Studio Oddities: Sight Reading in the Studio, Part 3

IN MY LAST TWO WOODSHED COLUMNS, WE LOOKED AT TYPICAL LINES that a studio bassist should be able to sight-read.
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IN MY LAST TWO WOODSHED COLUMNS, WE LOOKED AT TYPICAL LINES that a studio bassist should be able to sight-read. Working in a studio situation is rewarding, and the necessary sight-reading skills can be practiced and learned. But even the most experienced bassist feels a few drops of sweat beading on his forehead when confronted with dense rhythms, tricky melodies, changing time signatures, and odd meters.

This month, let’s look at some challenging parts that have recently landed on my music stand at studio jobs. Example 1 shows the last few bars of a samba chart. I often see parts filled with chord changes, which are punctuated by occasional notated licks, lines, and fills. The challenge is to play a groove over chord symbols, change gears, and transition seamlessly into the notated line.

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Notice the five articulations that are used over certain notes in this passage. The symbol “≥” over the note B in bar 3 indicates that the note is both accented and played legato for its full length. This articulation is called a legato accent. On beat two in bar 3, the E is capped with a “^”. This capped accent is accented and played short. The last note in bar 4 is played with an accent, indicated by the > marking. Since this accent is tied to the next note in bar 5, there is no need to indicate a legato accent (≥). The staccato marking, a dot over the note B in bar 6, indicates that the note should be played short. The fermata or “bird’s eye” over the last note indicates that it should be held out until the conductor, drummer, singer—or whoever is paying you!—gives a cutoff.

Example 2 never offers the luxury of a played downbeat, and is peppered with little landmines and trapdoors in the form of eighth- and 16th-note rests. Practice tip: Tap your foot in quarter-notes at a very slow tempo, and clap or sing the rhythms. Don’t try to play the line on the bass until you can sing the rhythms in tempo. Be sure to count all the way through the last bar, and nail the low E on the “and” of beat three. In the studio, there are few things worse than screwing up the last note, because that’s what people remember.

Bass parts in mixed meters are found in all types of classical, jazz, and even pop music. Artists like the Beatles (“All You Need Is Love,” and “Here Comes the Sun”), Adele (“Turning Tables”), and composers like Burt Bacharach (“Promises, Promises,” and “I’ll Say a Little Prayer for You”) sometimes use combinations of 4/4, 3/4, and 2/4 to create flowing melodic and harmonic progressions. Example 3 shows a line mixing 4/4 and 5/4 meters. When I’m confronted with long strings of notes in changing meters, I concentrate on keeping a flow and playing the note values and rests precisely. If I think too much about the changing meters, I get hung up on the mathematics of the notation. Practice tip: Tap your foot in quarter-notes, and sing or clap through the line without thinking about where the meters change.

Sometimes I see bass parts and wonder why something isn’t written out differently—like Ex. 4, which has a bar of 3/4 followed by a bar of 5/4. This passage could have easily been written as two bars of 4/4. However, in the studio there usually isn’t time to question a composer’s intent. Grilling the composer, arranger, or producer, and complaining about how something is written, can make you come off like a know-it-all prima donna. Maybe you do know it all, but you don’t have to act like it, especially in the studio when the producer is bleeding money. Just shut up, play the part, and make it sound good.

In addition to mixed-meter bass parts, odd-meter charts also show up on the music stand, often for fusion, jazz, and world-music projects. Examples 5 and 6 are typical grooves from Eastern Europe. These bass lines both follow a clave, or underlying rhythmic pulse. The challenge when playing an odd-meter world-music groove is to make it sound like you’re just as much at home in 11/8 as you are in 4/4. Practice tip: Count the groupings of eighth-notes, and lock in the repeated figures. Feel the pulse as combinations of groups of two or three eighth-notes.

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How can you deal with so much written information at once, especially when reading through a chart for the first time? Sight-reading skills are honed through experience. If you want to train yourself to read fly footprints at first glance, then you should practice reading music every day. Revisit the May and June ’14 issues for more sight-reading tips. Until next time, keep your eyes glued to the page and your ears wide open.



In July, John will be teaching all things bass on two continents: at both the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops in Louisville, and the Sligo Jazz Workshop in Ireland. Visit him on the web for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bass-related questions.