Is the bass just a “background” instrument?

Embracing a “pick & shovel” mentality

By Jon Liebman
Week of October 26, 2020

There’s a quote by Mark Twain I’ve always liked. He said, “During the gold rush it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.”

When you think about it, there’s a parallel between Twain’s quote and being a bass player. After all, if everyone’s trying to be a rock star guitar player, there’s plenty of opportunity for those who support them, right?

Okay, maybe not everyone is trying to be a rock star guitar player. What’s more, there are even a few rock star bass players. 

But let’s be honest. Of the hundreds of bass players I’ve interviewed, most of them took up the instrument somewhat reluctantly – at first – because all the other instruments were taken, mainly guitar.

So what does it really mean to be a bass player?

I got to thinking about the subject during my conversation with Evergrey bassist Johan Niemann, in an interview we published this week on FBPO.

When I asked Johan what advice he could impart to someone who wants to learn bass, at first he said, “Play along to records. Find music that you really like, and try to learn the parts.”

Most of us have done that, but if you’ve ever really analyzed great bass lines, you know what a profound impact the bass has on the overall feel of a song. A lot of people view the bass as a background instrument, but think about it. Without the bass groovin’ away, where would the foundation be? Where would the feel be?

You’re a bass player. You’re there to lay down the foundation with the drummer and support the band. It’s a vitally important job, so do it proudly, with no reluctance or regrets. 

There’s nothing wrong with having a “pick and shovel” mentality as a bass player. In fact, it’s something to embrace.

“You have to put your ego aside,” Johan says, “if you want to work. But if you’re more artist-minded and it’s your way or the highway, then that’s fine too. But then, you might have to get a day job, you know.”

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 Johan here.

Comments on Is the bass just a “background” instrument?

  1. Darryl Lima says:

    In my early, and very dominant years, I was always introduced as “Lead Bass” which I made a point to live up to. Main hero was Chris Squires of yes, who was not a support player at all. As I have aged, I have learned that there is a time and a place for everything, including laying back a bit.

  2. Keith says:

    The bass is an important part of the foundation of a song regardless of the genre. Remove the bass part from almost any Stevie Wonder, Earth wind and Fire, or Tower of Power song and listen to how the feel and groove of the song are affected. The bass augments the harmony, melody, and rhythm of a song probably more than any other instrument. It’s not about soloing or chops. It’s all about the groove.

  3. Dan Zywan says:

    My first degree is bass trombone. Now that is a supportive instrument. I play bass the same way.
    Have you ever watched some Asian acrobats? There’s a guy on a bike going around in a circle and many people standing on top of him doing incredible feats of balance. If the guy waivers any, the people on top are looking for a place to land.
    We are the guy on the bike. We support the entire ensemble.

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