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Putting The Rock In Rock Bass

Updated on December 28, 2014
The job of a Rock Bassist is to provide a sonic link between the drummer and guitarist. - Kevin "Krank" Kekes
The job of a Rock Bassist is to provide a sonic link between the drummer and guitarist. - Kevin "Krank" Kekes

Can you hum the bass lines in your favorite songs?

You can sing the words! You can play air-guitar, including every single note of the lead break, for all of your favorite songs! But unless you're a bass player, or a bass players girlfriend/boyfriend, you probably can't think of the bass parts for songs you've been listening to for years.

Even a casual music listener can probably name 10 singers instantly....And everyone knows a handful of guitar players..... Now, ask anyone but a music connoisseur to name 2 bass players. Exactly.

That's because the bass guitar is inherently a supporting instrument in the realm of Rock music. I'm not saying it takes a back seat....quite the contrary, as we'll see,,, but every rock band is a team, and no instrument requires the willingness to be a "team player" as does bass guitar.

"Guitar is for the head, drums are for the chest, but bass gets you in the groin" -- Suzi Quatro

The Wall Of Sound

One of the main characteristics of Rock music is energy. The transfer of that energy is what draws music fans to Rock, Metal, and Punk. At a live show it hits you in the chest! Some people mosh. Some people yell and raise a fist. Some just stand and absorb the action. But almost ALL fans of high-energy rock want to feel that Wall Of Sound!! So who on your musical team has the most influence on that? It's the ever-overlooked bass guitarist!

The legendary Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy
The legendary Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy

The bridge between drums and guitar.

As a bass player, your job is to be the rock solid bridge between the drummer and the guitarist. While this means paying close attention to both, a bassist has a special relationship with the drummer. Together, you are the rhythm section. The engine of the hot rod! It makes a big difference if you actually like the drummer on a personal level, because you're going to pay a lot of attention to them. Especially their feet. Always the feet.

On the other end is the guitar player. El Melodicus Maximus... There is also a very important relationship here because both guitar and bass are stringed instruments, and both are, well....guitars. The notes on a guitar and a bass guitar are the same. When you are playing within the structure of a song, you will be moving through melodies and chord progressions as a team. Sometimes you play in unison and sometimes counterpoint to each other. Often, it's a matter of keeping a rock-solid groove while the guitarist or vocalist goes off into nether land. No matter what, you still have to pay close attention.


Two legends of Rock Bass - Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath and Ian Hill of Judas Priest
Two legends of Rock Bass - Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath and Ian Hill of Judas Priest

Building The Wall of Sound

Once you understand the role of a rock bassist, you can begin to build your "Wall Of Sound" as I call it. While many factors, including; room or venue size, quality of gear, and experience of the soundman, will affect your sound at any given live show, practice, or recording session, there are solid steps that you can take....that you MUST take.....to create that thump!

Think Percussively

A good bassist has to be able to think like a drummer. I don't mean getting drunk and being obnoxious....but rather, you have to think about the mechanics of percussion. What is the drummer doing with his foot? When his foot pedal strikes the bass drum, it produces a low-end thud sound. As a bass player, you have to match that thud with a note. In perfect unison. Not even a fraction of a beat slow, or a millisecond fast. You are trying to create the perfect punch!

At the same time, you are also listening closely to the snare drum, the toms, and the cymbals. These are all equally important, but everything starts with the bass drum. It's the foundation upon which we build.

Polish Your Tone

Working on your tone, or the sound or your instrument, can be a lifelong journey. Your preference may be much different than mine. It's all very subjective, so you have to incorporate what works best for you. I can point out some basic facts that can make a difference!

