The reluctant bass player

How learning bass, even begrudgingly, became a life-changing experience for so many

By Jon Liebman
September 30, 2022

What made you decide to learn bass? Was it because you found the sound of the instrument so alluring you just had to play it? 

Or was it because there were already more than enough guitar players and the only way you could be in the band was if you were willing to be the bass player?

Did they have to twist your arm?

The latter is actually my story. Not only that, but out of the 800 or so bass players I’ve interviewed on For Bass Players Only, I’d say at least 90% of them told me they initially took up the instrument because nobody else wanted to play it. A lot of them say their school band director told them to play bass because, well, they needed a bass player. Some of them didn’t even know what a bass was! 

Next thing you know, they found themselves immersed in bass. They started discovering and listening to their favorite bass players, which, depending on their tastes, could have been Ray Brown, Jaco Pastorius, or Gene Simmons. They just fell in love with all things bass.

A decent bass player is often the hardest one to find

I got to thinking about all this during a recent conversation I had with bassist and multi-instrumentalist Richard Drexler, published as this week’s FBPO interview. You may be familiar with Richard through his work with Jeff Berlin, whom he often accompanied on the upright bass or piano. Richard is an incredibly prolific player, having performed and/or recorded with everyone from Nat Adderley to Cheap Trick.

When the subject of learning bass came up, Richard observed that the player who’s often the hardest to obtain in any band situation is the bassist. Kind of ironic, actually, given the small proportion of people who genuinely wanted to take it up in the first place.

“Anywhere there’s gigs going on,” Richard says, “usually the thing that’s in shortest supply is bassists. If you learn to play bass, you can move anywhere and probably fit into the scene and get some gigs pretty soon.”

Just learning “bass basics” can go a long way

That doesn’t mean playing bass is necessarily easy, nor does it mean that “anyone can do it.” After all, playing bass is an important responsibility. The bass player sets the foundation for the band, locking in with the drummer. The bass player is the one who makes the music feel good. If you can do a reasonably proficient job at those things, there’s a good chance you’ll find opportunities to play in any number of musical situations.

Once again, that was my story. Being a decent bass player who embraced the role enabled me to do jillions of gigs. At the same time, I was able to avoid getting lost in the sea of all the guitar players and sax players. In my case, playing both electric and upright, being competent with the bow, and a strong sight reader helped a lot too.

Imagine having this kind of impact

According to Richard, and speaking from my own experience, learning to play bass can open up a lot of doors for you. You don’t need to be able to do everything on the bass. You don’t need to be a world class virtuoso. If you can lay down a good groove with a good time feel, chances are you can find what you’re looking for when it comes to being a bass player. And it’s fun! 

“You don’t have to be a star to do it,” Richard says. “You can do it at whatever level you (want). Do it for your enjoyment. Do it to play a few gigs.”

Playing bass is not a “background” instrument; it’s a supportive instrument, a vital part of the band. Those feel-good grooves, supplied by the bass player, are what make people get up and dance – whether anyone else knows it or not. 

Why would anyone feel reluctant about making everyone in the room feel so good? If they had to twist your arm to get you to learn bass, tell them thanks!

Your turn. What attracted you to the bass? Did you take it up because you really loved the instrument, or was it because nobody else wanted to play it? Leave a comment below and let me know your story. And be sure to watch my interview with Richard here.

Comments on The reluctant bass player

  1. Edwin Hurwitz says:

    When I was 12 years old in 1973, a copy of the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 was left at our house and I checked it out. Bass can do that????? That’s what I want to do! I had experience in classical music, playing clarinet, piano, baroque recorder, etc., and loved the idea of a contrapuntal bass line (especially Bach) instead of the typical rock bass line that just chugs along on the root or matches a guitar part. Decades later, I learned to do a lot of different styles, but that was my inspiration and about 6 years ago, I got to play the Alembic modified Guild Starfire that started it all off for me.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great story, Edwin. I’ll see if I can snag an interview with Phil Lesh. Would you like that?

  2. Greg says:

    Watershed moment: instantly knew I wanted to play bass when friend isolated bass/drum stereo channel in 1972.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Not a bad way to get hooked on bass. It’s great how you remember that very moment! Thanks, Greg.

  3. Eric T Peterson aka Petey says:

    I play bass because I just love the instrument. That low end “boom” as I call it. My goal is to be the kind of player that can play any situation and any style AND HAVE FUN DOING IT! Music is a gift and that “gift” is meant to be enjoyed. When I go to shows and see the bass players getting off on stage that empowers me to keep practicing and keep going! I WILL NEVER GIVE UP THE LOW END!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Petey! Love to hear it!

  4. Richard H. Smith says:

    I became a bass player at 16 yr old. That was 1966 – imagine the music scene – very few bands played out, few night clubs etc. No alcohol, no kids allowed. No one to impersonate. Bad TV & radio music. We found bebop, early British Invasion. Unlike our parents, we grooved to black-origin music the radio. My teen bands were Brit copies, Stonesbut not Beatles, beautiful Black blues from inner-city stations. Eventually, the world caught on, many excellent players emerged. Those were the days!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Indeed!

