How to Listen to the Band in Order to Unite the Rhythm and Melody
In a band context, every member of the band has a different role. It is the vocalist’s job to deliver the lyrics to the audience, it is the drummer who conveys the rhythm, and it is the lead guitarist who gets all the chicks. What does the bass player do?
What is the Bass Player’s Role?
The role of the bass player is determined based on the type of band that you are in. Depending on who else is playing, their skill level, and what type of music you are playing, the bass player’s role can change dramatically. Take, for example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their bass player, Flea, is a dominant part of the band. His line is often the most recognizable part of a song, and he drives the rhythm and melody. His role is to help lead the band. In contrast, look at the bass player for the backup band for Jessica Simpson, or Britney Spears. Who are they? Nobody knows, and that is the role of the bass player. You will very rarely hear them deviate from a backup role, something that is just there to provide some low end to the overall mix.
So what role do you play in a band? For most bass players, it is going to be a mix between leading and supporting. Most of the time, you are going to be playing a supporting role, as that is typically the stereotypical role of the bass player. It is your job to support the other members of the band so that they can sound even better. How do you do that? The bass player supports the band by not getting in the way of what others are playing, while emphasizing what they are. The best way to think of supporting the band is in terms of rhythm and melody.
With rhythm, most people normally think of the drums, and just the drums. Luckily for the bass player, you are instrumental in the rhythm of the band. It is your job to know what the drummer is playing, and support him without getting in his way. To do this, I highly suggest placing yourself in such a position where you can watch the drummer as you play together. As you play, take note of the foot pedal. Some bass teachers go so far as to highly recommend playing at the exact same time as the foot pedal, and nothing else. Therefore, when the drummer hits the bass drum, you are strumming, re-emphasizing the beat of the drum, the rhythm.
I would suggest also watching the snare drum, and perhaps playing an additional note (an 8th, a 5th) if the song deems it necessary. Don’t feel confined by the bass drum, but do take its advice.
At the same time, make sure you are not getting in the drummer’s way. In order to do this, make sure that your rhythms are in alignment with theirs. Even if you are not playing exactly along with him, you can still play in such a way that compliments him. Just be sure that you are not playing against the drummer. If you think you have a better rhythm for the song, suggest it to the drummer, but do not play against him. It is the drummer’s job to set the rhythm, but it is your job to support it and bring it to the rest of the band.
The beauty of the bass guitar is that it unites both rhythm and melody. So while you are paying attention to the rhythm of the drummer, you also have to be paying attention to the song’s melody. This can be either from the lead guitar, or piano, or vocalist. In any case, while you are laying the beat of the song alongside the drummer (probably with root notes), see if you can also work the transitions between notes to match the melody.
For example, if the singer is “walking up” the notes to the next line, try “walking up” from one bass note to the next. If the lead guitarist is riffing on octaves, consider doing something similar. The point here is to be rhythmic with the drummer while being aware of the melody, and bringing the two together. Be careful, however, because you should never be in the way of the melody. A lot of the time, you are going to find that the best thing to play is nothing at all. Sometimes trying to play a complex line alongside somebody else is just going to make a mess of things. Don’t feel bad about playing a simple line, as sometimes the simplest of lines are the most beautiful (see: U2).
In addition, learning when not to play is a difficult skill to learn as a bass player, but is one that shows maturity. Listen to the melody for inspiration, but do not get in its way.
Learn to Listen
The most important thing you can learn to do (besides learning when not to play) in a band is learning how to listen. By watching the drummer, and listening to the lead melody, you are learning how to listen to your band. This is the only way you are going to know how to support your band members. There is nothing worse than a lead guitarist starting a solo at the same time as the bassist is playing a completely opposite melody and rhythm. The bass is a powerful tool, one that can be used to unite rhythm and melody, or tear a band apart. Learn to listen, and your band mates will love you.