Working Guitar Players: Get More Gigs By Learning Bass...Properly!
Bass players... They're in a world of their own design & they don't occupy a lot of gray area: The Bernie or the Donald, the goalie or the empty net, the eagle or the drunk squirrel of the band. A solid bassist is rare; The anchor, the dude who keeps the drummer from rushing into Neil Peart land, the obnoxiously responsible one. (You're having another beer before the set?) As Mick Jagger once said when asked about a Bill Wyman replacement, “How hard can it be?”
Not so fast, Mr. 2 PM Wake Up Call!!!
Like the zeros on your Spotify checks, you've probably noticed a disproportionate amount of guitar players to... whatever instruments the other dudes play. That uniquely brilliant decision to become a guitarist has likely given you plenty of free time & some memorable excuses as to why you can't pay for your date's tacos. But good bass players? They're working!
So you've wrestled with the bass a few times, only to realize that taming the beast into a steady gait & maintaining the timing of a Rolex isn't as 1-2-4 as you once thought. So, you put it back on its stand after 9 bars & felt weird for the rest of the day. (A common trait of bass players.) But if you had spent even half the time learning bass as you did fondling your Looper, you could be on your way to a gig right now instead of wasting your time with me. So put down that '59 Les Paul, and let's get you started, Jack White!
The 1st thing you'll need is a rig. If you have a tuner & your guitar cables haven't been destroyed from your uncanny Mick Jones impersonation, then all you need is a bass & an amp. Play it safe with these decisions; you're not trying out for The Dave Mathews Band. They have a guy.
The Fender Precision. You can't go wrong with the old reliable P-Bass. It's pretty much the standard & works in any genre. A lot of real bass players start on a P-Bass & spend the next 47 years trying every other kind of bass, only to end up back on a P-Bass when they're in their late hundred's. The rest of their days on earth will be consumed by stories about that coveted 1967 P-Bass & why they should never have sold it.
James Jamerson, Sting, Kim Deal, Sid Vicious (yes, I know) & John Paul Jones are just a few players that show how versatile and cool the instrument can be. The P-Bass doesn't have a particularly outstanding tone, but it sits in a mix like bedbugs in your luggage & soundmen love 'em!
The Fender Jazz. The P-Bass for snootier, educated types. Not quite as sexy, even a little frumpy, the Jazz can sound similar to a P-Bass, but it's equipped with 2 pickups, allowing for more variation in tone. There are signature models like the Geddy Lee model with it's Baddass bridge, but the stock models are just fine, especially for a newbie like you. Jaco Pastorius, Flea, the U2 guy, Marcus Miller & a guy I heard at the liquor store have all been Jazz players.
“What about a 5 string, Wade?” No, a 4 string bass will cover you for the type of working gigs you'd be starting with. “But a Bro Country band has hired me & a lot of songs have Drop D tuning!” First of all, sorry about the gig. Unless there's an overwhelming amount of material that require notes lower than the legally appointed E, just tune your bass down for those songs. And for a laugh, don't mute your tuner!
“I was on Reverb & found this really cool 6 string bas...”C'MON, DUDE !!!"
Amps! Back to the dilemma of the seasoned bass player, which you're not. Like the aforementioned P-Bass story, bass players are notorious for buying & selling their amp rigs, looking for that elusive tone that no one else in the band can hear, but must endure hearing about. They'll start their careers with something cool like an Ampeg Portaflex & then go through years of painful, exponential spending, buying new rigs almost biweekly for 44 or so years, until it finally occurs to them that 99% of the time the soundman takes a D.I. from the bass guitar itself. Be sensible & just get yourself something small, portable & loud enough for stage. Traynor, Gallien-Krueger, Roland & Ampeg make some affordable, good quality, combo amps.
(Remember, you're new at this, so be smart! If you show up at a Blues gig with a Bass that has more than 4 strings & an amp rig that requires a horse trailer, it's completely legal for any band member to throw you down a flight of stairs.)
You're not a guitar player anymore, Eddie, so get that out of your head! And put that pick down! “But Wade, there are some great bass players that use a pick!” Yes, that's true; Paul McCartney, Carol Kaye, Matt Freeman, the angry looking guy from The Killers & Roger Waters to name a few. Keep in mind though that Gene Simmons also uses a pick. With practice, you'll find that using your index & F.U. Finger will give you more dynamic control & a warm, rounded tone. But sure, use a pick when it's required. Like for KISS songs.
