Hey Mister Bassman

by Doug Marcus

Thoughts on playing bass; Bluegrass, Blues and Beyond

I love playing bluegrass bass, however I am not strictly a purist when it comes to being the traditional bluegrass/rockabilly slapper. My approach to bluegrass bass is a result of many non-bluegrass influences that reflect the various chronological musical environments I grew up in. For example mixing in “walking” bass lines where only traditional 1-5 bass patterns occur (or the reverse of that) is a result of learning things from blues and rock oriented experiences.

Drums were also a major ingredient in forming my style as a bass player. I tend to think of a bluegrass rhythm section in terms of the components of a drum set. The rhythm section being anyone who isn’t soloing. The bass would be the kick drum, the other instruments; guitar, mando, fiddle etc. taking turns as the snare drum or cymbal (ride or hi-hat) depending on whether or not they are “chopping,” strumming rhythmically, or playing fills. Also the bass “slap” became a kind of defensive weapon to prop up a sagging rhythm section. Whether you’re playing bluegrass, rock, jazz or blues you need a good solid groove, or the “pocket” as it is sometimes called. Good timing and rhythm is essential for the success of any musical style.

Breaking bluegrass bass playing into components, I could say there is rhythm and melody. The first, rhythm, is about feeling. A feeling that you are physically part of a drum set. One that you can hear in your mind and feel in your body. As you play you are also listening to what’s happening around you musically.  This is an important skill set, focusing on playing and listening at the same time. It’s a very Zen place to be but essential for communicating with the other musicians.

The second component, melody or melodic lines, are the musical phrases assembled from scales. These snippets of scales are combined in patterns and give music it’s linear quality, or it’s feeling of motion. Learning and practicing scales gives you a musical vocabulary that allows you to “speak” through your instrument.

A few words about the execution of bass lines. A 1-5 bass pattern may seem like a simple thing but it is deceptively simple. There is much subtlety in how that pattern can be played. Each note can be played in a staccato or truncated way, or each note can be held until the last possible moment to create a more seamless effect. Combining the pattern with a “slap” to syncopate the phrase adds drive to the rhythm and creates interest. Which ever way you choose depends on what works best for a particular song.

Bass styles have varied greatly from when I was playing in top 40 country bands on the West coast in the mid-seventies. This was the era of extended solo’s in rock and jazz music. This led many bass players to a more melodic style than exists today. I am a firm believer in non-purist crossover influences being good for the evolution of music though and, in general, the more you can learn about the structure of different kinds of music, the better equipped you will be to handle any musical challenge.

Doug Marcus is a hudson valley musician performing regularly in the area as either a solo or ensemble player.


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