on the overall groove, but you do hear everything when listening back in this fashion, I mean everything. One thing I did is started recording myself more at home, tweaking my technique, working on my time, muting to limit string ring, and in general listening for the things a producer or engineer would be listening for, feel, ideas, energy, dynamics, sound, etc. Tape don’t lie.
When doing my youtube tutorials I take the extra time to program drums and chords for a song so I can play it without hearing the bass from the original track and so the student can benefit from hearing only my bass clearly. Now there are ways to eq the bass out of the original recording of a song which is also useful. But I want to hear what I really sound like in the most pure form possible, and I want the student to hear what they “really” sound like, musically stripped down. Of course, overall groove is way more important than the perfection that some in this digital age are slaves to, yet there are benefits to paying attention to the details. Tape yourself at home, tape your band live, tape other bands, analyze and make changes, make the tape your friend instead of your foe. Remember, “Tape don’t lie”.
I remember singer Al Jarreau once telling me he still gets nervous before every show. That shocked me at the time, but is probably more common than you would think. I figured a man who had been in the business for over 30 years at that time, had 7 Grammy awards, was a living legend and as gifted a performer as the world has ever seen would have moved beyond getting nervous before a few thousand adoring fans. This was an encouragement for me considering my more than occasional stage fright experiences. A lot of performers probably have a little bit of that “nervous” energy, excitement, expectation, or fear of the unknown before they hit the stage. It can be a good thing. The difference with the successful ones is that they do not allow that “fear” to consume them. It actually gets them pumped up to perform. They are able to manage their fears and not be controlled by them. And then there are some who don’t think twice about performing for thousands. I still get a little nervous before a performance, whether it is 10 people or 10,000. I sometimes will get more nervous when performing for 20 little kids than a sold out stadium crowd, go figure.
Good preparation is one thing that can help counteract fear. If you know the music, or whatever you are presenting, well, then it becomes one less thing to stress. Experience will also relieve some feelings of uneasiness, the more you do it the easier it becomes. Some musicians are better at hiding their nervousness or anxiety than others, but that hidden anxiety may manifest itself in different ways. I am always intrigued by the peer pressure that causes musicians to overplay when a respected peer is in the audience. I am sure it is hard to resist, especially if you have the chops to overplay with. But often it comes off as insecurity and a need to be validated. The most respected musicians are probably more impressed with those who play the right part for the music, do not overextend themselves beyond their abilities, and in general are comfortable in their own skin. So manage your fear, overcome it with preparation, confidence, humility, and contentment with your uniqueness, while always striving to learn from every experience, bad or good.
There are very few bass players, in my opinion, that really excel at both playing the groove and soloing. It's obviously very difficult to be equally great at both skills. What I mean when I refer to soloing, is being able to play a genre consistent solo, a solo that is appropriate for the genre, not the wonderful solo you always play regardless of the style of music. I have focused on the groove my whole career and just kind of dabbled in soloing, picking up tips and ideas from the greats over the years. One of the most memorable is a lesson with John Patitucci many years ago where he explained, in detail, his approach at playing melodically. A lot of it went over my head, and I was too focused on still improving my groove at that point then to spend the hours needed to become proficient in his suggested method of ear training and chord extension study, but the exposure motivated me to apply some of the concepts to my playing. So my point here is that even if you never become a great soloist, you can eventually find your voice without sacrificing your priority of laying down a creative and inspiring foundation. Here are a few tips I have picked up over the years that may help you smoothly switch hats from the keeper of the groove to the soloist, that guy in the spotlight that all ears and eyes are focused on.
note:Be sure to check out the videos at the bottom of this post that show me attempting to pull off melodic solos following the great Larry Carlton and Robben Ford, not an easy task
1. Take your time tell a story, practice creating a beginning, middle and end to your solos
2. Develop a vocabulary play melodies from fake books, learn scales and chords, learn to think differently when soloing versus holding down the bottom
3. Learn how some of the greats solo in a specific genre Listen to a Paul Chambers jazz solo, a Cachao Latin solo, Larry Graham Funk solo, Willie Weeks R&B solo, Jack Bruce Rock solo,etc.
4. Listen to and mimic other solos besides bass solos Sax, trumpet, guitar and even piano solos can provide outside of the box inspiration to create more melodic bass solos
5. Spend time learning some basic piano, ‘nuff said
6. Use practice aids There are many bass-less playalong resources like the Jamey Abersold series or midi files and other software that you can use to practice playing through chord changes and playing melodies
7. Be patient Just like your human voice did not develop over night, neither will your soloing voice, just continue to develop it by exposing yourself to different resources and ideas 8. Stay in the pocket Certainly there are times to get wild and crazy during a solo as you develop, but I have seen more than a few bass players reaching too far too fast and falling flat. Reach but try not to overextend, you can create a great solo just by playing the groove sometimes. Just hearing the bass by itself, isolated, can provide enough contrast and create the excitement needed to move an audience. 9. Keep it in perspective Soloing can be fun and a whole different and exciting way to express yourself as a bass player, but don’t get it twisted, unless you are a budding solo artist or part of a highly improvisational band, your groove will be significantly more important to those that you play with
10. Be melodic, go root-less There is nothing wrong with starting a bass solo with lines centering around the root. I think it helps certain audiences transition from hearing the full rhythm section to the bass solo. I fully subscribe to this method of "introducing" the audience to the bass. But in your development of the solo it is sometimes nice to ditch the root and make use of the other notes in the chord or scale to help your solo become more melodic. 9ths, 13ths, 11's and chromatic notes are all great extensions to learn about and use in your solos.
Here are a couple of examples of me soloing with two of my favorite guitar players. The first one is with Larry Carlton and below that is Robben Ford.
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