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The State of Bluegrass Bass

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [DB]' started by Steve Killingsworth, Apr 25, 2006.

  1. I have been thinking about posting this for a while but just kept putting it off. However, several posts in another thread led me to believe the time is right to throw out some questions or food for thought regarding the state of bass in bluegrass.

    Why is an instrument that is so vital and vibrant some genres (jazz and rockabilly spring to mind) relegated to an almost exclusive supporting role in bluegrass? Please note that I did not say unimportant role because the bass certainly fuels the drive in bluegrass, and a poor bassist in a bluegrass band probably stands out more than any other musician.

    I don’t want this to degenerate into an argument over 1-5 versus moving more into the realm of walking bass. Over the years there have been periodic posts regarding the zen of 1-5 in bluegrass. I usually come down on the side of side of tradition. It is really something special when the groove is locked in tight on the bass’s pulse. BUT there are tunes that can be taken FAR beyond that if ability and band members will allow.

    Do we need to take bluegrass beyond the bassics (pun intended) or do we remain content to be the ultimate invisible man (or woman)?

    I have several other thoughts on the players, technique, etc, but will just get the ball rolling with the above.
  2. mje


    Aug 1, 2002
    Southeast Michigan
    Bass is really a latecomer to country music. Old time music- which is what I play when I pick up a banjo- didn't have bass; it simply wasn't an instrument that someone could easily make, or get from Sears way back when.

    And Bluegrass itself is a very new genre, really. There hasn't been enough time for a great virtuoso tradition to develop. Most bluegrass bassists have been singers first and bassists second. But in the future I expect we'll see more players with skill along the lines of a Missy Raines.
  3. mchildree

    mchildree Supporting Member

    Sep 4, 2000
    I think it's always a good time for breaking ground. Personally, I find it difficult to "hear" real musical things to play in bluegrass because of the limited chordal changes. Really melodic things just don't come to me the way they might in more complex music. That's probably my shortcoming, but I wonder if most bluegrass bass players might not have the same limitation.

    I think the slap thing has been done and overdone, though. I'd like to hear some players getting more adventurous with melody and time. Tough to do when you're the timekeeper, though.
  4. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    Mr. Meyer has some things to say on the Bluegrass topic. :)
  5. mchildree

    mchildree Supporting Member

    Sep 4, 2000
    He does, but he surely has a special situation as well. He plays with musicians who make room for him to do what he does.

    Just try to tell a banjo player to stop playing sometime! :help:
  6. relacey


    Sep 18, 2004
    Amen to that!! My other musical hat is as a mandolin player, which is about as volume challenged as the bass. For a time I played in a group with two banjo "players" and a woman who seemed to have some sort of agression therapy thing going with the guitar and was louder than the banjos. I finally gave it up as a lost cause when the backups were louder than my breaks.

    I love playing bluegrass. I grew up listening to bluegrass music in Kentucky. Heard J.D. Crowe, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, and a bunch of others back before they made it big. Dean Webb (The Dillards mandolin player) used to live next door to my mom. Bluegrass music was the motivation behind buying my first guitar and the first thing I ever played on-stage was Blue Moon of Kentucky for a high school talent show. But, these days I listen to more jazz and classical. It's just more interesting to me.

    I think a lot of bluegrass music falls into two buckets. The songs, where the lyrics dominate, and "fiddle tunes" (not always played by a fiddle), where the melody dominates. In both cases the role of the bass is to keep the pulse going, it's what the song expects and what the audience expects.

    I think the challenge for us amateur musicians is the populist approach to bluegrass. There were some good comments along this line in a different thread recently, but I can't seem to find them at the moment. The essence was that the bass player is often the worst, or at least the least experienced, musician in the group. In order for the bass to gain respect, we need to promote good musicianship.

