Spaced out bass playing?

Sometimes it’s not what you play, but what you DON’T play that matters

By Jon Liebman
Week of July 12, 2021

Someone trying to impress people as being a great bass player typically thinks it’s all about speed, like playing a bazillion 16th notes in 10 seconds.

On the other hand, if the motivation is to be a good bass player, one will do much better by listening to the song to get a good feel for what it needs, and respond accordingly. Maybe the song is best served by the bass playing nothing but quarter notes. Or maybe it’s a funky R&B tune that calls for a busier bass line, possibly even (sigh) a bazillion 16th notes.

Has it ever occurred to you, though, that maybe the best thing you can play to help the music is… nothing?

That’s right. Nothing. Empty space.

I got to thinking about the subject during my conversation with Tony Campos (Static-X, Fear Factory), published as this week’s FBPO interview. 

Tony’s played in a lot of bands, often requiring him to change hats on the fly, conforming to the music that surrounds him. As for what to play – and how much to play – Tony hit it right on the head.

In offering advice to someone who wants to learn bass, Tony naturally gravitates to rock & roll, as that’s his world.

“If you’re trying to get into playing rock bass,” Tony says, “I would recommend starting out with AC/DC.”

What struck me most about that comment wasn’t how Tony thinks of AC/DC’s Cliff Williams not as “just another good bass player.” Rather, it was the reason he specifically cited Williams’ playing.

“I think Cliff Williams does an awesome job of, not only knowing where and when to play,” Tony says, “but when not to play, to give a song the breathing room it needs to jump out and hit you when the chorus comes back in and the full band jumps in.”

There it is. Playing the bass by knowing when not to play the bass. Don’t just play what you can; play what the song needs.

I commented on how that approach requires a certain discipline and musical maturity. “Yeah, absolutely,” Tony responded, “because your role as a bass player is to support the song and when you can give the song dynamics like that, that makes the song so much better.”

Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the song. Leaving space in your lines, where appropriate, also shows confidence in your playing and in understanding your role as the bass player. If you want to impress people, that will get it done better than anything else.

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

Comments on Spaced out bass playing?

  1. Playing in our acoustic duo, sometimes a single sustained note per measure on the upright is all that is required, especially if the guitar is finger picked.

  2. Rob Pizapio says:

    I read early on a quote from Carlos Santana “The loudness note you will ever hear is the one you don’t play” it was all about playing nothing to let the music breath. To me it also brings about a tension or earnest as the listener awaits what you will do next, it draws them in

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