5 Essential Things All Bass Players Must Do

Some things are just plain necessary, regardless of musical environment

By Jon Liebman
Week of June 24, 2019

It’s always great sitting down with my old friend Michael Manring to see what he’s been up to. In my latest interview, which went live this week, Michael talks about how he’s constantly getting called for so many types of different gigs, he can never be sure what’s lurking right around the corner.

He rattled off an amazingly diverse list of musical situations in which he may find himself, including everything from folk music shows, avant-garde, jazz, fusion and solo performances, to intimate private home settings and major concert halls.

That’s a lot to keep track of.

How does one juggle chameleon-like duties while still adhering to the role of being a bass player?

As a bassist, here are 5 things you must keep in mind, regardless of the musical environment in which you may find yourself:

1. Be authentic. Make sure you remain true to the style of music you’re playing. Resist the temptation to fall in to your familiar licks, grooves, fills, etc., just because you like them or you’re good at playing them. Different musical genres often make use of varying nuances to bring out their uniqueness. Focus on contributing the right flavor to the music, whether it’s a ballad, a bebop tune, or something of an unfamiliar ethnic origin.

2. Keep good time. While you may get hung up trying to fit in with a group that’s taken you out of your comfort zone, don’t neglect your role as the bass player. Be sure to keep that beat, and make the pulse sure and steady. Be mindful also that some pieces of music, both the familiar and unfamiliar ones, may have varying tempos, rubato sections and other things that may catch you off guard. Watch out for those too.

3. Make the music groove. Like keeping good time, making the music groove may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s just about the most important thing you need to do as a bass player. The word “groove” isn’t limited to R&B or funk beats, or dance music, or Latin jazz. Every kind of music grooves in its own way. So whether you’re playing orchestral nocturnes, Indian ragas or anything with pitches and rhythms, make it groove in the appropriate style.

4. Find the right tone. Each type of music exudes its own special aura. Beyond the obvious, like not cranking up your distortion during a tender love song, be sensitive to what the music needs and respond accordingly with your tone. Would the song benefit if you added a touch of reverb? Maybe a little quasi-muffled thumb technique would hit the spot. Adjust your EQ, if needed, or try plucking the strings close the bridge. Give the music what it needs. And don’t play around with your new signal processor toy!

5. Be a good listener. Though this one overlaps with the previous 4 items, it’s vitally important. Even you if know the song, you never know when the band might have a different arrangement, or they’re used to playing it a different way. Sometimes the singer may throw you a curve. Maybe there’s a key change where you’re not expecting it. What if there’s a four-bar solo piano break you just didn’t see coming? A band is like a team. It requires interplay and teamwork. Always keep your eyes and ears open and be ready for anything.

As you continue to improve as a bass player, there’s always more that can be added to the list. The items here are consistent with the approach I’ve always taken in my bass instruction books, and more recently, in the online bass lessons I’ve developed for this site.

There’s no limit to the number of techniques, styles, and genres to be found. At the end of the day, as Michael put it, “It’s all music.” Just be sure, as a bass player, you’re serving it well.

Do you have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

In the meantime, you can check out my interview with Michael here.

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Comments on 5 Essential Things All Bass Players Must Do

  1. Andrew Atwill says:

    This really good advice. Michael Manring is one of the really nice guys in music. He certainly exudes a humility and love of music and welcoming. He has also managed to find a degree of authenticity without sounding like he is a mimic on a fretless and that is no small feat.
    While it is not mentioned in “skill-sets” for any instrument, I have noticed in the working bassists that have full calendars there is another trait that has nothing to do with nothing anyone can get from a book other than perhaps one on personal development. The ability to make everyone around them feel comfortable, welcome and open. The vibe or feeling any of us generates is not spoken of enough perhaps, but I notice the people we all admire generate it.

  2. Philippe Melkonian says:

    I like your #4

  3. John says:

    1.Keep time
    2.Play in the right key
    3. Listen to the drums

    I’ve been playing bass for about 7 years now and have worked in a couple of bands. Some of the “5 things” I sort of get. Much of it, though, sounds vague and “fluffy” to me.

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