Apologies to Spike Lee for borrowing one of his movie titles.
To improve your bass playing, see it as a percussive instrument. And bear in mind, the bass guitar is not a solo instrument, nor is it meant to be the star attraction. But it is critical in creating a solid foundation for a song or song rendition that has punch, emotion, and impact. Anymore than a tuba or bass drum in a marching band, the bass guitar is not meant to be the center of attention, but it is there to help move the song along.
Your role as a bass player is in support of the more melodic instruments in your ensemble. You are part of what is known as “the rhythm section.” As such, you have to be tight to the tempo, whether provided by drum machine or actual, human drummer. To that end, it helps to know something about playing drums.
I’m a terrible drummer, but I am a a fairly decent bass player, and I do know a thing or two about drumming. I took drum lessons for about six months, a few years back. Am I ready to take over on drums at a moment’s notice? Not on your life, but I am very grateful for having learned proper drum techniques because those techniques have made me a better guitarist and a better bass player.
So…how do you improve your bass playing? In my totally biased opinion, here is what I think will make you a better bass player.
STUDY AND TRY TO EMULATE THE GREATS
Dusty Hill, Noel Redding, Roger Waters, John Entwistle, Jaco Pastorius, John-Paul Jones, Geddy Lee, Steve Harris, Roger Glover, Geezer Butler, Duff McKagan, John Deacon, Bill Wyman, Chris Squire…the list is almost endless of incredibly talented bass players.
Even bands with lesser known bass players, such as Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, Def Leppard, and even old Elton John, are worthy of a listen to how much the bass can add to a song, and help make it great.
Listen to the greats of yesteryear and try to play along. I suggest having a go at trying to emulate Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors for starters. You will be impressed. Have a close listen to The Yes Album or Fragile, both by the band called Yes. Take in Tres Hombres and Deguello by ZZ Top, and anything by Deep Purple before 1976. Those are great albums featuring great bass playing. The Who’s Who’s Next and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, are some also great albums to witness bass playing at it’s finest. So are the first two Led Zeppelin albums and just about anything by Rush, especially their masterpiece Moving Pictures.
Listen deeply and truly appreciate the magic of the wonderful bass playing on these amazing recordings. And when you feel ready, pick up your bass and try playing along.
LEARN TO PLAY THE DRUMS
I’ve mentioned this before in my guitar playing articles, but the same holds true for the bass. I dare say, even more so than for playing guitar, knowing drums is essential for good bass playing.
You don’t have to become the next John Bonham; just learn how to properly play the drums so you get a better understanding and feel for playing in a band and accompanying your drummer. It will also greatly improve your timing. That’s where the idea of considering your bass as percussive instrument (at least partially) comes in. The expression, “playing drums on the bass,” is a compliment for any bass player and describes a bassist who is tight to the tempo and does a great job at filling in the rhythm section.
This one of the most critical success factors at becoming a successful bass player.
KNOW YOUR SCALES
You can’t just stand there and only thump the root notes. How boring is that? Get to know your major and minor scales so you can improvise a bit, and travel around the fretboard to spice things up. Throw in accents and fills, just like a drummer does. Just don’t overdo though, because as any chef will tell you, adding just the right amount of spice will bring the best flavours out of your food. Overdo it and you ruin the taste.
One of my favourite passes, when I play with my band, is to play the root, fifth, and octave, similar to the bass in Smoke on the Water, by Deep Purple. I will sometimes go from the octave back to the flat seventh to add a little flare, which will fit most rock songs since the guitar will often be playing in a pentatonic minor.
By really knowing your scales, you will have a better understanding of what your guitarist (s) is (are) doing and a better feel of where they will be heading to next.
GUITAR PROFICIENCY CERTAINLY HELPS
I am not too bad on the bass and the reason why, I think, is that I am pretty good at playing guitar. This means I can play along well with guitarists because, most of the time, I know what they are doing from a technical standpoint and can often guess where they are heading to next with a fair degree of certainty. It makes the process of playing with guitar players a lot more intuitive, and therefore a lot more natural. Being more natural makes things run a lot more smoothly for a better musical output.
And because I am quite proficient with scales and know how to solo on the guitar, I can better accompany the guitar player when he or she goes into a solo.
The ever elusive golden chalice of tone is not unique to guitar players. Bass players also obsess about tone and how to cut through the mix without overpowering the other instruments. Easier said then done for sure. As a musician, you want to deliver the best and most aurally pleasing sounds you can muster, as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. That is the best I can do to define tone. How you do that is up to you. There are too many combinations of bass guitars, amps, and effects to cover here with any degree of authority.
