December 02, 2022
It’s hard to imagine a rock-n-roll lineup without at least one drummer, one guitar, and one bass. There’s a reason for that – bass fills in the low end and creates the foundation for a sound, and unless you’ve got some kind of nontraditional thing going, you need some kind of low-end foundation. 90% of the time that’s your bassist.
But what if the bassist can’t make it to a gig, or you can’t even find a bassist? Or worse yet, there’s a problem and they don’t show up? Here are a few ways to deal with playing with no bass player.
First off, if you understand the role your bassist plays, you have a better chance of getting that functionality with alternative means. Number one, the bass fills in the low end. The kick drum does some of that duty, and guitars may be pretty bassy depending on how they’re played, and of course pianos or keys are full-range instruments that can also do that job.
So, if the bassist isn’t there but you do have a keyboard player, for example, the keyboardist can shift their playing style. If they’re particularly skilled, they may be able to play the actual parts the bassist usually plays with the left hand while providing their normal contribution with just the right. If not that, at least they can move the left hand down an octave or two, playing the same parts as usual, just with more low end. If there’s no keyboardist, the guitarist may be able to fill in the low end by shifting octaves or adding lower string work. Or failing that, some bands who regularly play without bass split the guitar signal to a pitch shifter pedal to double up and provide low-end girth.
The other role a bassist often plays is to create the groove in partnership with the drummer. This isn’t easy to replace by simply splitting a guitar signal or moving a piano part down an octave. To recreate certain grooves, the guitarist, keyboardist, or drummer may have to play a very different part. This is best dealt with ahead of time by practicing for different possible scenarios.
If you know ahead of time that you won’t have your usual bassist around, you can always bring them along in spirit – aka: record their part ahead of time and play along with it. You’ll need to get proficient at playing live alongside recorded tracks, but it can work really well, and mastering this opens up a world of possibilities for sounds you can add to your show.
If you’re good with looping, you can also provide your own bassline using a guitar. Depending on the song, you may have plenty of low-end from the guitar itself, or you could use a pitch shifter to provide a more bassy sound. Play the line, loop it, then switch to live mode for the main guitar part. The advantage of this method over splitting the main guitar part and pitch shifting is that you can create a distinct bassline – something that’s necessary in certain genres.
Depending on the style of music you play, you may not need a lot of low-end oomph anyway. Bluegrass bands often have a standup bass but many don’t bother, for example. Ironically, some genres like metal don’t necessarily need a bass because the guitar work, often done in drop D, is already heavy enough.
In other scenarios, a solo keyboardist or guitarist who’s used to filling in the sound may have had to adjust to make room for the bass anyway, so in that case, you can just go back to playing like you would solo.
Let’s not pretend bass players aren’t important. They lend a weight and groove to the sound that is hard to duplicate with other instruments, and for some genres, the bass is the thing that makes the take. But if you’re stuck without your regular bassist, or you just don’t have that person on the team, there are a number of ways you can fill in the low end and create great grooves. Many successful bands over the years have done this, such as The Doors, who used an organ to play the bass role live, The Dresden Dolls, whose keyboard player provided bass with the left hand, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who rely on trashy guitars and big tribal drums to drive their sound.
Of course, you can always drop a gig or hire a sub if you lose your bassist for the day, but there are plenty of creative ways to make due.
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Musicians can be notoriously hard to buy for. Not all music equipment is equal, choices are personal, and musicians tend to snap up what they want when they want it. So, when Christmas comes around, it can be hard for loved ones to come up with the right gift. Still, it’s not impossible. Finding the right gift for a musician you love just takes a little patience and listening.
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