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On Bass: Developing Your Solo Voice

On Bass: Developing Your Solo Voice
Photo 1: Pino Palladino playing the very bass he used in the 10 seconds of music that made me interested in soloing.

How can you make your solos sing?

When I attended music school in Minnesota 20 years ago, I was a long-haired metal kid who also loved pop and soul music. Even though I was in music school, the idea of playing bass solos or performing unaccompanied didn’t appeal to me. I started playing because I loved the songs performed by great singers, and I wanted to be the foundation of something bigger than my own playing. That would soon change.

British soul singer Paul Young had remade Marvin Gaye’s little-known “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” a few years before I started school. The track featured the now legendary Pino Palladino on bass. (The intro was a bass solo!) It was a slow, gorgeous ditty in the key of F that sounded completely fresh and original. The timbre Pino produced with his ’79 Music Man fretless reminded me of a human voice, and it provided the perfect counterpart to Young’s silky voice. Technically, it was nowhere near as advanced as a lot of the hard-rock stuff I was listening to at the time, but that intro would help change my life.

I remember hearing a classically trained opera singer at one of my school’s Friday concerts, and the wheels in my head started turning. I began to envision bass in a different way, though my vision was still slightly blurred. I needed help, and I thought that she might provide it.

I nervously introduced myself and suggested we go to a rehearsal room and attempt the Paul Young song, only without all the other instruments—just a duo performing the original bass line and vocal.

To make your bass really sing and to make people feel your solos, there has to be weight and meaning behind every note.

What followed was her voice and my fretless surrounded by a lot of silence and air, and it was pure magic for both of us. I discovered bass as its own voice instead of a rhythm section pillar—nine years after first picking up the instrument!

You can find countless online clips of bassists playing solos in many ranges and styles. Many of these guys are mind-boggling, but some have spent more time soloing online to develop a following rather than playing with fellow humans and learning the language of music as a communication tool. I recently experienced this firsthand during an audition engagement for a multi-platinum recording artist. One auditioning drummer whose videos get millions of views on YouTube was completely unable to keep it together playing a simple, basic shuffle. This was a real eye-opener—a lot of these guys are only able to speak effectively by themselves.

If, like me, you come from genres where bass solos aren’t the norm, it can be a challenge to find a starting point for developing a solo voice. We’re simply used to guitar solos in the music we play. But as much as I love guitar solos, I look to singers for solo inspiration. Singers use shorter phrases. They have to take small breaks when they stop to breathe. They can’t go too fast because they have to fit the words in. See where I’m going with this?

There are countless tapping and slapping clips online because fast, rhythmical stuff sounds cool on bass. But to make your bass really sing and make people feel your solos, there has to be weight and meaning behind every note. I think the best way to get there is by learning vocal melodies from your favorite songs.

Photo 2: Bending is an astoundingly effective soloing tool. The impact is enormous, since it isn’t as common
as bending on guitar.

There are several advantages in learning to emulate the human voice, especially by introducing vibrato. On fretless, vibrato is your main selling point, but vibrato on a fretted bass also makes a big statement. Everything from the fast vibrato of blues players like B.B King to the slow vibrato of classic soul singers is applicable, and different vibrato styles make different statements. (I tend to use slower vibrato so I don’t distract too much from the note itself.)

Note bending really grabs the listeners’ heartstrings. Guitarists frequently use bending, but it’s not something you hear every day on bass, especially bends from one clearly defined pitch to another. Whole-step bends can be difficult on bass, but being able to bend a half-step in tune is a valuable soloing tool.

The combination of right-hand placement and effective dynamics is our most useful way to change sounds without touching knobs on a bass or amp. One growly note played close to the bridge with a heavier touch creates anger, while one note played softly near the neck adds a lighter mood. Every nuance between can create a range of emotions—a complete movie scene—within your solo. Try it slowly. Be overly dramatic. Make it cheesy if you have to, as long as you feel it. When you do, other people will feel it too, and you’ll make a bigger statement than the guy trying to speed-tap his eight-measure solo.