Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Bass Guitar Ramblings

Here on the Costa Del Sol in Southern Spain there is a vibrant live music scene with a plethora of musicians and bands from many different countries, cultures and age-groups. This makes for a varied and interesting mix of different styles of playing, performing and presentation.

From the bass guitarist’s standpoint, there is a wonderful variation in the choice of styles which means that whatever your preferred flavour of music is, chances are there is a band here on the coast playing it. Even better (for the bass guitarist) is that good bass guitarists are in short supply here on the coast, which means that if you’re good, you’ll be working.

And don’t I just know it.

A bit about me

I’ve been here on the coast for over 4 years and in that time have proved myself to be one of the top players. That’s no idle boast, either. I may not be the guy who can cram the most notes into a bar (as per the likes of Billy Sheehan), nor can I slap that plank like a Stanley Clark clone! Nope, I’m more a solid player.

By that I mean I keep in time with the drummer, don’t drop notes (a common fault that I hear in many bassists) and play in tune (you would be surprised at how many don’t…). The rhythm section of any band is its backbone and if the drummer and bassist can lock in together then the rest of the band can really shine with confidence knowing that the backbone is strong and won’t let them down.

For nearly three years, I played in the Mama Paula Blues Band which started out as a five piece and eventually got whittled down to just three: Paula on guitar (sometimes keyboard, sometime keyboard and guitar at the same time!) and vocals, Miguel on drums and me on bass and vocals. There is a CD out there somewhere, called “Live in Spain” but it’ not easy to get hold of a copy any more. Paula is a great blues guitarist, probably the best there is here on the coast – she puts most male guitarists to shame!

After we parted company last year (2005) I was head-hunted for a seven piece “Madness” tribute band called “One Step Beyond” which was loads of fun but also fell by the wayside (mainly due to lack of well enough paying gigs). I then formed my own three piece rock band called “Dutch Courage” which was an attempt to revive the feel of the original 70’s band of the same name which I was involved with way back then. I also played with the legendary Argentinean guitarist Marcelo Saenz in a 60´s Stones style band and am now playing with a 70´s disco/funk outfit made up of music teachers from the “Music Factory” school of music in Fuengirola, where I also do a little part-time bass guitar teaching.

So what about some tips?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were someone out there who could give some tips and info on good, solid bass playing? Not how to run through arpeggios and charge down chromatic scales like a lunatic, but how to be the backbone of your band? You don’t often get that kind of help, because it’s not glamorous or flashy. Who wants to be the boring old bloke at the back of the stage keeping the drummer company, anyway?

Well, it doesn’t have to be like that. You can be solid as well as play a key role in your band and enjoy some front-stage recognition into the bargain. How do I know this? It’s because I do just that.


Well ok, I’ll let you into a not very well kept secret. Playing bass is never going to be all that glamorous.


Even if you can slap like Stanley or widdle like a lead guitarist. Wanna know why? Well, its simply because the only people who are going to be impressed by a great bass solo are other bass guitarists. And how many of them do you think are going to be in your audience? Mmm, brings it home to earth, doesn’t it.

I have yet to play to any audience, be it in a bar or club or even on a big stage in front of two thousand bikers, where more than twenty percent of them were musicians of all kinds. That’s being generous.

Always, always, always the vast majority of your audience are NOT musicians. That means that the majority of your audience will appreciate a well played song more than they will appreciate a great bass solo. Or even a great guitar solo, for that matter (ooh I can feel the backlash coming from the wounded egos of a truckload of guitarists!). But it’s true. Solos are great to play and great to listen to, of course, but for the majority of people it just goes straight over their heads.

I think I’ve rammed that point home.

So what to do?

Well, a strange phenomenon I’ve noticed in many bands in the vocal department is that a high percentage of bassists don’t sing. It’s often left to the guitarist or maybe keyboard player to sing the backing vocals, while the bassist either stands at the back with the drummer looking down at his shoes, or stands near the front slapping his plank like crazy… either way nowhere near a mic stand.

Of course, there are some notable bassists who do sing. Geddy Lee from Rush and Mark King from Level 42 immediately spring to mind as front men-come-top bassists to boot. And me. Ok, I’m not in their league but the principle is the same. Its how I play solid, dependable (and ok, sometimes a little boring) bass but grab my share of the limelight.

It’s also what puts me near the top of the bass players here on the coast and why I’ve often been head-hunted by bands. Sure, there are better, more technical bassists here, but they don’t sing and when economics plays its part in defining how big the line-up can be in any given band (three being, in my opinion, optimum) it helps if the musicians can also double up on vocals.

Ok, I’ll spell it out. The fewer mouths there are to feed, the more that goes round. A three-piece band sharing 300€ for the night will get 100€ each and that’s a decent wage here. A five-piece sharing the same pot will only get 60€ each, so, as a bassist you do the same work, the same humping the heavy gear in and out, the same time and same work-rate, but get paid almost half for having the luxury of a standalone vocalist and either a keyboard player or second guitarist

I prefer to do without either, have all three members of the band singing nice, three-part harmonies and the audience love you for it.

Well, that’s it for now. Be sure to look in again sometime soon for the inevitable additions and updates that I’ll be putting in here.

Terry Roberts

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