Nobody picks up the bass guitar with the goal of staying locked in the bedroom, staging jaw-dropping performances to a collection of stuffed animals. Sure, we may all start there. Eventually, Teddy and his action figure friends will grow tired of our amazing bass skills so we move on to the next level: shredding for YouTube. Alas, time goes by and our email inboxes have not been flooded with record deals and Bela Fleck has not called to have us replace Victor Wooten.
Where we want to be…where we need to be…is out of the bedroom and on a stage or in a studio. We desire, at some level, to be good enough at our craft that people will pay us for something we would gladly do for free. We want to be able to make a living making music.
There’s a poignant song by the late Harry Chapin titled “Mr. Tanner” that sums up the storyline. It’s about a small town cleaner who sings in his shop after it closes, secretly longing to perform on the big stage. He gathers up his courage, spends his savings to give it a try…and bombs. The line “Music was his life / It was not his livelihood” underscores the point.
How do we make the transition from housebound shredder to stage-lit star and avoid the fate of Mr. Tanner? How do we successfully transition from the bedroom to business? We learn from those who have walked before us and succeeded. We will not find success following in their footsteps. Rather, we will find insight and counsel based on experience on what it takes to make it as a working bassist.
In the months ahead, several full-time bassists will share their stories with us. They come from a variety of backgrounds and performance venues. While each will bring a unique insight, I challenge you to look for the common themes in their advice and to consciously apply their collective wisdom to your own skill set.
Without further fanfare, let’s start the series with Roy Vogt…
Roy Vogt is currently the coordinator of the Bass Department at Belmont University in Nashville, where he has taught since 1983. He has released two solo projects, Simplicity and Urban Legend as well as several instructional videos for Superchops4Bass and Master Study Series. His comprehensive multi-DVD course Teach Me Bass Guitar was released in 2009 and he is presenting his first Bass Camp in Nashville in July 2012. To learn more about Roy Vogt, visit www.royvogt.com and www.thunderrow.com.
Bass Musician Magazine: Based on your experience as a working musician, what are the one or two musical skills that you consistently see are lacking in bassists trying to make the transition from playing at home to gigging for pay?
Vogt: Probably learning a lot of songs in different styles. Not just your favorite style. Hand in hand with that is an understanding of how harmony works, even if it’s a rudimentary system like the Nashville Number Charts. Too many players learn by taking bass lines off CDs, MP3s or TAB sites without understanding what they’re playing. It’s very limiting in my opinion. Finally, bassists need to listening to and play with the other musicians. They just can’t focus on only playing their bass parts. This is especially true for drummers.
BMM: Along a similar line, what about personal or business skills that bassists should have but many don’t bother developing?
Vogt: First and foremost would be the ability to plan and think strategically in aspects as varied as career direction and personal finance. Try not to let things happen to you, but be proactive. Money management and organizational skills are huge and fly in the face of the stereotype most people have of musicians.
In addition, check your ego at the door. I shouldn’t have to say that, but needs to be said. No one’s that much of a rock star. Plus, nice guys seem to always work. Just ask Nathan East.
BMM: When it comes to gigs, there seem to be two schools of thought: Take every gig you can to build your experience and network; or be very selective and cultivate your music credentials and reputation. What are your thoughts on building a successful gigging resume?
Vogt: I think that’s actually a two-part answer. I grew up in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and I took every gig I could while I was learning my craft: country, rock, top 40, soul, funk, oldies, lounge lizards, and country club gigs. You name it, I played it.
By doing this, I learned many different job skills I could take back to any style. Trying to fake “Alley Cat” or “Cabaret” or having to read charts for a Bobby Darin or Frank Sinatra tribute (yes, those are real things I did) helped me to hear chord changes and sight read on the fly. Those are skills I use to this day as a full-time musician.
Being a versatile player keeps you working, especially if you’re gigging in a secondary market city. It’s hard to make a living as a metal bassist in Des Moines, but I’m sure there’s a guy there who does every gig and is considered the top tier bassist and he probably makes a good living doing lots of different types of work, as well as teaching.
That being said, when you move to an industry town like New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville, I think it’s very important to think strategically about how you want to brand yourself and to make sure you go in that direction. Be sure you understand what’s required for what you want to do, whether it’s in the studio, touring, or whatever. Make sure you have the skills to back up your desire. It will make it much easier to work through your career track.
Of course, a career in the music business is a long term process and not everyone becomes a millionaire rock star…which is like winning the lottery. However, being a versatile player who can also produce, arrange, write and teach will keep you busy for a very long time.
BMM: Where does jazz come in to play for a working musician? Is it still critical to learn?
Vogt: I think so. You may never play a jazz gig, but jazz will help you understand the mechanics of how harmony and rhythm work. It will help you think on the fly and make you a versatile player who can adapt to your surroundings and change as styles change. Virtually every good working player (especially at the higher levels of gigging) has this skill set. Here’s a way to look at it: Being a working musician is a very challenging job. Why would you not learn everything you could in order to help yourself along?
BMM: You have five minutes with a bassist who is ready to make the leap from his or her bedroom to being a full-time, working musician. This person has most likely been called crazy and lectured by friends and family about the foolishness of this pursuit. Our aspiring musician is scared and is secretly afraid the chops may not be good enough to make it. What counsel would you provide?
Vogt: You can do this! Remember, the pilot of a 737 airliner is the product of years of training and thousands of hours of practice and study. So is your family doctor. The most successful musicians I know are the same way.
This is a quote from one of my posts on an Internet bass forum about this same issue: Here’s a question for all who have said don’t do it, it didn’t work out for me, it’s not stable, etc.</p
- Sightread anything put in front of you? Work with a conductor?
- Play convincingly in any style? Do you enjoy any style?
- Get along with virtually anyone?
- Double on electric, upright, fretless, whatever?
- Can you do a jazz gig without a Real Book and a top 40/variety band gig with absolutely no rehearsal because you know hundreds of songs from the 1930s to Lady Ga Ga?
- Come up with a studio bass part ‘in 6 minutes that sounds like you’ve played it for 6 months?’ (to quote my good friend Bob Babbitt)
This is your Job Skill List. Even if you only get five out of six, you’ll be on your way. Six out of six and I’ll be hoping I can get on your sub list someday!