“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 4-string.
“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.
• Listen to Stanley Clarke and Will Lee play Clarke’s “School Days.”
• Check out SMV: Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten.
• Watch Superbass! perform with special guest John Goldsby.