You might not know it, but when I first started leading worship in high school I played bass guitar. It is still my favorite instrument in a lot of ways. I enjoy every chance I get to play bass with a group. Here are my top 5 tips for playing the bass guitar in worship:
Keep it simple. If you’ve ever played in a band with me, you’ve probably heard me say this many times. My critique is often that instruments play too much and play rhythms that are too complex. This is true of any instrument, but is especially true for the bass guitar. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There is no shame in staying on the root of the chord and letting the note sustain. The bass guitar is rarely the focus. Make room for the other instruments.
Color the drums. The bass guitar is the harmonic foundation of the band. It does this work in tandem with the drums or percussion. I like to think of the bass guitar being the tonal coloring of the drums. So when the drummer plays the kick drum, giving the band a rhythmic foundation to build on, the bass guitar is providing the tonal color for the kick drum so that the rhythmic foundation now has pitch.
Stand near the drummer. Because drums and bass guitar work in tandem, creating a hybrid harmonic/rhythmic foundation for the band, it makes sense that they should be in proximity to each other. But I often see them separated. Being close enough to visually cue each other is essential. Being close enough to “feel” the groove from each other is better.
Use the middle of the neck. All the tone and sustain comes from the middle of the neck on the bass guitar. So instead of playing the note “A” using the open string, play it on the fifth fret of the E string.
Finesse the notes. Every little detail matters. Give attention to how the notes are started and stopped. Plucking the string doesn’t have to be done so harshly. Let the amplification do the work – not your fingers. Do your notes buzz or sound rough? Make sure your finger is placed right against the fret of the note you’re playing. Work to smoothly transition from note to note, with no gaps between the pitches.
Technologies for Worship Magazine had a great little tip from John Chevalier on how to build a Worship Band. I’m going to break apart his points and riff on each of them.
1. The bass should always play in sinc with the beat of the kick drum. This is key, as about 60% of your sound comes from these two instruments.
“Always” is a relative term. As will be the case in all of these tune up posts, these rules are flexible and should be taken more as guidelines. There are “always” occasions when they should be ignored.
The final comment about 60% of the band’s sound being generated by bass guitar and drums is a good and important statement. Unless of course, your band lacks either bass or drums. Again, there are occasions when these guidelines do not apply. But when bass guitar and drums are present, you can not underestimate the importance and function of these foundational instruments. They lay the chordal and rhythmic framework on which all other instruments and vocals are constructed upon.
It is also wise not to separate the bass guitar and drums into different sections or layers, but to think of them as 1 cohesive unit of tone and rhythm. I like to think that the bass guitar exists primarily to give tone and melody to the kick drum. When the kick drum is “punched,” the bass guitar provides the color and pitch to that impact. This combined sound has to be strong, just like the foundation of the house, so that everything that rests on top of it is secure and finds it’s place.
Drummers and bassists that play in sinc are rare. They are rare because it takes a relationship. It is much more than mechanics. It requires friendship and partnership. Of course, the bass guitarist needs to be positioned on stage so that he can keep an eye on the kick drum. That’s a basic thing in order to keep the sound tight. But the really good teams are able to anticipate each others playing. As I’ve been known to say, “the bass guitarist needs to know what the drummer had for breakfast before he sees him.”
In my 10+ years of worship ministry, of all the groups I’ve led or played in, I’ve only experienced this drum/bass sinc-anticipation playing maybe one time. It takes time to build. And it takes discipline for the drummer to play a beat consistently the same way so that the bass guitarist can follow along. Discipline is also needed from the bass player to accent the rhythmic pattern initiated by the drummer.