My first bass was a King (I think)—a Les Paul-looking pawnshop baby I bought in 1984 for $110. The date was May 19 (I remember because it was also my brother’s birthday), and when I walked out of Littman’s Pawn in Norfolk, Virginia, I was the happiest kid in town. The cardboard case couldn’t be opened fast enough when I got home, where I quickly started showing off my acquisition to the big kids on the street, all while brimming with a new confidence and purpose.
Fast-forward a thousand years to today. My love continues to grow and my sense of purpose is renewed every time I open my case. If you play bass, or any instrument for that matter, then your love should grow as the years go by. You may ebb and flow in terms of your commitment— be it practicing, maintenance, or gigging live—but the love will be there. Ask an older person who used to play and you’ll most likely see their eyes light up.
Your passion for tone, reaching new levels of musicality, and your “love of the game” should not be in question. Of course, that changes when the guitar player says he tracked all the bass parts in Pro Tools. But don’t sweat it—you are better than he is. To play bass is not second-rate, as the guitarist may imply, but rather an honor to hold such power in your hands. Use your powers for good.
In case your love has fallen
by the wayside and you need
a reminder as to why we play
the best instrument on stage,
I’ve put together a list to help
you remember why we do
what we do. This list is in no
• Soloing bass/drums during playback and your head starts to move.
• Soundcheck in a stadium —massive ego swell.
• Soundcheck in an arena— massive reverb swell. “Walking on the Moon” is one of my favorites these days.
• Locking in a watertight groove with the kick drum.
• Smiling at the drummer as you both realize you just made it watertight.
• A much smaller (if any) pedalboard than the guitarist.
• The sound of roundwounds on a vintage J. Does it get any sexier than that?
• The sound of flatwounds on a vintage P. Yes, it does.
• That cool lump in our backs we get from hunching over an upright bass for 30 years.
• Fewer notes, same money.
• The knowledge that we’re holding the entire ensemble together.
• The knowledge that we let the singer think he is holding the entire ensemble together.
• James Jamerson.
• Being able to bring just a bass and cable to almost any gig.
• Watching the ladies dance as you hit that groove (more on that in a moment).
• Playing Earth, Wind & Fire instead of hitting 2 and 4 and changing the whole vibe. Take that, country music!
• The triumph of the first time you (correctly) play a George Porter, Jr. bass line.
• Playing two measures of a solo with distortion, just because.
• The 1965 Ampeg B-15.
• Low C#.
• The hope that you get to play the Earth, Wind & Fire version of “Got to Get You Into My Life” with a full horn section. Just once.
• Not having to change strings before every other gig.
• Being felt, not just heard.
• Being able to play one note every four measures and still keep a groove.
• It just … feels … right.
One item I omitted from the list, but happened upon later, was the sense of community I have found from playing bass. The bassists I know are gracious, helpful, and willing to share gigs. When there is an audition, they don’t get upset if they end up not getting the gig. Instead, they are humble and happy for the bassist who did. This is how it should be all the way around.
Let’s go back to watching the ladies. It seems there are two main inspirations for being a musician: the Beatles and getting girls. Of course these aren’t the only reasons, but humor me for a moment. Since we can’t be in the Beatles (though Brian Ray is awfully close, isn’t he?), we opt for the getting girls part.
The industry joke goes, “John Mayer told me never to name drop,” but here I go. Back in 2010, I was in the studio with Steve Cropper rehearsing some of his classic hits for a show. The engineer was in the control room with a female friend. As we started playing Steve’s song, “634- 5789,” I looked up and I saw her moving her hips. It wasn’t like we were in a rocking venue full of moving bodies—it was just one person in a room who let her subconscious take over. I smiled at that moment, thinking I had proof that a sick bass groove— even a 50-year-old groove—is a timeless and powerful thing.
These are just a few of my favorite things, so this list is by no means absolute. I encourage you all to think of your own reasons for playing bass and send them to me. I want to know what makes you tick as well, and maybe we can follow up with some of your answers in a future column.
The love you had when you first started playing is the most powerful inspiration you can possess. Like any successful marriage, it takes work to keep it all together. Harness that passion and use it to your advantage. Don’t worry if your love has slipped a little—there is always time to get it back. If your love remains strong, keep it that way. Because it only gets better.
Steve Cookis currently fortifying himself in the back of a tour bus, awaiting the low-end revolution. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org the coast is clear.