Learning to Play Bass with Strangers

When a new musical environment takes you out of your comfort zone

By Jon Liebman
Week of December 2, 2019

There’s a comfortable camaraderie that comes from playing with a familiar group of musicians, in a band that has gelled over the years, with everyone knowing what they can expect the others to do, before they even do it. Geddy Lee in Rush, and Gary Peacock with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette are but a couple examples that immediately come to mind.

But what if you’re in a situation where you’re called upon to play bass with new or unfamiliar players, maybe even strangers you’ve never even met? In some ways it feels the same, yet in other ways it feels different, even a bit awkward. How should you react?

The topic comes to mind from a conversation I had with longtime Chicago band bassist Jason Scheff, in an interview published this week on For Bass Players Only. When I spoke to Jason, he was knee-deep in a tour dubbed It Was 50 Years Ago Today, a Beatles White Album tribute show, featuring Todd Rundgren, Christopher Cross, Mickey Dolenz, and Badfinger guitarist Joey Molland.

I wonder how this lineup was chosen. Was it because they’re all established, seasoned performers, surely capable of doing justice to the Beatles’ music? Or was it a “strategically assembled” band, with each member chosen for his star power and commercial potential?

Or does it even matter?

I guess the reason isn’t important, as long as they get the job done. I have no reservations about any of their qualifications, but it does serve as a reminder of focusing on what’s truly important, which is the music. As bass players, we need to lay down the groove and make the music feel good, giving each song just what it needs. When playing with unfamiliar bandmates or strangers, we still need to concentrate on doing what we’re hired to do, even though we may feel a heightened sense of alertness and a different kind of awareness, ready for whatever they might throw at us. 

If you find yourself amongst a group of unknown players, the best thing you can do is approach the situation the same way you would any other professional music environment. Do your job, lay down the best groove you can, lock in with the drummer and give the music whatever it needs. You might even have fun with it. And who knows what kind of bonds might ensue as a result, converting strangers into friends?

Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below. I’d love to know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Jason here.

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