Learning bass guitar? You’re probably wondering what does it take to become a good bass player.
And you’re right to wonder. The answer is obvious in some ways, but a little bit more nuanced in others. If you posed this question to an internet forum, you might get hit with answers like ‘practice and practice often’ and variations on that answer. Knowing your time is another point. Those are great answers – but they’re not the only answers.
I believe that when you’re learning bass guitar, there are some often overlooked points that don’t get enough attention or articulated answer.
This week, we’re going to examine the question: what does it take to be a good bass player. I’m going to propose 5 points that I believe go into being a great bass player and, if you look at any bass player from Jaco to Pete Wentz from Fallout Boy (oh yes, even Pete Wentz) these 5 principles all apply in some capacity.
One of the central pillars when it comes to learning to play bass guitar is the concept of musical time. Time (or tempo) being able to move and flex with the natural changes in time is essential.
Being able to compose a groove based on what is going on musically around you is the very essence of bass playing. Sure the drummer sets the tempo, but it’s the bass that needs to take a black marker and really outline the tempo so that the rest of the band understands and that the audience understands.
Guitar players and keyboard players have the luxury of setting the musical pace. These are the instruments most commonly associated with creating the hooks and the melodies to songs and even the harmonies most of the time as well. Bass purists scoff at guitar players for their lack of finesse and taste when playing, often defaulting to flying off the musical rails and doing their own thing. While this does happen, it’s not as common as one might think. Most guitar players understand like all other musicians in a group the importance of being balanced, tasteful and complimentary to the overall sound and not exceeding ones musical boundaries unless permitted.
Bass is no different.
When it comes to making a suitable bass line for a piece of music, there are a lot of ways to satisfy the need. One way is just to pedal eighth notes and move with the chord changes. Another is to be very counterpoint minded and work against the melody while still keeping in time and being cognizant of the chord changes as they unfold. These are two extremes, but they both fill the need for a bass line.
Tastefulness when making a bass lines something that comes with time. it comes with having heard a whole lot of music over the years, playing a lot of bass and developing that intuition that guides you to what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good. It’s the difference between having all your notes played with the same force and volume an having your baseline sound very same versus playing more gently in-between certain notes and making the decision to have certain notes pop at certain points in musical time. It’s being able to understand what direction your bandmates are moving musically and how to best compliment these changes as well as to put your own spin on them.
Here’s one of the best examples of tasteful bass playing I (and I’m sure many other bassists) can think of: Jamerson’s isolated line to Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?”
Like taste, being able to discern and craft tone comes with time. Often times young bass players get too caught up with how their bass sounds versus how they ought to actually be playing. Sure the tone of the bass is important as I’ll elaborate on why in a moment, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good your bass sounds if what you’re playing isn’t interesting or fitting.
I believe tone is one of two pillars for how we identify certain bass players. The other pillar being playing style. Tone tells you a lot as a listener. What kind of bass is being played, what kind of music they’re playing or have roots playing in, where they want to fit in the mix and so on.
It’s the last of those points that really pertains to any bass player: how you want to fit in the musical mix.
For young bass players, developing an ear for tone is something that doesn’t happen over night. It takes years, to identify tones and to know how to change and morph your tone into one that a. suits your ears when you’re playing by yourself and with friends and b. one that suits the live venue you’re playing in. Different places have different acoustics and build and not all are forgiving to the EQ settings you’re using in your bedroom. Knowing how to adjust accordingly is a key for bass players to know.
Take a listen to Jerry Jemmot’s tone here:
Now take a listen to Jaco’s tone here:
Lastly, let’s look at Mike Watt’s tone when he was playing with the Minutemen:
Patience and Consistency
Learning something new is a challenge. Often times, its not what is being learned but the act of actually staying committed to the learning process that is most challenging. Whether bass guitar, cooking, or computer programming, being patient and consistent with the learning process are two of the biggest challenges that have turned young musicians off from learning an instrument and have frustrated adults.
I believe that patience is discussed more in the context of learning bass guitar or any acquired skill than consistency. From a young age or from the start of any learning journey, teachers encourage students to be patient with the learning and to not expect to become the next Mozart overnight. Students need to become accepting and tolerant of the stumbling blocks they encounter and power through them in their own way.
Consistency, or lack of in my opinion, is what turns off more students than anything else. When we are in the progcess of learning something new it can go one of two ways. The first is that we become so excited we burn out quick, become disenfranchised with what we’re trying to learn and give up. All that energy that was supposed to be spread out and saved over time got used up within the first week. The second is that we become lazy and ‘don’t give enough oxygen to the flame’, causing another kind of fizzle and burn out.
When developing a practice regimen or any kind of system that you developed with the sole purpose of getting better at a skill must be sustainable. To be sustainable means it must be consistent. Whether day to day or week to week, whatever choice you make when it comes to practice must be one that you know you can do on a schedule.
Bass players that say that they practiced for 9 hours every day for 10 years are exceptions to the rule or were in circumstances that allowed and encouraged that kind of motivation. For the most of us with families, day jobs or other interests and see music as a hobby to blow off some steam and have some fun and not as an income source (at least initially) can’t commit that kind of time. 30 minutes 4 days a week might even be a lot of some with a lot on their plate. But for others an hour a night at 6 pm after dinner is the right amount, completely sustainable and completely manageable.
This point applies less to bass specifically and more to any musical endeavor you the reader choose to embark on. But none the less, in order to be a good bass player, knowing your physical and mental limits is essential and based on what your understanding is creating a system of practice and skill development that suits you individually is a giant key to success that many people overlook.
Seasoned teachers might say that the 3 cores of bass playing are time, tone and taste. I believe there is a 4th: timing, the cousin of time.
The best comparison I can make to illustrate this point is to think of a comedian. Comedians require two big things in order to have a successful show: momentum and audience engagement. Momentum referring to the energy built up as a set goes to tell more adventurous jokes, deliver jokes in their truest form and to ultimately build on whatever engagement the audience has given you. These two points go hand in hand; one feeds the other and vice versa.
Playing music is not much different. Ever try playing for a crowd that isn’t into you? It’s terrible experience. Your performance feels lifeless and you can’t wait for it to be over. At the end of the day, it’s a performance and your audience is expected to be engaged. After all, they (may) have paid money to see you.
To the point about punchlines, bass lines and music as a joke with a punch line. Usually at the end of a 4, 8, 12 or 16 bar phrase there is the turn around, the place where the musical idea repeats itself. It’s that build up to bar 4, 8, 12 or 16 that you, your bandmates and the audience can feel coming, like the punchline to a joke. It’s that pop, that resolution exiting the last bar andentering bar 5, 9, 13, or 17 where the audience is with you most. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the audience is most likely to give you applause at the end of a musical passage or at the end of a solo. That’s how powerful the ‘musical punchline’ is and as a bass player it will help you tremendously it acknowledge and capitalize on the feeling that exiting one musical idea and entering another has.