Is the bass a “background” instrument?

Learning bass means understanding the true role of the instrument

By Jon Liebman
Week of November 29, 2021

I’ve never liked the term “in the background” when it comes to the role of the bass player. Our job entails so much more than that.

If you’ve been playing bass for any length of time, hopefully you know by now that we play a supportive role and that, generally speaking, we’re not the ones in the limelight. 

That doesn’t mean we’re in the background, though. Being a good bass player means laying down the foundation for the band, playing a feel-good groove, and making other people sound good.

Now before you start coming at me with names like Paul McCartney, Sting, Phil Lynott, and all the rest, understand that I’m talking about bass in the traditional sense. We can talk about Jaco and Stanley all day long too, but that’s what I’m talking about either. 

This all came to mind during a fantastic conversation I had recently with longtime Billy Joel bassist Andy Cichon, published as this week’s FBPO interview. Andy had some very worthwhile things to say, not just about bass players, but about the rest of the band too. The word “background” never even came up.

“This has always been my philosophy,” Andy says: “Play the low notes, play them in time with the drummer, and stay out of the way of the lead vocal.”

Pretty much everyone would agree with Andy’s take. It sends a reminder that the bass is not what he calls “a show pony instrument,” and that we’re here to serve a specific purpose.

“I always find that being in a band is almost the ultimate form of socialism, if you will,” Andy says. “It’s not about me or him or the drummer or the vocalist. It should really be about the team. It’s the sum of the parts that matters.”

I’ve never heard it put quite that way, but the meaning is spot on. We’ve all got to work together. Everyone’s got a job to do, and we’ve all got to work together with a common mantra that the music first.

If you’ve got to be in the limelight, then maybe playing bass is not for you. Or maybe you’d rather be known as a singer/songwriter who just happens to play the bass. 

But if you know you’re destined to be a bass player, be a good one. Make sure to do what’s expected of you, give the song what it needs, and make the music feel good. 

After all, you’re an important member of the team, not just someone in the “background.” 

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 Andy here.

Comments on Is the bass a “background” instrument?

  1. Lasha says:

    Bass guitar can be anything. Background instrument, foreground instrument, main instrument, etc. Without bass, there is no music.

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