How To Be An Impressive Bassist

Recently, one of my students came to me with a somewhat unusual request. He said that whenever he’s at the local music store, it seems like all the bassists there trying out the latest gear have mega chops and each of them has a cool, flashy lick or technique on display. My student, an above-average player, asked if I would teach him something “impressive” during his next lesson so that he would have something to pull out along with all the other sultans of shwing. I told him I would and he seemed happy with the knowledge that soon he’d be able to have something to show off.

While the player in me is always eager to share some shred with a fellow bassist, the teacher in me felt guilty for not at least attempting to preach a little about the pitfalls of validation via showmanship. I wanted to tell him that all the slappity-bippity-tappity-shmappity in world wouldn’t make him an impressive player if he doesn’t possess some real musicianship. But being the nice guy teacher that I am, I smiled and told him I’d have something for him next week.

Later, while preparing my lesson plans for the following week, it occurred to me that I could in fact satisfy both my student’s need for a quick fix of greatness and my need to pass on something of more value than some sleight-of-hand bass gymnastics. After the lesson, I gave him a sheet of folded paper and told him not to read it until he was home. Herewith lies something of far greater value than anything I could ever teach someone with a bass in my hand:

20 Steps To Being The Most Impressive Bassist On Your Block:

1. Always arrive “on time” for gigs, rehearsals, sessions, etc. On time = 15 minutes before you’re supposed to be there or, however long it takes you to set up your gear and be ready to play; whichever is greater.

2. Smile a lot and greet everyone using his or her first name.

3. Don’t settle for just knowing the roots of the songs you play.     Having even a basic knowledge of the chords the guitarist/keyboardist plays will help you communicate better with your band mates and the chord knowledge will also provide you with more options for creating catchy bass lines.

4. Have a backup for everything: spare bass, amp, cab, cables, batteries, fuses, strings, tuner, ear plugs, flashlight, extension cord – anything which could prevent the gig/session from happening were it to die on the spot. Less-equipped band-mates will appreciate your preparedness when some piece of their gear goes belly up.

5. Be able to fake your way through songs you’ve never played before. This is known as having “big ears”. If you’re good at it, you’ll be surprised how many people will never know you were winging it.

6. Be able to accept criticism with dignity.

7. Be able to accept praise with humility.

8. Learn to sing, even if it’s only the occasional backup part.

9. If you play in a one-guitar band, get comfortable with basic power chords so that when it's appropriate, you can comp through the chord progression while the guitarist solos. Just be careful not to step on the soloist. Bass chords can take up a lot of sonic space.

10. If you slap, don't over-slap. Sure, we all love Flea but even he knows that too much can be overkill.

11. If you play a 5 or 6 string, don't be tempted to ride the low B excessively. Too much low B and you run the risk of inflicting ear fatigue on your listeners. Plus, it muddies your sound.

12. When making a gear purchase, base your decision less on what your heros play and more on what you really like. By all means, check out what the big boys are playing but take your time and play a lot of different items to get a feel for what you like and don't like.

13. Spend some time learning to play basic drum beats. Since this will aid in making your rhythm section tighter, your drummer shouldn't give you any flack about this, provided you don't go through all his sticks your first time on the kit.

14. Have the confidence to play a simple bass line without feeling the need to "spice it up" by over-embellishing. 

15. Know your place in the group. If you're a hired gun or clearly in a situation where you're subordinate to someone else, have respect for that person's vision and avoid offering large amounts of unsolicited advice. It's better to keep your mouth shut and let your talents do the talking. Later on you may find your opinions are being solicited and given serious consideration.

16. When auditioning, let the person conducting the audition call the shots for the time you're there. If you're not fully prepared, don't make excuses, just state what you're ready to play and avoid offering suggestions like "Since I didn't get a change to learn your other 3 songs, maybe you'd like to hear my version of Stu Hamm's version of the Peanuts theme?". Uh, no. They wouldn't.

17. Always have your antennae up and be in a perpetual state of learning. Complacency dulls your spirit and hampers your creativity.

18. Realize that the moment you believe you're irreplaceable in your band is the exact moment you need to be replaced.

19. Major scales. You can run from them, but you cannot hide. Until you become intimate with them, learning all other scales and modes will be an uphill battle. Get to know them and they'll be your best friend.

20. Stop trying to impress people. Play your bass and have fun!

If all or most of these sound like good ole common sense to you, CONGRATS! You get it and you're probably already an impressive bassist. I have no doubt that my student was already well-acquainted with most of these tenets, but at least now my conscience has been sated.

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Disclaimer: The author reserves the right to violate and/or ignore any of the above suggestions at any time as he has never had an interest in impressing anyone.