Subtle Dynamics and Expression

Discussion in 'Ask Steve Lawson & Michael Manring' started by Bobby Keyes, Mar 12, 2003.

  1. I have been learning the Bach Cello Suites on my (brand new and very excellent) five string Warwick fretless. The music is so beautiful, but it requires the subtlety of expression through careful attention to dymanics, accents, as well as to legato and staccato techniques. My question is simply why these techniques are not commonly employed in electric bass playing? Also, how they are achieved effectively under artificial amplification as oppossed to natural acoustical means?
  2. Umm...Who's bass playing have you been listening to?
  3. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    As above. Many electric players use these techniques and many many more.
    Have you not heard Steve or Michaels music?!

    I'd say though that that level of expression is rarely used because it takes decades to play with that degree of control... and most people want to be heard before they get to that stage (which is fair enough).

    I can't believe you've ever heard Jaco if you're asking this particular question. Go out and buy some today!!!
  4. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK

    good question...

    I can answer it on a lot of different levels.

    1stly, I think most musicians lack those qualities - the thing is with bass that as a bassist, you'll be listening to more bass players - the filter is probably set a little more tightly in terms of which guitarists/pianists/violinists you're listening to, by virtue of you not looking them out to the same degree as you will with practitioners of your own instrument - that's certainly been the case with me.

    2ndly, you're right to bring up the issue of amplification - it makes people think differently about what they do, because when you have to physically turn a control to increase your 'maximum' volume, people forget that your fingers still control the minimum, and that you can vary the level with a volume pedal or the control on your bass a lot more easily... I use a volume pedal all the time for that very reason, but most of the volume control I do comes from my right hand...

    3rdly, a lot of the extended techniques that bassists use are pretty difficult to control dynamics and expression-wise - tapping is very difficult to bring much expression into, because the start of any note is you hammering onto the fingerboard. You then have the option to slide it, or hammer again, or do what Tony Levin does and use the volum control to swell things in, but it's still a lot more difficult to control expression that it is with either normal fingerstyle, or using a bow on a cello (or for that matter, an ebow on a bass)...

    4thly, bass soloists are still an infant breed - Cello has evolved over centuries, electric bass over a few decades. Add to that the focus of our 'main role' on playing consistently, cleanly with strict timing etc, and we're on a uphill battle to reach those kinds of levels of expression, phrasing, and musicality.

    5thly, the Cult Of Bass (tm), often elevates musicians according to their technical prowess rather than their musicalness. People are celebrated because they play faster, slap more complex patterns, tap loads or whatever, and the musicality gets ignored. Some of them are genuinely brilliant musicians (not to want to embarrass him, but Michael Manring is one of the most expressive, controlled, moving, remarkable musicians I've ever heard on any instrument - the fact that he's a bassist is kind of moot. He'd be that good whatever he chose to spend his time practicing...), but others are lauded for their insane technique, but then the music leaves you wanting more - great for clinics, not so hot on CD when your friends come round...

    that said, there are some great expressive players around, and I also think that bass has tonnes and tonnes of largely unexplored expressive potential. It is one of the most versatile instruments ever invented, and is evolving very fast in design terms (from Michael's Hyperbass to the dizzying number of new pickups and preamps that are emmerging on a weekly basis!)

    As for acheiving expression, my advice is leave the compressor at home (don't want to be getting rid of the expressiveness... :D ), and just work on your clean playing, through your amp, with the tone controls set flat. Experiment with how many variations you can get just by changing your hand position and right hand technique, and how well you can control those sounds, how quickly and smoothly you can switch between them. And keep recording yourself - let the music dictate what happens, not your affiliation to a particular technique or trick. Trick-led music is fairly easy to spot. Employ all the clever techniques you want, but make them work.

    Then, if and when you decide to start processing your sound, the foundation has been laid, and hopefully you'll be able to add whatever effects you want to enhance a sound you already are in control of, rather than to cover up for the things your not happy about...

    hope that helps - come back with more Qs if you want


  5. Steve:

    Thank you for your very thorough reply to my question. While I am not a novice bass player, the idea that 'trick-led' bass playing prevails led me to believe that the use of dynamics is not important to most electric bass players. This seems evident by the lack of questions or comments about dynamics as opposed to questions about how to slap/pop/tap/speed-play. By bringing up the question, perhaps I can 'remind' electric bass players of the importance of dynamic expresssion innate to fine music. The difficulty of mastering the methods for achieving dynamic play is a worthwhile pursuit in my opinion. I am not familiar with every great bass player's recordings that demonstrate these techniques, but seeking them out for inspiration will be a pleasure!

