Why Do You Play Bass?

Is it because all the “good” instruments were taken?

By Jon Liebman
November 15, 2018

Having conducted somewhere around 600 bass player interviews (so far), I’ve found only a handful of players that started on bass as their first instrument. Most bassists, it seems, began on other instruments, then, for a variety of reasons switched over. The list includes everyone from Paul McCartney (trumpet) and Lemmy (guitar), to Mark Egan (trumpet), Will Lee (violin, trumpet, French horn), Chuck Rainey (piano, viola, trumpet, baritone horn), and many others.

This week’s interviewee, Scott Whitley, was actually a drummer before he became a bass player. “I kinda got pushed onto the bass,” he says, thinking (hoping?) it was only temporary. Then he discovered Mark King of Level 42 and decided that “bass was cool.” Scott eventually embarked on what turned out to be a long and successful music career – as a bass player. Currently playing with Big Country, Scott has also held down the low end for the Animals, Boomtown Rats and loads of other musical acts.

We bass players have come a long way, from the days when our stature was that of an “unimportant” player. The bassist was just someone who stood in the background and went 1-5, 1-5 all night long. Or, as the inimitable Mike Watt once told me, the role of bass was “where you put your retarded friend” (his words, not mine).

While we may not be 100% there yet in terms of having attained all the respect we deserve, the bass has truly become a force to be reckoned with, indelibly fixated on the musical map, thanks in no small part to Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Billy Sheehan, Marcus Miller, Hadrien Feraud, and so many other great innovators.

How about you? Did you go straight for the bass, or did you take more of a meandering path to get down here? Feel free to leave a comment.

In the meantime, check out my interview with Scott here.

Comments on Why Do You Play Bass?

  1. Charlie Irwin says:

    End of the 60’s, room full of folky rhythm guitarists trying to put a band together. The guy who played bass in a rock band also played non-pedal steel. Band leader pointed at me and said “You’re the bass-player.” My first bass lesson: The other bass player said “When you play the guitar, you play note-strum-note-strum. So play the notes, leave out the strums…” That got me thru the first years of my career.

  2. George McConathy says:

    Late 1964 or very early ’65 (I was about to turn 15 or just had) my next door neighbor who had an electric piano, a friend who borrowed a snare drum from school, another friend who had an electric guitar, and me who had a $5 acoustic guitar were trying to start a band. I made the remark that I was going to have to get an electric and the piano guy said, “If you’re going to buy something, get a bass.” I didn’t even know what one was. But the next Saturday I went with my mom to Sears an we bought a Silvertone bass and amp. Wish I still had it.

  3. Eric says:

    I started learning the bass at 59 years old , Because I love the bass part of the music the best.
    My buddy at work has been a great encouragement to me , he plays bass in a local band and says that the bass player gets the last spot left on stage that no one else wants.LOL
    I have been learning using tabs, I learn slow but after a year and a half I am finally learning songs after going through a learning book with Bert Casey, whom I highly recommend, he starts you out with basics and leads you through many of the patterns from various types of music. It was work for quite a while , but I am determined to do as it says in the Bible, to do everything that you do to the glory of God. Bob Babbits playing is inspiring to me. Motown rocks.I grew up with it.

  4. Joyce Sheridan says:

    If you think some people consider the bass player as the plankton the whale eats, play drums. We aren’t considered musicians because we can’t read music, so they think. We like the bass, have to know music well, especially the chords. We are the ones who keep time and also lets everyone know when there is a key change. Playing in an orchestra, that is as a percussionist, I had to know all 3 clefs. A lot of my cues were from other musicians, music mostly second violins. Every year we would get new people in the orchestra and the first thing they would do is come over to me and say: “You aren’t going to play that thing loud, are you?” G-e-e-e-r!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Joyce! We bass players get it (even if others don’t). 🙂

  5. Brian Anderson says:

    Why the bass? Because the first thing I heard walking up the street was the sound of those HUGE wavelengths coming down the street, low and throbbing like a diesel in the train yard.

    My first bass was actually a discarded Stella acoustic guitar with a pick up and two E strings and two A strings !!??). During my first gig at a school concert I watched the neck separating from the body while playing Louie, Louie. I had to keep pulling the neck towards me while playing on one string. I bought a Harmony bass soon after. 1966.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Sounds like you got off to a rough start, Brian. I’m glad you stuck with it! Thanks for the comment.

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