Worship Tips Wednesday: 5 Tips For Bassists

One of the most interesting tv shows of the early 1970s, “The Partridge Family” featured a group of actors who pretended to sing and play music that was actually performed by professional studio musicians (with the exception of David Cassidy of course).  The problem was without any musical training the actors had trouble convincingly selling the fantasy that they were really playing and recording the songs that won them a grammy in 1971.

Partridge_Family_first_cast_1970This was most apparent in a backstage exchange between a young Danny Bonaduce (who played Danny Partridge) and David Cassidy (who played the eldest Keith Partridge).  Danny was the Bass player  on the show, but didn’t understand the difference between the various types of guitars.  After several episodes of playing his fake instrument the wrong way, David took him aside and said,

“Danny, it’s a bass.  You don’t strum it, you pluck it!”

So now that we’re clear that you don’t strum a bass, here are 5 more tips for worship bass players:

  1.) Timing is Everything

The bass player makes up the second half of the rhythm section of a band (the first half is the drummer).  So in a very practical sense, bass players should see themselves more as percussion players than melodic or harmonic players.  That means that they need to be as specific and precise with their timing as their drummer counterparts.

And by precise, I don’t just mean playing the right note on the right beat.  I’m talking about playing the right note on the right millisecond of the beat to lock it in with the drummer.  That may sound a bit obsessive compulsive, but there is actually a huge difference in the energy and groove of a song when the rhythm section is locked in than when they’re even just a tiny bit off.  That rhythmic accuracy makes all the difference.

I’ve found that many bassists view themselves more as melodic instrumentalists, so they focus more on getting the right notes (or playing fancy runs) than they do on rhythmic precision. Right notes are vital (and we’ll address that below) but they don’t add much unless the rhythmic basis is there.  There are 2 things all bassists should do to help improve their rhythmic accuracy:

1.) Simplify your playing style (aka play less notes)
2.) Play and practice with a click track

Do these two things and you’ll begin to start thinking like a drummer.  Speaking of drummers…

2.) Follow Your Drummer

jazz-191548_1280A couple of weeks ago I posted tips for drummers, one of which was about developing good report with their bassists.  Bass players also need to develop their relationship with their drummers, but the truth is this relationship is not equal, especially when it comes to groove.  There are instances when a bass player will set the groove with a specific riff or bass line, but  the vast majority of the time (especially in contemporary worship) it’s the drummer who is going to establish the groove and feel of the song.

So bass players, as hard as this may be, you need to learn to follow the drummer.

Most often the drummer’s job to establish the song feel through his rhythmic patterns. This means it’s the bass player’s job to play in sync with those patterns, specifically by playing with the kick drum.  Yes, every time the drummer hits the kick, the bass should sound (with a few exceptions).  You can add and embellish some things in between those kicks, but when the kick is played bassists should be right there with it.

Let the drummer lead the way and you’ll amazed how much tighter everyone plays together.

3.) Keep Licks to a Minimum

No, I’m not talking about how many licks it takes to get the center of a tootsie pop.  By lick I’m referring to a pattern or run of notes that has a more melodic quality.  In other words, it’s kind of like a lead line on an electric guitar, though it could also be a baseline pattern that persists throughout a song section.

I’m not against licks as a rule, but the issue I’ve noticed is that more often than not, licks and riffs end up hurting the groove rather than helping it.  Remember, the role of the bass player is to establish and maintain the groove of the song (sometimes called “holding it down”).  Anything that works against that goal will make the whole band sound sloppy.  Unfortunately it is very hard for bassists (especially amateur bassists) to play licks while keeping the necessary rhythmic and harmonic groove that the song needs.

Of course there are styles of music and individual songs that require complex bass licks, even in contemporary worship.  But for the most part the vast majority of worship music requires a simple, straightforward groove from the bassist.

Bassists who minimize their licks will help everyone on the team sound more professional.

4.) Slash Chords Are Not Suggestions

This is a pretty obvious tip, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played with bassists that end up ignoring slash chords in songs.  By slash chords I’m referring to chords in a different inversion, with a bass note that’s not the root.  They are chords that have a slash between two notes:

G   (the chord is G, B, D with a G in the bass)
G/B (the chord is G, B, D with a B in the bass)

While all the members of the band should be playing the inversion when they see a slash chord, the bassist is really the most important person when it comes to chord inversions, because they represent the lowest note of the band. In the example above, every other instrument could hit a regular G chord and as long as the bassist hits a B, it will still sound correct.  Likewise if every other instrument plays the inverted chord but the bass hits the root it will sound wrong.

The most important thing to remember is that there is a huge difference between a chord and a G/B chord.  It may sound like splitting musical hairs, but good songwriters can create an entirely different effect by using different bass notes in the same chord (check out Matt Maher’s example on this post).  So playing the right note at the right time makes all the difference in the world.

Don’t treat slash chords casually.  They’re essential to the music.

5.) Avoid Bad Plucking Habits

Danny Bonaduce eventually learned how to not look totally lost when pretending to play bass for “The Partridge Family”.  But just knowing that basses get plucked instead of strummed isn’t enough.  How a bass player plucks the strings makes a huge difference.

Bass_guitar_(477085398)There are a lot of good resources online for beginners trying to learn good plucking technique, so I won’t cover those elements here.  The issue I’ve found with some bass players I’ve worked with is bad habits.  Often amateur bass players (especially those who were self taught) will let some habits creep in that can hinder their tone or limit what they can play.

Some of these include keeping tension in the arm when plucking, using the thumb to pluck the E string, using one finger instead of two, and plucking up on the string rather than across the string.  There are other habits that some people argue are a hinderance to good bass playing, while others just refer to them as a particular technique.  Here are some questions to help diagnose whether a bass player has some bad plucking habits:

1.) Is there a tone quality difference on different strings?
2.) Is there a weak attack or short sustain on certain notes?
3.) Is there any excess noise when a string is plucked?
4.) Are there tempos or groove that are hard to keep up with?
5.) Does a particular groove or rhythm feel unnatural?

If a bassist answers yes to any of these questions, there’s a good chance there are some bad habits in his or her plucking technique.

The bass is one of the core instruments in any contemporary worship band.  It may not always be the flashiest or most interesting instrument to play, but it carries more musical weight than almost anyone else.  So embrace the bass.


About Stephen Wilburn

I am a worship director at a suburban Philadelphia church and currently a doctoral student at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA
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