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
[carolkaye.com] 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
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
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
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
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 johngoldsby.com.
Discuss all aspects
of bass playing
with John at the
Also visit John’s
website for sound
and answers to
all of your bassrelated