    In my neck of the woods, it's hard to find folks to play jazz with and I'm really not interested in auditioning for the community orchestra. But, I can find a bluegrass jam almost any night of the week and there are numerous opportunities to play for appreciative audiences (albeit non-paying). So for me, the state of bluegrass bass is pretty good. I just have to make sure I link up with like minded musicians.
  7. lowEndRick

    lowEndRick Supporting Member

    Apr 8, 2006
    I think the bass is the glue in a bluegrass band. Have you ever been to a jam where there is no bass player and then a bass player shows up? Suddenly everyone realizes how empty it was without the bass. Perhaps the role of the bass player in bluegrass is more invisible to those who are not fans of bluegrass, but I think most bluegrass players recognize the bass' vital contribution.

    I also think there are those players who are taking it beyond the "bassics" even if it is mostly subtle. T. Michael Coleman, Todd Phillips, Mark Schatz, Missy Raines, and Mike Bub come to mind.
  8. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    There's no doubt that the bass is the glue in a happening bluegrass band.

    There is plenty of room in those tunes -- old and new -- for notes other than 1 and 5! Ever hear of THREE?? That's a good one... Throw in some idea of SEVEN and all of a sudden you've got a counter-melody pallette to work with.

    The only thing limiting bluegrass bass players is themselves and the way they've internalized the ultra-conservative values of bluegrass (a genre that's been with us as long as bebop -- not very long, in other words. A lot of what passes for "tradition" in bluegrass is plain old Bill Monroe worship. Maybe "fetish" is a better word than worship here. After all, Bill tried new stuff and look where it got him!) No drums. Guitar players gotta flatpick a certain way. Bass playing 1-5 only... Bluegrass folks are familiar with the drill.

    A lot of the tradition is good stuff but if the traditionalists have their way it won't be long before everything is as boring as most Mozart is. Any musical form where traditionalists have a very strong opinion and influence -- like JAZZ and CLASSICAL for example -- runs the risk of getting toxically dull.

    Don't get me wrong -- I love tradition and good things last for a reason. Too far in that direction, though, and every new idea gets snuffed in the crib. Not good for art, not good for business. People get BORED.
  9. mchildree

    mchildree Supporting Member

    Sep 4, 2000
    That's true, Damon...and that's the way I try to go when I want to do something different. Sometimes, though, just inserting other chordal tones other than I-V, while still remaining in that same rhythmic rut just doesn't seem "enough" to me. I'll do lots of walks between the changes (maybe too many)....but it all still feels like Bluegrass Bass to me. When I listen to the big names, they're doing the same thing.

    I've kind of resigned myself to being "the glue" and concentrated more on songwriting to get my creative ya-ya's out. Even that has it's limitations, though. Case in point: I wrote a swing-time instrumental on Chapman Stick several years ago and found a way to adapt it to bluegrass...pretty far away from I-IV-V, though. Brought it to the band, and they just couldn't comprehend it. These guys are really good players, too...it was just too far outside their box. That's what I mean when I say we're limited by our fellow players. I think I've arrived at a point where I have to appreciate it for what it is, enjoy the camaraderie, and being part of a group that's in demand and sells lots of cds....and look for other outlets for things I need to express that can't be part of it.

    I want a gig like Dave Peeples!
  10. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    I agree, Mike. It's not just about "let's get some more notes in there" -- it's about supporting the tune and making it better. I just think that bluegrass bassists should feel confident about making the fullest contribution they can.

    That being said, my bluegrass playing has moved to a real "less is more" focus in the last year or so -- I'm taking all kinds of stuff out! In that music, more than in the jazz I play, more than in the pop I play, I'm concerned with making the rhythm side of things really pop. I'm really concentrating on dropping every single note in there just so...
  11. Interesting thing about Monroe though, is the bass work in his earlier stuff (say pre-1955) contains a fair bit of walking. It wasn’t exactly Ray Brown but it is there if you listen to it. Some of the old Stanley Brothers tunes are the same way. I think that when Flatt and Scruggs really took bluegrass mainstream things changed. Listen to the bass in their classics and you just hear the 1-5 pulse which became the standard.

