From Amateur to Pro: A Discussion with Dave Marks
The second featured artist in this series on how to successfully make the transition from home bassist to concert hall virtuoso is Dave Marks. A freelance musician living and working out of London, Dave has worked as a professional musician, producer, writer, arranger, teacher, gear demonstrator and journalist since 1997. Aside from his full playing, teaching, and masterclass schedule, Dave maintains a heavy web presence, blogging on his own site (www.davemarks.com) and keeping his Youtube channel stocked with fresh content. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and watch Dave’s amazing bass solo “Message in a Bottle.”
Bass Musician Magazine: Based on your experience as a working musician, what are the one or two musical skills that you see are consistently lacking in bassists trying to make the transition from playing at home to gigging for pay?
Marks: It’s strange, but it’s usually not skills that people lack. It’s more perspective, or a particular outlook, that you need. When we play and study alone, or with friends, we’re in charge of our role. Most of the time we can play what we want and more often than not, this translates into playing overly busy, complex, or exciting parts. A lot of people don’t like being told what to play, or what not to play, and it’s this lack of perspective that I see most often. It’s not about you and it’s not about the bass. It’s about the music.
A lot of young players struggle to find the magic in simple music, in being a supporting player and in playing things that make everyone else sound and feel great.
I love to play crazy stuff, but I also genuinely love to play a simple groove or 8th note chug. It takes a long time and a real love of music to get beyond the act of playing and to enjoy really hearing what you contribute. When the song is most important you will always play great, even if you play very little. And all of this “less is more” crap is just a stupid over-simplification. Some songs need excitement and activity in the bass line. It’s more about knowing which tool you need for which job.
If you’re in any doubt about it, check out the ad for Modern Warfare 3 where Jonah Hill kills a sniper with an RPG. It’s hysterical because he’s so over the top. Young or inexperienced players are always reaching for the biggest gun they have.
The other thing that is usually lacking is a good, thorough knowledge of the fretboard. A lot of guys play the bass line and a few stock fills (usually ones they’ve done to death that they no longer enjoy) purely because they know it’s a safe bet. Then they go for something a bit different and it’s just a lucky dip. Even if they had an idea in their head, they couldn’t access it in real time because there are areas of the neck that are just a blur of strings and frets. This sort of thing is only compounded by lazy study methods where people learn everything in one octave and in only a few keys. It’s funny, because a lot of players build a very small vocabulary to use and then complain of feeling uninspired or in a rut. They’ve hemmed themselves in through sheer force of laziness.
BMM: Following that theme, what about personal or business skills that bassists should have, but many don’t bother developing?
Marks: It’s all about the prep. I always do as much prep work as I can. Sometimes that means weeks of transcribing and absorbing the music. Sometimes it means writing charts after soundcheck, with a band I just met, on a gig I got called for two hours earlier.
I notice a lot of guys, particularly players who are pretty capable, don’t learn the details. They just get a broad idea of things and show up and blag it. They think playing roughly the right thing will do and then they sweat it on stage, trying to stay on top of things. I’d rather sweat at home and spend my time writing things out, learning, sorting positions and fingerings.
When I get on stage, I can just play and really enjoy it. I listen to the rest of the band, interact with them and get a vibe with the audience. Then, everyone comes away from the gig shocked because I just slotted in like magic and helped to make everyone else feel comfortable and relaxed. There’s nothing worse than having everyone in a band worry that you don’t know your stuff and that at any second you’ll go to the wrong section. I get called loads for last-minute dep (deputy) things and the whole thing hinges on my ability to make the band feel confident and comfortable in what is most likely a weird situation for them.
I also like to do as much prep as I can for a studio date, although those situations can change very quickly and it’s often someone else calling the shots.
People always talk about learning how to put your ego aside. It’s very widely discussed, but it is true. So long as you think you’re shit is so important, you probably won’t make the right calls on it. You should be ready at any time to modify what you are doing quickly, quietly and without lots of drama. If you’re really committed to an idea, record both versions and listen to it a day or two later. Try and ignore the fact that it’s you playing bass. Listen to the band as a whole. Not you and everyone else. Does it clash with the other guys? Is it distracting from the melody? Is it just not needed at this point in the song?
Your playing should always focus on delivering an irreducible minimum: What’s the absolute least I can play here and still get the message across?
That means you trimmed all the fat. What you’re left with is essential stuff. In a fusion trio, that might still be a lot of notes. In a country tune it may only be a few. In some cases it could be not playing at all.
