The other day I took some time to listen to different live recordings of the song “From the Inside Out” by Hillsong and I became interested in the subtle differences I found in the bass lines that were played. The differences were not core arrangement changes, but were “signature” changes – subtle variations that the different bass players made to the same song. These variations included licks, small rhythmic changes, and the use of different harmonic devices to move to and from major song sections (verse, chorus, bridge). Again, these variations did not change the base structure of the song, but allowed each bass player’s interpretation of the song to be heard.
This is an expected occurrence – as bass musicians, we naturally interpret songs through the filter of our personality, ears, and technique. The true art of this process is not only filtering the song through our selves, but passing that output through a secondary filter to ensure that the musicality and worship of the song is maintained.
Applying filters is especially important for worship bassists. In particular, this practice is important in situations where worship teams learn songs from recordings. Some bassists will opt to learn the original bass line note-for-note and play back that line as recorded. This works in situations where other band members are doing the same but, more often than not, I find that bassists (and other worship musicians) tend to “add themselves” to the interpretation of the songs. Further, the level of “personality” that is added to the interpretation ranges from a few subtle changes to total disregard for the original line.
In the model where the arrangement hasn’t changed, but the bass line played isn’t going to be an exact replica of the recorded line, passing your interpretation through the second filter described above is critical! Here a few thoughts on this process:
1. Learn the original bass line, in its entirety.
There’s a reason that the bass line you hear on the recording made it on the recording. When you are asked to learn a song by Lincoln Brewster that Norm Stockton plays on, I assure you that Norm has laid down a line with critical elements that you need to know. Learn the notes, the licks, and the feel…all of it. There is nothing detracts more from a worship rehearsal that hearing a player that has not listened to the original recording and exudes arrogance through their “I don’t need to listen to anyone else, I can do it better” attitude.
Here are three good reasons to learn the original before going any further: first, learn the original because everything there already might be everything that needs to be played. Second, you can’t vary from something that you don’t understand or know completely. Third, song transcription is a self-contained bass lesson where you get to learn from master bass players!
2. If an element you want to add is all about getting attention/being noticed/ego, don’t add it…period.
A friend of mine tells this joke:
Q: How do arrogant musicians count triplets?
A: Look-at-me, look-at-me, look-at-me
This one is simple: worship bass is about supporting worship, not about supporting egos. Enough said.
3. Understand what adding or subtracting something does to the core of the song.
Imagine watching a home improvement show and hearing the designer say, “I really want to open this room up…let’s remove all of the load bearing walls”. The bass line is a foundational bridge upon which rhythm and harmony are joined and this role needs to be constantly considered. Playing a lick instead of a bass element that supports the song is never the right choice. Further, changing a bass line in a way that distorts the rhythmic or harmonic elements of the song radiates out and distorts worship.
4. Know the situation.
There are times to stretch; there are times not to stretch. For example, last Sunday we played Lincoln Brewster’s “All To You” as a closing song. The congregation was dismissed soon after the second chorus, before the guitar solo. As people were leaving, they were talking, laughing, and enjoying a time of fellowship. During this time our band stretched out, taking some liberties in our playing, throwing in a few licks, trying out different lines. It was incredibly fun and well received by those in the congregation who were listening. In contrast, playing a song like Chris Tomlin’s “Our God” during a time of commitment section of worship would not be the time to stretch; rather, it would be a time to remain close to the original arrangement to respect the worship service.
We are not just bass players, we are bass musicians. As such, we should make worship music alive and vibrant, so I am in no way suggesting that we clamp down on our worship and make it stale. In fact, I personally love to hear different worship bass players play, because through their playing you can truly hear the person worship. Definitely bring yourself to worship, but be willing to use your filters to bring your absolute best to worship.
Until next time, I hope that your bass playing is blessed and that you can bless others through your bass playing!