We got together last Friday evening in my studio, the first time we’ve played together in better than a year. Just like riding a bike, as they say – we immediately communicated musically and had fun playing mostly old blues and country tunes. Andy is a solid player. Our tastes are a bit different in music; I like jazz and while Andy can put down a reasonable walking bass line if the jazz tune is blues-based he really doesn’t care for the structure of more complex compositions. This is just fine – we all have our preferences.
When we’re playing those old blues and country tunes however he is almost always right there with the changes. Thinking about the experience later I was reminded of the importance (necessity, really) of a bass player being rock solid with the roots of the chords in a song. Most of the time a good bass player will begin whatever line he or she is going to play with the root of the chord when a change happens. This establishes the sound of the chord right away. What follows are often other chord tones, usually the 5th of the chord being used immediately after the root or in the next couple of beats. The 3rd of the chord should show up soon too because that establishes whether the chord is major or minor. If a chord last for a couple measures a good bass player comes up with a line (usually involving other notes in key) that leads in a logical manner to the next chord change.
In order for a guitarist and bass player to sound good together there has to be a huge amount of trust. This is especially important if the guitarist is going to try to improvise for some amount of time. Building an improvised solo is difficult enough without worrying about whether or not the bass player will be there with the correct roots of the chords on the changes. If the person improvising is even a little worried about that not happening it is both stifling and scary, leading to a solo that sounds either disjointed or the opposite: very simple because the soloist feels bound to establish the sound of the chord or melody instead of coming up with something more creative.
This is not nearly as much of an issue when soloing over another guitar, if only for the simple reason that the other guitar is playing chords rather than single notes as does a bass player. That full sound of a chord – even if the change is late or even wrong – fills in a lot of gaps in the overall sound and this is “safe.”
From the bass players’ point of view this responsibility can be somewhat boring at times. Listen to some of the best known classic rock and blues tunes and you’ll hear the bass player repeating a line over and over, or even a single note again and again. Good bass players get very bored with this very quickly and naturally want to play something more daring and creative. And that is REALLY where the trust comes in. If you’re fortunate enough to play with a bass player for a long time and know his style and the lines he’s apt to create you can plan for them, or at least not be surprised when they happen.
Quite a few years ago I happened to hear an excellent local jazz guitarist named Jim Robitaille http://jimrobitaille.com/and a bass player. Jim is a great jazzer whose style tends to run toward the more modern jazz styles of people like Jim Hall and Pat Martino. That means he takes chances when soloing – lots of them! But on that first occasion and the times I’ve heard him since in the guitar/bass setting I was blown away by the tight, logical harmonic complexity that the two instruments achieved. It was obvious that Jim was absolutely confident in his bass player’s ability to hold the chord structure together so he could solo at will. This is the essence of making music with another person.
So if you have the opportunity to play with a bass player don’t be shy about gently suggesting he hit those roots and chord tones if he isn’t doing it consistently. The result will be some darn fine music not matter how simple or complex the song may be. Yes, it’s fun to just jam away and hope for the best but if both players put thought and effort into the experience it can lead to bigger and better things, and BOTH players will be better for it.
Peace & good music,