How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bass Guitar
Stepping off stage after a monster set of modal jazz I notice the fans and how they flocked. The sax, keys, and drummer are usually the first to be approached. The singer just as often. I, the bass player, seem to be able to navigate the crowd completely anonymously, not a single person inquiring about my destination. It’s rare to gain great public acclaim as a bass player, that’s just not our role.
The lead guitar player? Sure. The trumpet soloist? Absolutely. Bass? Ideally, you only notice it when it’s being played poorly. Otherwise it serves a function in music that is completely supportive. An odd mix of introvert and extrovert that personifies “support” in the best of ways. I believe that the core elements of music and the instruments that play them have something in common in their organizational and social cultures in relation to other instruments. Said plainly, the musician’s personality can and often does echo their instrument’s emotional role in music.
The role of the bass as a function of music is to support the melody, harmony, and rhythm of a piece. Any instrument performing the bass role has a musical duty to both lead and follow the other musical elements to keep them all in concert. The bass has implied harmony and obvious rhythm to its part and it is usually thought of as the second melody.
This is a great musical example of the potential dynamics of an individual’s role in a team. In the first few years of my bass playing I wanted to play fast and use complicated techniques to be really impressive on my instrument. During college I noticed that every other young bass player was trying to do the same thing as me and none of us were getting any gigs!
The guys who were getting gigs were simple, solid as a rock, supportive players. They were members of their teams and naturally assumed a type of leadership role that exists somewhere between being fully in charge and just being a silent partner for approval. Thinking about you’re role in whatever team you’re in, how are you supporting that relationship and how do you keep everyone on track in whatever project you’re working on?
The bass player in a band does a couple of key things that have become stereotypes over the years. They keep the drummer on track. This means the bassist has to agree with the drummer about the tempo and feel of a song and then work to maintain those musical elements. By providing the bass line, the bassist gives the whole band the core harmonic information. The key of the song and the chord progression. This helps the singer identify their pitch and keep soloists on track by giving them a reference to the form of the song.
At the end of the night, after I’ve packed up my bass and I’m ready to head home, I’m happy that I get to continue my role as a supporting musician. I never really wanted to be the stand-out, I’d rather just help everyone be the best they can be. It’s a great way to be in charge without needing credit for it. It’s that great mix between introvert and extrovert and I’ve come to develop respect for the supporting roles over time. I learned to stop worrying. I learned to love the bass guitar. I learned to love being a part of a team. And I’d love to talk to you after my set, but if you don’t want to, that’s fine too.