WHAT SKILLS DO YOU NEED TO BE A BASSIST IN DEMAND? A KILLER
groove? A large repertoire of tunes? A designer instrument? A Lexus SUV worthy of Santa Monica
Boulevard? Those things help, but sight-reading pays bills. Not many players make sight-reading
a top priority, but it’s a skill necessary to do most of the best work: Broadway shows, dinner
theater, studio work, top-name tours, cabaret, military bands, church bands, movie soundtracks,
orchestras, and big bands. Decent sight-reading skills are also required to land any spot in a college
Sight-reading has an image problem. It’s not a sexy skill, like shredding, tapping, or soporific
vamping with a loop pedal. It might be more tempting to spend hours online, dreaming about
upgrading to a new Nimbus 5000 5-string with hyper-active electronics, rather than spending
quality time in the practice room learning to read basic rhythms and notation.
Learning to sight-read demands slow, concentrated effort over days, months, and years.
Bassists who can look at fly footprints on a page and turn those little marks into scintillating bass
goodness will always work. Being able to read music, and especially read music at first sight (that’s
what sight-reading is), does not harm any other aspect of your playing. In fact, you can improve
all areas of your musicianship and employability once you're comfortable turning written notes
into beautiful bass-ness
Last month we looked at bass lines that I recently encountered on studio jobs. Those lines were
fairly basic fare: repeated patterns, short fills, and rhythmic hits. Now let’s tackle more complicated
lines, which also come straight from parts that were plopped on my music stand at recording
sessions. The same strategy applies for scoping out any bass part, whether complicated or simple:
1. Check the time signature.
2. Check the key signature.
3. Look for an indication of the groove or style.
4. Look for odd rhythms, dense passages, and big intervallic jumps.
5. Sing or mentally play through tricky parts before you play them on the bass.
Example 1 shows a typical Motown-style bass line. Note that the tempo is 96 quarter-notes
per minute, and the key signature is F major. The line begins on a low F, and there are articulation
markings over many of the notes. A dot under or over a note indicates that it is played short
(also called staccato). A line under or over a note means that the note is played for its full value,
or long (also called tenuto).
Before you play the exercise, tap your foot and sing the rhythms. Note that the first eighth-note is short and the second eighth-note is long. They are both eighth-notes,
and they take up the same amount of rhythmic space, but
they are articulated differently. The first three 16th-notes in bar 2
are full-value, while the fourth 16th-note is short. (Some would
argue that the difference between the sound of a full 16th and a
short 16th is minimal.) Sing the first bar with syllables that match
the articulations, like: bap-bah, ba-da-do-bap. Don’t have a low C
on your bass? Play the entire line in bar 3 up one octave. The slur
markings indicate that the last two 16ths of bar 1 and the last four
16ths of bar 2 are played legato, possibly slurred together using left-hand
hammer-ons. Those notes must stay in the rhythmic pocket,
but they should lead smoothly into the downbeats in the following
bars. The “sim.” (short for simile) in bar 3 indicates that you should
continue to improvise a similar line.
Example 2 is a 16th-note rock line. Some of the notes have
accents, indicated by the symbol “>”. The accented notes should be
played stronger than the non-accented notes.
There are a couple of traps in this example. When I first see a
part like this on my music stand, I gravitate to the full bar of rest
in 4/4 and the two bars where the meter changes to 2/4. These are
evil spots, begging for an unwitting bass player to mis-count, come
in wrong, and embarrass himself in front of a studio full of other
musicians (who are all ace sight-readers, and who actually count
the rests correctly). There’s almost nothing worse than giving the
impression that you can’t count to four. A few mistakes on parts like
this, and your name and phone number are moved down a notch
on the contractor’s “who to call” list.
Or, you can try the old Studio Musician’s Trick No. 37: Whenever you screw up, throw off your headphones and say,
“There’s some kind of noise in my cans! Can we fix
that?” That will send the studio into a panic, distract
from your inability to count to four, and delay
the session at least ten minutes while engineers
run around checking your headphones, the cables,
and the board. Of course, the trick only works once
before everyone knows that the problem is not the
headphones-it’s your reading skills. Just be sure
When I first saw Ex. 3, I did a double-take. I
asked the arranger if he really wanted a low A on
my 5-string. Yes, he wanted me to tune the low B
on my Sadowsky down to an A to get a deep, flabby,
synth-like sound. This is a simple, trance-like bass
line repeated throughout the whole track. Note that
the three high notes and three low notes use the
same articulation pattern: short, long, accented.
Next time, we’ll look at really odd reading
challenges. Odd-meter bass lines, that is. Until then,
start slowly and keep practicing reading new material
daily. You’ll be surprised by the improvements in
your playing and confidence.
In July, John will
be teaching all
things bass at
both the Jamey
and the Sligo Jazz
him on the web
for sound samples,
videos, and answers
to all of your bassrelated