As I was riding on our tour bus from Hollywood to 1000 Oaks I started to reflect on why I play the bass. When I was 11, I was on vacation with my family in San Francisco. We were walking in North Beach in the evening and we stopped at the door of a bar. Through the smoky haze you could see a band playing. As I looked in, a strange sensation came over me. It wasn’t the pounding drums, screaming guitar, or even the smell of stale beer that excited me. It was the warm, enveloping, gut shaking sound of the bass.
A guy with bell-bottoms, a jazz bass, and a Fender Bassman (and yes, a coil-cord) was totally laying it down!
It’s the role of being between the chords and the rhythm that has always attracted me to playing the bass. In a way it’s the most important instrument in the band. I can change an A minor chord to a F major7 or a D sus with just one note! I enjoy being the canvas upon which others paint. It’s this role that I think sometimes gets lost among some bassists. At a clinic Ray Brown is reported to have said to a roomful of thumb positioned, 16th note
Virtuosos: “I’m glad to see you all playing like this… because I know I’ll always work.”
A friend of mine said: “There were no bad bass players in the 1950s.” While this is obviously not true I know what he means. The downside to the amazing legacy of geniuses like Jaco Pastorius and Scotty LaFaro is that many players want to be the next bass phenomenon. Youtube is full of guys with 18 string basses tapping out “Flight of the Bumblebee” while playing “Giant Steps” in harmonics. While I admire the work and dedication it took to do this I’m afraid the only gig you’ll get doing this is at the NAMM show.
When I listen to a bass player (or any musician) I don’t want to think, “How did he play that!” I want to think, “How did he think of that!” Don’t get me wrong, I respect any player who develops prodigious technique, but having technique is like having nuclear weapons: sooner or later you’re tempted to use them. Having more technique obligates one to have more musicality.
Before you play that next note or lick ask yourself: “Why am I going to play this. Is it because I’m trying to impress that girl, guy, musician, record label honcho, or myself? Is it because it’s fashionable? Is it because I’ve practiced it?
Or is it because it’s what will serve the music best?