Back to Bassics

Let’s start by getting an important issue out of the way. How important is the bass really? I mean, no-one really notices the bass do they? Out of all the instruments in a band, isn’t the bass the most unmemorable? Isn’t the bass player the one who just stands at the back and looks cool? Given that looking cool isn’t exactly high up on the list of priorities when it comes to leading God’s people in song, how important is the bass really?

The fact is that the church managed perfectly well without bass guitars for the first 1930 or so years (depending on your particular congregation!) I guess our forerunner is the left hand of a pianist or the feet of an organist, or the gravelly bass voice of a gregorian monk. When we sing, a bass note helps us to pitch our notes. Try it! Sit at a piano (or pick up your trusty bass) and have a go at singing through a song with just some high notes as accompaniment. Then sing along to a bass line – you can pitch your notes much more confidently (even if your singing voice is like mine, and you’re not really sure what’s going to come out!) Part of your role, then is to help your congregation to pitch their notes. But that’s not all…

Perhaps you feel intimidated by the technique that other members of the band display, or you’ve been told that playing the bass just for people who want to play guitar really, but can’t quite manage all the strings? In one sense, you probably need less pure technical ability to play the bass than you might need to play another instrument in a way that aids corporate worship. What counts far more than technical ability though, in my opinion at least, is musical sensitivity. If you know all the scales in the world and can slap away with all kinds of fills, it’s not going to help anyone unless you are aware of what’s going on around you, so you can sense when to play more and when to play less. Take notice of what the bass is doing in the music you listen to. When does it come in? When does it play up the octave? How does it fit with what the other instruments are doing? That brings us to thinking about rhythm.

If you’re playing with a drummer, work together to lock into a groove that serves the song, and talk about how that might vary through a song. I like to be close enough to the drums so that I can easily communicate with the drummer. If i have a choice, i’ll be near the hi-hat – it is more natural for the drummer to look in that direction, and the regular beat of the hats help you stay in time. Having said that, it’s the bass drum you really want to listen out for. If what you’re playing conflicts with what the bass drum is doing, it will sound messy, but if you’re locked in, you don’t need to play much and it will be rhythmically solid. Obviously the drummer isn’t the only one who contributes rhythmically – be in discussion with the guitarist too, and if you have a pianist or keyboard player with an excitable left hand you may need to negotiate airspace so that you don’t clash. Pianists who aren’t used to playing in a band with bass players find that particularly difficult in my experience. Be gracious!

The stereotype says that bass players want the volume turned up to 11. Ideally you want an amp set up so that you can hear yourself, and a line taken to a sound desk, where your front of house level (what people hear!) can be controlled in relation to the rest of the band. Many of us don’t enjoy those kind of facilities – if you are in charge of your own levels, see if you can listen to your volume level while you are standing a few metres from your amp – it’s hard to judge the volume of a low frequency sound when you are close.

But whether you’ve been playing for ages, or you’ve just had an instrument thrust into your hands and asked to play it next Sunday I hope you are encouraged to work at your bass playing as for the Lord, and to use your gift for his glory and for the good of the people you have the privilege of serving!

Dan Adams

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