The tone you choose will also depend on the genre of music you are playing; the tempo of the song; and the nature of the song (upbeat, heavy, ballad, sad, etc).
I gotta be honest…I don’t practice bass all that much. But I do practice playing guitar almost every day. I should practice what I preach, I know, but at least by playing guitar, I keep my hands and fingers limber. I also quite often play bass runs on my acoustic when I practice. I live in a townhouse so playing bass as loud as I like can be a real challenge. It’s also a bit of a hassle to drag all my gear out when I just want to bang out a few minutes of practice.
Like I’ve mentioned in previous articles, practicing 15 – 20 minutes every day is a lot more productive than practicing once a week for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon. My practice routine involves starting off by playing finger exercises I learned from Shredding Guitar Workout by German Schauss, Alfred Publishing. I also do arpeggios and scales, as well as a few other finger exercises I learned over the years from guitar teachers. I will then go onto playing, learning, or practicing songs that I like to play by myself or with my band. I also like to practice improvising chords into makeshift songs or just improvising riffs from scales.
LEARN NEW SONGS
Learning new songs will help you to improve as a musician. Learn songs that your band wants to play, but also try to learn songs that you never intend to play on stage. Play songs that challenge you and will force you to stretch your abilities.
TWELVE SONGS I SUGGEST YOU TRY TO PLAY ALONG WITH
- Money by Pink Floyd, from their outstanding album, Dark Side of the Moon, the bass in the song is outstanding, and really hard to master. I don’t mean just the opening riff, but the entire song. It is really challenging on the bass.
- Xanadu by Rush. Well…any song by Rush has incredible bass playing, thanks to Geddy Lee, but this one from their album, A Farewell to Kings is a real standout and great fun to play along to.
- Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple from their excellent album Machine Head. Sure, everyone knows the opening guitar riff, but the bass is a blast to play as well. It’s one of my favorite songs to play on bass. The tricky part of this song is the timing, but with a bit of practice, you’ll get it.
- Cheap Sunglasses by ZZ Top from their album, Deguello. The whole album has great bass playing by the dearly departed Dusty Hill. It’s so bluesy and cool. Also from the same album, I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide is a real treat for bass players.
- Sweet Child O’ Mine, by Guns n’ Roses from their album, Appetite for Destruction. As iconic as the guitar is in this song, the bass playing by Duff McKagan is very good and a lot of fun to try to emulate.
- Grace Too by the Canadian band, The Tragically Hip from their album, Day for Night. If you didn’t grow in Canada like I did, you may not be familiar with this band. Do yourself a favor and check them out, especially this song. Gord Sinclair’s bass playing is outstanding on this song.
- Ramble On, from Led Zeppelin’s second album has one of the best bass lines ever, in my less than humble opinion. I’ve been trying to get it right since I was a teenager – still trying.
- Long Distance Runaround by Yes, from their Fragile album. The bass playing is by Chris Squire – enough said. The whole album is mind blowing and will make your fingers ache.
- My City Was Gone by The Pretenders. This song from the early eighties has awesome bass. It’s a very busy bass line and a lot of fun when you master it.
- Money for Nothing by Dire Straits, featuring Sting on backing vocals. A great song with fantastic bass playing by John Illsley (thank you Wikipedia for that reference).
- Miss You by The Rolling Stones, from their album Some Girls. Bill Wyman at his finest, this is also one of my favorite songs to play on bass.
- 46 and 2 by Tool. Yeah, it’s my Mount Everest. I will probably never play it live but I love the bass on that song. And I love to try to conquer it.
This is just a small sampling of the incredible bass playing in rock music. I neglected to mention anything by Iron Maiden. Their bass player, Steve Harris, is one of the best in the business and has laid down some of the best bass playing I’ve ever heard, especially on songs like Where Eagles Dare and Number of the Beast. I also didn’t mention any Black Sabbath, whose bass player, Geezer Butler, is another one of bass heroes, as is John Entwistle from The Who.
I just wanted to give you a few songs to start off with. Also check out old Aerosmith, especially Sweet Emotion and Walk This Way, for Tom Hamilton at his finest.
One more to check out, Bust A Move by Young MC, featuring bass playing by Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Such a great song to dance to, such a great beat and such outstanding bass playing.
True, most of these songs are from the seventies, but that was the golden age of bass playing. Here’s to bringing back great bass playing!
Have fun while you learn, practice, and do.