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Playing Tips

Play a Part

Although my initial desire to be a bassist was sparked by Paul McCartney's playing on the Beatles' classics, I essentially learned to play by emulating the playing of a certain progressive rock bassist who is famous for a riff-oriented, generally "busy" style of playing. Consequently, my playing for years was a series of guitar-like, unrelated and random (albeit harmonically & technically correct) snippets. Although certain genres and musical contexts may lend themselves to this constant variation in the bass line (straight-ahead jazz or avant-garde improvisational music), the overwhelming majority of the music most of us find ourselves playing calls for a different musical approach.

My older brother and musical mentor in the early years used to talk to me about establishing a motif, or "repetition with variation." It took me many years before I truly understood the importance of his point. It boils down to how people hear music. Let me illustrate with an example I use in my clinics. I play several times through a chord progression comprising two bars of A minor and two bars of G major. In Version #1, I randomly "noodle" a variety of licks within that chord structure. In Version #2, I play the bass line from the "A" section of The Police's "Walking on the Moon." At the end, I challenge anyone to try to sing back to me, from memory, any portion of the bass line from Version #1. Invariably (and understandably), no one can remember the slightest thing about it, because it was simply a collection of random statements, with no discernable intent or direction. There's simply "nothing to sink your teeth into." Version #2, on the other hand, is an easily assimilated phrase that is instantly recognizable when the song returns to that bass figure after the "B" section.

My brother's point was that most effective bass lines (and most effective music, in general) involve a specific figure, or motif, that is somewhat repetitive (to establish a foundation for the tune, as well as give the listener something to grasp), that progressively incorporates variations as the tune develops. I encourage you to go back and analytically listen to some of your favorite music and see if you hear this concept employed (not only by the bass, but by the other instruments as well). I'm confident that you'll find numerous examples. Try to come up with a one- or two-bar part for each section of the tunes you play. Your drummer will be elated to have a consistent rhythmic figure with which to play, and you'll find that the overall arrangement of the tunes is enhanced. I feel that application of this approach to my bass playing was one of the most important factors in my own musical development. I know you'll find the same to be true for you.

(From "Bassic Communication", Christian Musician magazine (Nov/Dec ‘00). Reprinted by permission.)

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