Saturday, April 28, 2007

I’m a bass player...

This may be long—hope you can follow it…

I was watching some sort of jam band in concert on TV last night. Standard rock-type instrumentation: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. And something that I’d given some thought to a number of years ago came to the foreground. How personality traits and musical instruments go somewhat hand in hand, and how my own choices seem to confirm that thought. Let me try to explain….

My primary instrument in high school was the bass guitar. I basically taught myself to play, got into a rock band that actually played paying gigs in high school (!), and for years felt more comfortable playing bass than any other instrument. I remember something a jazz clinician told my HS jazz band that has stuck with me throughout the years. He was discussing the roles of the instruments in the rhythm section in any ensemble. The guitars pull double duty—providing harmonic color, and occasionally soloing. Sometimes they’re split between a rhythm guitar and lead guitar. The lead guitarist is usually full of ego—they need to be. The rhythm guitar is sort of a throw-away role, unless there’s no keyboard. The keyboard player constantly pulls double duty—providing the same things, but usually at the same time. They’re always busy. The drummer’s primary duty isn’t to keep time, but to dictate the style. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the section is doing—if the drummer changes from a swing beat to a latin beat, the entire group will sound like it’s playing latin.

That leaves the bass player. Nothing flashy about the bass player. He keeps the time. He is the one who dictates the harmonic progression. He is the foundation. He is the one that the rest of the ensemble builds on. The bass sets up the entire tonal spectrum. If you’re not in tune with the bass, you’re out of tune. The bass rarely plays the melody, but doesn’t care. Bass players generally aren’t flashy—they aren’t interested in that. Sure, there are some phenomenal bass soloists, but that’s when they’re out of their element. A majority of the time, they’re in the background, setting it all up for the rest of the band.

I often thought that I was different than that. I always thought of myself as the egotistical type. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve changed that opinion. I AM the one that isn’t flashy. I’m much more interested in doing my job than making a lot of money. I’m not concerned about being out in front, with the spotlights on me. I’m very much a person who is more comfortable being part of the group. Being consistent. Keeping the tempo.

I’ve also found that with my brass playing. I’ve played them all. I settled on the bass trombone. The second lowest brass instrument. The same roles hold true here. The tuba and trombones don’t play that often in the orchestra, especially when you compare to the violins or any of the woodwinds. But when we do, it’s often at tempo changes, and often at the climactic parts of the composition. I have looked at what string players have to play during a concert. More notes than I can possibly imagine. But that’s idiosyncratic to the strings. They have the ability to play things like that. Bass instruments generally don’t. I used to think that meant I was lazy. Now I think of it as being secure on the limitations of the instrument, and playing to the best of my ability.

So last night I’m watching this band. And in the 15 minutes or so that I watched, the camera moved in on the bass player twice. Twice. Sure, you could see him in the background, doing his thing, with a smile on his face. He was filling his role in the band. And was happy doing it. He probably didn’t care that he wasn’t on-screen much. And that was OK with him.

All of us who blog fit one of the rhythm instruments. Some write about their sexual escapades—definite lead guitar material. Others switch from memes, to daily life, to political ranting—switching styles like the drummer. One of us sets up HNT and anons, does the occasional Musical Monday and Da Count, chats with a lot of others, and generally tries not to make waves or bring a lot of attention to himself (unless he’s turning 50). Hi. My name is Os. I’m a bass player.

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