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Being a Working Musician Pt. 1: A Day in the Life of a Working Bass Player

For many bass players, it is a dream come true to be able to make a living from playing music. Viewed by some as a risky career choice due to its artistic nature, this isn’t the case if you combine a sense of professionalism with a dedicated work ethic. Doing this will ensure a very rewarding career financially and artistically.

Over this series of articles, we will examine the essential elements of being a professional bass player who is able to perform and teach in all areas of music. Some of these elements are musical, some are not. The ones that aren’t are equally as important. You can be the most accomplished bassist in the world but if you turn up late, and in the wrong clothes then people won’t hire you.

As a working musician, I play approximately 5 nights a week. These performances include pop, jazz, country, tribute shows, big band and musical theatre. All of these genres require different musical qualities but they also have a lot in common. We will look at each genre separately, examining the finer details of each style. As we have been discussing jazz in previous lessons, this seems like a good starting point. Jazz gigs can vary greatly in setting and payment. If you play original music in a bar, it is likely that the payment will be small where as if you play jazz standards at a wedding, you should be paid a very good fee.

I will often be called to perform jazz at a wedding with a group of musicians I have never met, or have met but not rehearsed with. If you are covering for another musician, this is called ‘depping’ the gig. The repertoire for these gigs is usually referred to as ‘standards’. This is a reference to songs that are part of the classic jazz canon. Tracks such as ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, ‘Autumn Leaves’ & ‘Girl From Ipanema’ are three examples.

Once you have played these songs on numerous gigs, you will begin to absorb and learn them but in the meantime, musicians use a Real Book (a book of chord progressions for jazz standards) or in more recent times, the iRealB app. The app version of the Real Book has the advantage of being able to put the chord sequences in any key. I have attached a PDF of one such chord chart to this lesson.

Being able to create a strong walking bass line with a solid time feel is very important, but don’t neglect other styles which may appear such as funk (‘Sunny’, ‘Watermelon Man’) or bossa nova (‘How Insensitive’, ‘Wave’). Band leaders will look for a musician who can cover all of these styles confidently.

When presented with the chord chart, ask the leader what style he would like the piece played in, get a clear idea of the tempo and play in a solid & supportive manner. If you are playing in a bar, you may be able to experiment and be adventurous but on a wedding, the client and band leader will be looking for classic, swinging jazz.

In the next lesson, we’ll look further at how to interpret the chord charts and provide what is required of a professional freelance bassist in a jazz setting.

Download this lesson’s examples:
blues in F example from real book bass guitar

Download the Rhythm Changes PDF

Download the Blues/Jazz PDF


Visit John’s personal site for more  lessons, tips and information about bass guitar and his own bass guitar lesson site, Bass Guitar Course. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnmarleybass.