Learning bass means serving the song

Chops are important, but not at the expense of the music

By Jon Liebman
September 8, 2023

So, there he was, Joe Badass, ready to dazzle the crowd. He’d practiced that solo endlessly. He strived to get his fingers moving as fast as humanly possible. “Wait’ll they get a load of me!” he said to himself.”

Then the big moment came. At best his performance was… satisfactory. His fingers were in the right places, technically, and he played all the right notes. 

But something was missing.

The audience didn’t pick up on his feeling because, well, he didn’t have any. Not the right kind anyway. 

The whole time he practiced and prepared, it was all about him and what he could do to impress everyone.

Turns out, he didn’t.

How well are you serving the song?

Just a reminder to keep the big picture in mind. No matter how much you’ve got in the way of chops and “awesome” bass technique, it’s not about you; it’s about the music. Always. 

I had a great conversation recently with Collective Soul bassist Will Turpin, published as this week’s FBPO interview. When I asked Will what advice he had for someone who’s learning bass, he was quick to emphasize this very point. 

“I’m not sure that this will make sense for a lot of people that are just trying to start,” Will says, “but use your ears and your feel more than you focus on your hand.”

In other words, let the feeling dictate the technique, not the other way around.

It comes down to emotion

“Let it come into you first,” Will continues, “and then figure out what you want it to sound like because music ultimately boils down to emotion.”

Not to say building bass technique isn’t important. It is. It’s even more important, though, to have your priorities right.

“It’s not a ‘Hey, count this rhythm, hit this fret at this time and then hit this fret at this time and then you’ve made some inspiring music,’” Will says. “It doesn’t really work like that.”

Don’t play like a robot

Music needs to be truly appreciated and embraced for the right reasons. You can’t move like a robot and expect the human element to be released. 

You also can’t expect your dazzling speed or bass mega chops to automatically make a meaningful contribution to the song.

“It’s not a mechanical thing,” Will says. “It’s a spiritual, emotional, moving enigma that’s out there, and when it’s right, people can tap into that. When it’s right, it transcends all.”

If you think the audience can’t tell when you’re phoning it in, think again.

“It’s been said before,” says Will. “It’s a universal language. People can feel those things.”

Know when to keep it in your back pocket

We all want to have good bass technique, and we should. Just remember to keep the overly technical stuff in your back pocket, only taking it out if and when it helps the song.

“That’s what I would say,” offers Will. “Yeah, you got to start out knowing third fret is the G and we’re going to go straight up here to the fifth fret on the A and on D – or here’s the Tom Sawyer riff! – but eventually if you want to evolve and be a musician, it’s not about those technical things. It’s about creating feel and emotion that connects to the human experience.”

Chops crazy 

I agree wholeheartedly with Will, and I hope you do to. He reminded me of those days back in the ‘80s, when everyone went totally chops crazy!

“I can’t do that,” says Will, “I respect Billy Sheehan and I respect all those other guys that can do that. I’ve got some technique, but how we grew up, we service the song, and the song is what carries the day. That’s the way I think about it.”

It always comes back to the song. I saw a quote once that said, “Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.” I see a definite parallel here with bass technique and improving the sound of the music. In the end, don’t play it unless you can improve the song.

How about you?

Have you ever learned a new lick or developed a new bass technique that you pulled out in a place where you had no business doing it? (It’s okay, we’ve all done that at some point.) 

What did you do to exercise some discipline, striving to play only what’s appropriate in the context of the music? Leave a comment below and share your experience. 

Then check out my interview with Will here.

Comments on Learning bass means serving the song

  1. Celia Bradley says:

    Sorry Jon but on this occasion I don’t fully agree. I think the importance of learning good technique is a priority and being downplayed here. When you’re proficient in the technique (so you can make the music sound good) and know what notes to play at the right time; when you can play good rhythm, stay in the pocket, lock in with the drums etc – once you know what you’re playing and your fingers move without you having to think too much about it, then you can start thinking about feeling, emotion and expression. Until you get to that stage by putting the work in and training your ‘chops’ then it has to be mechanical. Think of a classical musician – it’s the composer who had all the feeling when they composed the music – the musician has to learn precise technique and how to play the music exactly as the composer intended it to be – then they join the orchestra and unless they are a soloist, they are playing their little bit of the overall piece of music at the right time as led by the conducter – if they haven’t learned their instrument through hours and hours of practicing technique and music reading, then they won’t be able to play their part. Someone may really get into the ‘feeling’ of the music and may think it sounds great but they’re not playing in time or their tone is off or out of tune, so the audience cringes! That’s why we’re encouraged to record ourselves isn’t it, so we can learn to get it right – technical proficiency should come before feeling and spiritual emotion in my opinion. I’m also learning to play blues guitar, which has a lot of feeling involved when you watch an expert play – but to get to that level of being able to express my heart and soul through the music I have to do a lot of laborious work in learning techniques and how to manipulate the strings effectively e.g. it won’t ‘feel good’ until I can reach the right pitch with the bends! And I admire those players who have total command over the strings and can put so much expression into every note they play.
    As an example of someone who has “mega bass-chops” which add a meaningful contribution to the song (an understatement in this case), listen to Chris Squire playing bass in Roundabout by Yes (one of my favourite bands of the 70’s). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwPWGUhEtP0

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Good points, Celia. You’ve got to walk before you can run. What I was trying to say is that, though developing bass technique is a good thing, it must be applied tastefully, to help the song (like Chris Squire!), not played just because you can play it. We’re basically on the same page. Thanks for weighing in! 🙂

  2. Rick Cain says:

    Hi Jon, enjoyed your interview with Will Turpin. I liked that he said “use your ears and your feel”… it really does come down to that.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      It sure does! Thanks, Rick. Glad you liked the interview.

  3. John A Ewing says:

    Another good read. Recently I was asked to sit in for a friend doing some original music of his…man it was hard to not add too much me…first take he says… I like it but. 😉 So next take reduced 30%. That did the trick. Sometimes less really is more.
    On another note Stanley Clarke was awesome on Wednesday. 👍🏾

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