What makes a bass player good is a very common question among bassists especially those just starting out.
Naturally,we want to be the best we can at anything we do. It’s human nature to seek out the best practices and embody them in our own unique way.
In a more objective field of study, what makes a good X might be easier to answer. But in an artistic field or an aesthetically based field like music or visual arts, the answer can be very layered and often more complicated than one might expect.
What Makes a Good Bass Player Today?
In the past, ‘good’ had a pretty defined meaning. Ideally, you were the guy who knew how to read music. You knew a whole bunch of songs. You knew your place and took orders very well.
Being ‘good’ meant that you conformed to an established skillset and it was likely that in order to achieve that skillset, you had to have some years of fairly rigorous musical schooling whether it was many years with a teacher in a music school down the road from your house or something more institutionalized like an academic or a collegiate setting.
Enter 2015. The rules have changed and the answer to the question ‘what makes a good bass player’ has become a little bit more complicated.
As educated as you might be, knowing how to use your skills is a very important part of being considered a good player.
I’ve personally played with very technically skilled musicians but their biggest problem was that they didn’t know how to ‘turn off’ their technical abilities. They would solo or make simple passages unnecessarily more complicated because they could and didn’t want you to forget that they could. Needless to say, I never took them on to be in a band.
Point 2: Feel Means A Lot
Here’s the bass line to ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ by Cream:
These are the notes to play the bass line. Simple enough. But what’s not written is the feel of the song.
Feel and how to handle a song is just as important if not more important than knowing how to play it.
Consider the following. Here are 3 different videos of 3 different players on YouTube playing ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. Musically, they are all correct. But ask yourself: which one sounds better and which one feels better?
And here’s Jack Bruce playing it:
Another great example of this phenomenon is the footage of Metallica auditioning different bassists to fill the recently departed Jason Newsted. Pay attention to the section where all the players auditioning play ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:
Each version is musically correct, but different in it’s own unique way – and the differences are very subtle.
It’s those subtle differences that help to determine what makes a bassist ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or even ‘great’.
The takeaway is that you can be great at reading music and learning bass lines on the spot from a piece of sheet music but that doesn’t make you a great player. If you can’t feel the bass line and add a subtle touch to it that isn’t written down but can transform the whole bass line, then you’ve certainly got a leg up on the person who can read the music.
Point 3: Understand Your Power as a Bass Player
Bass players are very important to the fabric of any musical project. They sit between the melody and the harmony; are felt more than they’re heard and often don’t get the respect they deserve.
But the fact of the matter is that without bass in the mix, music tends to fall flat. Without some kind of bass – whether a synthetic sub bass or low cello part and everything in between – music lacks that certain amount of push and resonance.
Bass players are under a lot more pressure to know their parts than guitar players. Guitar players have a lot more leeway to mess up live because they have the ability to play through it and mask whatever sloppiness that comes with it.
Bassists on the other hand have to be on point at all times. A sloppy bass player doesn’t get a free pass. If the bass player is performing poorly on stage, the band feels it and the audience, once not paying a whole lot of attention to the bass player, is now very aware of the bass player and their mistakes.
Part of the power that comes with being a bass player means knowing when not and when to show off and understand that each performance is a balancing act.