Learning bass means keeping the big picture in mind

Give the music just what it needs: no more, no less

By Jon Liebman
Week of October 5, 2020

What kind of mindset do you have when you enter a musical situation? Do you always have the best interests of the music in mind, or do you sometimes find yourself thinking too much about, well… yourself?

Regardless of what you’re able to do on the bass, you’re expected to contribute whatever’s needed to help support and improve the music being played. As the number of bass player interviews I’ve conducted is fast approaching the 700 mark, I’ve listened to a lot of perspectives on what it means to be a bass player, including many relating specifically to this topic.

Rudy Sarzo, for example, who’s played with everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Quiet Riot to Whitesnake and Dio, once told me, “I join the band; the band does not join me.” Studio legend Abraham Laboriel once said something to the effect of, “You can play whatever you want on your own record, but you need to understand what’s expected of you when you’re hired to play on somebody else’s.” And session great Leland Sklar is always stressing the importance of “serving the song.”

The reason the topic is top-of-mind with me now is because of a conversation I had with Megadeth bassist David Ellefson, in an FBPO interview published this week, where he had plenty to say about the subject.

“As bass players,” David says, “we’re unique because we can be composers, we can be instrumentalists, we can sometimes be the composer and author of the song, and yet also sometimes we can just be playing the bass to someone else’s song.”

What’s important, though, is that we understand the differences between those roles, and know how to adapt appropriately to the situation at hand.

“We can come into it with many different approaches,” David continues, “and I think that the approach of the song is always more important than just walking in saying, ‘Hey, I’m David Ellefson, here I am. Where do I set my amp so I can sound like me?’”

Whenever you get invited into a musical situation, the expectation is for you contribute whatever is necessary to help the music, not stroke your own ego. 

“Sometimes I get hired to play like me,” David says. “Other times I’m there to be the best bass player that the song needs. I find that walking in to any session, it’s best to know what you’re hired for, you know? What their expectation is of you.”

Keeping the big picture in mind will dramatically increase the value of your contribution in any situation, musical or otherwise.

Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, you can check out my interview with David here.

Comments on Learning bass means keeping the big picture in mind

  1. Ted White says:

    I’m 84 yrs and started at 66. I have a great teacher and continue to practice 6 days a week. Nyack College gave me an honorary bachelor degree in instrumental music last year. I continue to get lots of chamber/orchestra experience as a volunteer.

  2. Geepers says:

    Awesome Ted – very inspiring!

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