Playing Bass for Worship
Playing the Bass in a worship band can seem easy to the uninitiated, but tastefully playing bass in worship can be one of the most challenging roles in a modern worship band. Gary Lunn describes the bass’ role: “The key word is sensitivity. Bass players have one of the greatest responsibilities in the worship team—holding everything together. In my humble opinion, we supply a steady, firm foundation, as a fully functional flowing part of a musical collective that draws people closer to God” Because the bass is a foundational part of the band, the bass player has a huge responsibility. In modern worship, reliance on the bass has grown. Many modern songs not only rely on the bass to help solidify the grove of the song, but the bass is also being called upon to provide the signature sound of the song as in 2nd verse of the song No Reason to Hide by Hillsong.
Here are a few Tips and Techniques to help the Bass become the glue of the band
Drum and Bass Team
The most important technical concept for a good bass player to learn is how to sync with the drummer. A Bass and Drum team working in unity creates a solid foundation that the rest of the band can play on. A Drum Bass combo that is not working together creates disruption and confusion that trickles down to the rest of the band. It is important for the bass parts to support the kick drum and melody as does the part written by Matt Tenni of Hillsong for the song Break Free.
It is important for a drummer and bass player to decide on the kick pattern of the song’s parts and then execute those parts consistency. As a general rule the bass should play within the structure of the kick pattern and accent with the drums snare.
Greg Scheer says it best “The bass guitar and kick drum occupy the same low range, so they need to reinforce each other rather than fight each other’s rhythms. This doesn’t mean they need to play exactly the same rhythm, but their fundamental rhythms should be the same. If they both play their own rhythms, it will result in “popcorn.”
Leader not follower
With all the talk of the bass being a foundational and supportive instrument it is easy for a bass player to sit back in the mix and follow the rest of the band. However, this is the exact opposite of what a good bass player should do, and doing so compromises the foundation of band’s grove. It’s easy for a bass player to just play along with the music, but you (along with the drums) should be the tip of the spear and allow the other instruments to play along with you. There are times to pull back and follow, but the majority of the time, the band relies on the bass to generate the fundamental chord structure and ryhtm of the song. I hear a lot of worship bands who seem to be dragged along by the worship leader’s acoustic guitar or piano, and it leaves the band feeling cluttered, loose, and frail. A good bass player must play with confidence and an intent to lead. This can be a hard concept: follow the leader but yet lead him. This is why it is important to be engaged during worship, and look for the leader’s signals and body language. I will usually pull back just a bit when we near a part where the leader could change things, and then once I am certain of the direction, I will begin to play with authority. (Note: this does not mean playing loud; it just means playing with confidence)
A practical way of ending the bad habit of following is practicing with a metronome and nothing else, instead of playing along with a recording. This forces you to practice the chord progressions with authority instead of following a recording. Using a metronome is extremely important. Playing with a metronome will reinforce your tempo abilities, and can reveal inadequacies in your rhythm. The metronome does not lie.
Because the bass is a very simple instrument, it can be very tempting to over play. This is why the bass is one of the easiest instruments to learn but one of the hardest to truly master. I was told that I should learn to play bass like I had to pay a dollar for every note. The message behind this is to: make your notes count. Good bass playing does not come with the amount of technical prowess shown or the amount of notes played, but in efficiency. Learning to create less is a very hard skill to master. Try creating bass lines with the purpose of creating a certain dynamic and then figure out the most efficient way of playing it.
Usually no one will consciously notice a bass player’s parts, but they will be able to feel the effect of a skilled bass player who plays simply with subtle dynamics. Less is more. Remember that when you do a run or riff you are usually taking away from the structural bass notes that the worship team is depending. Only use these advanced techniques when they have the opportunity to support the drum and vocal lines and do not take away from the foundation of the song. I would rather have a bass player who simply plays the notes, but is consistently in time and on point, than a virtuoso who does not know how to blend.
Don Potter, says ” a professional musician is defined as one who always plays beneath his ability so that he is always in control.” These are wise words of counsel we would do well to follow.
Chord Progression Variation
A practical way of creating dynamic parts is using chord progression variation. The means that is the chord progression is G-C-Em-D you could play the G low the C low the E high and The D low and the next time change it up to add emphasis. Remember to be purposeful. Play around with different note patterns in a song and try to feel the dynamic effect it creates. In general I will start the song pretty basic and use climbing progressions to build and will drop to lower notes for emphasis. Try not to be a bland bass player who plays the progressions the same way every single time. To be a great bass player you must have balance between simplicity and flair. This is why the bass is so challenging.
If you need ideas read Matt Tenni’s blog about writng bass parts for the bass- here
Chop off the pianist’s left hand
While hopefully you don’t have to go this far, it is important for a bass player to communicate with his band members about the tonal space he/she will be filling. If you will be playing with a piano player, they should feel comfortable letting the bass and kick occupy the low frequencies or at a minimum promise to not clutter it up. It is very hard for the bass, kick drum, and keyboard to occupy the same tonal range without cluttering it up and creating the “popcorn” feeling. If you have a keyboard player who clutters up the low end, ask him to try out just playing with his right hand. If that fails, hack away. But remember, if a bass player is playing tentatively, the piano player will naturally have pick up the slack, especially if the worship leader is leading from piano.
I run into very few bass players who actually take time to figure out their tone. I am not sure why, but bass players commonly get in a one tone rut. I rarely see bass players work with pedals, use different amps, or even change their pickup settings in a set. I see many bass players who are perfectly content with plugging straight into a DI and calling it a day. I am not sure when the worship bass community got so indolent about tone but if you get caught in that rut; it is time for you to come out of it. If we are to be bass players who create dynamic worship parts, we should not forget about using tone as a tool to accomplish that. We should take the time to listen to different recording and analyze the way the bass sounds and why. At a minimum, experiment with using different pickups on the fast and slow songs.
A common mistake I see a lot of bass players is the over use of bass nob. Many players totally roll off the treble and midrange nobs and turn their bass nobs all the way up. A bass is supposed to be bassey right?? Yes…. and no. The audible range of a bass note harmonics goes beyond the range that will drive the subs. The tone you need in a band setting is different than what you might like to hear when practicing solo. Certainly we do not want to add so much midrange and treble that the bass frequencies do not stand out, but if we lose the treble we lose clarity. As a general rule, more mid-range affects the attack of the sound and the treble affects the clarity. Don’t be afraid of a little string buzz in your tone.
Another common flaw in many players tone is plugging straight into a DI. While this sound can give a nice warm clean tone, often times the bass sounds you hear on recordings usually have a little grit to them. The grit is usually created by a mic’d slightly overdriven amp and then mixed in with a “dry” direct signal to give the grit and punch of the amp and warmth of the direct signal. Try out different variations, and don’t be afraid to use different settings on different songs.
Also, tube bass amps sound pretty, get one.
Keeping the Main Thing, the Main Thing
Learning to be a humble servant is a very important part of being a worship musician, and probably the most difficult. We must learn to put our own tastes and personal motivations on the back burner and focus on what we can do to serve the Lord, the music, the worship leader, the pastors, and the congregation. Playing in a worship band is an honor, which holds a lot of responsibility. As musicians who play with a higher purpose, we must continue to devote our lives to humility and excellence. As worship leaders, it is so easy to get captivated by the public aspects of worship that we can forget to let worship be a part of our lifestyle. Spending time in private worship is the key to anointing in our public worship on stage. We must continually humble ourselves to the greater purpose of worship.