When you are playing a live show, or recording in a studio, the sound coming out of your amplifier is going to travel through some other gear, like mixing boards, effects processors and P.A. systems. Each time it does, there is the possibility of more noise being added to your signal. This can really add up, If you have a noisy signal to begin with it's only going to get worse, and the soundman is not going to feature that. Sound engineers have a saying.... "Garbage in - Garbage out". Meaning...if you have a crummy sound to start with, you're still going to have a crummy sound, only much louder. Give him something clean to work with. Again, this advice may not apply in your specific situation.

Play With Conviction

Put two bass players, two guitar players, or any two musicians in a room with the same one instrument, the same amplifier, with the same settings, at the same volume.....then have both musicians play through the same set-up. It's highly likely that they will sound very different. That's because our energy and our personality come through in our playing. It's in the way we touch the strings....it's an extension of ourselves.

Passion is defined as "strong enthusiasm or intense emotion for a person or thing". I try to put this concept into my playing. This extends to every note I play.....Every Single Note....and the spaces between the notes as well..... They are equally important!

Strong enthusiasm for every note, combined with concentration on your technique will equal energy and passion in your playing. Energy and passion channeled through a sound system is an incredible force!

Bassist extraordinaire. Steve Harris of Iron Maiden
Bassist extraordinaire. Steve Harris of Iron Maiden

The following song, "Beyond Apathy" from the band Damien provides an example of the bass guitar following a fast moving bass drum. When drummer Johnny Cappelletty drops down to half-time for the chorus, I still follow the exact beat of the bass drum with my bass guitar.

Fast Tempo Example.

Showmanship - If You're Visible, You Have An Image

Like it or not, as soon as you play in public, release a song, or even a picture....you have an image. You don't have to be theatrical like Freddie Mercury, Gene Simmons, or Slipknot. Ripped jeans and a leather jacket have been the uniform for countless successful musicians, but let's face it....even NO image is an image...

If you want to develop an audience for your music you cannot ignore this concept. Your image is your professional face to the world. In a very real sense, it can make or break you.... So be aware of it. Take pride in it. Develop and refine your professional image, whatever that image may be.

Showmanship can be defined as "passion in the delivery of artistic performance, as defined by an audience". We've already defined passion as an immense enthusiasm for something, so we can see that passion for playing our instrument is a key component of showmanship. If you really love what you're doing, it's more enjoyable for the people who are watching you do it!

Being a good "showman" is an entirely individual concept. Bassist Flea of The Red Hot Chili Peppers is an incredible showman. He can get away with wearing a diaper onstage, and is still recognized as a very serious musician. This would not work for Paul McCartney or Steve Harris, but those guys are legendary showmen in their own right.

Personally, I started working on my "stage presence" at an early point in my career, to make up for what I considered my lack of playing ability. Over the years, I have improved greatly as a player, but I still consider showmanship and image to be a very important part of my job.

There are many incredible bass players out there. There is talent everywhere, so you need to have every angle covered if you want to stand out. As a former manager used to say; "If you wanna play ball, you gotta get in the ballpark".



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On Stage With CRASHDOLLZ
On Stage With CRASHDOLLZ | Source

Slow Tempo Example

The next example is in the video "Dollhouse" by my band Crashdollz. In this song, I literally play one note, on the beat, throughout the entire song. Every idea I have just written about is captured in this video. Even standing in one spot and playing one note, I am able to create a "wall of sound" and project a level of showmanship appropriate to the song. I'm not even close to being bored with this simple bass part because I'm playing with full concentration, energy and passion!!

Crashdollz - Dollhouse

So, my point is??

  • Think Percussively
  • Polish Your Tone
  • Play With Conviction
  • If You're Visible, You Have An Image
  • Showmanship - You're Being Watched

The advice in this blog isn't intended for every musician out there. Rather, it's for the beginning or intermediate bass player who wants to play live music with a rock band. There must be 2 or 3 of you out there....somewhere.

If you ARE one of those guys or gals who wants to live as a superior human being, aka Bass Player, then the above is solid advice to live by.

Keep your eyes on your goals, your feet on the ground, and your fingers on the strings!!!

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