When I was first starting out as a young musician, I wanted to play everything. Piano, bass, drums and guitar were my first instruments. I started gigging professionally on drums, guitar, and bass. My experience has taught me a lot about the roles of these instruments, and after 33 years of gigging I can describe myself as someone who strives to be a “complete bassist.”
But what does this mean? First, it means understanding the role of the bass in all kinds of music and playing acoustic as well as electric basses (unfortunately I never did play the tuba...next time).
For me, the time I spent trying to be a real drummer was critical for my eventual role on the bass. If I were to open a school for bassists, I would not only have them study harmony via the piano, but I would also make it a requirement for all students to play drums in a band.
It is critical for the bassist to understand the drummer’s perspective and to become one with the drummer. Drummers, you don’t get off easy—you need to do the same with the bassist. My own continuing education on the bandstand reinforces this approach.
When I arrive at a gig where there are musicians I’ve never played with before, I immediately seek out the drummer. This is my mate for the evening. It is very important to me to be able to have a conversation with my new mate before the first countdown. If I can’t have a decent verbal exchange with my partner, how are we going to make music together?
Sometimes cats will be hurried, cocky, indifferent and just plain unfriendly. (And that’s just me—never mind the drummer!) Often I find these sorts of non-exchanges indicate the tone of what’s to come on the bandstand. If a player is hurried or indifferent, or cops an attitude in conversation, I’m the one waiting for them not to repeat that nonsense on the bandstand.
Another common predicament for bassists is when you’ve heard through reliable sources how great a player a particular drummer is. I don’t automatically take these praises at face value, because if we don’t gel together, we won’t get the music off the ground.
My advice to bassists is to hang with your rhythm section partner before the gig. Just because a horn player tells you you’re going to love Dave doesn’t mean you’re going to hit the bandstand as a cohesive unit. A genuine musical exchange takes time to develop. But hopefully not the entire night!
In part two , I’ll discuss more about the musical exchange, from the bassist’s perspective. And you drummers are invited to read along too. ;-)