John Goldsby's Jazz Concepts - Sight Reading in the Studio, Part 1

June 10, 2014

ZAP! A RED LIGHT WENT ON IN MY HEAD. I WAS 15, AND I’D BEEN playing bass for a couple of years in various rock, pop, and fusion bands, when it dawned on me that a career as a studio musician might be cool. What a great idea! I could stay in the studio all day—any studio—and stars, producers, and arrangers would come to me. At least that’s what my 15-year-old ego was telling me.

At my teacher’s suggestion, I bought all six volumes of Carol Kaye’s bass method [] and began parsing the lines and licks she had recorded on many hit records. Kaye’s books were a practical introduction to written figures, riffs, and charts that get thrown at bassists.

Most bass parts contain melodic and rhythmic material that bass players already know how to play. The trick when working in a studio is to immediately transfer a written part into what sounds like an integral part of the recorded music. Like any other skill, sight-reading can be practiced and learned. The best studio bassists are simultaneously precise and relaxed. They also know when to add their personal style to a part, and when to shut up and play the notes exactly as written.

Here are some golden rules for working and sight-reading in a recording studio. Pay attention and you’ll have the best odds of nailing first takes.

Before The Session

1. Make sure your bass and other equipment is in order.
2. Have a good pencil and eraser with you. This might seem like a suggestion for nerds, but I prefer to have my own pencil ready when the producer or arranger says, “Okay, everyone cut letter C, add a 16-bar vamp after bar 71, change the chord in bar 32 to Db7, and move the coda sign ahead to bar 95.” I save my old, tiny pencil nubs for the cats who show up pencil-less.
3. Check the piano or keyboards for tuning, and tune your bass accurately before you start tracking. If you use an electronic tuner, also aurally double-check your pitch with other instruments.
4. Recording studios are places where musicians hang out, tell stories, make jokes, drink coffee, and eat catering. Don’t let the jovial atmosphere lull you into thinking that the work to be done—recording music—is not serious. When the session gets down to the business of playing and recording, it’s time to focus.

During The Session

1. Let the recording engineer decide how to record your bass. With experienced engineers, you might be able to make a couple of suggestions, but they’ll have their preferred ways to record.
2. If you don’t have eye contact with the people you need to see, ask the engineer to change your position in the room.
3. Check and adjust your headphone mix so you can hear everything that you want to hear. You might only need to hear bass and drums and a minimum of the other tracks.
4. Click tracks can be your best friend or worst enemy. If there is a click, I prefer to hear it just a little, but have the drum track louder. Drummers have different ways of playing with the click, and you should meld with the drummer’s groove.
5. Scan the entire bass part when charts are passed out. Look for the key signature, starting tempo and feel, any tempo or key signature changes, repeat signs, D.S. signs, and coda signs.
6. The bass part might have only chord symbols, only notes, or a combination of both. Find and focus on any rhythms or melodies that seem unusual, and scan the line while singing the rhythm in your head. Think about which register of the bass you’re in, and where you need to shift positions.
7. Play precisely and stay relaxed.
8. Go for perfection the first time (but don’t worry if you screw up). Don’t think, “It doesn’t matter if I don’t get the whole track, because I can just punch in or copy and paste.” Bassists who can sight-read and nail something in one or two takes, without the help of digital editing, will always work.
9. Listen to playbacks and stay involved. After the first take, think about what you could do better. On the next take, you have a couple of choices: Either play the part again exactly as (or better than) you did the first time, or change the feeling, dynamics, attitude, or tone. Ask for feedback from the other musicians or the producer. Do they want any changes on subsequent takes?

After The Session

1. Thank everyone, get the chit-chat going again for a few minutes, and then be on your way.
2. Keep practicing sight-reading to hone your chops. Use material written for trombone, cello, classical bass, jazz bass, or funk bass. Anything written in bass clef might be a fun read and will help you keep your eye-to-finger coordination sharp.

Examples 1–8 show some “real life” lines that I’ve come across at recent studio gigs. Check the tempo marking, time signature, style, and key signature on each example before you pick up your bass. Look through each line and hear the rhythms in your head. It might help to tap your foot while you scan the line.

A note to tablature readers: I’ve never seen tab notation on a studio gig. If you want to increase your versatility, musicianship, and employability, then it’s a good idea to learn standard notation. It’s not that hard, once you master some basics.

How did you do on your sight-reading test? You can check your playing on Examples 1–8 with my versions at


John Goldsby

Discuss all aspects of bass playing with John at the LowDown Forum. Also visit John’s website for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bassrelated questions.

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