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Solo Bass 101 by Michael Manring

by Michael Manring

The bass guitar has had a pretty interesting journey in the fifty-some odd years it’s been around. Creative artists have explored and tapped the enormous potential of the instrument to amaze us with all kinds of innovations and advancements so that today it’s played with an amazing variety of styles, techniques and approaches in many, many genres. Now there’s a new vision of the bass that’s starting to take shape and develop a small but enthusiastic group of adherents — unaccompanied performance.

Given that the bass has always been thought of as an integral part of a rhythm section — perhaps the essential accompaniment instrument – this development may be a bit of a surprise. But progress in instrument design and enormous advancement in music technology have made it possible for all the subtleties and colors of the instrument to be heard and developed, and the solo format offers a unique opportunity for this extraordinary expressive capability to be appreciated.

My own experience with solo bass has been surprising and fulfilling. Ever since I caught the “bass bug” as a youngster, I loved hearing it by itself and had a feeling there was more potential there than it was given credit for. Many well-meaning friends discouraged me from getting too serious about bass as a solo instrument because they felt it was something, “No one would ever want to listen to for more than two minutes.” I was happy to pursue the more conventional role of the instrument, as that has always been just as interesting to me, but the dream of solo bass never really went away. Over the years I composed little solo pieces for myself and summoned up enough nerve to perform them whenever I could get away with it. Little by little I found myself able to do more and more unaccompanied playing and the more I did, the more I enjoyed it. At this point, even though I’ve had the good fortune to play on hundreds of recordings and in thousands of shows as an accompanist, solo playing has become the main focus of my musical life.

Much to my delight I’ve found I’m not the only person who’s got the solo ‘Jones’. In the last few years a group of dedicated bass soloists has sprung up, playing wherever they could, for whomever would listen. And surprisingly, people are actually listening. Don’t get me wrong — this solo bass stuff doesn’t have major pop stars shaking in their Doc Martens or anything — but a lot of these guys have full performance and clinic schedules and several solo recordings under their belts. In fact, a large number of solo bass oriented events have sprung up around the world and many of them are attracting respectable cult followings. At this point I think it may be safe to say we’re witnessing the birth of “Solo Bass” (with capital letters) as a kind of art form in itself as opposed to just “solo bass” (in small case) as an occasional musical oddity.

So what’s it all about? A surprisingly wide variety of music is being made on solo bass these days. Thinking of it as a “genre” or an “idiom” may not be the best choice as solo bassists come from all sorts of backgrounds from jazz to metal to folk to avant-garde. Some are “converted” guitarists, drummers or other instrumentalists who sensed in the bass something powerful and unique that could help them express themselves in ways no other instrument could. It is possible to put solo bassists into certain camps —

Some use looping technology, some are dedicated improvisers, some specialize in adapting classical or jazz repertoire. Still others are technique monsters, singer-songwriters, ambient-soundscape creators or extended range explorers going way beyond four strings, but almost all feel a kind of camaraderie that transcends easy categorizations. More and more bassists of all kinds are becoming comfortable in either solo or group roles, easily switching back and forth, making it appear that Solo Bass is becoming an integral facet of this versatile instrument.

Solo Bass actually isn’t really all that new and its roots can be traced back to some real masters. The tragically under-appreciated Colin Hodgkinson has been making absolutely amazing solo bass music since the early ’70’s. Jaco Pastorius thrilled everyone with the incredible “Portrait of Tracy” from his 1976 solo release and his live favorite “Slang.” Stanley Clarke and Jonas Hellborg did pioneering all-solo bass shows in the 80’s. Much of the original vocabulary for Solo Bass draws from the long tradition of solo steel-string guitar, solo jazz guitar and piano and even solo chamber music. It’s exciting to see how these techniques are being blended with more bass-native ways of playing to create new sounds and colors.

