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spicing up a solo bass performance

Discussion in 'Ask Steve Lawson & Michael Manring' started by Im a sock, Dec 8, 2003.

  1. Im a sock

    Im a sock

    Dec 23, 2002
    Central MA
    I'm going to be performing this Wednesday at an open mic (for acoustic guitarrists - oops!) and I'm planning on playing some solo pieces that I've written.

    My question is this: I don't have a looping device of any kind, so I'm afraid that it might sound a little dry to some people (sometimes I'll play the same phrase 2 or 3 times). How do you, Michael and Steve, spice up solo bass work?

    I've been thinking about inserting some neat tap fills or harmonics/tapping, but I'd like to hear what the pros have to say about it.
  2. Solo bass is just like solo guitar: it's the art of filling in space with just two parts (voices). An example of this is to have breaks within the melody line. When the melody takes a momentarily break , the bass line can become more prominent and vice versa. I guess it's really more about interplay and give and take. If you get the chance, listen to these solo bass songs to give you some ideas:

    Michael Dimin: Autumn Leaves
    Rob Wasserman: Thirteen
    Victor Wooten: Classical Thump
    Victor Wooten: Amazing Grace
    Michael Manring: Purple Haze
    Dave Holland: Mr PC
    Rob Griffith: Within Zion

    Except for Purple Haze, all the above feature a microscopic call and response between the melody and the bass part. Both the melody and bass parts rarely ever play simultaneously within these examples. The bass line is usually played on the strong beats while the melody responds microseconds after. The only reason as to why it sounds so full is because it's all happening within a steady tempo and consecutively after each other, therefore giving the "illusion" of completeness. Go to www.bassically.net and check out Michael Dimin's solo bass arrangement of Autumn Leaves to see what I mean. It's really all about filling in space when one part is lying low and vice versa. You can also listen to this same microscopic call and response within Bach's works for solo cello (BWV 1007-1012).

    I hope this helps.
  3. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK

    I think the trick is to find the balance between what you see as the technical limitations of bass as a solo instrument and the fact that your audience are there to hear music - if the music's cool, they for the most part won't care how it's made or how tricky it is to play... So as far as tapping etc. is concerned, it's great because it allows you to reach things that there's no way you could get otherwise, but in and of itself is no more musical than picking open strings or playing with your fingers - it's just a technique. The important thing is the music.

    If you've got some tunes that work, then it is certainly possible to spice them up by playing them through a couple of times keeping it simple the first time through and then playing a variation on the idea second time round... Think of what parameters there are to change:

    you can play 'free' time and then switch to grooving,
    you can play just the melody over an open string then switch to a bass line that follows the tune more using double stops.
    you can play the tune really simply and then embellish it with trills, hammer ons etc. the next time through,
    you can change the technique you're using to strike the strings - pick it first time, strum it the second...

    All this gives you more development through the piece without having to come up with whole new parts to the songs, which also helps the audience to follow where you're going.

    The advice from Guitarrista is good though, to listen to guys who play solo stuff well and see where that takes you.

    Good luck, and enjoy it!

  4. stephanie


    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    I have the same problem as well.

    I not only listen to other solo bassists for inspiration, but also guitar players like Michael Hedges, David Cullen, Alex DeGrassi, and Wil Ackerman. It helps give me a sense of melody and rhythm.
  5. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    I think this is a really important point, Steph - as a general rule listening to bass players to learn how to play melodies is a bad idea... how many bassists are there that are REALLY rated for their melodic playing, and I mean outside of the bass community? Not many - Jaco, Edgar Meyer, Red Mitchell, Michael Manring, Patitucci, Gary Peacock... not many. There are others that amaze people by playing melodies that are surprisingly good for a bass player, but they aren't melodic players on the level of Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Frisell, Kenny Wheeler, Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Michael Brecker, Frank Dunnery, David Sylvian, Peter Gabriel etc. etc.

    Those are the great melody players. Anyone wanting to get deep inside melodies in any style even vaguely related to jazz HAS to check out Miles - his phrasing was unbelieveable.

    My two fave melodic influences are Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon - both write and sing the most sublime tunes and their rhythmic ideas are outstanding.

    By all means listen to bassists who you love - I do it all the time, but remember that musical magic is not instrument specific. If you want to learn about harmony, listen to great hamony players, not just great chordal bassists, you want to learn about playing tunes, listen to people who write and play great tunes, not just bassists...


