At the end of the day, the bass is a supportive instrument…

…but that doesn’t mean it always has to be in the background

By Jon Liebman
Week of January 6, 2020

One thing that’s drilled into the psyche of bass players, right from the start, is that the bass is intended to a supportive instrument, and that the job of the bass player is, simply, to lay down the groove and support the rhythmic and melodic content of the song as efficiently as possible.

True as that may be, does that mean we have to be “shackled” to the background, with no artistic freedom whatsoever?

The topic came up in this week’s interview with bass legend Michael Rhodes, in the midst of his tour with guitarist Joe Bonamassa. During the interview, Michael had some important things to say about the role of a bass player in that context.

First and foremost, he underscores the hierarchy of roles supplied by each member of the band, acknowledging that the bass is, by nature, a supportive instrument. Throughout the course of the conversation, he even recites the bass player’s mantra: “It’s all about the song.”

Each member of the band must know how to interact with the others, with everyone doing his or her job. When it comes to the bass, Michael says, we don’t always have to be in the background, as long as whatever we do is appropriate.

One example he cites is how he might find himself tweaking the harmony, slightly, usually toward the end of a song, in order to bring about a different flavor, and to keep things from becoming static. In this case, it’s pedaling a B under an E chord. 

We also talked about Lance Hoppen’s iconic bass line in the Orleans hit, “Dance With Me.” In that song, the bass goes waaay up there, beyond the customary low-end bass range, but it works. That line supports the melody, the harmony and the feeling of the song, without violating any rules of good, appropriate bass playing.

If you genuinely love the supportive aspect the bass player’s role, you’ll actually find yourself embracing the confines of the low end of the instrument, as you lay down that solid groove that’s expected of you. And if the inspiration hits you to add a little spice to your lines – only if it helps the song, of course! – then injecting some of your personality might be just want the music needs. You’ll know whether it’s right – ideally before you do it!

Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Michael here.

Comments on At the end of the day, the bass is a supportive instrument…

  1. Steve Schaefer says:

    I like to think of it as the heartbeat of the band. No bass – no life.

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