As bass players, we provide a supportive role

Accept it. Embrace it. Do it “with a happy heart!”

By Jon Liebman
March 8, 2024

I see it all the time and it makes me cringe. Too many people, when setting out to learn bass, tend to focus on the wrong things. 

Yes, technical proficiency is important. A certain skill level is important, as is being proficient all over the instrument… The list goes on.

What’s truly important, though, is understanding the role of the bass player and to make sure you’re focusing on the right things.

So first off, here’s a reminder of the bass player’s job description:

As bass players, our job is to lock in with the drummer (if there is one), set the foundation for the band, and make the music feel good.

That’s the case regardless of what style of music you’re playing. You should also know that doing those things often means playing repetitive patterns, non-stop driving 8th-note runs, never-ending walking bass lines… whatever the music calls for.

And that’s okay.

Advice from a working road dog

I had a great conversation with my old friend Andy Irvine the other day, published as this week’s FBPO interview. Andy’s a great bassist and a self-proclaimed “working road dog musician.” 

As a seasoned performer and clinician, Andy’s been in all kinds of musical scenarios, doing everything from bar gigs and clubs to the occasional music festival, and all kinds of other stuff.

When I asked Andy what advice he had for someone who wants to learn bass, particularly someone over 50, he offered some great suggestions.

“From an educational standpoint,” Andy says, “I don’t really believe I’m qualified to teach the traditional music theory approach to musicianship. I know some of it, but for the most part I’ve learned on the gig from the other musicians.”

He had my attention from the get-go. There’s nothing wrong with having a formal education, but where people tend to learn the most is on the job, out in the real world where they’re actually doing it. In fact, that’s the case for pretty much any occupation or profession.

“The drummers told me how a shuffle is supposed to feel,” Andy says, “how to play a Texas shuffle, a Chicago shuffle, a Delta blues… you know, all the characteristics of style that go along with these different genres, and the geographic sub genres.”

That right there is an education, in and of itself. 

Embracing the supportive role

After that, though, once you’ve figured out the “what goes where” part of it, that’s when the real education starts.

“A lot of it has to do with an attitude of playing a supportive role,” says Andy. “Some people naturally just fall into that role. They’re like, ‘I’m happy to play the groove. I like it here and I don’t need to do any fancy stuff. I don’t need to do any ‘twiddly bits’ as Sir Paul says. I’m fine to just hold it down.’” 

Read that paragraph again. In a nutshell, that’s what we do: Play the groove. Hold it down. Keep the fancy stuff in your back pocket, taking it out only if and when you need it (i.e., if it helps the song).

“Those kinds of bass players,” Andy says, “who are willing and capable and naturally able to play something that’s repetitive, and do it with a happy heart – that’s the important thing, to do it with a happy heart – those kind of bass players are gonna have the most opportunities with the instrument. Period.”

Yet another great point. Don’t do it because you have to; do it because you want to. I love the way Andy puts it: Do it with a happy heart.

Relationships and interplay

Another important factor of playing bass is paying attention to the relationships you have with the other people in the band. As Andy says, it’s not about trying to show other bass players what a great musician you are, but rather communicating with the people you’re playing with. 

“Other bass players don’t really matter,” Andy says. “It’s the people that you’re on the gig with. The person fronting the band needs to like the way you play the bass. The drummer needs to like the way you play the bass. The other players on Facebook don’t need to like the way you play the bass.”

Keeping those things in mind will take you a long way as bass player. As you continue your bass-learning journey, don’t lose sight of focusing on the right things. 

And do it with a happy heart.

Andy sums it up very well:
“If you’re playing that supportive role and you can get into that space, that happy heart of laying it down and playing repetitive things, it’s gonna be a good fit for that band, whatever kind of band it is. If you’re playing Chuck Berry or if you’re playing Steely Dan, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re just playing bass. That is going to be the thing.”

How about you?

As you’re working on becoming a better bass player, what are the things you focus on the most? And are you approaching them with a happy heart? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. Be sure to watch my interview with Andy here.

Comments on As bass players, we provide a supportive role

  1. Andrew says:

    It is an easy decision made from the get-go really.
    If you want to be a bass player, then it involves everything it entails. Being a decent soloist is less than 5% of what is required to be a good bass player. If someone wishes to do their own thing, then do solo albums.
    If a person wants to be in an ensemble, then that role must be fulfilled to the agenda that role requires. If someone does not like that, then do not take the job. If anyone is paid to do a specific job, no matter the job discipline, then that is what is being paid for. This is what is expected. If any person does not want to do the minimum requirements, or learn the roots of their instrument, or do the primary function of their instrument ever, then perhaps a different instrument would be a more optimal choice.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Well said, Andrew, as always. Thanks!

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