Becoming a Better Bass Player

This week I’ve been in Ben Phillips’ studio in Nashville with Sal Oliveri and Joel Sczebel (from the Sovereign Grace Church in Surrey, BC), recording drums, bass, and guitars for Risen, an album of congregational songs that focus on the theme of the resurrected Christ. Due out in March, Lord willing.

The three players (Ben Phillips – drums, Joeie Canaday – bass, Greg Hagan – guitar) were amazing and a joy to work with. When I say “amazing” I mean we tracked 12 songs in two days, that the guys played creatively, often nailed the song in 1-2 takes, seemed as eager as we were to come up with great parts, and did it to honor the Lord. Like I said, amazing.

This was Joel Sczebel’s first time in a Nashville studio. He was blown away by the quality and proficiency of the players. He told me he was inspired to go home and seek to practice a lot more. Because so few players get the experience of watching studio musicians at work, I asked the bass player, Joeie (pronounced “Joey”), if he would answer a few questions for me to encourage bass players on worship teams. He graciously agreed. If you’re a bass player, or know someone who is, this post is for you.

What most helped you over the years to play in time?
Learning to play in time I used a very unorthodox approach. When I was a teenager I used to go to sleep listening to a metronome. Sounds strange, and I’m not recommending it. But, to this day, .. I STILL hear it !

The most important thing I did was record myself playing with a click track. I would sit for hours playing anything and everything to a click. It’s so valuable to listen back and hear where you are placing every note. Over time it gave me the ability to place things where I wanted. There are times that you need to place things on the front or back side of the beat to create a certain feel. Being able to hear the difference and control where you place every note is so important. Remember, … every note counts! [Joeie said he’s expanded sessions on Pro Tools to see if what he thought he was playing was what he wasactually playing, timewise.]

What most helped you over the years to play in sync with a drummer?
Playing with “in sync” with drummers is not only an art, but one of your most important jobs. The secret, and there is a secret, is very simple. The drummer’s right hand, or hi hat hand subdivides the rest of the body. It’s physics. Think about it…. His foot may be playing kick on one and three, the left hand playing snare on two and four. The right hand is doing the driving. whether it is quarters, eights, or sixteenths it’s subdividing. So, by listening to a drummers right hand, you will always know where the kick is going to land. Regardless of the skill level of the drummer, the right hand will always tell you what the rest of his body is going to do.

What most helped you over the years to play melodically?
Listening to Paul McCartney!

What three things would you tell bass players who want to grow in their ability to serve their church more effectively?
1. Become the very best player you can be. Do the work. You are getting the opportunity to serve on your instrument. That should not be taken lightly. You are playing for an audience of one,… the ONLY ONE. He deserves your best!
2. Being a bass player means your entire responsibility, is to SERVE. This is not meant to be a spiritual comment. Your job is to provide the glue. If you want to solo, buy a guitar. Serve not only the song, but every other band member. Not getting noticed is your job! The attitude of a servant will make you a great bass player.
3. Worship involves emptying yourself. To take everything you have and empty it out! It doesn’t matter what kind of music I’m playing. Being able to play bass, or any instrument, is a gift. I strive to empty myself out on every single song. If there is anything left at the end of the day, I didn’t do enough. Play every note as if it were your last.

I can vouch for the fact that Joeie gave himself on every song. He was often the first guy to come back in the control room, while the other guys fixed a couple things on their parts, because Joeie’s part didn’t need fixing. He played the right notes at the right time in the right places. That kind of skill is the result of thousands of hours of listening and practice, combined with a genuine desire to serve.

It’s quite a concept, really. Playing our instruments as though it really mattered what we played. Working hard so that we’ll have more tools God can use to serve his people. Seeking to get it right the first time. May God raise up more of that kind of bass players for the glory of the Savior and the good of his church.

Let me know if you have any other tips for bass players.

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Bob Kauflin currently has the privilege of serving as the Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace Ministries. © Sovereign Grace Ministries. Used by permission.