Canadian Musician - May-June 2022 - Page 59

Bass Players , Who or What Do You Serve ?


By David Landreth

My brother , Joe , picked up the guitar before he was out of diapers . I reached for the bass later , in my teens , because I wanted to get in on the music that he was making with our dad , and no matter how much Jethro Tull I listened to , my junior high flute skills were not cutting it for the family band .

When I showed interest in the bass guitar , which , coincidentally , was about as far away as you could get from the flute , our dad lent me his 1980 Fender Precision and set me loose on learning all my favourite Green Day songs . Once I had those in hand , coupled with a crash course in the number system , the three of us started playing music together . It would have been shortly after these early jam sessions began that I heard this phrase for the first time : “ Less is more .”
It was as much advice as it was a formal request . Those three words would go on to have a profound impact on my playing and my approach to music . They were , however , mostly lost on the excited teenager who just ( kinda ) learned “ Teen Town ” and couldn ’ t wait to show off his hot new bass chops . It would be years before I started to really understand what he had meant .
Just about every valuable lesson I ’ ve learned about music was learned on the bandstand . I cut my teeth playing in blues and country bands around Winnipeg and was lucky to have a handful of experienced players care enough to teach me some tough lessons .
If I started playing out or getting too busy , I ’ d earn angry glares from the rest of the cats on stage . I distinctly remember being pulled aside by a bandleader that I really respected after the first set at a blues club in town : “ Stop improvising the bass lines . Stick to the parts , but make them feel good ,” he told me .
These were hard lessons for my young ego , but I wanted to do a good job and I trusted that all these folks knew what they were doing . They loved the music they played , and they cared deeply about presenting it as well as they could . We all had a role to play , and I was being introduced to mine in real time .
With a little help , I eventually learned to lust after a heavy groove — to dig a wide trench with the rhythm section and just sit there . When you find musicians who will do that with you , it can be transcendent . You need to set aside your ego if you want to go to that place , though . It can ’ t be about you as an instrumentalist , it has to be about reaching for a sum greater than the parts .
The things is , the bass , in all its distinguished incarnations – be it guitar , sousaphone or synth , upright or electric , fretted or fretless – is , by nature , a humble instrument . We low-ended ones exist as a bridge , straddling the selfless musical valley between rhythm and harmony . With a foot firmly planted on each side , we mark and anchor the beat of the songs that we work for , while also establishing the tonal foundation for the harmony that happens in the octaves north of the bass clef . We have the glorious purpose of acting as a conduit between these crucial musical building blocks .
What my dad was trying to instil in me that day , and in the years that would follow , is that our job is to get on stage and serve somebody . Bass players serve the song , the melody , the other musicians on stage , and the audience in front of us . Our job is to get up there and elevate everything around us . What can we contribute that helps the other musicians sound better ? How can we support the lyrics , the melody ? How does our sound blend with the other instruments on stage ? What part do we play in making sure the audience is having the best experience they can ?
The answer is often simple , though it can be counterintuitive — most of the time we just need to do a little less .
So much about playing music comes down to listening , and it ’ s very difficult to be a good listener if you don ’ t leave space for others . When you succeed , you ’ ll invite the best from those around you . That inspiration is contagious . You ’ ll be amazed at the places you ’ ll go when you leave your agenda aside and listen for what the music truly needs .
So , I encourage you , bottom dwellers and treble makers alike , endeavour to settle into that deep pocket and listen a little more than you speak , because , more often than not , less is more .
David Landreth is a musician from Winnipeg , MB , and one-half of the award-winning group The Bros . Landreth . The band just released , Come Morning , the most immersive and emotive record of their career . www . thebroslandreth . com .