Finding your own voice as a bass player
By Jon Liebman
May 5, 2023
Has it ever occurred to you that, even if all the bass players in the world had the same abilities, learned the same techniques and practiced the same exercises, that no two players would sound alike?
I guess that’s just part of what makes the world interesting. Even though our genetic makeup is about the same, we don’t all look alike, sound alike, or think alike.
Or sound the same when we play the bass.
So many factors go into what makes the uniqueness of someone’s bass sound – tone, attack, personality, the size of the hands…
On the one hand, we do want to sound “the same.” By that I mean understanding the importance of providing what’s expected of us as bass players, like setting the foundation for the band, playing in time, making it groove…
Yet at the same time, it’s also good to put your own personality into the groove, or, as I once heard Nathan Watts say, “Sign it!”
The topic came up during a recent conversation I had with bass phenom Julie Slick, published as this week’s FBPO interview.
Julie was talking about her longtime gig with guitarist Adrian Belew and how she adjusts her bass playing for whatever musical context she happens to be in.
Be influenced by others, but sound like you
“I see the bass as a vehicle for expression,” says Julie. “Adrian is a HUGE influence to me, so, having said that, I try to approach music the way he does with this sort of naivete almost. How can I make things different, like put all these influences in a box and kind of shake it up but make it still, intrinsically, my voice?”
It’s a juggling act for sure, but finding the right balance is a big part of what makes each one of us unique.
“That’s what I try to do,” Julie says. “That’s what Adrian does, obviously very effectively. You can hear something that he played on and instantly recognize, ‘Hey, that’s an Adrian Belew guitar solo.’”
Julie cites another mentor of hers, Tony Levin, in the same light. “I can instantly hear a song when it’s on the radio,” she says. “‘Oh, Tony must have played bass on that.’”
As bass players, we need to lay down the groove, but we don’t want to sound like anyone else.
“That’s the goal, I think, as a musician,” says Julie, “to be able to have somebody listen to you, to be discernable. ‘That’s that person’s voice.’ And that’s one of the hardest things, I think, that one can possibly achieve.”
If that’s the case, then… how do we do it?
Turn off your brain and see what happens
“I’ve talked about it in interviews before,” says Julie. “It’s hard, but try to turn off your brain and try not to think as much. Just kind of receive the music and do the best you can to suit the music.”
Part of the balancing act also includes picking up on the groundwork laid by the bass innovators from earlier generations, like John Entwistle and Jack Bruce, both of whom Julie acknowledges as among the architects of rock bass.
“Turn off that little voice, which is really, really, really hard,” she says, laughing, “and just sort of open your ears and listen and, in a very hippy way, let the music flow through you. What comes out is what is pure, and not John Entwistle or Jack Bruce.”
Bass technique with a purpose
Learning good bass technique is necessary, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a means to an end.
“Of course learning the techniques is also very important,” Julie says, “because you can have an idea of, ‘Oh, man, this song I’m playing right now, I could really use this killer riff right here.’ Obviously, if you don’t have the facility to do that, you can’t do it.”
Killer riffs have their place, but don’t ever forget that the job of the bass player is to groove.
“You have to keep that groove,” Julie says. “That groove is the most important thing. The music is happening all around it and the bass is just there with the drums, providing that harmonic stability.”
Shut up! (sometimes)
As the old cliché goes, it’s not just what you play, but what you don’t play that makes the music groove.
“This is something I’ve learned as I get older,” explains Julie. “Sometimes, not playing anything, or playing the least amount of notes, if that’s what services the song, then that’s what services the song. It’s not all about showing off.”
What about you?
What are your thoughts about finding your own voice as a bass player? Leave a comment below and share what’s on your mind.
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“try to turn off your brain and try not to think as much. Just kind of receive the music and do the best you can to suit the music.” This is what Kenny Werner in his Effortless Mastery approach has been teaching for 20+ years now, in both his original book “Effortless Mastery” and the recent follow-up “Becoming the Instrument”. I’ve been working for some time on getting out of my own way and letting the music play me. I strongly recommend his books.
Great stuff. Thanks, Charlie.
I’ll second Charlie’s comments re Kenny Werner’s books – they’re a must read for every musician. And the key to switching off the brain that Julie’s talking about? Having your part lodged in muscle memory. The body then plays with no conscious interference from the mind. And the key to getting the part into muscle memory? Repetitions. There’s simply no shortcut. Most of us think we know the part once we can play it. No. As Werner says, you know it when you can play it effortlessly. Big difference. Just read his books … makes it all perfectly clear 😀.