    You're right about Monroe’s trying to break the mold. I play with a couple of former Bluegrass Boys (late-1980s) and we have discussed this very subject. Not long after recording My Last Days on Earth, Bill told them how he had so much music like that in his head but he wouldn’t write it down because people wouldn’t accept it. I always thought it was pretty sad that he was trapped by his own creation.
  12. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    I was a country music fan first, bluegrass second. I've always viewed bluegrass as kind of the bebop of country music. A lot of times the first line I hear for a tune is a honky-tonk, walking kind of vibe...

    There's a lot of stuff available to the bluegrass bassist through walking and voice-leading. There's no shortage of bluegrass cops out there who will let you know if you're being too jazzy but if your ears are sensitive to the style, you won't need to be told.
  13. I don't know if anyone has checked out Andy Leftwich's CD "Ride" but on it you will hear the bass's potential in 'grass. Mark Fain and Missy Raines really raise the bar for us all in time, rhythm, and soloing.

    To get there though, I see two handicaps that Mike and others mentioned.

    One is finding musicians willing to allow us to branch out--easier said than done on the local level. I know exactly what Mike is saying about comprehension of something outside the norm (or maybe a lack of willingness to try to comprehend).

    The other thing is developing the ability to move outside the box. I think relacy is accurate about the caliber of some players. I have heard many players whose intonation is spotty when moving away from open strings, or their poor technique prevents them from playing fluidly (I fit neatly into both categories :D ). Then there are those have no taste and try to jam in as many notes as possible. Until more players move beyond these handicaps, it will be hard to take the bass to the next level.
  14. I think that Jason Moore ( Mountain Heart) is really raising the bar. Instead of just quarter note walks between changes he`s adding some nice rythmic fills, somtimes in unison with other instruments, sometimes not. Groove is not impaired.
    I don`t think that Mike is as enthusiasitic about his playing though, not sure why.

    i`m lucky enough to play with people that encourage me to get beyond root/five and trust me to be tasteful about it. Too bad i don`t have the technique.
  15. nicklloyd

    nicklloyd Supporting Member/Luthier

    Jan 27, 2002
    Cincinnati, Ohio
    Where is Jason Sypher? I'd love to read his comments about this topic.
  16. What do you guys think of Mike Barber, the bassist with the Gibson Bros? He's someone whos caught my ear lately. He provides a great groove, yet to me has the knack for a tasty fill or even a slap or two in just the right place to really make things happen.
  17. I saw Mountain Heart at the Ryman in Nashville about 2 years ago. For most of the show Jason stayed in the background but toward the end he launched into a lengthy improv solo that was wwaayy beyond the basics. He can definitely play.

    Agreed. Maybe he'll check in before this thread fades away.
  18. ToR-Tu-Ra


    Oct 15, 2005
    Mexico City

    I think I've not seen him post in a while...

    btw, I LOVE "the train I ride"
  19. Listened to a couple of mp3 samples on their website. Nice.

    For me, it`s a challenge to not play more than the song needs. Who wants to feel like they`re doing no more than the banjo player`s wife could do ? I think that we can contribute more in many cases though, if we can overcome some attitude. A guitarist/instructor at Augusta a few years ago told a class of bass players that he didn`t think it appropriate to ever play a third or half step pickup to the root. Iow, nothing but root five ever.

    This post is really just a bump, hoping that Mr. Sypher will pick up on it and comment.
  20. nicklloyd

    nicklloyd Supporting Member/Luthier

    Jan 27, 2002
    Cincinnati, Ohio
    I understand that line of thinking, but it comes off a little strong. Play The Gig. If it is root five, fine. If it is something else, keep your ears open to what that may be.

    Jason's playing (on the TB sampler) is very inspiring to me. Maybe he is on the road or too busy to post. I hope he doesn't feel welcome... that's been happening lately.

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