Bass Guitar

There is a kind of mystique surrounding the bass guitar that many musicians find irresistible, yet relatively few take up this instrument seriously. Why this is can probably be explained by the use it is generally put and the way most musicians view the instrument's players:

This is at the back of a band thumping away at the low notes and keeping time with the drummer as "the rhythm section" and not doing anything very exciting or creative.

In fact, my own image of the typical bassist is of Bill Wyman standing at the back of the stage looking bored out of his skull while Mick, Keith and Ronnie are having a ball at the front. But I also always remind myself of the Spinal Tap cliché of the bassist always getting the most girls (unless of course you happen to be a female bassist) of which I'm sure Mr Wyman will agree!

Of course, no all bassists are made the same.

Playing the Bass

playing bass guitarI can talk about this from the best perspective ever, since I currently play bass and sing lead vocals in my band. I'm not your typical rhythm section low note thumper, but what you might call more of a lead bass guitarist.

As you will have gleaned from other pages in this site, I'm first and foremost a guitarist so playing the low register four stringed variety means I transfer my need for excitement and creativity to what I'm playing. Luckily, I do have a few influences from my past.

First and most important has to be JJ Burnell (Stranglers) and that amazing sound he produced from his old Precision coupled with an aggressive playing style that I totally loved. I play a Jazz so I can't quite get that sound but I can get close by hitting the strings very hard with the side of a heavy pick and using a trebly setting on the amp.

Around that era was of course Bruce Foxton (The Jam) who played a Rickenbacker and also got a pretty grating, angry sound to match his active and busy playing style. But my musical influences are definitely rock based, so there is also a lot of influence from Chris Squire (Yes), Jon Lord (Purple) and Steve Harris (Iron Maiden).

Finding Your Style

Yep, they're all active, creative and front-line players and I base my style and sound on a mixture of them all plus a lot of myself in there too. I hate boring stuff, so I go up a gear on stage and experiment with different fingerings, chords, trills and some fast action playing either with finger style or with a pick depending on how much attack I want from the strings.

Several years ago I was playing in a three piece blues band with an amazing guitarist called Mama Paula and a really busy Spanish drummer called Miguel. It was good while it lasted but in the early days, Miguel used to get annoyed with me because I wouldn't play like a bassist should play.

You know, thump, thump, thump - booooring!

Let's face it, blues is great music. But for a bassist like me, it's as boring as hell to play! So I would spice it up and make it a bit more interesting for myself and rock the drummer's boat a bit!

Getting Into Funk

One area this instrument does come to the forefront is in funk as you may have noticed top players like Verdine White in Earth Wind and Fire playing a slap style that is really effective, interesting and exciting. This way of playing is harder than it looks to pull off well, but practice will make perfect if you like this way of playing.

I use it on a few songs, but I'll be honest with you I'm no Mark King when it comes to playing slap. I always wanted to cover the Level 42 song, "Running in the Family" but the bass line is so fast without much let up I find myself running out of steam too fast and my thumb aches!

Never said I was perfect!

There are other ways of playing that you can use the slap style thumb to great effect that are slower and more deliberate and I often find myself experimenting with different runs because I like the sound dynamic. Soul is another great musical style that bassists can shine with some creative playing, although it was never really my bag personally.

Speed Playing

I remember watching Billy Sheehan team up with Steve Vai on Dave Lee Roth's tour and thinking "Wow!" and not just at what Vai was doing, which was pretty amazing. Sheehan was matching the guy note for note at the same speed on his bass and doing some other crazy stuff that defies the laws of physical ability!

I know I can run a lot of notes together pretty fast, but there are limits with the very heavy strings and a fret board that was made for, well, bassists to play thump, thump, thump on! I guess Bill has his secrets and he for sure uses a top quality instrument that's set up for that kind of speed playing and probably lighter strings too.

It was still darn impressive, though.

I often get a little irritated with this instrument and its limitations and at a gig one time talked a little about it. I said,

"The guitar is a beautifully crafted instrument, wrought from the finest woods and honed to perfection for the player to enjoy and be creative with, while by comparison the bass guitar is a fence post."

It got a laugh from some people who sort of got it, while others looked at me with glazed over eyes. Yeah, you have to play one to really know one.

So as for ultra speed playing on this thing, I can tell you my Fender Jazz was not really made for that kind of playing. If I want to shred like a crazy man, I'll pick up my Strat and do it on that!

Bass Playing Articles

This introduction to my world of bass playing is really just an overview page leading to some more detailed and tightly focused articles I've written on the several aspects of this instrument. You'll find the titles to those articles below: