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On Bass: Some Parting Thoughts

Career advice to help bassists get that next gig.

PG columnist Steve Cook set personal guidelines to get where he wanted to be as a bassist.

Well folks, this is it. It’s my last go ’round (for now at least) writing the “On Bass” column for the greatest gear magazine on the planet. I’ve had a fantastic five years in this slot, but I’m leaving my column duties to jump into another role here at PG, which promises to be pretty interesting. You’ll be in the capable hands of Victor Brodén every month—a great friend, fellow Nashvillian, and a sharp dresser. And he can really play. Listen to him: He has a lot to pass on.

So what can I leave you with that will have impact? I’d like to pass on some knowledge that I’ve personally learned along the way that might help you on your career path.

First of all, do yourthing. Don’t let someone tell you your technique is wrong, or that you’re playing the wrong gear. Find what makes you happy and roll with it. So what if you can’t play as fast or as flashy as another player? I shied away from learning every Geddy Lee lick in high school because everyone else was doing it. Aston “Family Man” Barrett had my ear growing up with his perfect less-is-more approach.

As bassists, this is what we’re sort of supposed to be doing anyhow. I’m not taking anything away from my shredder friends and I love a monster Racer X riff just like the next kid, but to make money in this bass business, my advice is to take all your fancy licks and leave them at home. That was the advice given to me 20 years ago here in Nashville, and it’s served me well. I can play as fast as I want during soundcheck. But when it comes to playing well with others, one must listen, adjust, play less, and groove—and then (hopefully) get paid.

This brings me to my next point regarding money versus art. This debate has raged since the first notes were struck on a hollow tree and a caveman gave up two rocks to hear the performance. I have sold out to the higher bidder, but I have also been on the poverty side by staying “true” and waiting for the right situation. As the younger players will learn—and the older ones already know—caring for your family is priority number one.

Don’t let someone tell you your technique is wrong, or that you’re playing the wrong gear.

Sometimes that means taking gigs we don’t necessarily like or think are the “coolest.” How cool are you going to look sleeping in your car? There is a balance to be had in playing great music and actually getting paid. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs before getting to play with Prince.

When it comes to recording, you’re going to need a few things if you really want to get serious. Some say you need to bring a dozen basses to a session, and this really isn’t an exaggeration. To make matters worse, they may not be the same as your touring instruments. You might have the absolute cleanest and best ’59 P in the world, but if the bass doesn’t sound good on tape, then it’s wall art. Whatever your arsenal of choice (maybe a P, a Jazz, a hollowbody, something with flatwounds, something quirky, a couple of active basses, and a 5-string), and depending on the session, keeping your signal chain simple will help, too.

Above all, be cool. Be an easy hang, come prepared, knock it out of the park, and go home. That’s how you should approach any gig. Be the nicest guy in the room without overdoing it, and leave a great impression.

One last tidbit of sobering information: Every gig ends. No matter how long you’ve known the band or artist, or how invincible you feel, there will be a time when the train stops and you’ll have to step off onto the platform. At that moment, let’s hope you have enough heart, stamina, and moxie to get on another train.

Thank you, wonderful readers of PG, for the years of support. As a young lad with a Gibson knock-off pawnshop bass plugged into my parents’ stereo as an amp, I used to dream of being in music magazines. Now even with all the miles and all the shows, my dreams continue, and I’m not even close to the finish line. Everything you want is possible. Now go get it.