There are two musical truths that have inspired my passion for bass playing: bass players are indispensable and good bass players are rare. When something is both indispensable and rare, it becomes valuable. Yes, bass players are valuable. Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 12 often come to mind when I hear jokes about the unheard and forgotten bass player.
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” (1 Corinthians 12:21-22)
Bass players, you are an important and needed musical member of your worship band. Worship leaders, your bass player is an important and needed musical member of your band. Don’t make the mistake of throwing the less skilled guitar player on bass because you assume it’s an easier role. Skillful bass playing is more than “just playing the root note.”
A helpful analogy for me is to imagine my role as a bass player as being musical glue. Bass players glue together two aspects of a song that, if sloppily stuck together, can become a distraction. Distractions can draw people’s focus away from worshiping Jesus and bring unnecessary attention to the band. That’s the opposite of what a worship band is supposed to do. Bass players have the opportunity to eliminate distraction and bring more glory to Jesus by simply being skilled at their instrument.
So what do bass players glue together? Rhythm and harmony (as in the chordal structure of a song). A good bass player anchors (just to mix metaphors here) the harmony of the song to the beat, or groove, of the song. My goal in this post is to provide a basic, foundational explanation for how bass players link rhythm and harmony. This involves locking in with the drummer and being attentive to other instruments playing in the same frequency range as the bass (in a worship band, this is often a keys player).
On the rhythmic side of things, the bass player should always “lock in” with the drummer. This generally means playing something that directly coincides with or complements the drummer’s beat. The most fundamental way to do this is to match the drummer’s kick pattern.
The first thing I focus on when playing with a drummer is their right foot. What pattern are they playing on the kick drum? Then, I match that pattern rhythmically as much as I can. Here’s an example of a simple groove with the bass player and drummer locked in:
The drummer’s groove and kick drum pattern will often change in each section of the song. Pay attention to what the drummer is playing in the verses, choruses, and bridge and lock in with that pattern accordingly.
It is crucial to have an open line of communication between the drummer and bass player. There may be a moment where it makes sense to break from the pattern and emphasize other aspects of the groove (playing straight eights, for example), or maybe the drummer is not staying consistent with their patterns. Talk about it and nail down what you’re going to do. You’ll be surprised at how much this helps your band sound “tight.”
As you lock in with the kick drum, you’ll notice other opportunities for creative expression within the limits of what’s acceptable in your given musical worship environment and culture. Creative expression isn’t something commonly thought of as synonymous with bass playing in worship music, but there are ample opportunities to do so in a way that is not distracting, serves the song rather than yourself, and ultimately glorifies Jesus.
The next step is figuring out how to glue the rhythm you’re playing with the harmonic, or chordal, components of the song. The first step is to know the chords. It may sound elementary, but coming prepared to rehearsal and knowing the chords of the song means you can spend more time sounding tighter and less time learning the basic structure of the song.
It may seem like all you have to do to sync up with the chords is to play the correct root notes. That’s true for the most part, but when you bring other instruments into the mix, things can get muddy. Many worship bands have keys players or other instruments that will be playing in a similar frequency range as the bass. Remember, bass players are glue. Keys players add more melody and texture to a song and are more noticed by the average listener. Bass players should lay a foundation that keys players, guitarists, and other more melodic instruments can build on.
How does a bass player lay that chordal foundation? If you’re playing with a keys player, pay attention to what they’re playing in the lower range. If a keys player is playing in the same frequency range as you, you don’t want to spend too much time playing around the root note that they’re playing. It sounds muddy and crumbles any attempt to provide a foundation. I’m not saying you can’t add some passing notes here and there or get creative. Providing a second of tension followed immediately by relieving that tension can be a great addition to a certain part of a song. But if a keys player is playing low and in your range, it is important to add a solid foundation by staying on the same root note with them.
Here are a couple of examples, both good and bad, of what I’m talking about it:
Here’s a chord progression with the bass not aligning with the keys:
That bass part is a tad ridiculous but it’s a good example of how the bass can muddy the mix by not paying attention to what the keys player is doing with their left hand.
Here is the bass, keys, and drums all locked in with each other. Notice how the bass is synced up with the kick drum and the low end of the keys.
Whether you’re a bass player, worship leader, or other instrumentalist reading this post, my hope is that you come to an appreciation of the role the bass player has in a worship band. Bass players have the opportunity to eliminate distraction and selflessly serve the song and others. Bass playing is a small part of what happens on Sunday morning, but it can be used to help people focus on Jesus. And after all, that’s our ultimate role on Sunday morning: point people to Jesus. What an amazing gift that God lets bass players be a small, yet valuable part of that!