While I’m on the road, here is a guest post by fellow bassist Steve Uccello. Steve is an Upright Bassist/Multi-Instrumentalist/Composer/Singer-Song-Writer and you can here his latest work Uccello Project, Symmetria on Last.FM. Add you thoughts to Steve’s post in the comments section… Over to Steve…
All right bass people! I’ve got a question for you: When you started playing music, did you decide to play bass first or did you arrive there though a ‘winding’ path? I wonder this because lately, as I’ve heard more and more bassists’ stories, I am beginning to notice a trend in how they began. It’s usually something like, “we started a band when we were younger and no one else wanted to play the bass so I…” or “I knew I could get more gigs if I also played bass and now it’s all I do…”
Maybe it’s our present day culture that perpetuates the desire to be the center of attention, but for whatever reason most people seem to want to be the singer or the lead guitarist in a group. One friend of mine who is an excellent guitarist said when he was choosing which instrument to play he was just watching a rock band play and he thought that it looked like the lead guitarist was the one having the most fun in the band and that’s what informed his decision to play guitar. Pretty honest statement! However it happened, it seems there are actually very few bassists who start out saying, “I would love to play the bass and support everybody else while they solo, or sing, I just want to hold it down.” Of course there are bassists out there like that, and I tip my hat to them, I think that is so cool!
When I was a youngster I started on drums, then guitar, and I bought a drum set and a bass for my friends to play on when they came to my house-so I could play guitar over them. I loved playing drums and bass too, of course (Jaco Pastorius, Les Claypool, & Roger Waters were my top three favs-not exactly your ‘bread & butter’ types of bass players!), but I always enjoyed playing guitar and singing more. A few years later I was in a situation where some friends were starting a band and they needed a bassist, since I was the only one who owned a bass, and could play it, I became the bassist in the group. I really fell in love with the bass, and indeed with the ‘role’ of the bassist, after I got an upright bass and heard the great Ray Brown play live. Even though I had gotten into the role, I still had habits that had formed from first being a guitarist/writer.
I should also mention that I had a desire to compose music for multiple basses, yet I hadn’t created an outlet for myself at that point, I was too busy learning how to survive as a musician and acquire the necessary skills to be a functioning bassist. One thing that helped my bass playing immensely was finally getting around to creating a project where I could experiment with putting the bass in more of a lead role. I found I was much more content to hold it down when I wasn’t constantly plagued with pent up ideas during gigs with bands where I needed to ‘play the role’. Early in my career I actually had one bandleader say, “I hate bass licks!!”-That was hard to deal with, but I really wanted the gig and needed the money, plus I had and earnest yearning to be able to enter any musical situation and play appropriately, so I took it as a lesson. It’s funny but another thing that helped my bass playing a lot was playing guitar in bands where bassists had the same problems I had had, I realized that when you’re playing on top of a band, you really do want the bass to blend in and lay a foundation, and how awkward it is when that doesn’t happen. I’ve now been a professional bassist/musician for about 15 years and I’ve played in many of different situations: singer/songwriters, jazz big bands, jazz combos, bluegrass bands (talk about holding down a simple line!), various world music bands (including a steel pan band where the electric bass doubled the pan bass), gospel choirs, etc…and I’m thankful for all the ‘real life’ lessons I’ve learned! Now, I take such pleasure in holding down a groove, a pleasure I never knew was there during my ‘transitional’ period, but it was a bit intense ‘unintentionally’ becoming a bass player. I had no idea of how big a job it really was until I was immersed in it, I felt like an actor who never learned to shield his emotions from the feelings of his characters.
A lot of bandleaders conceive of the bass as being solid and correct if they don’t notice it, kind of like the axle to a car: supportive, essential, but out of sight. When I studied with the great Ray Drummond he pointed out an interesting fact: he said most of the time bass players are being told what to play by people who aren’t bassists. Basically, in a round about way, I’m saying that, on the surface, for most people who wish to play music, the bass is simply not as fun as the other instruments in a band. Playing bass is a meditative, Zen kind of thing that carries a different, heavier, type of responsibility than the other roles do. If you’re a bassist you know that the role of the bassist in a band is like that of a pillar to a structure. It is simple, but NOT easy. You are generally executing something that is simpler than the other parts of the band but you are required to execute that part very solidly. That’s where the difficulty of being ‘down in the engine room’ lies. Its sort of a sacrifice, like saying, “I really want music to happen so I’ll provide this platform, or foundation, for it to unfold upon.”
My theory is that this is why fewer people are drawn to the bass than they are to, say, the guitar, singing, saxophone, or violin. In my experience there seems to be generally fewer bass players than players of other instruments. It’s good for me, as a working bassist, because I seem to stay busy with plenty of gigs and I get to enjoy playing in a lot of different styled bands, but it wasn’t easy in those first few years while I struggled with the role. I believe a lot of bassists who struggle with this as well, do so because they never really chose to be bass players, some of them are natural bassists who assume the role pretty easily, but others seem to constantly continue trying to make it work.
So, be honest, have any of you bassists out there ever been told, ‘just keep it low and simple, leave the soloing to me’? Have you struggled to hold back, or been frustrated while others solo endlessly, but give sideways glances if you even throw a lick here or there? And you bassists out there that have never had this problem, you, who unwaveringly chose to be musical pillars, facilitators of groove, can you give a word of advice to bassists who might truly love playing bass, but still struggle with this syndrome?