Over the past few months a lot of things have changed in my life. I’ve moved to Boston and out of Rhode Island. I’ve changed jobs to one closer to my home in the city. And I’ve found myself in a strange place musically: returning to groove.
Over the past two years I’ve been playing on and off in my own solo bass guitar project called 10 Volt Army. The goal of the project was to marry electronic music and bass guitar. The project achieved some success by my metric, but always had one problem: where do I put the bass.
Many of the songs that I made for the project were perfectly fine standalone. The songs were well structured and had no problem standing up on their own two legs. Adding a live bass to them almost seemed wrong and out of place and was often the most challenging part of the project. What was supposed to be a project that emphasized solo bass guitar wrapped in the bells and whistles of a live band (added drums, synths, guitars, pads, and other musical layers to build out the musical idea), ended up going in the opposite direction. The songs were detailed and layered and sounded better and more focused before bass was added. So adding in the bass guitar later felt awkward and forced.
The project, however, was very stimulating. I found myself exploring different bass techniques and actively pursuing learning tapping and more detailed slap patterns all in the name of creating better songs and better music.
But again. The project, to me, still felt confused and forced. Time never really seemed to work that wrinkle out.
So fast forward to today where after learning all this new technique, studying and making all this music, searching all over for new inspirations that I could pour into my own solo project, it finally hit me: most people don’t care about this sort of thing.
The revelation finally hit a fever pitch when listening to Vulfpeck’s Fugue State and marveling at the stripped down, bare bones and totally groovy style of the band. The drums are groovy, the keys are appropriate and colorful and Joe Dart’s bass playing was captivating. It had seemed like forever since I heard and enjoyed bass playing that was present, tight and groovy. No wild slapping, no look-at-me tapping and over the top technique.
Groove. That’s it.
Just gripping, intense groove. And all fingerstyle, too.
It felt like a turning point after the past two years or so with my face so deep in solo bass and trying to understand the intersection of where I can marry my two ideas together into one project.
Thoughts on Technique: Are We Distracted By It?
Technique is an interesting concept. It covers both how you physically interact with the bass – how you position your hands, how you attack the strings – but it also covers the decisions you make as a bass player to answer the question: how do I make this music better? In most cases, the audience doesn’t care about how fast your slapping is. But they will likely care about how well that fast slap lick fits with the music that lead up to it, going on during it and what happens the bar after it. While slapping fast is impressive technique, it doesn’t mean much if your technique in the sense of being able to assess and make the groove better isn’t there.
Squarepusher and Joe Dart, two very different kinds of bass players but both are brilliant in that they both are able to answer the question how do I make this song better. Squarepusher, arguably, incorporates what many believe to be ‘technique’ as it’s often thought of. Intricate double thumbing, tight grooves at breakneck tempos and on-point slap runs. His technique, both how he’s interacting with and what he’s able to do on the bass, are stellar. Joe Dart, on the other hand too has brilliant technique but in a more nuanced. He’s not tapping and slapping every bar he can get his hands on. He’s mainly fingerstyle, but with an impeccable ear for where and where not to play; what and what not to play. His technique, also, is impeccable but in a much less flashy way. Functional at it’s core but should absolutely be mentioned in the conversation of bass players with excellent technique.
A Return To Groove: Keep It Simple, Keep It Focused, Keep It Tight
It’s easy to forget that groove is the heart of music. It’s why people dance. It’s why people can’t stop playing a song. It’s why some parties keep going and others stop dead when the wrong song comes on. It’s groove and all bass players know that and are treated to that narrative as often as marketers are treated to ‘content is king’. But while working on my own project, I’ll say, I think I forgot that message. Technique was starting to take over in place of groove and leave a less than enjoyable result. I was becoming very immersed in technique and making new sounds come out of the bass in new and different ways often opting for a more melodic approach rather than a groovy approach. Not to detract from melody and it’s role with bass (that’s another post), but the bigger message, groove, was getting lost in the shuffle.
Dart, and Vulfpeck helped me realized that groove is all that matters when the dust settles with bass. It’s about knowing when to play, when not to play, how much or how little to play. Learning to play off, with and against your bandmates and take note of how many in the crowd are and aren’t moving their heads to the music. It’s bass that keeps the band moving and it’s bass that lays that foundation. Don’t let technique get in the way of a good groove.