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What I Learned From Playing Bass For 6 Hours Straight This Past Weekend

musictown logoOver the weekend, I participated in an event called Jamathon RI hosted by an up-and-coming Rhode Island startup called MusicTown.co. MusicTown is an online and in-person musician matchmaking service for the music-making community based out of Rhode Island. The company is still young – but incredibly active in Rhode Island’s music scene.

According to the event’s page on Facebook:

“Musicians, Singers, Songwriters and Bands – you’re invited to take part in Jamathon RI – all genres and instruments welcome!

WHAT

Best way to really connect and collaborate with local musicians to form a total of 6 new bands, create a minimum of 2 new songs in 1 day (total 12+ songs) to be recorded for a live grassroots united compilation album of our region’s sound.”

While this was a songwriting competition in many respects, the event was more of a match-making event with the goal of introducing musicians to one another. The Jamathon RI competition event was put together with the shared support of Hope Media and MusicTown.

According to one of the site’s founders, Nathan, “we’re currently looking at making all of the events side of things non-profit”.

The songs are then recorded and then each of the newly formed groups will meet back in 3 weeks to perform their songs live in concert in front of a panel of judges. The winners receive a $500 cash prize and studio time courtesy of Hope Media

While those were the guidelines, frankly, I just wanted to play and meet new people.

This is my take on the day’s events and less of a reflection of the Jamathon event itself. This is strictly my reflection as a bass player whose got about 10 years of experience under his belt working in this kind of situation.

I’ll also include a takeaway with each one of my bullet points for you, the reader, to take away from this article. Reading about someone’s experience is one thing, but I want to outline specific things you can do for yourself after reading about my experience.

1. The Highs Were High and the Lows Were Low

Going into this, I really didn’t know what to expect. Sure the rules and reasons for the event were laid out, but I really didn’t know what to expect of it. I almost didn’t even go had it not been for my friend Travis of the band [Straw Man Standing] to give me the extra push to go.

I came in, wrote up a name tag and learned that my group for the day was going to be my friend Travis on drums, a guitar player named Mauricio and later a piano player and singer named Justin and an older gentleman named Gary who played harmonica.

As Nathan explained to me, “the bands of Jamathon are purposely matched by MusicTown using the musician profiles (kind of like an OKCupid for musicians). Custom matchmaking site is in beta: musictown.co – in the meantime musicians are connecting through the ‘bridge site’ mymusictown.com until the custom site is public.”

We exchanged handshakes and got to work.

Before much more could be said, the guitar player bust into into trying to explain to us how to play one of the songs that he wrote. A ‘Bo Diddley, blues rock piece’.

I cringed instantly.

As he was explaining it, he was tweaking his 2,000 some-odd dollar effect board that he brought with him for this event and messing with his amp’s settings (by the way, he was too loud the whole day). In addition to poorly articulating what exactly his song was and how it was structurally arranged, he continued to explain it to me – the bass player – as if I had zero idea what any of the notes, chords or tones were that he was playing.

Again – 10 years under my belt. And have talked about chord tones and many other topics regarding music theory here on Smart Bass.

Biting my tounge, I played along – just enough to get through the song.

Sure enough though, it wasn’t enough for him. It wasn’t a matter of feel that I wasn’t matching. No, it was still a problem with the notes. The progression moved though a B chord and rather than playing the root note – like I’m certain he was used to hearing – I played the 3rd of that chord and harmonized his playing.

No, no. That won’t work, he went on. And then proceeded to explain the chords to me again.

It was a long first 2 hours and a rough way to start this event.

Fast forward about another hour in and the singer remarks how he never dances when he rehearses with a band, but the work Travis and I were doing on bass and drums was really making him move.

Score one for bass and drums. We high-fived and shared the the brief moment.

Takeaway: It’s no secret that among bass players, the joke of the guitar player runs deep. The selfish player that wants to hear themselves play and push down the bass and other instruments in the band.

When you find yourself in a situation where the guitar player is difficult to work with, I found you have two options. The first is to ‘compliment with style’. This can be tricky to explain as this is more of a thing that varies from circumstance to circumstance, but here’s my attempt. When you play your bass line to compliment the band’s sound, add little bits and pieces in there to draw the listener’s attention over to you for a small period of time. Develop your bass line in such a way that it remains complimentary to the guitar player’s work, but at the same time carries a message to the listener that there is more to this band; a bass player who knows their stuff.

The other option is to undermine the guitar player at every turn. That probably won’t work out too well at the end of the day. And probably will get you a bad rap. I recommend using going with the first option.

2. If You’re Funky, People Will Come to You

At the break around 5pm, I started talking with one of the singers (who also was a damn good MC) named Big Scythe. A big, jolly man who could write rhymes that would put Mos Def on his ear – and could sing pretty well, too.

We started talking old 90s hip hop and soul music and I proposed we should get together and play sometime.

