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 music program.
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 to count.
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 Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops and the Sligo Jazz Workshop. Visit him on the web for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bassrelated questions. johngoldsby.com