In the end, it’s all about the music. However…
By Jon Liebman
April 21, 2023
Is playing bass strictly a man’s game?
You better think long and hard before you ask a question like that.
While most of the better-known bass players are men, there are a lot of incredible female bass players too.
The subject came up during a recent conversation I had with America bassist Rich Campbell, published as this week’s FBPO interview.
Rich has been on the music scene for so many years, and he’s had a lot of great experiences. Like anything else, those experiences are bound to take their toll on one’s body sooner or later.
Men and women: Both play bass.
Most of my students here at For Bass Players Only identify as “old rockers,” mostly men, but I have been getting a fair number of women signing up too.
I wanted to get Rich’s take on how he thought people of that vintage should approach learning bass. I didn’t ask about men versus women; just about baby boomers in general who want to learn bass.
“I do think it’s a great instrument for us older folks, men and women,” he says about bass. “I think women, kind of, are put off a little bit on it because it seems like it would be hard to play.”
Truthfully, I’ve never really thought about it too much. Out of the 800+ interviews I’ve conducted on this site, a lot of them, actually, were with women.
“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” ― Charlotte Whitton
There are a lot of very influential female bass players on the music scene. And none of the ones interviewed for this site seem to have any problem showing the instrument who’s boss.
A partial list includes Carol Kaye, Rhonda Smith, Ariane Cap, Angeline Saris, Nicki Parrott, Emma Anzai, Tanya O’Callaghan, Ida Nielsen, Linda Oh, Ryan Madora, Eva Gardner, and Suzi Quatro.
And so far in 2023, new interviews with Divinity Roxx and Yolanda Charles have been added too. (Spoiler alert: Julie Slick is in the queue; watch for her interview in May!)
“Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” – Timothy Leary
“You know, you have your Tal (Wilkenfeld),” acknowledges Rich, “you have incredible women bass players that are doing some incredible things. It’s great to see that.”
So, what’s the difference?
Is there a difference between men and women when it comes to playing the bass?
“To me,” Rich says, “there’s sort of a feminine energy to a bass… a cooperative energy and women seem to be more about the cooperative. You know, they hang out together and they discuss things together, and everything is together. Guys tend to be more driven, like, ‘I want to be that guy out front,’ so it’s a great team instrument for women.”
Beyond the biological differences, a lot of the challenges facing bass players are gender neutral. They can happen to all of us.
We both feel pain
“The action is probably the biggest thing for me,” Rich says, “because I do have a little bit of the arthritis kicking in. I’m 64 years old, so it’s about time for this stuff to start catching up with me.”
Most of the solutions are the same, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.
“I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men. They are far superior and always have been.” – William Golding
“For that kind of a thing,” Rich continues, “the things that I do for myself (include playing) a lighter instrument. For me, the heavy 5-string Jazz bass is just kind of off the table because even the neck is thicker and there’s so much weight to it there. So, the semi-hollows, the Beatle bass type of things…”
It’s not you, it’s… the bass?
A lot of times, the instrument itself could be the culprit.
“If you have a bass that’s giving you problems,” Rich says, “it’s worth it if you can afford to take it in and have it set up by someone who would know how to do that. A little bit of a truss rod adjustment, a little bit of a bridge height, maybe a new nut in there can take an instrument that’s almost unplayable and just make it a joy to play.”
Other times, even if your bass is set up perfectly, it might not be the right instrument for you.
“(With) short-scale basses,” says Rich, “even on the lower things, the frets are closer together. There’s less of a stretch necessary.”
A lot of my students find switching to a short-scale bass to be especially helpful if they have arthritis, tendonitis, or other physical challenges.
“If there’s any kind of an issue going on with tendons, an issue going on with arthritis,” says Rich, “inflammation in the joints and stuff, that can really take a lot of the stress out of that too. It can make it a lot more fun and a lot less painful.”
“Men are from earth, women are from earth. Deal with it.” – George Carlin
It’s easy to see how women might favor lighter basses or smaller basses because they’re easier on the hands and the shoulders. But why wouldn’t men go for them too for the same reasons?
A groove doesn’t care if it’s being played by a man or a woman. For that matter, arthritis doesn’t discriminate either on whose body it decides to annoy. We’re all in this together.
Thoughts on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what’s on your mind. I’d love to know.
Want to learn bass? My lessons and courses in the Bottom Line Club are equally suited to both men and women. And a lot of them have arthritis and sore shoulders! Find out all about joining here.
Hey Jon, I’m enjoying all of your interviews, but, of course, I appreciate hearing from the gals and their journeys, perspectives….
I’m such a new bass player, but one thing I aim to do is support the music. It’s not about me (or gender), but, what does the music need? When is silence better? I know that some bands want a certain look (not too old, not too boring, not too _______ [fill in the blank]), but if you work on your chops, understand groove, build your aptitude and have a good attitude, that will go a long way in playing with others! Oh, and love playing the bass!
I retired as an airline pilot – so, kinda the same thing. The airplane didn’t care what your gender was – just how smart you are, situational awareness, and can you land on your feet (or in this case, wheels). 🙂
Blessings from San Diego,
You’ve always shown such a great attitude, Jill! Thanks for the comment.
There does seem to be a difference in style with women. It’s a generalization but they tend to play more florid and more passive. More…well…feminine. The same goes for pianists, writers, painters — it’s what makes various personality traits pertaining to art interesting. I also can’t think of any really burning female rock guitarists. It’s an aggression thing.
Rhonda Smith played bass with Jeff Beck, in high heels!!
Never looked at her feet! LOL!