A Guitarist’s Guide to Surviving the Bass

Bass players always seem to be in short supply. There’s not a lot of glamor in mostly playing one note at a time, and bass solos are seldom appreciated.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in on bass for a worship night at a church where a friend leads worship. While I’m not an amazing bass player, I’ve really come to look forward to the opportunities I get to play bass. I’ve come up with a few strategies that have really helped me move from just surviving the bass to playing it confidently.

Bass is a “One Note at a Time” Instrument

Unless you’re Victor Wooten, you’re only going to be playing one note at a time. No chords, period. Additionally, to get the cleanest tone out of the bass, all of the other stings of the bass should be muted with your hands to prevent sympathetic resonance. Without muting the strings, the bass will sound muddy and undefined.

When I was in the School of Worship, one of the most valuable instrument techniques I learned was from a bass lab that was taught by Gordon Rustvold. He employs an unusual method of muting the lower strings using his thumb on his right hand, sliding it up and down as needed. You can see an example of this in this video. Then mute the higher strings with your fretting hand.

This Pattern Will Get You Through Most Songs

 

I’m planning on talking about Nashville Numbers in the future, but here’s a quick rundown. In the major scale, each note is assigned a number. Based on the key of the song and the number you can work out the chord. The table below indicates the type of chord for each number and gives an key of C example of the system. Most simple songs make use of the 1, 4, 5, 6. Knowing how this translates in each key is useful for translating this pattern to the chord chart in front of you. I’ve marked 3 and 7 as passing chords. 90% of the time, you’ll use these as passing notes into the next note in the scale (7 to 1, 3 to 4). Additionally, I’ve marked these notes with the alternative inversions that are more commonly in worship songs.

 

Nashville Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Chord type (major key) Major

Root

Minor Minor

Pass

Major Major Minor Diminished

Pass

Example – Key of C C Dm Em

C/E*

F G Am Bdim

G/B*

* Indicates alternate inversion

Know what chords pertain to each number in each key. Know where these numbers fall in the pattern. When this is second nature, all you need to know is the root note and you can track with most songs.

Use Pitch to Simulate Dynamics

Bass sounds best when it’s consistently present. With this in mind, most sound techs will compress it quite a bit, killing most of the volume dynamics of the instrument. You can simulate dynamics by playing in higher octaves for softer parts of the song and lower octaves for louder parts of the song.

Neck Position Affects Tone

I’ve found it easier to get a consistent, warm tone by playing up around the 5th fret. When possible, I try to stay up in that range.

Follow the Kick

The kick drum sets the pulse of the song. While you don’t need to play a note with every kick, it usually makes a great starting point for the rhythmic elements of your playing.

Be Confident in the Changes

The Bass really should be only melodic instrument that occupies the low frequency, or your mix will sound muddy (1). However, when this is applied, if you make a mistake, miss a note, or arrive late, there’s nothing that going to cover it up. Know where you’re going and get there in time or it’s going to stand out.

Getting to the Note is Just as Important as Being There

After proper muting technique, this tip as made the most impact in my playing. The sure sign of a insecure bass player is the transitions between the notes. Unless it’s for rhythmic effect, try to eliminate gaps between the notes you’re playing. If you’re staying on the same string, slide into note. If you’re changing strings mute the previous note at the same moment you play the next note. Clean transitions are secret to sounding confident; know where you’re going and have a plan for getting there.

Have any bass tips for me? Leave them in the comments!

  1. Keyboardists, leave room room in the low end. Anything you add down there will just make the low end sound muddy. I made this mistake for years. Don’t be like me… Now, I’ll even highpass my pads and synths to leave room down there.
Tony has been involved in worship ministry for nearly 20 years. After graduating from the Calvary Chapel School of Worship, he spent ten years as a church staff media director. He currently works as a software developer in the healthcare industry and serves in various capacities at Calvary Chapel Milwaukee, WI.

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