Should you be a well-rounded bassist or a specialist?

Challenging the fear of being typecast

By Jon Liebman
Week of September 21, 2020

I’ve often written about the importance of being a well-rounded bass player, citing the advantage of adapting to any musical situation. 

Many times, though, a player becomes known for being really good at one particular style. The word “typecast” might not be a stretch.

So which approach is best? Is one mindset better than the other?

This week’s interview, a departure from the customary bass player feature, is with Derek Sherinian, a keyboard player. When I was approached about interviewing Derek, I was a little taken aback at first. Then I saw that his new record includes special appearances by no less than Billy Sheehan, “Fretless Tony” Franklin, Jimmy Johnson, and Ernest Tibbs. “What a lineup of bass heavyweights!” I thought. I asked Derek how he went about choosing such a varied roster of players.

“No matter what the style is,” Derek says, “I always will have the players in mind.”

Kicking off the record, Derek wanted to make a powerful statement, grabbing the listener’s attention, right from the start. The best person for the job, according to Derek, was Billy Sheehan. “Billy is fantastic!” Derek says. “He brings such an energy. He has a way of playing where it’s busy, but he knows how to play around and not gum up the tracks. He brings just a great energy when he plays, so on our opening track, “The Phoenix,” he was immediately the first player I thought of.”

Jumping into a completely different feel, with fretless bass, the obvious choice was Derek’s longtime friend and bandmate Tony Franklin. “When it comes to those slow, fretless sections,” Derek says, “I hear his bass. Tony just has that unique sound that you hear it and you can point out and go, ‘Wow, that’s Tony Franklin!’”

Switching gears again, this time to fusion-oriented music, Derek went straight to another seasoned bass vet, Jimmy Johnson. “When I write fusion things, I hear Jimmy Johnson,” Derek says. “He’s such a professional and such a nice man and just such a pleasure to work with. No matter what I throw at him, he’s always game. His bass tone is so amazing that he can just turn in a bass track and you don’t even have to EQ it or do anything. It just sits right in and it’s perfect.”

Yes, it’s good to be a well-rounded player, and I encourage you to learn bass in all the styles you can. Just know that there’s another side to that coin too. If you have a style you really love, go ahead and dive in deep. Being typecast should not be something to worry about. If you have a niche you want to cultivate, go for it.

By the way, Derek has a lot of guitar players on the project too, like Steve Vai, Slash, Zakk Wylde, Joe Bonamassa, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and Kiko Loureiro. “There’s just certain guys that have a sound that I love,” he says. “I think it’s great.”

How about you? Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, you can check out my interview with Derek here.

Comments on Should you be a well-rounded bassist or a specialist?

  1. Vinny Sansone says:

    Always think it’s best to learn different styles. There’s a wealth of styles out there if you so desire. The other side of the coin is Lee Sklar who in my opinion is the definition of what bass is. Knows what to do, when to do it. Has great tone, great lines,is a pleasure to probably work with. No wonder he’s one of the most recorded electric bass players in history. Thanks Jon.

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