Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

It's ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it…

October 17th, 2007 | No Comments | Categories: bass ideas · Musing on Music · tips for musicians |

There’s been a fairly long discussion on one of the bass-geek e-lists I’m on of late about phrasing and patterns and such – it started out with a guy who was feeling stuck in the patterns that he played, and was asking for a way out.

My answer to that is always the same – learn more patterns. Not wanting to use any patterns in music is like not wanting to use grammar when talking – it inhibits your ability to communicate (non-idiomatic free-improv notwithstanding). The problem – as with language – comes when you know so few patterns (or expressions) that their repetition reveals your lack of familiarity with the subject (style/tune/key/chord progression) – in Italian, I know about 6 phrases, which I repeat ad nauseum in an attempt to sound slightly less like a typical doesn’t-speak-any-other-languages Brit. But it’s clear from my limited range that I really don’t know the language. My accent isn’t bad (especially not when I’ve been there a while), but I still don’t have the vocab to sound even like an ex-pat, let alone a local.

If I could even vary the phrases I knew slightly, it’d make for a broader base from which to converse. Same with music – start by mixing up what you already know. Change one element – could be the last note, or the first note, or putting a rest in the middle, or starting the phrase in a different part of the bar… It really doesn’t matter, the point is to get away from the tried and tested, and start to branch out into newer areas.

Anyway, the discussion on the list moved away from that to what ‘phrasing’ is all about, and why (in the opinion of some of us) bassists are particularly bad at expressive, fluid phrasing. Here’s what I wrote in response, with particular reference to the quote from Stig at the top (he’s wise, very wise)

>>”also in my view, this is something that most ebass players do not do.
they tend to favor the instrument’s percussive or shreddable qualities,
and neglect the more “expressive” aspects. << Which is utterly baffling given what a phenomenally expressive instrument the bass - and particularly the fretless bass - can be... I guess that the tendency towards metric subdivision and testosterone-driven displays of dexterity is somehow related to the requirement in so much rock music to play things in a consistent, steady, non-varying way. Multiply that up to a solo and it becomes the same thing at 2, 4 or 8 times the speed one or two octaves higher... Easier to do that than to move away from seeing rhythmic 'correctness' as being about a dualist 'in time/out of time' binary equation, and instead see the emergence of a rhythmic or textural, um, gestalt (?) as a consequence of observation and awareness of what makes music connect, and then working on developing the control to execute that, based on what it is you want to play in relation to what your awareness tells you should be happening, however seemingly complex, random, a-rhythmic, poly-rhythmic or whatever that may be. There aren’t many rock/pop basslines that require you to change the tone-shaping effect of your right hand technique from one note to the next, whereas expressive shaping of a melodic line often demands that in order to set up the kind of question/answer phrase-logic that Stig alluded to.

It’s clearly a much bigger issue for improvising musicians and solo musicians than it is for bands operating solely within an idiom that has readily defined parameters – if I suddenly got the gig playing bass in Green Day, I wouldn’t be quite so aware of the benefits of understanding the influence of fluctuations in the rhythm of a loop on the listener, or how palm muting a single note in the middle of an improvised melodic phrase might make it sound more like a question than a statement, and would be far more concerned about where to place the bass notes on the beat in order to produce the kind of urgency required by the music. (something that would be much better learnt by playing lots of punk music, going to punk shows and listening to punk records than my studying rhythmic placement in any other context…)

there you go. :o) Any of this stuff could be equally applicable to any musician, it’s just that bass players are particularly geared to not play tunes well (in the same way that guitarists from a blues background often struggle with anything that needs to be rhythmically precise – their training just hasn’t focussed on those elements). Ultimately, it’s all about control and awareness, but that’s a whole other book.

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