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.”
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.