  5. Eli Bennett says:

    Interesting. I grew up a guitar player, and people from my high school remember me that way. I bought a cheap bass my junior year, “in case I ever needed a bass player”. Then I started playing it, and the power of it just thrilled me and I was a bass player from college on!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Eli. So glad you found your way to the bottom end (even if by accident!).

  6. Richard H. Smith says:

    Hey there — my computer is on vacation so I’m stuck with text. I’ve been a bass player since age 16. That comes to 66 years, dozens of bands, about every style that’s come along. And I have played with names you would know and lots of obscure others — and I’ve gone through times I couldn’t get a gig. I stumbled across your site and here I am!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Richard. You must have some great stories!

  7. Richard H. Smith says:

    Good to meet you on line, looking to jump into the mix.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Glad to have you here, Richard. Welcome!

  8. James Chones says:

    Jon…. I played one gig n jammed at a friends house…. Know the fretboard, Major n minor scales pentatonic scales, etc (practice or play along every day… why am I afraid of criticism ……

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      No need to be afraid of criticism, James (as I’m sure you learned in your NBA career!). Thanks for the comment.

  9. Jill G says:

    I started playing bass (upright, then electric) because I love the low end. My practice and progress wane because I don’t have the confidence to think I could ever really hold down a good groove – and a bass player without groove is not a bass player! I compare myself with the professionals and I’m no where near that good!! And I never know where to start. Scales? (okay, boring), tunes, or just noodling for fun. I suppose all of that would be a good plan. Maybe just finding slow tunes that I like and try to pick out the key and some good-sounding notes….
    As always, thanks Jon for your articles – obviously I’m not alone in my journey!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Jill. I’m sure you’re better than you think you are. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with slow, steady progress. Hit me up anytime with your bass-playing questions. I’m always happy to help!

  10. Jimmy Mack says:

    Hello Jon, I thought I would weigh-in. I think I knew that I wanted to play bass when I was about 3 years old, although I didn’t start playing until the summer between my junior and senior year and high school. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of playing with very many popular bands, as well as other popular musicians, at venues around the world that are noteworthy but too numerous to mention. That also includes recording. I never had a desire to play anything but bass, even though now I own a couple guitars as well as a drum set. Thank you for having this site.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jimmy. You’ve wanted to play the bass since you were 3 years old? Amazing! You’re a true bass player for sure.

  11. John Evans says:

    I started playing bass because my best friend was a bassist, and his room-mate was also. Roger was in a band ca 1973 that covered the entire first two sides of the the Allman Bros. Fillmore album, did a Yes medley, did Sly & The Family Stone, etc. All over the map, and no song was off limits. Their horn section was Roger sang trumpet parts while playing bass, one guitarist played a sax part while singing a flute part, etc. His room-mate, Curt was playing the local university Jazz band while still in high-school because he could read the parts, he could swing, and he could solo. Plus, he played electric and acoustic. Curt was the guy who hipped everyone on town to Stanley Clarke, and Jaco and Weather Report…

    They alternated in a local country band but neither really liked the gig so one night Roger asks me if the bass he’d given me to rewire was done. Then he told me that I needed to take it and play a gig. I’d never played bass at all, only jammed on guitar a couple of times with other people, and didn’t know much about the country music that was current in 1976. But I knew the guitar player and Roger told me it paid $50 when I was making $200/week working construction. I did the gig, and they asked me if I’d play the next week. The next week’s gig was Thursday-Saturday at the same place, so we set up Thursday and didn’t have to tear down until Saturday. Plus it paid $50/night…

    I did that for a few months through drama and changes in members until only the singer was left from when I started. Plus we went through at least five drummers. Then I was offered a gig with a band starting up and the first time I played with that drummer, I felt what it’s like to be part of a solid cohesive rhythm section. And I understood the role of the bass player even if I didn’t know sometimes how to best accomplish that role. But having a good drummer, the freedom to NOT be tied to a specific recording as the “song”, and Jack Bruce’s admonition that “just because the bass has a traditional role to fulfill doesn’t mean one has to fulfill it in the traditional manner” made me a bass player

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great story, John! The paths we take can be very different, but we all ended up as bass players and that’s a wonderful thing! 🙂

  12. Chalo Trejos says:

    My older sister was given a Yamaha electric organ for her 15th birthday, became bored of it, and soon in a few months I (7-year-old me) went into exploring it (although it was prohibited for me to touch it), and it came with a learning system called “Electone” for kids. It was a step by step system, until it was time to reach the PEDALS! The first time I reached out to play those super low rumbling notes that made the windows rattle was the defining moment. My grandmother previously had offered to pay to get me into the Youth Symphony Orchestra because she loved the violin (but I was not interested), and… they had a double bass program, and I figured that it was my ticket to get into learning to play. Luckily the violin program was full at the moment, the double bass program had spaces but the instruments available were too big for me, so I started on cello with a beautiful female teacher, way older than me (probably in her 20s) but stimulating enough to get there whenever my school duties were over. I learned some of the ropes while growing into a height that allowed me to play the big stuff. The double bass teacher was a bitter, abusive SOB, and something like a year later I switched to electric, and started my rock and roll life.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Good story, Chalo. Thanks!

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