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.