The Bass - Building a Musical Bridge

I recently auditioned for the bass position in a new band. It started off a little rocky, but fortunately ended well, and the whole experienced helped to reinforced some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years about the role of the bass in a rock band.

The Audition
One day prior I had been given a list of songs to learn. I concentrated on the more difficult pieces first, banking on my ability to “fake it” through some of the simpler IV-V-I songs if I ran out of time. This strategy paid off – sort of (more on this later). There were a few songs I had never heard before, and I spent some time tracking them down and running through them once or twice. In just a few hours I had managed at least a passing familiarity with the set list. I knew the band would be somewhat forgiving, given the short notice. Still, I wanted to be as prepared as I could.

When I showed up, the band had a space cleared for me between the guitarists and vocalists…and across the room from the drummer. I set up, tuned up, and we set about going through the first song. I was nervous, but despite everything the song went OK. Another time through, and things went….OK. It was at this point that one of the band members asked me if I would feel more comfortable setting up next to the drummer. I eagerly said “Yes!”, and in a few minutes time I was standing just a couple feet away from the kick drum.

We went through the song a third time, and what a difference! Being next to the drummer made it easier to lock in rhythmically, and brought a whole new vibe to the music. Everyone in the room felt it. Now we were rocking! To make matters even better, all of the drummer’s shells and heads were transparent. I had an unobstructed view of his foot, which allowed me to follow it like a homing beacon. Sheer bass bliss! From now on, I told myself, I will always ask to stand next to the drummer.

Because I had practiced the more difficult pieces I was able to impress the band enough to keep me around for the full two hours. Eventually we got to one of the easier pieces, a simple IV-V-I that I figured I could rumble through. We tried it once, and though I managed to get through it by plunking out the roots, it sounded pretty sterile. One of the guitarists graciously pulled me aside and showed me the simple walking bass line that normally went under the chords. We went through it again, and suddenly the listless IV-V-I sounded like the blues-boogie song it was supposed to be.

So what did I (re)learn?
Lesson #1: Be Prepared. The bass, along with the drum kit, forms the foundation of the band. Shaky foundation = shaky band. Know the songs, and play them confidently.

Lesson #2: Guitars are harmonic instruments. Drums are rhythmic instruments. The bass is both. Its role is to form a bridge between the rhythmic and harmonic elements of the band. Stand next to the drummer, and lock on to his foot like a laser.

Lesson #3: The bass line dictates what kind of song the band is playing. When a guitar plays C, D, G chords, the bass can turn those chords into a rock, country, or reggae song, simply by changing the bass line underneath them. But remember: with great power comes great responsibility. Plunking on the roots will only get you so far.

I ended up getting the gig, and left with some great reminders about my new job description.


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