As the lights go up on a stage, the amps warm up and the knobs get turned. You are standing in front of a crowd, big or small, who are waiting for you to impress them for the next 15- 180 minutes. As the drummer counts off, the guitarist strums his chord ala Pete Townsend, the vocalist jumps up and yells, and the bass player immediately hides behind both of them.
This issue I wanted to discuss a plague that has been afflicting the bass player community for years and years. This stage-ridden disease is one of horrible and really boring STAGE PRESENCE, even in the most lively of settings. I would like to state before the bashing, that there are many notable and even exemplary bass examples of amazing stage presence throughout the years. Many times this is a result of bass/vocals duty, and the many free spirits who understand the importance of getting the crowd moving.
This is not a rock and roll thing, and to say that this argument is about genre is not the point. In general the average bass player in a band has the worst presence out of all the members in the ensemble. We have all seen him/her, dressed in cargo shorts and wearing a baseball cap when the rest of the band is dressed like they are in Led Zeppelin. The player who has a lot of room to move and jump around, but does not dare stray from their 3×3 little comfort zone. Looking down at their neck, never staring out into the “horror” that is the gawking crowd.
Luckily, there is a cure.
The first step is one of acceptance. Many people raise their eyebrows at this point and wonder what there is to accept, but its something that is more commonly ignored than it seems.
You must accept the fact that while you are truly an artist, when you step up onto that stage, you are an entertainer. Sorry to all of you out there who feel a need to bury your head in the sand to this fact, but when you play for a crowd, simply fretting notes does not cut it.
People want to see you move, see something exciting, passionate or interesting. Being a great bass player is not a common thing, so why should your performance be so common. Stage musicians exist to give people an escape from the hardships of the human condition, take pride in your role as the master of the subterranean sounds that make people move and feel free.
The second step is to reevaluate your wardrobe. Trust me, I am not a fan of the fashion industry, and I am so not into the fake and plastic façade of many performers. But to be perfectly honest with you, getting into your role, whatever the genre really helps the vibe. If you are in a rock band, don’t show up wearing a John Deere cap and some flip-flops. Just like you wouldn’t wear leather pants and a boa to a be-bop gig. Find something that’s cool, and comfortable to wear, that fits the music and the crowd your going for.
The third step is standing up for yourself to the sound guy. Lets face it, sound guys only really care about vocal levels, drums and guitar. In their minds, you are a nuisance that needs to be dealt with as little effort as possible. Don’t make the bass too loud, but make damn sure you are heard and great in the mix. I promise you, that playing a low B with the right volume makes the crowd react as if they just heard thunder. A very powerful thing we have to our disposal to make crowds want to see you perform again and again.
You don’t even need to go nuts and do summersaults to get a great vibe across. Look at the Ox Mr. John Entwistle. John barely moved around on stage but his presence was just enormous in the Who. Every time that man played, he gave an aire of pure and raw confidence. He had a look on his face of a man who was a rock legend, and a damn good one. A lot can be accomplished by just seeming like you know exactly what you are doing. Arrogance is a bad thing, but being really sure of yourself and just adding a little cocky flair to your vibe does wonders for your general playing. If you think about messing up, you will mess up. But if you act like the Ox and give off a vibe that you are holding down the low end with an iron fist, then the low end will be. Try and sing the vocals too, the key to not making mistakes live is to just let go and feel the music and hear it as a whole.
The next gig you play, make it a point that the crowd notices you, don’t just be a face in the back, be known and be proud. We are the masters of thunder, and thus we should play accordingly.