Playing with other musicians really is an art in of itself. Not only do you have to be conscious of what you’re doing, but you have to listen and reflect what’s going on around you. I think this concept is extremely appropriate to a beginner musician because if it’s understood that there’s more going on in the room besides your bass playing, you can walk into an audition, band, or even a jam session with friends and be able to not only have a good time and play together, but actually communicate with each other musically. When a group of musicians are all listening to each other and conversing it’s amazing how great the end result can sound.
Step 1: Realize that as you begin to play bass, you are an accompaniment to other things. The role of the bass in most music is to give a harmonic foundation to the rhythm. In regular words, this means most of the time you are going to be playing the root note. Yes, there are times when it’s your turn to shine and take the spotlight, but I’m speaking generally. Most of the time, it’s up to you to be the foundation on which the other instruments and vocals build upon.
Step 2: I’ll go into more detail about timekeeping in another article, but let’s talk about the drums for a minute. Traditionally, bass lines tend to mimic the patterns of the kick drum. Not sure what the kick drum is doing? Watch it. The front head will bulge outward whenever the drummer kicks it.
As well as watching for the flobbering drum head with your band’s logo on it, listen to the drummer’s hands. This is the easiest place to “see” the time. Pay attention to the fastest part consistently being played. It will usually be on a hi-hat or ride cymbal. If you can lock your timing into the drummer’s, you will automatically be what’s called “tight” or “in the pocket”.
Step 3: It’s rare to find a guitarist who listens to everything that’s going on. A lot of times guitarists turn up their amps to 11 and solo like crazy. This is equivalent to someone who talks endlessly and never allows a word in edgewise. When you talk to someone like that, what happens? Do you want to listen to them more? I know don’t. I take it upon myself to mention it if it’s getting out of hand. I usually say something like “Is there a way for you to create some space here?” Bring the drummer into it if you have to and say “We have some parts that we’d like to show through a little more.”
Step 4: Ok, you’re playing WITH the drummer. The guitar player is grudgingly allowing you and the drummer some space. What else could there be? Singers, it’s simple. You want the gig? Stay out of their way. Don’t do a ton of bass tricks while the singer’s singing. Think of it like a conversation. The singer makes a statement. You respond to it by playing something back. Next time around, let the guitarist say something back. It takes restraint and concentration, but these are the things that will get you called to go do the tour.
To sum this up, the average non-musician folks, (or “Muzzles” as I like to call them) have no idea what sound a guitar makes as opposed to a bass. They hear your band as one big sound. If you can wrap your head around that you are part of something bigger than yourself, and create space for the other musicians, keep it in time with the drummer, and keep the conversation flowing musically, you’ll have a crowd pleasing band, and people will wonder why you guys are so good.