“IT’S SUCH A RARE THING, PLAYING WITH TWO BASSISTS IN THE SAME
band,” says Will Lee. “What’s the reasonable choice for any bass player? To fill the holes
in a tasty way. But, when you have two bass players, then it becomes crucial for both to
know where the holes aren’t.” Uncle Will and I are hanging out after we rehearse a Christmas
show with the WDR Big Band, and he’s philosophizing about the beauty and challenge
of having two bassists in the same band. I’m bass two—second bass—but Will
makes me feel at home.
Lee’s supportive demeanor is one of the not-so-secret secrets of his success: He always
makes other players feel comfortable, while at the same time inspiring, goading, and pushing
them into their best performances. He’s also a master party-starter, grooving from
the first note to the last note of every concert.
“The groove is something you can’t ever lose sight of,” says Lee. “You have to always
keep it in mind. You have to let a groove be what it is—don’t ever try to change it from
what it is! There is only one pulse for a song, and you have to keep yourself in that pulse.”
One of the highlights of our concert together was a Michael Abene arrangement of
the holiday chestnut “Silent Night,” which was composed in 1818 by German composer
Franz Xaver Gruber. Although it’s almost 200 years old, the composition lends itself to
a bluesy 6/8 treatment, with some jazzy passing
chords. Back in his day, Herr Gruber could have
never fathomed his quaint religious melody being
shredded by the likes of Will Lee, dressed in a Santa
suit, wailing on his chorus-soaked signature Sadowsky
“Will and John’s Silent Night” is a two-bass duet.
The Bass 1 part is the top, melody voice. The melody
can be played either in the middle range of the bass,
or up above the 12th fret (as notated in the tablature).
The 8va marking stands for the Italian term
all’ottava, which means to play the part an octave
higher than written. 8va is a useful writing technique
when dealing with very high bass notes. The
Italian term loco is used to indicate “sounding as
written,” or to play the part in the written register.
The Bass 2 part is a bass line, which outlines
the harmony and keeps the groove flowing. To get
in the “Silent Night” pocket, think of 6/8 meter
with a backbeat accent on beat four. The underlying
16th-notes are shuffled with a triplet feeling.
Work out both bass parts first, record the bass line
(Bass 2), and then overdub the melody (Bass 1).
You can also record and loop the Bass 2 part several
times as a backing track. Play the melody (Bass 1)
on top of the Bass 2 track, solo for a few choruses,
and then take out the melody. Better yet, call your
best bass buddy and go play the duet with him or
her. Take turns blowing on the changes, and see
what kind of lines and bass harmonies grow from
the written parts.
Lee notes, “Do I want to make a bed for the
other bass line to lie in? A very low range? Or do
I choose to be in the middle register? Sometimes
it helps to be in the same range and be in concert
with the other bass. Then I’m not so out of the way
that we lose the energy.”
Playing with another bass player, whether in
duo or as part of an ensemble, creates new colors
and many crucial sonic choices. Says Lee, “Matching
the sounds of the two instruments is important.
When I’m playing underneath another bass,
I’m not going for a high-end sparkly sound. But
then when I solo, I might have to cut through more.”
A key point to keep in mind when playing with
two bass players is that it’s not a contest. The focus
should stay on listening, supporting, blending, and
making the music sound good. Says Will, “There’s
only one spotlight, and only one person can have
it at a time. Get out of the way, and let that person
shine. Let the music come alive. You’ll get your
chance to shine also.”
5 Holiday Rules For Gettin’ Down With Other Bass Players
(use liberally throughout the year)
1. Listen. Match the volume of the other bassist and find a tone that is homogenous, yet stands out.
2. Not too high, not too low. Both bass guitars and double basses cover about a three-octave
range. When two bassists play together, it sounds good if both parts are within a two-octave
range. If the range is too wide, there’s a big gap of midrange harmonic information. One or both
bassists can also fill in the midrange using double-stops or chords. Of course, if you’re playing
with three or more bassists . . .
3. Less is more. Don’t overplay! You’ll sound more musical if you both start with the minimum
amount of notes that you need to play a groove or melody. Add variety to the sound by varying
the rhythmic density—from both playing sparsely to one or both playing lots of notes.
4. Agree. Make sure you and your bass buddy agree on the form, harmony, and rhythmic feeling
of the song you’re playing.
5. Complement. The word complement (as opposed to “compliment”) means “to add to something
in a way that enhances, improves, or makes it perfect.” You can also compliment your bass
pal on his new sneakers, but musically speaking, complementing other players will make the
music sound good and also build your career.
Visit John on the
web at johngoldsby.com, and listen to
the individual and
of “Will and John’s
Silent Night” at
• Listen to Stanley
Clarke and Will
Lee play Clarke’s
• Check out SMV:
Marcus Miller, and
• Watch Superbass!
special guest John