Listen to some meat & potatoes bass players & learn their parts. 4 on the floor blues or traditional country are great ways to get you thinking like a bass player, (as is spending a lot of time alone). Maybe you've learned a few SRV licks, now learn Tommy Shannon's parts, especially a walking line like 'Texas Flood'. For math & meter, try 'Tin Pan Alley'. After that, head over to the honky tonk corner & check out more of a major walk. Merle Haggard's 'Big City' is a great example of this & it'll calm your rage about the Bro Country you've been immersed in. Back to back, these are great lessons in the math of major/minor pentatonic vs. major and that gray area in between. Trust me; this will improve your guitar chops too, just by looking at these scales from a different angle, although we both know that part of your life is over.
Listen & learn from these players: James Jamerson, Tina Weymouth, Paul McCartney, Rick Danko, that grouchy looking guy from The Killers, Carol Kaye, Bill Wyman, John Deacon, Phil Lynott, Leland Sklar, Willie Weeks.
Listen & appreciate, but never emulate these players: Tal Wilkenfeld, Flea, Geddy Lee, Les Claypool, Chris Squire, John Entwistle & especially Jaco Pastorius. You'll fail like all others before you. Jaco could have told you that!
No slapping...ever! Don't even think about it. In fact, remove any temptation to even learn it. You've got too much facial hair for any P-Funk or Duran Duran tribute act, so remove the duct tape from your thumb & just move on.
No solos...ever! Even if the singer nods your way to take one, just continue with the groove, give a smirk & step a little closer to the front of the stage. (Not too close, Bootsy! Remember, you're not the guitar player!) Get through this ordeal as fast as you can. This is the one instance where the bass player calls the shots. Get back in your 2x2 corner before the singer has a chance to take a swig of his J.D., the actual reason why he called you out in the 1st place. Jokes on him, see?
Speaking of J.D., I'd never advocate drinking & driving a band, but having a couple of shots could actually help your cosmic groove by slowing you down. Falling just slightly behind the kick drum is the mark of a great rhythm section. Falling off of the stage is the singer's distinction.
The Zen Of The Master Bassist
Now that you've mastered the basics of the gigging bassist, it's time to adopt the bass player's lifestyle, expectations & philosophy.
As a guitar player, you've grown accustomed to a fairly active social life. People know you, they invite you to parties, they seek you out during set breaks asking nonsensical things like, “Do you have red bobbin pups in your MIJ Strat?”, “Why is the singer such a knob?”, “Can I have your hotel room number?”, “Would you like to meet your son?”
As the bass player, you'll never have to worry about these awkward situations & you'll have the luxury of enjoying your breaks in peace. Remember to get your hand stamped at the door though if you're going out for a smoke, otherwise you'll never get back in. “Yeah right, you're with the band!” Once in awhile you'll get a compliment, so savor those moments. I'll never forget one of the most inspiring things said to me after a gig. We had just finished a 6 nighter & I was walking back to the hotel room with my bass. An eager young fella was running up behind me yelling, “Hey!! Stop!!” “Yes?”, I replied. He smiled & said, “You're an awesome drummer!” Those are the kinds of things that keep you going.
Within the band, you're now occupying a new role. It's now the job of the singer and guitar player to bicker over dumb things like money, the future, song order, why the guitar player needs the volume of an atomic bomb to get his tone, replacing the keyboard player behind his back and proper usage of they're, their & there.
You are now a bass player and there are certain expectations that the rest of the band will have of you other than your awesome grooves, so learn them. Never talk about guitar, especially with the guitar player. You don't need to raise any suspicions or create uncomfortable situations. Be frugal, I mean downright cheap; that's a telltale sign that you're the real McCoy. Find insipid topics you know nothing about & discuss them with full confidence & authority on 8 hour van trips. Be a little creepy around potential dates, especially dates that aren't potentially yours. Get some hobbies that have nothing to do with music & make sure everyone knows about them. Comic or toy collecting, playing Baldur's Gate, expertise in all that is Star Trek. With the latter, make sure your hubris is in full gear when it comes to rating each series. (Hint: Deep Space Nine sucked!)
By now, your metamorphosis should be complete! You can now expect more money, extra time for yourself, a new temporary keyboard player friend and zero pressure in having anything to do with band decisions. And one final thing: If there's an extra hotel room on the road, it's almost certainly yours!
Go get 'em, Master Bass-Man!