Tip Jar Jam: The Importance Of The Bass

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Bass players are the unsung heroes of jam sessions. (Couldn't find an gender-neutral word that worked there....) Tuesday night Kenney did an especially good job of "putting the bottom in the band," as we say. First of all, at his lesson right before the jam, he had played Amazing Grace and Farther Along almost flawlessly. Three-quarter (3/4) time--also called "waltz time" or "boom-chuck-chuck" time--can be tricky because it's so slow. On the bass the notes seem interminable, with large spaces in between. The count is "ONE, two, three; ONE, two, three..." and you play a note only on the "ONE" and there is silence on the "two, three." So, it's easy to lose track on the chord progression. But Kenney is a-gettin' 'er, as we say here.

But at the Tuesday night jam, for whatever reason, we didn't get to either of these songs. Still, Kenney outdid himself on the other songs, which is to say, he played so well we didn't even notice him--high praise for a bass player! (You can see why I was never satisfied being a bass player!) He didn't even bat an eye or make a peep when I chose to sing I Saw The Light in the key of A. (We normally do it in C or G.) When the song was over, I meant to compliment Kenney but I got distracted and forgot.

So it was only after the next song or two that I finally remembered to say something to Kenney:

"Hey, great job playing I Saw The Light in A, Kenney," I said.

Kenney's head popped up and he had the strangest look on his face--it was almost deer-in-the-headlights. And for a few seconds he said absolutely nothing. Which was weird.

In the silence I said, "No, really. I didn't even warn you, I just assumed you could play it in A and you did. I don't think you missed a note. Good job!"

Kenney looked absolutely relieved. "Whew! For a minute there I thought you meant I had played it in A while everyone else was playing it in G. I thought you were messing with me!"
And, truth to tell, we "mess" with each other so much (under Ben's influence) that I could totally see where he was coming from!

"No, Kenney," I said, "If you had been playing in the wrong key, I would have stopped you. I couldn't have stood it!"

Later on, when we were playing John Hardy, Doug was struggling a bit with that complicated D lick (which I teach on Beginning Banjo Vol. 1.) I call it the "in the mood" lick because it has that same syncopated timing as the Glenn Miller song "In The Mood." Usually if you can "hear" that rhythm, you can play the lick. Doug, however, must have missed out on the Big Band Era because although he was trying mightily to find the rhythm, he was pulling ahead of the beat and finally in spite of the best efforts of both Kenney and me, we train- wrecked. But, I told Kenney he did the right thing, trying to hold the rhythm.

I also took the opportunity to tell him that sometimes it's actually best to stay with the person who is pulling ahead of the beat, especially if everyone else in the jam is "following the leader," so to speak. I said, "If you don't, everyone else will be playing one rhythm and you, the bass player, will be playing another and even though you are technically "right," in this case you would be playing out of time, even though you would actually be the only one in time!"
To which Betty responded, "Huh?"

I said, "I'm just saying that sometimes even the bass player has to roll with the flow. You can't get on your high horse (one of my Mama's favorite expressions!) and hold to the 'correct' time while everyone else is playing faster. It would put the whole jam out of sync."

Professional bluegrass bands struggle with this issue of tempo all the time. What do you do on stage if someone kicks the song off way too slow? Do you stay with that rhythm or do you surreptitiously and slowly try to pick the tempo up? I'm a tempo-picker-upper myself, but others are just as adamant about keeping the song at the initial (uncomfortably) slow speed. On the other hand, if someone kicks it off too fast, I tend to just let 'er rip. Unless you are well-rehearsed at this tempo, the song will probably slow down of its own accord. This is why bands spend so much practice time on hitting the right tempo and staying there.

Ben on the bass

Ben on the Bass.

On the other hand, at the Tip Jar Jams, I insist that the song stay at one speed--the speed it's kicked off at, to use Bluegrass Grammar--so the students can experience how important it is to kick the song off at a "proper" speed. It's not fun to sing a song that's way too slow! If, however, they recognize that the song is too slow within the first few notes, of course they get a "do over." But once the kickoff is finished, the deed is done and you are committed to that tempo!

Last night, at the Wednesday jam, we had some of these same bass issues come up when we were playing "that other John song," John Henry. Bob A, on guitar, who was singing it, and Kasey, on banjo, both had pre-constructed breaks, but Dan was improvising on the banjo. Dan has made humongous strides in his improv but John Henry is a hard song to improvise to since it has so much uninterrupted G. I took a "Roly Poly" improv break right before he played to give him some ideas. However........during these improv breaks, Ben, on bass, was having trouble keeping the song in his head and he was coming up short in the last half of the song. He ended before I got done with my break! Not good! On the other hand, I totally understood because when there is no obvious melody it's hard to keep the tune in your head. Especially with all that G! But Ben's not holding the beat on the bass made it hard for ME to hear where I was in the song since I was not playing the melody! And I thought maybe I was wrong! (But that was so hard to believe.....!) And I'm sure it confused Dan also. Dan did much better when I got out the guitar and sang the words to keep him on track. But again, this points out how important the bass is in the jam!

So to all our unsung heroes and heroines on bass: A great big thank you--especially to Kenney, Ben, and Bobby--for unobtrusively trying to keep us on track during the jam. We may not say much but we really appreciate hearing that solid I, IV, V!

NO JAMS NEXT WEEK!!! (June 17 and June 18)

I will be teaching at Kaufman Kamp. I'm taking my laptop and thinking about blogging.....but that may be the extent of it! We will see.

Next Tip Jar Jams: Tuesday June 24 and Wednesday June 25. See ya!

3 thoughts on “Tip Jar Jam: The Importance Of The Bass

  1. Betty Fisher

    Yay for blogging about the base players! I remember at the very first jam and thinking how “cool” the base made everything sound. It just seemed to pull it together. I also got a kick out of Kenny’s response to your compliment! He did think you were teasing him about doing something wrong. Too funny! Great teaching jam as usual. And I forgive you for not having the jam next week, because the folks were not able to make the evening tour after all! LOL!

  2. Kenney Moore

    When I first started my lessons, I thought it was something fun to do, but just kind of helped fill in the holes, so to speak. I now play with a good feeling about the BASS being an intregal part of each musical experience. Not just for the BASS player, but the others playing also. I remember when Murphy told me to explore new ways to make playing my own. We (Murphy, Janet & I) were playing Ole Joe Clark and everything was fine until I ended up the verse and chorus with a short pause before playing the last 2 notes. On the verse, I got a nasty look and when we got to the end of the chorus, when I did it again, I got an index finger (wanted to be specific here) pointed my way and I was instructed not to do that again. Being a little devilish, I just had to see what would happen, soooooooo I was good on the verse, but on the chorus it happened again and this time Murphy and Janet stopped playing at the same and Murphy said “NOW LOOK!” We calmly discussed my adventure in learning what not to do and played on!!
    I have been having a ball playing BASS with the support of me Ladies of the Tuesday Jam, Janet, Murphy and Betty!!

  3. Betty Fisher

    Oh my gosh Kenney, you had me laughing out loud. Glad to hear about the “little devilish” part. Never stop. As I have said before you and Janet are always so encouraging and supportive of me. And, I do think the bass is what ties it all together. (Also I realize I was spelling BASS wrong) Damn. Murphy will never let me live that down!

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