Bass Management: 6 Things Every Session Bassist Must Know

In the recording studio, session players know the song is king, and they are all there to serve it with whatever is needed. Every instrument plays a part, largely or subtly in the big picture of the overall end result. When it comes to bass, however, the bass part is always a large part of the picture. In most cases, the bass instrument is the bonding element between the drums and all of the other musical instruments involved. The “bottom line” is a very big deal.
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When approaching any recording session, there are certain basics every bassist needs to have in their gig bag of tricks. Here’s a six step “must have” when it comes to those bass-ics.

COP THE STYLE (WITH A SMILE)

Some musical styles and audio-production concepts may be out of a player’s comfort zone. Let’s say a particular bassist’s forte is fingerstyle, and the track is calling for a very percussive attack that only a pick (or perhaps a fingernail) can provide. In that case, a real pro session player will be able to switch right into the groove with a pick. Conversely, the same holds true for a player who is accustomed to working with a pick only. That won’t cut it on a recording that needs a softer, subtler sound.

While I often work with some of the world’s most famous bass players, I still bump into those who can only approach the instrument their way. While it’s true that their way may be genius, it doesn’t mean that approach will fit into any and all recording sessions. You have to be willingly adaptable to the producer and/or artist if you want to succeed in the competitive world of session players. Never forget that producers hire the people they want to be around. If there is a cool player who has a great vibe, is fun to work with, and who genuinely wants to do what is needed, that player will always get the call for the gig before the difficult, prickly pear player who may be “better” than everyone else, but who brings the vibe of the session down. Life is too short, and sessions are even shorter!

MOVE INTO THE GROOVE

We all know different styles of music will demand different skill sets from players. One important element to any successful bass session is for the bassist to relate to the material, find the groove, and be able to complement the rest of the recording. How do you do this? It’s easy—just listen. Find out what makes the song tick. Once the song is heard in its simplest form—and the melody and chord structures are understood—the most obvious first step to establish groove and feel is to lock into the drum pattern. The bass may not want to play on every single kick beat, but the bass player does need to know what that basic pattern is. To get inside the essence of the song even further, do what the world’s most recorded musician—the great drummer Hal Blaine—does. He always asks to see a set of the lyrics to understand what he’s playing. Deep.

INTONATION CALIBRATION

It may not be sexy, but it is of supreme importance to make sure one’s bass is set up well and has perfect intonation. The neck, the bridge, the frets, the nut—everything needs to be in great shape to achieve correct intonation. Unfortunately, that can mean strings, too. I only say it’s unfortunate, because old, dead bass strings can sometimes sound perfect for a certain approach, and I am a big fan of that sound (think James Jamerson from Motown, or Duck Dunn from Stax). True story: Near the end of Jamerson’s career, people thought he was losing his ear, because his intonation was off. But, as it turned out, he had purposely never replaced his bass strings. So, as the years went by, his sound got even better. Sadly, his tuning didn’t.

If the bass is out of tune, everything that is piled on top of it is going to be off. Not many people are aware of it, but most singers tend to find their pitch from the bass. It is the main instrument that firmly resonates the foundation of pitch.

Back in the self-indulgent early ’80s, I spent a good three days (and a lot of money) trying to fix a track that had been cut by a legendary San Francisco band. The singer was positive the guitars were out of tune, and insisted that all of them be replaced (and there were tons of them). Still, the track was out. We even retuned and replaced the piano to no avail. It was only when we removed the bass track that everything fell together. Ah ha! So we had to fly the bass player back to San Francisco from the East Coast to redo his well-played, but useless bass part, and make the seemingly endless nightmare stop.

NOWHERE TO RUN

The studio is a place that will expose your bass playing and sound for better or worse. It is like a big microscope that leaves little room for error. On stage, one can get away with a lot more imperfections, because the energy and showmanship can overshadow the nuance of some of the playing, as well as unwanted noises. The studio is about control and consistency. Developing accuracy on the strings so that your bass doesn’t have harmonics or other sounds ringing that cloud up the bottom end is crucial. Open strings commonly cause this problem. Pay close attention to cutting off notes that may find their way into your playing. At the same time, you don’t want notes being too muted, either. Both of these unwanted scenarios make it very difficult to mix the final product. If the bass notes are not defined in an even and deliberate manner, it can throw off the whole balance of the recording.

THIS OR THAT

Knowing what is needed is usually the best way to get things done on sessions, but it’s not always as easy as that, so options are always helpful in the recording process. Sometimes, experimentation is the only way to come up with the secret sauce. To that end, bring two or three different basses (if possible). Maybe it’s a classic Fender type, an active modern type, and a fretless. These basses all sound very different, and bringing in an unexpected color can help a song take shape in a new and interesting way. As for amps, you may want to ask the engineer or producer before packing the car. Many sessions don’t require bass amps, because the bass is taken direct. However, if you get your signature sound by using an amp, you’ll want to have it with you. Also, always bring along a good tuner, as well as any stompboxes that provide unique effects that might enhance your role in the session.

PITCH IN OR BUTT OUT

In order to help the artist and producer achieve what they intend from a session, it is important to determine how much they are open to suggestions. Don’t just start playing anything that comes to mind. True, a good producer will likely inform players of the track’s vibe and creative goals, but if not, it’s always good to ask if there’s a certain style, sound, or approach they are looking for. This is very easy to do, and it shows a lot of respect and communication skills. In the event they want you because your personality is what’s needed, don’t hold back. Suggest hooks in the bass line, and any other helpful information that can be used to support a great track. Look at this as an opportunity to show your gifts. Don’t worry that you may be more productive to the session than the actual producer. These things happen, and I can tell you first hand, that this is how many a great career begins. Good, ambitious players should always be open to using session work as a ladder to the producer chair for projects down the road.