Bass grooving versus the stuff that’ll get you fired

Be flashy if you’ve gotta… but be careful!

By Jon Liebman
Week of May 24, 2021

When learning bass, we should be laser focused on laying down a groove, locking in with the drummer, and setting the foundation for the band. That’s the mantra that should be instilled in all of us from day one.

“But what about all the ‘fun’ stuff?” you ask? “You know, the stuff that’ll get you fired from a gig!” you say, chuckling.

Well, first of all, respecting the traditional role of a bass player is fun. Wouldn’t it be an absolute blast if we could all play like James Jamerson, Leland Sklar, Rocco Prestia…?

I know, I know. You’re talking about acrobatic-style bass playing. You know, the stuff that Victor Wooten, Billy Sheehan, and Stu Hamm do. I hear you.

Well, I just had a fascinating conversation with Johnnie Gilmore for this week’s FBPO interview, in which we talked about that very subject. Johnnie’s career has him going back and forth between both approaches, so we talked about how he reconciles two totally different worlds of bass playing.

If you’ve got a “showy” side to you – and it’s totally fine if you do – how do you find that balance between the traditional role of a bass player and the so-called “fun” stuff? 

“Being a freelance guy in LA,” Johnnie says, “I have weeks where it’s predominantly sideman, and then sometimes it’s all solo.”

That kind of fluctuation requires having the proper mindset all the time. You’ve got to be incredibly alert, constantly giving the music and the band just what’s needed, regardless of what kind of amazing chops you may have, or whatever you might feel like playing.

Sometimes it takes a little discipline, but you’ve got to do what’s expected of you. “I think that the more experience I get,” says Johnnie, “and the more secure I feel in my technique, the less I feel like being flashy.” It’s a vitally important distinction.

So go ahead and shed your Jaco, Billy, Victor chops. There’s some truly amazing stuff that can be done on the bass. Just don’t get yourself fired for having the wrong kind of fun. With the appropriate attitude and approach, there’s no reason you can’t have the best of both worlds.

“I’m still working on it like everything else,” Johnnie says, “but yeah, I enjoy it. I enjoy going back and forth.”

How about you? 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 Johnnie here.

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