  6. Michael Manring

    Michael Manring TalkBass Pro Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    It's a good question – "how can I make my music more interesting?" In fact, it's one of those questions that's so comprehensive the best answer is probably simply, "yes!" I think it's a good idea to keep asking ourselves how we can make music that's more effective, meaningful, entertaining, moving and significant. By asking the question we're accomplishing something vitally important. There are so many aspects of music that can be considered – composition, emotion, performance, timbre, structure, expression, technique, etc. I like the idea of continually examining the music that we make from as many angles as possible as a way to make what it more engaging.
  7. "My two fave melodic influences are Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon - both write and sing the most sublime tunes and their rhythmic ideas are outstanding."

    That's a really invaluable point that Steve bought up. Sometimes when you listen to music that is outside your normal listening field, you tend to get rich new musical ideas that you wouldn't have come across from just merely experimenting with your instrument alone. I know that John Patitucci listened to a lot of great horn players hence his phrasing, I also know that Larry Graham wanted to immitate the drums hence his pioneering of the slap style. Honestly, I don't really know where guys like Steve Lawson, Michael Dimin or Michael Manring would be if they just restricted themselves to listening to only the bass.

    I guess solo bass (and solo guitar) is one of those specialist things, you need to have as much ideas as possible melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. There are those people that say a solo bass show would be boring, but I bet you if you took all the great ideas from all the great pieces that was ever written/arranged for solo bass (ie Purple Haze, Portait of Tracy, Autumn Leaves and many more....) and utilized them into your own pieces, I bet you those same people would beg to differ.

    I listen to solo bass a lot thesedays and the one thing that I picked up was that these guys only pull it off because they are eclectic in taste. I reckon that the guy/gal with the most musical ideas can out do the guy/gal with the most technical chops anyday of the week.
  8. rob griffith

    rob griffith

    Jul 29, 2004
    Here's a couple of methods I like to use to expand on a part, and make it playable for solo performance...

    Assume the line takes the roll of the bassline, and you want to add further elements above it...aspects of melody or harmony.

    If it's a line that you can play with just your left hand (right handed
    folks), by tapping, try doing that, while using our right hand to tap a
    simple melody in an upper register. The key is to keep things simple
    enough that the parts, played together, compliment eachother in terms
    of rhythm and harmony, but remain playable. This melody could be
    just one or two notes. Using double stops (2 note chords) in intervals
    of thirds, fourths and fifths is a good way to expand on your initial
    melody line, or to add harmony.

    Don't be afraid to simplify the bass line (left hand) in order to
    accomodate the melody. As long as you don't lose the essential idea
    behind it, the rhythm and chord structure, It'll support the rest of the
    song. Take advantage of your open strings.

    Another approach is to add harmonics on top of your bassline. On the
    four string bass, we've got all the notes in the B minor scale available to
    us in harmonics. Dmaj, Amaj, Gmaj, and Em work well. Also Dm and
    Am are good choices. If you're into playing artificial harmonics, then anything is open to you.

    The use of harmonics to expand on a line makes it easier to play more comples basslines underneath when compared to tapping the upper voices. The only obstacles are the location of the target harmonics in relation to the hand playing the bassline, and the two voices competing for one string sometimes. Varying your hand position and finding alternate fingerings for the bassline can almost always overcome these issues.

    When using harmonics (or fretted notes) to construct an upper voicing to a bassline, try, as nuch as possible to think of the two lines as distinct voices... as two or more musicians playing together. Utilize both unison and counterpoint rhythm to full advantage to make the pairing of the lines interesting and unique. Create variety in the different sections of the songs. For example:

    If, say in bar one of the verse, your upper voice follows the bass by
    by playing double stop fourths in time with the bassline...give the
    second bar some variety in one of the following ways:
    1. Play the harmonics inbetween the bass voice's notes (in the
    2. Instead of double stops, play the two notes one after the other
    a. try reversing this order in other sections.
    3. Change the notes of the upper voice the second time around.

    The exercise here is to take simple ideas, and vary them in simple ways
    that, together, expand the uniqueness of the passage, and grab attention.

    I've found these ideas useful, not only for creating written parts, but in helping me to add improvised second and third voicings to any bassline. Hope you find the same.

    Rob Griffith