I recently read an interview with the trumpeter Paolo Fresu, and he talked about how he got into using electronics, saying “I started using electronics just to preserve the sound quality when I changed to Harmon mute on stage, because the sound engineers knew nothing.” This made me think about how much of our musical style may come from our circumstance, in the same way that our mannerisms often originate in our environment. However, in both cases we can still observe and make decisions about if and how we want to continue expressing these idiosyncrasies.
To give one example: when I was starting out I had the privilege of playing with some terrible drummers. They played with sloppy time and the fills were highly inaccurate. To compensate, I played in a very aggressive manner, laying the time down in a way that allowed no dissent (as I once heard bassist Ray Williams put it “You’re with me or you’re wrong.”) I would play hard, and with very little space (as rests or held notes in my bassline would just provide an opportunity for the drummer to rush, or drag, or drop a beat.) As time went on I increasingly found myself in situations with drummers who were much solider, so I made the decision to meet them halfway on the subject of time (a decision made easy by the fact that my insistent stance typically did the groove more harm than good). But I kept the style of playing forcefully, but had to find a way to do it in a manner that didn’t piss of other members of the rhythm section.
Often our circumstances comingle with our preferences to create our sound. To give you another personal example: I’ve always loved the kinds of guitarists who use a variety of timbres (Bill Frisell and Adrian Belew are two of my favourites), but I seem to end up in ensembles with guitarists who just use one sound (two at most), or with keyboardists who leave their keyboard on the acoustic piano setting. So to create more sonic variety, I made the decision to experiment with different sounds, both electronic ones such as delays, wah-wahs, octave dividers and such, as well as natural ones like harmonics and slapping. This is what prompted to me to work so much on my arco playing: it provided another sound.
Lately, I’ve been performing a lot in duo situations, often with a guitarist, though my group Coincidence Machine pairs me with a drummer. This has caused me to explore ways to play bass in a way that can fill more space. Things like tapping chords with my right hand, plucking with thumb and fingers like a classical guitarist, and even using loop pedals, all to make the bass sound like more than one instrument. I’m certain these experiments will become part of “me” and find their way into situations when I’m in larger ensembles.
So here are some things you can do to apply this: in any musical situation in which you find yourself, ask “What do these conditions require of me?” The me part is very important here. Don’t just think “I’m playing punk so I’m supposed to play eighth notes on the roots.” Think more “What does this punk song require of me?” Does it need more motion from you? Or less? (Mike Dirnt of Green Day is a great example. Notice how sometimes he plays lines with a lot activity but other times he just hangs on the root note).
Try to think of what you specifically can provide to the musical landscape (or perhaps “soundscape” is a better term, if Robert Fripp hasn’t copyrighted it). Do you tend to like to play very melodically? Maybe you should insert some sort of bass hook. Do you like the sound of inversions? Or maybe there’s a hole that you feel the need to insert a sort of Geddy Lee/Mike Watt/John Entwistle style fill into. Or maybe you’ve got a highly syncopated personality, and you feel right playing just a few notes that are strategically placed.
The important part is to think what you (specifically you) would like to hear from this song (or group, or section of the performance) if you (again, specifically you) were listening. This is the point at which you as a personality meet the musical situation. This is a great place to discover your musical voice.