Learn bass so you can give the music what it needs
By Jon Liebman
January 12, 2024
I’ve always thought it was interesting how jazz players can play just about anything. It seems that no matter what style is called for – whether it’s rock, pop, country, reggae, or of course, jazz itself – jazz players can do it, no problem.
I got to thinking about this phenomenon during a recent conversation I had with my old friend Tim Landers, published as this week’s FBPO interview.
When the subject of learning bass came up, I told Tim how most students at For Bass Players Only are over 50 and want to learn bass for the sheer enjoyment of it, with no aspirations of becoming rock stars.
So it was within that context that I asked Tim what kind of advice he could impart to someone who wants to learn bass.
Breaking bad habits
“The first thing I try to do,” says Tim, “is see if I can undo some bad habits that they’ve acquired,” acknowledging that a lot of bass students have played another instrument first, typically guitar or piano.
He cited a few examples, like poor fretting-hand technique, too much guitar-like vibrato, digging in too hard with the plucking hand. “Even slap,” he says. “Sometimes they’re just too aggressive. There’s too much arm movement.”
He also emphasizes the importance of holding the bass in a comfortable position, making technique building easier and allowing ready access to the entire instrument.
Don’t overdo it
“Technique also helps you not get pain in your hands or create problems with (your) tendons,” Tim says. “If you’re holding the bass wrong, if you’re playing too hard, things can start to hurt and it can really turn into a problem if you don’t address it.”
He also acknowledges that learning bass, like most things, is best done in moderation.
“I always tell my students that when they’re practicing, if they ever feel any kind of issue, tightness, or pain, to stop right away and to shake it off. Just put the bass down and don’t push it too hard. Be aware of your body and your hands and don’t overdo it.”
How’s it hangin’?
Part of positioning the bass for comfort is making sure it’s at the right height for optimum efficiency. You want to avoid undue stress and strain on your body.
“Some people just have it way too low,” Tim observes, “and when it’s way too low your left-hand wrist gets affected and you don’t have freedom.”
I could definitely relate to that advice. I shared with Tim how, many years ago, someone suggested I wear the bass pretty high up on my body. As soon as I tried it, I immediately discovered that I had such easy access to virtually every part of the bass. It was so efficient and it made so much sense. I’ve been doing it ever since.
So what does any of this have to do with being a jazz player?
Tim recounted a hilarious story that I wasn’t at all expecting. It happened shortly after he had moved to LA and started doing sessions. One day, pianist Alan Pasqua pulled him aside and gave him an interesting piece of advice.
“Tim,” Pasqua said, “when you get hired for these rock records, don’t tell them about your jazz background. Some people get inhibited by that and they’ll automatically assume that you can’t rock.”
Kind of a strange concept when you first think about it. I suppose it stems from certain perceptions of like-minded people.
“They just don’t want you around,” Pasqua continued. “They feel like they can’t play with you. You’re too smart for them.”
I imagine Tim was taken aback at first. He had, after all, played with some major league jazz icons, including Gil Evans, Lee Ritenour, and Al Di Meola. But, still a relative newcomer to the LA scene, Tim didn’t want to miss out on any potential session work, so he followed Pasqua’s advice.
The chameleon goes to work
“I got called to do this record,” Tim recalls. “It was for this guy named Robert Tepper, a New York singer/songwriter. I heard they had gone through about 5 or six 6 players in LA and Tepper, who’s from Brooklyn, was not happy because these guys were all studio guys. ‘You know, they’re too stiff, they’re too this, too that,’” Tim remembers Tepper saying.
“So when I got there,” Tim says, “I had my ’74 P bass. I lowered the strap and I took out my Fender medium pick, plugged into an SVT, and just rocked out like I did when I was in high school.”
“And they loved it!” Tim says. “They loved it! I remember Rob going, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! That East Coast thing. That’s great!’”
As it turns out, the session included the hit song, “No Easy Way Out,” which ended up on the Rocky IV soundtrack. Sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do.
It happens all the time
I’ve heard similar stories from other players.
Steve Bailey once commented about having back-to-back sessions one day and he showed up for a jazz date in his “rock getup,” causing some consternation.
I had a friend in Florida who got a part as in a Miami Vice scene that included a live band because he showed up with a green bass.
Studio legend Tommy Tedesco was notorious for pretending to make major changes in his effects settings when he actually made no changes at all.
Find the balance
It’s really about finding the right balance. On the one hand, people will often put their guard down when they feel like you “get” what they’re about and assume you’re one of them.
On the other hand, it’s important, I think, to remain true to yourself and who you really are.
Learning to play jazz on the bass will give you a wide grounding in all kinds of music with the ability to excel in just about any musical situation. People’s perceptions can be funny, though. So unless you’re doing a hard-core pure jazz gig…
Don’t tell them you’re a jazz player!
What about you?
Have you ever picked up a vibe where you sensed a “cultural mismatch” with a group of players? Leave a comment below and share your story. And be sure to watch my interview with Tim here.
P.S. The Jazz bass course inside the Bottom Line Club is one of my more popular courses. Get all the info and join here.