Sunday, December 9, 2007

Introduction to Playing the Bass on a Worship Team

The bass is perhaps the most overlooked instrument of the worship team. Though it doesn’t play a high profile role, the bass is the worship team’s musical foundation, providing the harmonic and rhythmic structure upon which all the other instruments build. If a worship team isn’t in the groove, it’s often a bass issue.

* Types of basses:
o Electric bass guitar. The most common bass used on worship teams.
o String bass. Also called stand up, acoustic or contrabass, it has a less defined tone than the electric bass guitar, so care should be taken in its miking and amplification.
o Acoustic bass guitar. This is essentially a hollow-bodied electric bass guitar. In intimate settings it can be played without amplification, otherwise there is little difference between it and the electric bass guitar.
o Fretless bass guitar. The lack of frets gives the fretless bass a distinct woody tone that is favored by many jazz players.
o 5 and 6 string bass guitars. Identical to 4 string electric basses, but they extend the instrument’s range on the low end with a B string and increase its solo capabilities on the high end with a high C string.

* Open strings of a 4 string bass (sound an octave lower than written)

* Common playing techniques
o Fingers. Bassists most frequently play with the “meat” of their index and middle fingers. Remember that good tone comes from the fingers rather than the amp. Picking notes with the thumb or tips/fingernails won’t result in a robust tone.
o Pick. A pick can be used to produce a bright, defined tone. It is especially common in the repeated eighth note bass lines typical of punk and new wave. In a worship team setting, it is too harsh to use regularly.
o Pop and Snap. Funk players create percussive bass lines by hitting the low strings forcefully with the bone of their thumbs and pulling the higher strings and snapping them against the frets. This technique should be used sparingly in a worship team setting.
o Harmonics. An advanced technique in which the player plucks the strings while touching the string lightly at a “node.” It creates a bell-like effect.
o Pedal Point. A meditative musical technique in which the bass stays on the same note while the chords move. (For example: C, F/C, G/C, C) The bassist can often play a pedal point even when it’s not indicated in the song.

* Adjusting the bass’s tone. One of the biggest problems a worship team bassist faces is finding a tone that complements the overall sound of the ensemble. Often the bassist prefers a bright tone that cuts through the team’s sound or a boosted midrange that gives the bass a unique character. However, this often doesn’t provide the worship team with the low range they need. Here is one way of adjusting the bass amplifier to achieve a sound with character and low end:
o Turn all the low range completely down.
o Adjust the mid and high range until the desired tonal character is achieved.
o Now bring the low range volume back up.

* Tips for playing the bass on a worship team:
o Synchronize with the kick drum. 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.”
o Hear the beat’s subdivisions. Following the worship team’s tempo is only part of the bassist’s job. The bassist also needs to feel the song’s inner rhythm. Do the eighth or sixteenth notes swing? Does the song push ahead or lay back?
o Chop off the pianist’s left hand. Well, hopefully the bassist doesn’t have to go to this extreme, but the pianist does need to be sensitive to the fact that the bass is already providing the bass line. If the pianist plays double octave bass lines it will create low end mush.
o Don’t overplay. As the bassist gains more technique, there is more temptation to play complex bass lines. Octaves, high fills and intricate rhythms may be appropriate sometimes, but they often obscure rather than support the sound of the worship team. These advanced techniques are often at the expense of the structural bass notes that the worship team depends on. A sparse bass line usually makes a song come alive in a way that a flurry of notes doesn’t. Save your flashy licks for those few moments in a song that need some spice to push them forward.

* Greg’s favorite bass line of all times: Chic “Good Times”

Questions? email Greg Scheer:

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