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Supporting a Vocalist

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Rick Moors, Oct 7, 2009.

  1. As a newbie here, I'm sure this subject has been addressed, but I can see that there are a lot of vets here and would be interested in getting some opinions on what I consider to be an essential skill for all bass players, supporting a singer.

    I know when I was a young guy starting out it was easy to get lost in the mechanics of playing the right part, remembering the song form, locking with the drummer, and a million other things. Often the plan seemed to be to plow through the song and let the singer fend for themselves.

    Later as I was lucky enough to work with skilled and experienced singers I learned the importance of a few essentials, namely making sure the singer hears the tonic where and when appropriate, in tune and loud and clear, which as you all know is not that easy in certain situations. If palm muting on a ballad for instance is necessary for a boomy room, that's the first thing I'll try. Often the singer's pitch will improve in a case like this. Also, you learn the literal dynamics of interacting with a singer, the obvious spots to come down, like the top of a verse, etc.

    If you're lucky enough to work occasionally without a drummer (hey, did I just invent a new drummer joke?), then that becomes your job, and you learn when and how to reinforce the "1" even if the singer is all over the place with the phrasing. Oleta Adams used to tell me, "Don't listen to what I'm singing, watch my left hand." She was a master of phrasing as well as a great Gospel pianist and this was a great lesson.

    Often an inexperienced or amateur singer can prove to be a great teacher in this area, because you are in effect leading them. It's easy to let singers know you're going from I to IV for instance in obvious ways without waving red flags, but I've seen them gain confidence when you literally "walk them through" the song.

    There are many other factors to be considered in developing this skill, but was hoping to get a few more opinions and maybe revelations about how to support a singer.

    It's great to find this forum!

  2. Newbie on bass. Rhythm guitar is my primary instrument, and yes augmenting the vocalist's efforts IMHO is the primary function of the rhythm guitar, i.e. harmonizing the vocalist's melody line is what I should be doing. When the melody moves on to notes no longer found in the old chord time to change chords.

    To do that I must nail the chord change as the melody moves, not before and not after. If I can do that I've harmonized the vocalist melody line. We are in sync.

    Now on bass hearing the chord change is a little harder for me. I think, because I'm focused on playing riff notes not chords. Kind of like chewing gum and walking, but, I'm aware this should happen with the bass, but, I'm not hearing the chord changes the way I do when I'm playing rhythm guitar - if that makes since.

    At the present time I'm still trying to decide what riff best fits each specific song. It's a feel thing and I'm not comfortable leaving it to "feel". Using fake chord sheet music to build the bass line - welcome hints on how you go about this.
  3. JTE

    JTE Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2008
    Central Illinois, USA
    I think a huge part (often lost) is to be very aware of phrasing, and register. Don't think of what makes the bass part cool, think always of what makes the SONG come across. That means listen to the lyrics, and how the singer is expressing the song.

    Great examples abound, especailly in idioms like jazz, folk, the whole "Southern California singer/songwriter" thing, and some more traditional country based artists. My favorite examples of a bassist really SUPPORTING the singer are:

    Freebo on early Bonnie Raitt. Get a copy of "Give It Up", her second album (ca 1972). The way Freebo wraps his bass around Bonnie's singing on "Too Long At The Fair", "Love Has No Pride", and "Nothing Seems To Matter", as well as "You've Been In Love Too Long", "I Gave My Love A Candle", and "Cry Like A Rainstorm" from the 1973 album "Takin' My Time".

    Charles Larkey on Carol King's "Tapestry"- Pure music on the saddest song ever written, "It's Too Late".

    Jaco Pastorioius on his work with Joni Mitchell

    Dave Pomery on the whole Trisha Yearwood album "Thinkin' About You", especially on the songs "On A Bus To St. Cloud", "You Can Sleep While I Drive", and "Those Words We Said".

    Also pay some attention to Dick Kniss on the early John Denver stuff and with Peter, Paul, and Mary. And listen real close to Joe Osborn's work on the Simon & Garfunkle album "Bridge Over Troubled Waters", with special notice of "Only Livin' Boy in New York".

  4. Those are some great tips and observations, thanks, totally agree with the Joe Osborne work, Jaco with Joni, and Freebo with Bonnie Raitt. And I'll check the others out, thanks.

    The thing these players all seem to have in common is an intuition which they share with the vocalist, complementing, but never stepping on or overshadowing the vocals, even when playing complex parts (like Jaco with Joni).

    There are scores of non-flashy bassists like Lee Sklar who have become quite successful by playing to the song and making vocalists sound great.
  5. Jon Moody

    Jon Moody Commercial User

    Sep 9, 2007
    Kalamazoo, MI
    Manager of Brand Identity & Development, GHS Strings, Innovation Double Bass Strings, Rocktron
    I think a lot of that comes from what many have said; listen to the vocalist and play the song, not the notes.

    The biggest thing I try to do is play as simply as possible, but help provide the most movement necessary. Giving a little push towards that chorus from the verse will usually help the vocalist and anchor the song as a whole. Likewise, pulling back out of the chorus will help the song breathe.
  6. >>Likewise, pulling back out of the chorus will help the song breathe.<<

    Agreed, now which one of us is gonna tell the drummers?
  7. Jon Moody

    Jon Moody Commercial User

    Sep 9, 2007
    Kalamazoo, MI
    Manager of Brand Identity & Development, GHS Strings, Innovation Double Bass Strings, Rocktron
    Play with a competent one, and you don't have to. :D:D
  8. unclejane

    unclejane Guest

    Jul 23, 2008
    I suggest a wood chair in a 3x3 steel cage. Cuff him to the chair and use duct tape over the mouth. That ought to support him just fine....

  9. derekd


    Feb 16, 2009
    I regularly play with a female singer who will unwittingly change the arrangement we worked on in rehearsal during the performance. Shortened solos by a few bars by coming in with the vocal too soon, shaving off a chorus, etc. Just have to be listening so we can, as a group, follow her.

    Mistakes like that are going to happen, the trick is to have it be seamless so the audience doesn't know.
  10. I think I know the particular singer you are referring to, and I think you are being too lenient.
  11. You're right, it's really up to the bass player to divert any train wrecks. After a while it's almost like a little warning light goes off - "caution, arrangement malfunction ahead!"
  12. Damn, where I am gonna find one of those in Los Angeles?
  13. JTE

    JTE Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2008
    Central Illinois, USA
    Sounds like an old joke... Piano player says "Tonight I'd like to do "All Of Me" this way. Start of in Ab, change to 3/4 in the second chorus, then modulate to E natural while increasing the tempo by about 25 BPM for the third chorus, and improvise a vamp on the ending." The singer says "Wow, I don't know if I can keep track of all that." The pianist replies- "Well, that's how you did it last night!"

    Once a singer I worked with totally muffed a song- came in halfway through the guitar solo (which was over the chorus progression) with a verse. It was really interesting, but the funny part was that after the song Karen said (over the mic) "Sorry about that, guys. I was havin' a party in my head and I forgot to invite you!"

  14. Same here, in Eddinburgh... :scowl:

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