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Why Playing Bass Slowly, Really Is, An Artform

This is a guest post from Anja Wellen, a bass player and owner of the bass guitar section of the site, Basgitaar Startpagina from the Netherlands.

Playing music slow or playing slow music is an artform.

We usually think that in all things there is the normal way and the fast way of doing things – especially when it comes to bass playing.

As bass players starting out, we first marvel at the players who can play very fast, very dexterous bass lines. The flurry of notes and sounds instantly hooks us and it becomes our impetus for playing and developing as a bassist and musician.

When we learn to play fast, we think our playing  is better than most. Playing quickly, particularly early on as a player when you’re only mimicking speed and emulating speed versus actually playing quickly and nimbly as a result of hours and hours of focused practice.

Conversely,  if you play slower than normal, you’re perceived to be unskilled. A grossly incorrect belief, but this is the perception we take on and the thought that has crept into all of our minds at one point or another.

Slowly Does Not Mean Lazily

Playing bass slow is far from lazy. I’d even argue that playing slowly is even more difficult than playing fast. It requires more control, focus and attention to detail.

Your senses are heightened and you instantly become more aware of the music being played. Your place becomes re-adjusted and you need to consider your moves more carefully.

Playing becomes a less of a marathon and more of a chess game: you play your instrument with strategy in mind and careful note selection.

It means that doing things slow is not really taken into consideration. And if it is, it is considered as something that is below a certain level and thus also below a certain standard.

Unfortunately, slow is still viewed as a negative thing in the eyes of the untrained musician or even the musician that thinks they know more than they really do.

More people look to Geddy Lee for inspiration than they do Family Man Barrett. More marvel at Cliff Burton than Kim Deal from the Pixies who had some very relevant insights on playing few notes and playing slowly versus playing fast and showing off.

“So I’m In This Band…”

I currently play in a band that does both original work and Neil Young covers. There’s no problem learning the originals, but learning the Neil Young songs can be a different story.

Each time we are preparing to learn a new song, I’ll listen to the original recording at home and learn the bass parts on my end .

I make sure to focus on the chord progression, the feel of the song itself, the tempo the recording is playing in, of course the bass part and all of this while the song is at tempo.

The thing to remember about Neil Young is that many of his songs are never particularly fast. They all tend to have a pretty moderate tempo and have a pretty laid back feel.

When myself and my bandmates all get together again for band practice and start reviewing songs, I find that my band will play the Neil Young songs at a slower tempo than on the recording.

That is certainly saying something because, again, Neil is not known for playing thousands of notes a minute at finger-breaking tempos.

The situation then becomes this: an already slow-to-moderately paced song now getting played slower. Imagine a song like Cortez the Killer being played slower than it is already ~90 beats per minute.

The challenge in playing the bass line and fighting the urge to speed the song up is a tremendous challenge and

As this situation unfolds, it becomes just how taxing it can be to play that downtempo; that slowed down and that deliberate. The change in feel is so distinct and the impact it has on my playing and the rest of the band’s is instantly recognizable.

All notes being played mean that much more when you play them. Self control of both hands needs to be front and center and attention to the drummer needs to be absolutely on point.

I’d argue it’s easier to fall out of line with the drummer playing slowly than it is playing quickly. Playing slowly leaves so much room from one beat to the next that you can often find yourself over-anticipating when the next snare hit will drop.


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  • Mike Farley

    Spot on, many thanks! I fell in love with the sound of the bass guitar, all those years ago, not with its ability play a zillion notes per bar. It’s in the long, held notes that the sound has time to bloom, and it’s in framing the harmonic structure within the groove that most of us find our vocation as bassists. This needed saying – bless you!

    • memiliani

      Glad you liked the article, Mike!