    The use of amplification may offer more ways to achieve dynamics and expression that would be otherwise not possible with strictly acoustical insturments. Thus, the continual evolution of the electric bass. As for me, I am still experimenting with a combination of FX and straight amp. The process is fun, aggrevating, and educational. I think that a whole new aspect of bass teaching should be developed to demonstrate the possibilites of achieving the unique aspects of dynamic playing using the electric bass with all its accompanying devices. Not least of which are the hands and fingers of the bass artist. Note: I say 'artist', not merely 'player'. I have that much faith in the process!

  6. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    I think you're underestimating todays bass playing community. There are many many fantastic players on TB (of which I dont consider myself one) who really can play beautiful expressive (and subtle) music. Check this mp3 out for a prime example

    I think you're most probably right in saying that the lack of questions regarding dynamics is a direct result of it's perceived unimportance... but then how important are subtle dynamics when you've got a pick, a compressor and you're in a punk band?

    So loads of kids want to play fast and look cool?
    I challenge you to find many musicians who felt any different when they started out - regardless of their chosen genre or current age!

    Anyway, I find it is harder to control dynamics playing electric than acoustic instruments as you have something more between your fingers and the physical sound. Acoustic instruments are more direct and natural. Also, the magnetic pick up has a limited dynamic range, making it harder to produce the range of dynamics capable of being heard by le human ear.
  7. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Hi Bobby,

    I think to be honest that the things you highlight here are indicative of modern culture (style over content, novelty over substance etc.), but it's also important to recognise that a lot of bass playing in contemporary music is about consistency of dynamics - if you're playing a rock band, your job is often to play bang on top of the beat, with the same velocity, envelope attack etc. on each note. Sometimes you want an accent on the up beat, or the back beat or whatever... And in that respect, good bassists are more subtle than a lot of musicians, in that the dynamic shifts etc. are imperceptible to the 'average listener' (if such a thing exists).

    Certainly, in the realm of bass virtuosity, there has been a focus on twiddly techniques over gorgeous phrasing, but the same is true of guitar and many areas of classical music too...

    I think it is important to be reminded of the various aspects of phrasing control - including dynamics, but also timing, tuning, tone, taste and technique - all of which have a huge bearing on whether a line works or not that goes way beyond just picking the right notes and deciding whether to slap it or play with a pick... ;)


  8. The nuance of phrasing, dynamics, and tone all lead to a degree of 'taste' rather than to 'talent'. Pure pyrotechnics on the bass are dazzling and exciting, but a well-played slow piece, like the aria of diva, is profound. Keep the discussion going. I think we all have something to dig for here.

  9. Michael Manring

    Michael Manring TalkBass Pro Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000

    Thanks so much for bringing this issue up to remind us all of the importance of dynamics and other expressive techniques. Many thanks also to Steve for his very kind remarks and to Howard for singling both Steve and me out as players that use dynamics effectively.

    I agree that expression does sometimes seem to get forgotten in the bass world, but also that, thankfully, there are many truly expressive bassists out there. I hope this doesn't sound too much like quid pro quo, but that's one of the things that has always impressed me about Steve's playing – his remarkable depth of range and color. I find that very inspiring.

    I wrote a column in Bass Player magazine about dynamics (Dec. '98 issue, I think) in which I talked about how odd I thought it was that electric bass is sometimes thought of as an instrument that lacks dynamic range. I've always found the opposite to be true. I also mentioned that, oddly, we seem to perceive the expressive nature of dynamics more through timbre than through actual volume. If you take an expressive performance and completely squash it with compression so the needles don't move at all, an average listener will still be able to perceive when the music is getting "louder."
  10. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002
    Dynamics are soooo important. I listen to a song like "reza" by jaco, and while the song is relatively simple, what makes it so powerful is the dynamics just blows my mind how they move from pianissmo to triple forte in such swiftness. The biggest problem I've ever had with any musician is their inability to recognize dynamics and incorperate them in their playing...the result...chaotic mess of sound :eek:

    I wrote a bassline to a song recently on the fly, It was my first exposure to the song, and I wanted to keep it simple. What I did was play the root notes 3 times and on the third time I played really soft. The guy that wrote the song was so impressed and surprised by what I had done, and I told him that people disregard dynamics too often, they are more important than you think, he totally understood.
  11. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    This is something I only recently became aware of, when I started looking into multi-band compression and leveling WRT mastering techniques for albums. I was listening to and monitoring some of my favourite albums and noticed that often the levels change very little across the track, even though there's very definitely a difference in how you perceive the 'volume' of what's going on... Multi-band compression is an amazing tool for leveling out those things that would be louder, but when flattened out a bit, don't actually change the way you listen to the music...

    amazing stuff...

  12. wmaxwell


    May 9, 2003
    Some very excellent points here.

    I once had a teacher give me an assignment to create a performance composition. The only restriction was that I could only use a single note. Natually I thought he was nuts, but I came back a week later and "twannng", I played my 1 note piece.

    "Very good", he replied. "Now put that kind of attention into every note and you'll be a great player".