On Bass: Chasing the “Why”
Our columnist chose to play bass to be in the middle of the band, connected to both melody and rhythm.
Photo by Jennifer Troche-Walsh

Do yourself a favor and reconnect with the reason you started playing bass in the first place.

With so many genres, variations, uses, and definitions contained in just five letters, the word “music” is one of the most all-encompassing in the English language While wandering the halls of the NAMM show this year, the entire spectrum of the word was on display. Even though the convention is mostly about commerce, the thing that really hit me is that people who play music seem to get fulfillment, satisfaction, and excitement from doing things very differently from each other.

This diversity of expression is especially on display while walking through the bass section of NAMM. Bass gets heard in convention halls in ways you would rarely experience the instrument out in the wild, so to speak. But despite the convention having strict decibel limits and hundreds of musicians making noise in your immediate vicinity, you can experience how differently we bassists truly are in just a few minutes.

I believe everybody who plays bass does so for slightly different reasons. Everyone has his or her own why. I also believe those same reasons are sometimes very obvious in somebody’s playing, similar to the way influences can be obvious in playing. I’m currently taking my first year off from being a full-time touring bassist in 22 years, so I’ve been giving plenty of thought to my own “why” lately. Why do I want to go back to playing, and are the reasons the same ones I had when I was a kid?

What was your bass why? When everyone else in the band was fighting over who got to be the lead singer or lead guitarist, you had something that made you chose bass instead. I’m well aware that some people started playing bass because the band had too many guitar players, or because they received a hand-me-down bass from an uncle, and it was the cheapest way to go. But many of us were drawn to the bass for some other reason. Was it the mystique of the low notes you can feel and sometimes not hear? Was it the fact that the bass looks mightier than its 6-string little brother? Whatever the reason was for you, it’s good to reconnect with it as often as possible.

Some people’s why is from a creative spark. My why was to create the ultimate fan experience.

Many bassists I know fell in love with the bass as a solo voice. When they are not playing in some kind of ensemble, they take any chance they get to make bass-solo arrangements. On the other end of the spectrum, I have friends who are accomplished multi-instrumentalists and producers who perform their own bass tracks unless the music is too technically involved. Their why may be strictly for the sake of convenience—to avoid having to call a bassist or because they want to be able to record an idea the very moment they have it.

My own initial love affair with the instrument was largely due to the synth-pop wave of the mid ’80s. As a preteen, I was listening to artists like Depeche Mode, Howard Jones, and Alphaville. The simple but very singable synth-bass lines had my ear, and I formed a trio with two friends in which we all played cheap Casio keyboards. We took turns playing the synth-bass lines in that little trio, but when the decision was made to buy “real” instruments after a year of only playing keyboards, I chose the bass. I wanted to continue playing those simple yet amazing sub hooks. That’s how I picked the bass at the age of 12. There is, however, one more integral part of my why for playing bass.

I grew up with a father who was a home-stereo fanatic (aka audiophile). I was practically trained how to sit in front of a stereo and actively listen to the music, rather than just having music on as a distraction in the background. Closing my eyes and disappearing into the music was a high for me like no other, and I think it kept me out of a lot of trouble. My whyis that high I only get from being in the middle of the music. I started playing bass so I could be right in the middle of the speakers, figuratively speaking, but on a more intense level than being a music fan in the middle of the stereo sound field wearing a great set of headphones. Some people’s why is from a creative spark. My why was to create the ultimate fan experience.

The way I see it, we bassists get the opportunity to truly feel that middle in a fantastic way when playing live in a band. We get to be part of the rhythmical aspect of music with the drummer, and simultaneously connect to the melodic aspect of the music with the other instruments.

Whether a person is playing polkas on a trumpet or programming keyboard parts through drawing notes in their DAW instead of actually playing them, they both have reasons for doing exactly what they are doing. And at the end of the day, all that truly matters is whatever musical expression puts a smile on your face.

In their corner, from left to right: Wilco’s Pat Sansone (guitars, keys, and more), drummer Glenn Kotche, Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Nels Cline, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen.

Photo by Annabel Merhen

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