Sure enough, that time came sooner than we both expected.

Towards the end of the night around 8pm after each of the bands had finished debuting their song/entry to the songwriting competition, I head back into the room where Big Scythe’s group was playing and was talking bass guitar with their bass player. He showed me his Korean Spector bass and I started to break out some funky lines on it. Scythe heard instantly and jumped on drums.

Instant chemistry.

He and I started breaking out funky groove after funky groove and as we played, more people began to fill into the room. The bass player I was talking to jumped on guitar, a drummer from another room jumped on congas and a ukulele player from the third room jumped on tambourine.

At first the jam was all instrumental until Justin from my room jumped on and broke out in a funky, soulful vocal performance that would give the Spinners a run for their money.

All the sudden, all of JamStage was circled around our room listening to this wild impromptu jam weaving in and out of Sly and the Family Stone, the Commodores, Stevie Wonder, KRS One and many, many more.

Again – another special moment that wouldn’t have happened without some funk.

Takeaway: Learn to be funky. Seriously. Bassists and drummers alike know this. The room dances when the bass and the drum are moving in the same direction.

When it comes to learning funk, again, it can be a little difficult to explain because so much of funk is about feel and feel is difficult to put into words. The best advice I can provide here is that when taking on funk, real head-bobbing funky stuff, be mindful of:

How you physically play the strings. Your touch and plucking technique matters much more here than in rock or when playing the blues.

Space matters. Bass players that can play tons of notes and still stay in the pocket are closer to exceptions than the rule (see Jaco and Rocco). Some of the most treasured funk bass lines are ones that hit hard in select places and leave air from note to note.

3. It Was a Networking Event – But in the Best Way Possible

Rhode Island is a small state that many argue don’t have a music scene. That may be true if you’re comparing the scene of Rhode Island to some place like Boston or New York City, but that doesn’t mean Rhode Island doesn’t have it’s own little pockets of musicians, hustling and playing shows wherever possible.

I myself (sort of) have my hat in that ring and it only makes sense to treat this event as an opportunity to meet new people to play shows with and share music with.

Sure enough, by the end of the event, I had exchanged numbers, business cards and Facebook invitations with a good chunk of the people at this event.

Not only did I grow my musical network, but I gained new insights into Rhode Island’s music scene, again, something that the outsider looking in might be quick to dismiss.

Takeaway: Musicians are selfish people by design. They believe their art was God’s gift to man and that they will make it big. Unfortunately this is a toxic mindset that has ruined many musicians and made them look like fools on their way down. Worse, this mindset creates this bizarre illusion that the biggest acts around made it by shunning others and making it on their own.

This could not be more false.

Acts got big because they found those acts around them they enjoyed the company of, the music of and found an artistic common ground with. The result is more of a touring side show than a single lone act against the world.

Don’t pass up an opportunity to play with someone else or to make a connection with another musician. You’re both out for the same thing: to play shows and (hopefully) have some fun in the process, why not join forces?

4. Music Is More of a Side Thing For Many

Just about everyone I talked to at Jamathon had some kind of day job and did music on the side.

One person I talked to, a rapper named Big Scythe, drove a bus for the state of Rhode Island. He worked from 9-6pm each day and would do music when he came home, then go to bed when he was done and repeated the process.

Travis, whom I mentioned before, was a freelance copywriter. Even the MusicTown founders had day jobs and families. They said that MusicTown was a labor of love for them and something they did because they love music and wanted to see something like this in their home state.

Takeaway: sometimes there’s more than meets the eye when you play with other people. Trying to make it in music today is harder than ever and most are aware of this glaring reality.

As a result, many do music for fun. As something to take the edge off amidst the haze of a job they probably feel so so about and the stress of family life and day to day activities. Maybe it’s just a creative outlet. Who knows.

5. Form Matters

This one is pretty straightforward: having good form matters.

Bad form leads to pain, carpal tunnel or worse things that can take you out of bass playing commission for weeks.

The fact that I walked away from that event with a slight twinge in my right forearm after the event was enough of an indicator to me to examine my form more closely.

Takeaway: Watch. Your. Form.

Conclusion

Jamathon RI was a blast and I hope that MusicTown continues to thrive as an organization in Rhode Island. The event taught me a lot about collaborating with musicians that weren’t my friends or people that I knew even slightly formally.

It was a big look into the ‘real world’ of musicians. Average people with day jobs and families who have a lot of passion and heart that they express in musical form. These people want to share their craft and aren’t really concerned with making it big or taking home a big check with their craft.

They do it for pleasure, they do it for fun and want to have as much fun as possible when doing it. To them – and myself – the minute it stops being fun, it’s not worth doing.

Do yourself a favor – sign up for MusicTown. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter. There aren’t many groups out there that are committed to creating a thriving music scene out there. MusicTown is certainly a rarity in it’s own right.