Four Reasons You Should Learn to Play the Bass

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Newsflash: B&H has started carrying guitars. And as we welcome models from ESP to Ibanez to Yamaha to Takamine with open arms, we’re also churning out Explora content, providing articles on topics such as how to mic electric axes at home, how to buy a guitar, and acoustics best suited to the campus quad.

Now, make no mistake, this article is indeed geared toward guitar players. But we’re taking a bit of a left turn here; we want you consider investing some time into studying how to play the bass—an instrument elemental to the feel, groove, and genre-phenotype of so much music. Since the topography of the instrument is quite similar to the guitar, you already have a head start. You might lack the inclination, but we’re here to ameliorate that situation.

So without further preamble, here are four reasons you should really learn to play the bass.

Playing the bass makes you a better musician all around

Being a proper bass player is about so much more than standing stock-still on stage and looking vaguely intimidating. Bassists are instrumental in dictating both the rhythmic and harmonic direction of the music, and as such, exude great influence on how songs not only sound, but feel.

In terms of the groove, a bassist’s note placement has a direct impact on the emotionality of music. An example: a tactically rushed phrase can give a sense of excitement, while laying behind the beat—applying a smooth latency to phrasing—can communicate the sultriness so crucial to the work of hallowed artists like J Dilla, D’Angelo, and others.

Take Pino Palladino, a regular bass player for D’Angelo and John Mayer. He’s a perfect illustration of what a masterful bass player can provide. Think about a classic album like Voodoo: in no way would that record sound the same without his slinky stylings and, yet, you wouldn’t necessarily know that Voodoo sports the same bassist as Mayer’s Continuum. Simply put, Palladino’s rhythmic fluency allows him to set the pace and vibe of both records.

Now, consider harmony. In terms of chordal movement, bass players follow in the grand tradition of counterpoint and voice-leading arguably established by Johann Sebastian Bach. Chords, as you know, are made up of three or more notes played simultaneously, and a bass player has the choice to trigger any one of them at any one time (not to mention access to the pleasantly passing/grace notes, which add character). As a harmonic instrument triggering some of the lowest frequencies within any musical entity, the bass often lays the tonal foundation for how music flows from moment to moment.

So what does any of this have to do with you, a guitar player? A lot. If you give yourself access to the power of the bass, you can achieve a greater sense of your role in any band or combo. You not only learn how to accommodate bass players in your own guitar playing—staying in lockstep with their musical choices—you can learn to apply the rhythmic chops and melodic connections one picks up on the bass to your own technique. This becomes invaluable in pushing past plateaus while practicing, or when learning how to sync with musicians of all types, from keyboard players and drummers to saxophonists and singers.

Playing the bass makes you a better composer and arranger

Don Was, Randy Jackson—heck, even Thundercat—it’s no accident that some of the most renowned and respected producers started out as bass players. A solid knowledge of music, from the ground up, gives them their expertise. That foundation, as we’ve established above, is rooted in the bass. If you devote some time to learning how the bass functions in any musical tapestry, you will glean a crucial understanding of how to craft arrangements. This, in turn, will propel your knowledge within the worlds of composing, mixing, and even producing.

Take Radiohead: whether you love them or hate them, there’s no denying their maturation has centered around their arrangements and productions; certain harmonic motifs have remained constant throughout their catalogue (they love to vacillate between the tonic and a minor iv chord, for example); it is their execution that has undeniably changed. With this in mind, listen closely to tunes like “Airbag,” “15 Step,” “Morning Mr. Magpie,” and “Decks Dark.” In examining the productions of these tunes, I guarantee you’ll see how crucial the bass is in the genesis of their arrangements.

In fact, follow the evolution of “Morning Mr. Magpie” across the Internet, from recorded versions to live jams, and you’ll see that at every change, a bass-centric choice has dictated how the song flows differently, and accommodated changes in rhythmic syncopation spectacularly. 

Harnessing this understanding in your guitar playing—particularly if you write and arrange music—will only benefit the creative output of your productions.

Playing the bass will help you in your gigging career

Let’s start with the obvious: if you are proficient in two instruments, you can take more gigs. And if you’re really good, you can outright double your revenue stream. That’s just math.

But if you’ve properly studied the bass, you’ve done much more than double your earning potential. As illustrated above, knowledge of the bass will make you a better musician, a better arranger, and a better composer. So, if you take that bass-centric knowledge back to your instrument—that special blend of meekness and indispensability—you’ll improve your guitar playing tenfold, for you will have truly learned to showcase music over your own playing. Which brings us to…

Playing the bass is good for your ego

As we’ve said before, you have a head start in learning the bass by virtue of being a guitar player. And yet, there are precious few guitarists who make a name for themselves on the bass. Why? Perhaps because so many guitarists approach the instrument as though it were a guitar, noodling about as though it were the star of the show.

Let’s be honest. As guitar players, we tend to turn up our amps and go for it, often clashing with harmonic counterparts (keyboardists, for example) or outshining the lead singer (a real no-no). I’m guilty as much as anyone, so let me be the first to shirk responsibility: it’s not our fault—it’s something the guitar does to us.

