Only a bass player can sound like a bass player

“It’s not mind-boggling science or anything,” but…

By Jon Liebman
Week of April 5, 2021

As bass players, we’re a breed of our own. No one else can truly understand how it feels to lay down a bass groove, except of course another bass player.

Take guitar players, for example. It’s often pretty easy to spot a guitar player on bass. Much of the time (I didn’t say all), they sound like guitar players trying to play bass. The notes are all there, but that “certain something” is missing, that special quality that makes the music feel good and totally groove.

The subject came to mind while I was reading Gary Graff’s interview with metal bass icon Geezer Butler, published this week on FBPO.

Though first he was a rhythm guitar player, Geezer was encouraged to play bass because, well, Black Sabbath didn’t need another guitar player. Tony Iommi was doing just fine with it, riffing along with Sabbath drummer Bill Ward.

As Geezer remembers it, “Tony didn’t want a rhythm guitarist in the band. “I said, ‘I’ll switch to bass, then,’ and with the encouragement of Tony and Bill, their patience with me, I started learning from there.”

Geezer’s attitude toward learning bass really got my attention. If he had come at it with any other approach, history might have been very different.

At first, it seems, Geezer didn’t know bass was cool. It’s almost as if he switched to bass by accident. It was going to a Cream concert that made him discover the instrument’s potential. 

“I was mesmerized watching Jack Bruce,” he recalls of the concert. “I’d heard of Eric Clapton, but I’d never heard of Jack Bruce….and it was fascinating watching Jack Bruce.”

It was during that moment, he realized, “That’s what I want to do from now on, play bass!”

Fortunately, Geezer didn’t fall into the trap of sounding like a guitar player on bass. As he recalls, he was “just staying to what I know.” 

In other words, he listened to the music and gave it what it needed. 

“Don’t try and do something you can’t do,” Geezer advises. “Keep to what you feel.”

It’s amazing the kind of results that can emerge with that kind of mindset. When you don’t overanalyze things, and just play naturally, you might come up with something that sticks. Something that can be embraced by non-bassists too.

“I’ve had so many people over the years come up to me to say, ‘The first thing I ever learned on guitar was ‘Iron Man.’” 

I’m not saying learning bass is easy. But it doesn’t have to be overly difficult either. As Geezer puts it, “It’s not mind-boggling science or anything.”

Not unless you make that way. Yes, do your homework, practice what you need to learn. In the end, though, play with feeling and have fun. In a way that only a bass player can do.

Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, check out Gary’s interview with Geezer here.

Comments on Only a bass player can sound like a bass player

  1. CELIA BRADLEY says:

    “Yes, do your homework, practice what you need to learn. In the end, though, play with feeling and have fun”, says Geezer – That’s what I need to remember when I’m overdosing on theory and giving myself a headache. Isn’t that your philosophy too Jon – give the music what it needs, play with feeling, make it groove and have fun? Think I’ve been learning something from your lessons!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      You got it, Celia! Have fun and groove!

  2. Eli says:

    In all seriousness, after playing bass for 45 years, I have to say that bass is the easiest job at which to “get by” in a rock band. Of course there is unlimited room for expertise, and this comment is not meant to belittle any virtuoso bassist or say that what ALL bassists do is easy. But it doesn’t take a lot of notes to make a bass part work. It *does* take feel and understanding a drummer and groove, and if you’ve got that, you’re three quarters of the way to making a band rock.

  3. Charlie Irwin says:

    Many years ago, I played in various bands in a C&W circuit booked by one agent. He used to tell band leaders that they could make more money if they “had the chick singer play bass.” The theory was that ANYBODY can play bass. (In all fairness, several of the women turned out to be fine bassists.) There were a number of bands on the circuit with good vocals and mediocre rhythm sections…

  4. Robert A Pizapio says:

    I agree 100% I have been playing bass for 50+ years and started on bass not guitar, I see players playing the bass guitar and pretty much no they are guitarist playing bass. As you mention not all, but many just don’t understand the pocket the marriage between the bass and drums that creates the magic 🙂

  5. Danny Scerbo says:

    It comes down to vocabulary as well…..bassists know more of the bass repertoire and are familiar with how the parts work within a song. I can always spot a guitar player who plays bass (pick notwithstanding) as they tend to play the bass like a guitar and not a bass, i.e., they play as if the bass is an extension of a guitar.

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