Super chops may be impressive, but learning bass is about serving the song
By Jon Liebman
July 28, 2023
Have you ever watched a YouTube video of some kid with mega-chops going crazy on the bass?
Did it make you feel discouraged?
“I can never do that,” you say.
Well, you don’t have to. In fact, you probably shouldn’t.
Learning bass includes knowing how to support the song. It means locking in with the drummer, setting the foundation, and making the music feel good.
It means knowing how to play in a band.
Do I have to do that?
I was talking with longtime Vanilla Fudge bassist Pete Bremy recently, in a conversation published as this week’s FBPO interview.
One of the things we talked about was how people have gone totally “chops crazy” on the bass, taking the instrument in an entirely different direction.
Okay, it’s impressive and it’s fun to watch. But that’s not what people want in a bass player.
“If I see one more Instagram video of a 15-year-old kid sitting on his bed just slapping away or stuff like that…,” Pete says. “I can’t do that. I will be the first one to admit, I cannot do that. I’m sick of it.”
More importantly, he says, “Let me see: What can you do with a band?”
A change of mindset
Pete didn’t embrace that philosophy right away. In fact, early on he felt intimidated by the stuff these up-and-comer hotshots were doing.
“I changed my attitude toward that about 15 years ago,” he says, “thanks to Michael Tobias.”
Thinking back to a bass show he and Tobias had both attended in New York, Pete recalls walking past the exhibit booths, seeing one “chopsmeister” after another going nuts on the bass. “And I walked up to Mike and I said, ‘Mike, I feel almost embarrassed. I could never play like that.’”
That’s when Tobias changed Pete’s mindset for good.
“And he looks at me,” Pete recounts, “’But can they play in a band? You play in a band. All these guys are just here, going to Guitar Center and plucking basses, showing off in their bedrooms, making videos and stuff. But do they play in bands? You play in a band. You’ve been with the band for a while now.’”
Mike’s observation made a strong impression on Pete. “And I said, ‘You know, you’re right,’” he recalls. “I’m not going to put myself down any more.’”
It’s one less thing to worry about
This new way of thinking came as a relief to Pete. Chops for chops’ sake may garner a lot of views and “likes” on social media, but nobody’s asking you to do that. Pete’s much better off doing what he’s been doing, and so is the music.
“I don’t worry about it,” he says. “I’m 70 years old and I’m still playing with Vanilla Fudge and they still like the way I play.”
For Pete, following in the footsteps of the Fudge’s founding bass player, the iconic Tim Bogert, is a tall order to say the least. All the more reason for him to keep his primary focus on the music.
“I’m in Tim Bogert’s shoes,” he says. “I don’t have the chops that he had, but people tell me I fit the band fine.”
Serve the song
The main reason he fits the band so well is in the way he serves the song.
“That is my total philosophy for playing bass,” says Pete. “People might pigeonhole me, thinking that all I do is Tim Bogert. Well, not really. Famously, out there, yeah, but locally, I do lots of other things.”
According to Pete, the key to serving the song is learning to listen to what’s going on around you.
“I play to the song,” he says. “That’s my goal. I listen.” And he advises anyone learning bass to do the same. “Just listen, listen, listen. Train your ear, train your ear.”
Then, of course, you need to respond to what you hear, playing whatever the song needs.
“And I think, ‘What’s missing? What is missing from this song?,’” Pete says. “I think that’s the Paul McCartney in me a little bit ‘cause I love McCartney too.”
Keeping it simple – for more than one reason
Don’t make learning bass more difficult than it has to be. Wherever possible, keep it simple.
“A lot of times, simple is better,” says Pete. “For guys our age and older, if you have arthritis, it might be a little rough to try to be Jaco or some of the amazing players of today with amazing chops.”
In most cases, a super simple bass line is not only adequate, but it’s actually preferable. Good news if for those of us with arthritis!
“If you like country music and your hands are really arthritic,” Pete says, “you can play root-fifth. There’s lots of call for that. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.”
Keeping it simple may even help extend your practice sessions.
“For the older players,” Pete says, “keeping it simple is not a problem. And who knows… the more you practice, the more you can limber up too.”
How about you?
Why do you want to learn bass? Is it because you want to be a YouTube star? No. It’s because you want to play the music you love and have fun.
Always keep the end goal in mind as you build your bass technique and expand your groove vocabulary. In the end, it’s about serving the song.
“You don’t have to be ‘super chops’ to be a good bass player,” says Pete. “I don’t have to be Tim Bogert. I never, even on my best days… so I don’t try to be Timmy. I try to play more to the song and play within in my capabilities.”
Do you play in a band? Or would you like to? When you join the Bottom Line Club you’ll learn the fundamentals of good bass playing, with all the tools you need to serve the song. And it’s more fun than you can imagine. Check out my lessons and courses in the Bottom Line Club. You’ll like what you see. Join here.