If you’d like to get your feet wet in the solo world but are unsure how to get started, doing a lot of listening is a good bet. Track down recordings of as many solo bassists as you can. MySpace, YouTube and file sharing are acceptable ways to find out about these guys, but if you like what you hear, please, please buy the recordings. All the solo bassists I know are hard working, independent musicians who need and will very much appreciate your support. Many of these guys are accessible through their web sites or on-line forums. Interacting and discussing can be vital tools to help build your own conceptions as well as for advancing the depth and quality of the movement as a whole. Checking out as much solo bass music as you can will give you a feeling for where the art form is going and how you might fit in, but also consider listening to solo music on other instruments for perspective and inspiration. In addition to listening, the ability to read music will give you tools for understanding and appreciating elements of music from different angles, and transcribing music you like is always useful. I think it’s wise to keep an open mind and learn all you can. The more you know, the more tools you have available to you.

We bassists are good at being the glue in a band; holding things together and making the music work from the ground up. I think that’s an excellent perspective from which to become a soloist, but it’s a good idea to build an understanding of less bass-specific musical concepts as well. Most folks agree that qualities that make for an effective solo piece include a compelling structure, reasonable variety in tone and texture, a workable harmonic/melodic sensibility, a story to tell and an original voice. But this is a new world there are no unbreakable rules, so experiment, follow your heart and don’t be afraid to pursue wild ideas if you think they might lead you to something beautiful and meaningful.

To those of us who are used to standing in the back of the stage, being not only the center, but sole point of attention takes some getting used to, so be prepared for a bit of a consciousness shift at least the first few times you stand on stage by yourself. And speaking of being on stage, it’s important to acknowledge there aren’t an overwhelming number of opportunities for solo bassists to perform, so you may have to get creative to get live experience. Open mike nights are an ideal place to try out your tunes when you’re ready to take them out for a spin. If you’re lucky and your music is good, you’ll eventually get hired to play at the venue. Doing opening sets for local bands is another good way to get out there, but if mainstream music venues aren’t biting, look for off-the beaten-track places to play. House concerts are an important and viable option these days; also consider parks, libraries, schools, and music stores — whatever will work.

It can be difficult, but persevere. There’s no substitute for a lot of live performing experience and the feedback of a live audience is always valuable.

Interest in Solo Bass does seem to be building and I have a few theories as to why it’s gaining momentum. I’ve always felt the bass has a remarkable richness of tone and expressive flexibility. Perhaps it’s that as technology has made improvements in the frequency response of our listening experiences, both live and recorded, those qualities can now be fully enjoyed. Perhaps it’s a matter of the right place and time — we’ve all heard plenty of guitar, piano, violin and saxophone — maybe folks are ready for a new voice, especially one from an instrument that was invented recently, but still has connections to older instruments and traditions. I find it an interesting trend that so many guitarists of all kinds are extending the range of their instruments downwards with tuning and the use of various kinds of baritone and extended range guitars — maybe it’s just that low is cool!

Even if you’re not interested in going down the solo road yourself, I hope you’ll consider checking out those who are. I feel Solo Bass has become an essential part of the character of the instrument and is helping to contribute to its growth, development and evolution. The variety of interpretations the instrument enjoys is a vital aspect of its appeal and depth. In my opinion, arguments about the way the instrument should or shouldn’t be played are of limited value and personally, I’m thrilled to play an instrument that’s capable of supporting so many kinds of expression — even those I don’t have an interest in following myself. As is the case with any musical movement, Solo Bass ranges in quality, but I’m consistently impressed by the creativity, energy and devotion out there. The best Solo Bass performances I’ve experienced have moved me as much as those of great soloists on other instruments or even those of great ensembles.

Where is it all going? Who knows? It may of course, be just another musical fad, destined to a short and obscure existence. But given the depth, variety and vitality of the folks I hear out there these days I’m betting Solo Bass is here to stay — and grow.

Visit Michael Manring online at www.manthing.com

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