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Working Bassist: No Virtuosity Required, Part 1 – Profound Love of Music, Solid Time, Distinctive Tone

Welcome to the first part of a series on what tools you’re probably going to need to land a gig that will keep the bills paid and food in your mouth. These tips come courtesy of bassist Larry Crew, who has had a serious 30+ year career in the Nashville music industry. Read these things. Repeatedly. Read them until we release the next part of the series. Read that repeatedly, too. Then read this. Repeatedly. See a pattern? Without further adieu….

by Larry Crew
Bass Frontiers Contributor

After thirty plus years in the trenches, playing bass in every conceivable musical situation, I felt compelled to retrospectively share with my comrades what I deem to be the most important ingredients to guarantee a successful career as a working bassist. The good news is that you can achieve this without being an alumnus of the One O’clock Band, a jet speed slap/tap player, or sounding like the next Jaco Pastorius. These players are nothing less than amazing, and I have the utmost respect for their talent, but there are other ways to make a living in music without being a high profile virtuoso. Let’s face it, there will always be someone more or less skilled than you, no matter where you are on the “ability” ladder. I’m not a glorified chops player, nor do I aspire to be one. But I am living proof that you can have a very fulfilling career if the right approach is taken, and there is a clear understanding of the rules of the road from the get-go. I’d like to share some fundamental insights into important things that I’ve observed throughout my career that many of the great working bassists have in common, regardless of popularity, or what their niche is (was).

Profound Love of Music

First off, you must really LOVE what you do. If not, be honest with yourself and try to find a career or instrument that is better suited to your skills. Nobody wants to share the stage with a sad sack that carries a dark cloud with him everywhere. There are many challenges to be prepared for including serious wood shedding, cash flow fluctuations that would graph like a see saw, juggling your personal life with the working/traveling aspect, the highest emotional highs, and the lowest lows. Without a natural instinct to stay the course through thick and thin, you will likely be disappointed. This is for real, you better believe it! Anyone who has done this for a long time will tell you the same thing. Have a clear understanding of the realities of the music business, and learn to expect the unexpected.

Solid Time

Time is of the essence. Highly sought bassists have excellent time and are always aware of its importance while interacting with other players. A bass player with lousy time makes everyone else miserable. The music will never soar if the pocket is not there. When the drummer and bassist lock together, the music simply plays itself in an effortless way. NEVER practice without a metronome or some type of metronomic device. Years ago, I had a student that stepped into my studio for a lesson, wanting to learn more about technique that recording session players use. When I asked him to play something for me so I could assess his current skills, he immediately dove into a blistering Jaco riff that blew circles around me. I paused for a moment, turned on the metronome to match his tempo and politely asked him to play it again. Sadly, it was disastrous. It wasn’t even close. He became flustered and I never heard from him thereafter. I’ve heard many players over the years play like this, and they are seemingly unaware of their shortcomings until addressed by someone with an objective ear. All the chops in the world are totally meaningless if the time is missing, and you can’t play well executed, even, subdivisions in your moving lines. Be aware and don’t let your own ego blind you to this pitfall. You can only begin making real music when time becomes second nature and you become free to create interesting phrasing using all the other tricks of the trade, combined with a steady pulse.

A Distinctive Sound/Pleasing Tone

There is no limit today to the number of choices we have for developing and shaping our sound. We have the major instrument makers and custom builders, all of whom use a wide selection of wood, electronics, and hardware, and miscellaneous materials to create instruments. Listening to different players will reveal vastly different tones as well. A lot of this is in the fingers, but there is no substitute for a finely crafted instrument that will let you speak through it with your own individuality. When developing your sound and style, listen to others but don’t be a copy cat. Listen to them, learn why their sound/method works, store this info in your memory bank, build on these learned fundamentals, and then create something that listeners will identify with you as unique. Players get way too caught up on how so and so used this electronic device and this particular bass, and this or that pickup to get that sound. If you are not careful, you will only chase your tail into infinity. You will also be inadvertently promoting the career of your idol, instead of your own. In my opinion, you still can’t beat a good old fashioned Fender electric bass. They sound great on a wide variety of styles, and most of the newer custom basses are not much more than a facsimile of the original design that Leo Fender created back in the 1950’s, with additional bells and whistles (they also come with higher price tags in many instances). I’m not knocking custom instruments. I’ve played some fabulous ones, and there are many I’d love to own. I’m simply implying that you can make great music just as well with the tried and true.

Larry Crew was born in Richmond, VA where he grew up playing in high school band and a variety of local groups. He was influenced by many different types of music prevalent in the area, including classical, jazz, r & b, beach, funk, country, and rock. Later, he earned a Bachelor of Music degree from James Madison University in the Shenandoah Valley, before eventually settling in Nashville, TN. Here, he began a vibrant career as a free lance musician playing bass on numerous recordings and shows with a wide variety of hit songwriters, artists, and producers, including Greg Guidry, BJ Thomas, Deborah Gibson, Dennis Locorriere, Bobby Vinton, Randy VanWarmer, Jim Weatherly, Billy Walker, Skeeter Davis, Boots Randolph, Mickey Gilley, Aaron Tippin, Bobby Jones, The Mills Brothers, Lucy Arnaz, Larry Braggs (Tower of Power), Sarah Darling, Dan Huff, Jim Ed Norman, Tim Dubois, and Harold Bradley. He continues to perform and record, and has recently released two self produced musical collections recorded by his personal ensemble, Crewation, entitled Heads And Hearts, and A Crewation Christmas, currently available as digital downloads from CD Baby.

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