The bass, however, affords little space for noodling; a noodling bass player is the subject of much side-eye and thrown shade, simply because of how loud and formidable the instrument can be. So the best bass players categorically don’t upstage anyone; they’re all about improving the whole tune, blending in so that the music itself stands out. I’d argue that spending time devoting yourself to such a self-erasing enterprise betters you as a musician—it helps you put the music first, and helps you avoid the stereotypical pitfalls often ascribed to guitarists.

So there are four reasons for spending some time with four strings in a lower octave. If we’ve convinced you, then I’d encourage you to check out some basses. This seems like as good a time as any to point out that we have quite a few in our inventory.

Do you think that, as a guitarist, learning to play bass will benefit you in all the above described ways? Tell us, in the Comments section, below.

14 Comments

I have been playing bass all my life. With it and working to get tight with the drummer you can make any group sound good. You've got to get the groove for all the songs. It will make a difference.

Hi John, thanks for writing.

Agreed!

I used to look down on bass players. I always kind of felt like us guitarists were somehow better. A year ago I bought a Fender American Jazz bass and started applying my lead skills to its four strings. The hardest part was learning how to use more than one finger to pluck the strings. Changing my style to suit the bass was fairly easy. It's safe to say I've come about 180 degrees on my thoughts towards bass players. They really do provide a vital role to a song. A bad bass player can really ruin the feel of a song, but a good one can really provide a lot of movement and rhythm.

Guitar has always been my first love but I always keep a bass in my studio for my on stuff.  Just picked up a new bass and amp and was thinking did I waste my money ?  Reading this makes me feel great about my new bass  and to study bass more.

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the kind words!

Best,

Nick

Great report. You'll triple your gig potential if you also sing lead or back up.

Hi Dennis,

Thank you!

Regarding vocals: Yes, this is indubitably true.

Learning some basic keyboard will also go along way in securing gigs - especially in the bass world. With the current stylings of the pop ecosystem trending toward the electronic, a lot of my touring/session bassist friends find themselves playing synth-bass on-stage as much as they pluck the real thing. So yes: Guitar, bass, keys, singing...it all helps!

Wow, what a great article! This has to be one of the best I've ever read of explaining Bass itself, and also the delicate subject of how important and connected it really is in music! Great Job Nicholas! As a mix of all things mentioned here, I love bass just as much as anything else....even if I can't do it justice yet! I divide my time to learning more about guitar, bass, drums, producing, mixing, recording, etc...... Master of none, lol..... But it's the love and connection to it all that keeps me involved and wanting to learn more, and you pointed it out so well here! Thank you! I'm new to B&H very recently, and with articles and inventory like mentioned here, I am already very happy to be aboard! Cheers! 

Thanks Greg!

"Jack of all trades, master of none" - ah yes, I know the feeling. Quite well. I comfort myself by saying that at the end of the day, it's all music. It's music we're here for, and anything we can do to further our love of/pursuit of music is time well spent. At least, that's my opinion.

All the best.

The bass in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" is understated. The Grateful Dead had a great bass guitarist with Phil Lesh;

Will B&H carry tenor sax?

Great examples! 

Hi Ralph,

Thanks for writing!

I cannot comment on whether or not we will carry tenor sax (I know we sell tenor sax cases because I've written them up, but I don't know about the instrument itself). I can tell you that Phil Lesh is awesome. A great songsmith as well as a great bassist (I still believe, to this day, that you don't get Outkast's "Hey Ya" without "Box of Rain", whose music was composed by Phil). 

Many were the nights I rocked out with Phil and Friends at the Beacon and other venues, and of course, how can anyone discount the Dead? What a long strange trip it's been - indeed. 

It's quite eye and ear opening to note that there are a number of great bass players that can hold the whole group together, weaving together the bass undertones into a solid rhythmic bottom, while playing along with and being a big part of the rhythm section, which includes the drums, guitar and keys. But, they can also shine as solo instrumentalists. I, being of the older generation would get goosebumps from hearing John Entwistle of the Who, who would not only kept the rest of the band from flying away laying down a solid barrage of bass notes, but, would be very chordal AND melodic. Actually, I'm sure he incorporated his musical knowledge playing french horn lines on his bass. He also, many-a-times, would hold the group down slamming (or, even, palying softly) chords behind Townshend's flailing of his guitar. The Ox, as he was known, could hold the band together when Pete and (lead) drummer Keith (Moon) would go on a musically (yet interstlingly) controlled rampage. So much more to be said about playing lead bass, but, if you go that route, you can't leave your band's performance in jeapordy by carrying on away from the musical structure of your group.

The most important way a bass player should play is as a member of the band. The solidity he (or she) sets down can make the difference between a good or a great band performance.

Thanks for the comment! Completely agree. I remember the first time I saw Tool, when I was stunned to see that all my favorite lead guitar parts were actually being played by the bassist. Sometimes, there's nothing like a great lead bass line. I often opt for using bass guitars in my own arrangements as lead instruments for their intangible qualities.

Thanks again! 

Best,

Nick

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