Playing bass in a duo often requires making adjustments to your approach, but can be a very rewarding artistic endeavor when done right.
Playing bass in different-sized ensembles brings different sets of sonic and stylistic opportunities and challenges. Frequency wise, playing in a large band means a very small space for the bass, and your tone has to be tailored for that specific application [“The Space of the Bass," September 2012]. Playing in a trio requires a completely different tone and approach, as does performing an unaccompanied solo. Playing bass in a duo, in my opinion, can be one of the trickiest yet most rewarding situations you can find yourself performing in. I absolutely love it.
Whether for financial or production reasons, many bars and restaurants are hiring duos. In my first 10 years of playing semi-professionally, I'd estimate that about 50 percent of the shows were duo gigs. And the most common duo partners I performed with were piano players and acoustic guitarists.
When paired with a piano player, you have to quickly diagnose your partner's left-hand approach. Is he or she a heavy-handed player like Elton John (hammering double octaves with the left hand all night long) or is your partner's approach lighter and more casual? You can go with a thicker tone if it's the latter—maybe even rely more on the neck pickup if old-school warmth is your tonal preference. If your piano player happens to be the first type, with a heavy left hand, a more growly midrange approach on bass might be what's needed. This is the time to use that tone in order to cut through the onslaught of piano bass.
Whether it's a tiny system on stands or a full-blown line array, making sure the PA doesn't vibrate the stage more from the piano's bass notes than your notes is of the utmost importance. An overall muddy mix is the inevitable end result of that, and it will ruin your gig if you are performing in a duo. You'll be surprised how many amateur and semi-professional sound guys make this mistake.
The most effective way to play bass alongside an acoustic guitarist is determined on a case-by-case basis. The first thing I usually find myself doing is slapping on beats two and four of every measure to emulate a snare drum. (This technique can pack a dance floor if you and the guitarist have had the chance to play together frequently.) Take note: If not performed right, the “snare-drum slap" can be just as catastrophic for the feel of a song as a drummer who plays with poor feel and an exceptionally loud snare drum.
Another rhythmic tool I use more with an acoustic guitarist than with a piano player is playing a ghost note before the “main" note. This technique is commonly used in full-band situations as well, but when a busy drummer is involved I find it can come across as sounding a little too eager.
Guitarists I work with in duos most commonly play with a pick, so in order to match their feel, I often play with a pick, too. It works surprisingly well and doesn't sound too aggressive if done tastefully. The ghost-note possibilities with a pick are also interesting since a pick attack doesn't carry as much low-end attack as a finger when played lightly. I tend to add more ghost notes with a pick to emulate the subdivision of a hi-hat.
For me, the most rewarding duo scenario as a bassist is playing with a singer. The naked human voice makes a terrific duet partner for electric bass and I am surprised I don't hear the combination more often. When I started a duo with a female singer back in my college days, the rewards were instantaneous. I was able to flow with the vocal like a classical piano player does when accompanying an opera singer.
The human voice is also an especially tremendous match for a fretless bass, and the music doesn't necessarily have to be jazz. The fretless offers us bassists the chance to emulate the vibrato of a singer, slide between notes like a singer, fall off notes like a singer, and slide up to notes … like a singer.
After performing with my first fretless-bass/vocal duo, some fellow bassists asked me when I was going to buy a 6-string bass and start using more upper-chord structures. I told them that would ruin my whole idea. The idea was to strip a song down to just the bass line and lead vocal, and let the genius of those two parts be exposed. Most importantly, the silence between the notes becomes so incredibly powerful in this setting that it instantly turns the duet into a trio, where silence is the most important member.
Playing with just one fellow musician is a learning experience every time, and it can be fascinating. Until next time, happy dueting!