You need to be open to the fact that sometimes the best approach is to blend in. So much so that you’re not really noticeable…like the scenery in a movie. Usually, it doesn’t really “do” anything, but it creates a world for people to inhabit. It sets the scene and the mood. Getting it wrong is disastrous. Getting it right…usually means people don’t consciously notice it.
Beyond that, just make sure you call people back or respond to emails as quickly as you can. Everyone has a smart phone now. Taking days to email back about a gig date or something so simple is ridiculous.
- They email you.
- You check the date in the calendar on your phone.
- You email them back.
It’s that simple.
If your phone is off during a gig or session, get on it afterwards or first thing the next morning. Guys who take three days to email me back, but they’re posting on Facebook every 8 minutes….
If musicians in general were a little bit more organized in their lives, they’d probably get a lot more done.
I love working with professional guys, because they take care of all the business stuff as quickly and quietly as possible. It’s tedious and it’s crap, so it’s best to not drag it out.
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?
Marks: It should evolve over time. If you’re new on a scene, you need to get your face seen and your bass heard, so exposure is everything. The more situations you can open yourself to, the deeper and richer the well of experience you can draw on. You build a reputation by being awesome in every setting, whether it’s a pop tour or a pub gig.
Over time, as you develop as a player and as a person, you reach a point where you have to move up a level. One day you say, “As of today, the minimum I’ll do a gig has gone from say £80 to £100.”
By turning down £80 gigs, you may go through a spell with little work because that was your base of employment. However, if you’ve worked hard and developed your playing to a better standard, you have to make the leap in your work to reflect that.
As you become a better player, wiser and more experienced, you should hopefully get referred for better gigs anyway. The key is to be able to let go of the crappier ones.
Richard Niles said it best when he told me “If you aren’t earning and you aren’t learning, it better be something that you love.”
If it isn’t ticking any of those boxes, let the gig go.
BMM: Where does jazz come in to play for a working musician? Is it still critical to learn?
Marks: If you play reggae and all you ever aspire to do is to be a good, functional reggae player, jazz is pointless. It’s like learning Japanese to go live in France. I know plenty of great pop and rock bassists who are awesome in that setting but couldn’t play jazz for beans. And these guys really are great, serious musicians. They just don’t happen to play jazz.
Jazz represents the highest academic pursuit for a contemporary musician. It requires the most thorough understanding of music coupled with a serious amount of facility to bring those ideas to life. Studying it can greatly help you master your instrument and come to a deeper understanding of how music is put together. Saying that, I’ve seen plenty of jazz musicians who stink out loud when they try to play pop, rock or folk — something that requires a totally different discipline.
Also, for some players, music is a raw, emotional pursuit. Making it into a path of academic study just doesn’t appeal to them and as long as they play well and make a good noise on their instrument, you can’t ask for more.
If you can maintain a sense of context, jazz is a great path and it’s awesome fun to play with other musicians.
Saying that, I’ve grown as much, maybe even more, by working as a writer and producer. I think often it’s about whether or not you care about the music. If you care more about how it sounds than how it feels to play it, you’ll grow and develop, no matter what you choose to play.
BMM: You’ve touched on having the ability to do work other than playing your instrument. Can you achieve a decent income, and sustain it, by simply being a “just” a bassist?
Marks: To be honest, I can’t speak from experience on this one. Since I was in college, I taught, wrote, did arrangements, produced, and played a variety of instruments. I know there are certainly lots of guys who are “just” bassists, but it’s a hard situation. When gigs slow down, as they sometimes inevitably do, life can become very difficult.
There will always be demand for a good musical bassist, whether it’s on big tours or in little pub gigs. You just have to get very good at letting people know what you do and that you’re looking for work. Also, you have to try and get gigs without treading on other people’s toes. You don’t want to get a reputation for stealing gigs.
The key to this is knowing what shape you want your life to have. If you’re planning on having a family, it can be really hard. If your partner works all day and you’re out every night gigging or you’re off on tour and you never see your kids…well, the music industry is strewn with failed relationships because people had to be away from home too much.
Personally, I love the freedom that I’m afforded by having various options and that from time to time I’ll travel and enjoy that. Sometimes I’ll be in the studio like a hermit. And sometimes I’m teaching, writing, or producing where I get to work with all different kinds of people. You have to be realistic about what it asks of you to be “just” a bassist.
And the money can range from OK to piss poor too!