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The varying role of the bass player in a 1 vs. 2 guitarist band

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by MissingSomethin, Jun 28, 2013.

  1. MissingSomethin


    Jun 28, 2013
    Let's say there is just a drummer, 1 guitarist, and bassist. (And you're waiting for that elusive vocalist to complete the band)
    I know that a 1 guitar vs 2 guitar band are different beasts. And I think this is one situation where this arises.

    Let's say you're just doing 3 chords jams to start.
    So, the guitar strums his D C G progression, for example.
    The drummer locks into the guitar playing.

    Let's talk about the role of rhythm when there is only 1 guitar. As in, whose job is it....
    My question is: What is the responsibility of the bass player? There are 2 obvious things he can do:

    1) The guitar is providing the distinct rhythm and backbone, so the bass is free to "wank" and play scales, etc. He's having a blast. The problem with this is that the guitarist is now stuck doing this rhythm. If he stops at any time, all you have in a bass player wanking scales with no cohesive rhythm maintained. The guitar can not solo, b/c now there is no rhythm at all, and it's 2 people noodling. The entire thing fails. So, the guitarist knows this, and can never take a solo. He can not alternate from rhythm to lead and back. This is what makes a basic jam interesting: The guitar leads, especially when they have different flavors (modes, etc)


    2) The bass can "double" the groove of the progression. He's carrying the rhythm by playing the root notes, and maybe adding in some embellishments at times. But, for the most part, he's carrying the rhythm that the guitar player established. What this does is allow the guitar player to do a lead solo. The guitar can alternate in and out of the rhythm. Do some leads, maybe do a few measures of the rhythm to help re-establish it (if it's getting weak with just the bass players root notes) If the guitar player stops playing entirely, the "groove" goes on. This really frees up the guitarist to try lead licks, try little secondary riffs, and mostly just be able to take a solo when he feels like it. Then he can go right back into the rhythm when he wants to.

    Here is the conundrum. The last few bass players I've played with have been #1. They never just play the obviously rhythm or riff that the guitar player has laid down. They're just happily playing scales/noodling, which does sound good, but it leaves the guitarist to never be able to leave the rhythm. It's like the guitar is the rhythm instrument and the bass is the lead instrument. Isn't this backwards?

    At the least, it seems like the bassist should know to keep the rhythm riff/groove going, just like the guitar is doing, and only going off on embellishments/wanking when the guitar is clearly holding down the rhythm. That way, at least both the guitar and the bass can alternate doing the lead wanking. But, if only one person holds the rhythm exclusively, and only one person ever takes leads, it seems like it should be bass = rhythm, and guitar = rhythm and lead. Not the other way around. But there needs to be some hierarchy, and it seems like it's backwards in the situation I described. When there is no solid rhythm being maintained, the guitar is stuck, since he is laying down the definitive "riff".

    It seems like the #1 type of bassist would be ideal in a 2 guitar band, where you don't need him to carry the rhythm, since guitar #2 can do that.
    What is the "right" role for the bassist in a 1 guitar band? Are the above 2 choices the only roles?
    Am in wrong in my assumptions? What is the solution here?

    If I am not clear. One more Time: the guitarist is playing D C G. Over and over. Simple 4/4 beat from the drums. Now, the bass comes in and just starts playing random noodling in D. It sounds cool, I guess. But, consider what you have here. The entire backbone is being played by the guitar. Now, you propose the guitar do something else? Consider what else is going on. Just a bass playing lead scales in D. Do you understand that when the guitar tries to deviate, the entire thing falls apart? There is no rhythm anymore. It has abruptly disappeared. You just have 2 instruments noodling in D.

    I guess you can tell the bass player to hold rhythm. It's just a little disconcerting that it needs to be said. It sort of tells me the person doesn't really know what the role of the bass even is. That's a fundamental gap, don't you think?

    I think this style of "always playing solos" bass playing only works in 2 rock situations:
    1) Punk band with no solos.
    2) Band with 2 guitars.

    In both cases, the rhythm guitar carries the backbone rhythm.
    So, the bass is free to noodle and do whatever. So, he just plays scales and adds a nice layer onto the music.
    You can unplug him and the song barely changes.
    But, the problem arises when you deviate from either of the 2 situations listed.
    Then the role of the bass needs to be dramatically redefined. Can't just "noodle in key" and just do whatever. Now you actually have a job to do.
  2. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    In general, my assumption is that the drummer sets the rhythm, the bassist develops that into a groove, and the guitarist adds the "flash." So I agree with you there, as far as default roles of the instruments go.

    However, I have a couple of reservations about the idea of "roles." Creative people like to be creative so I can't blame somebody for wanting to break out of a traditional root-note role. There isn't necessarily a need to straightjacket people into this or that role, UNLESS this is a defined SONG where they need to serve the song. No one has a "job to do" when they're just jamming, you have a "job" when there's a song to perform.

    What you're describing sounds more like a jam. And it may be that, by strumming the DCG progression to launch the jam, the guitarist has implicitly offered to take the rhythm role and the bassist thinks he's being cued to play "lead bass." He may be over there thinking the guitarist ought to step up and take a lead sometime soon but they guy just keeps on strumming the same three #%$# chords...

    Also, are you describing audition situations? A bassist at an audition may feel he's being asked to show what he can do, so if he's given a three-chord progression is going to show off his chops and play lead. He may be assuming that you would understand that he can play simpler if needed.

    Bottom line is communication. I don't think there's anything "disconcerting" about talking to a musician about what you want the song to be like or what you want the various roles to be. Simply acknowledge that there are different roles each instrument can play and get on the same page with the others about it.