Bass, And Things About Which To Muse

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that I've recently joined forces with the band Morningside Drive, as a bass player. While I've been playing bass on my own demos and home recordings for a long time now, I haven't always been gigging bassist. Of the time I've spent as a gigging bassist, I haven't always been a very good one.

And yet one fantastic byproduct of my playing with Morningside Drive is the extent to which it has honed my bass chops. I'm still not a very good bass player, but I am slowly crawling toward the point of being a fairly decent one.

One advantage I have here is all the years I have already invested in learning music theory. Thus I generally know which notes to play, and that is half (or much more than half) the battle for most people who take up a musical instrument. That is one reason why I've been able to ramp-up on my bass playing fairly rapidly. I don't have to re-learn scales, modes, and what note goes with what chord; I already learned that stuff when I became a guitarist.

Another advantage I have is that bass guitars are - let's be honest - highly similar to guitar-guitars. It's true that they shouldn't be played the same way, but still... they're tuned identically, save for the difference in octaves. All the notes are in the same place, and I use the same fingers to play them. Moving from guitar to bass is a bit like learning French after you already know Italian: there is a real difference in flavor, but the underlying information is the same, and we use it the same way.

So playing the bass is similar to playing the guitar, but being a bassist is much different from being a guitarist. For one thing, one's role in the band changes from being a lead player to being a supporting player. I had expected that aspect of being a bassist to be less fun, but what I've discovered is that I can often make the same contribution to the band I would normally make, but in such a way that no one really objects.

In part, this is because non-bassists don't tend to be very invested in bass notes. Let's face it, what the bass does seldom catches anyone's attention unless the guitarist is doing it, too. Or unless you're playing a juicy, groovy riff. Barring that, though, people tend to focus on the singer or the guitarist. While as a guitarist I might choose to throw in an augmented chord - alienating many bandmates who may not have the same taste for dissonance I have - as a bassist, it is not usually a problem. People just don't notice it as much.

Non-bassists don't always think their way through the overall harmonic movement of a piece the way a bassist does. So a guitarist may fall in love with a particular riff, play it through the entire verse, then comes the chorus, and the guitarist plays the chorus riff... and so on... By contrast, it is a bassist's job to ensure that the transition is pleasant. First, it has to be rhythmically pleasant. A guitarist can just switch to a new, and sometimes rhythmically different, riff. If a bassist did that, it would be too jarring. Thus, the bassist must help the guitarist and the drummer navigate a rhythmic structure that remains cohesive through the transitions in a piece of music.

Second, the transition has to make harmonic sense, and also tell a harmonic story. The basic mistake most songwriters make is not changing the harmonic structure of a song from part to part. Novice songwriters often write whole songs using only one underlying chord, or a single chord progression, across the verse, bridge, chorus, and so on. Were a bassist to merely mirror the guitarist's work, we'd have a very boring song on our hands. But a bassist can inject pleasant harmonic variation by playing notes that the guitarist doesn't want to play, sometimes even changing the root note of the chord without the guitarist having to do anything at all. More advanced songwriters like to play with chord structures a bit more, and here the transitions become the key. It's all well and good to play a verse and a chorus in totally different key signatures, but without a bassist's help setting up the transition to the new key, it just sounds like a harmonic skeleton with no vertebrae, no backbone.

And all of this is what I've been moved to think about as I play bass for Morningside Drive.

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