The 6 Most Important Qualities to Look for in a Bassist

Posted by Max Monahan on Mar 1, 2016 09:00 AM

Bart-de-ruiter-1315143874Image by Bart de Ruiter via Wikimedia Commons; used under Creative Commons

Good bassists aren't exactly a dime a dozen, and they can make a huge difference in your band. If you bass player's got a bad attitude  or worse, can't keep a steady tempo – it's gonna be a headache for everybody. If you want your band to groove, make sure your bass player matches has all of these six essential qualities.

1. Consistency

Any successful entity is built on consistency – the ability to get the job done rain or shine. Consistency is the foundation of every other skill. All the great musicianship in the world isn't going to cut it if it only happens sporadically. It can be a rough fact to grapple with, but you can't afford to blow it in the music world, and you certainly can't afford to hire someone who's going to blow it when people are trying to dance.

Of anyone in your band, consistency is should be ingrained into your bass player (and your drummer) on a deep, deep level. For your songs to sound good, your bass player needs to be a rock-solid groove machine. And do it well, then do it over and over again, perfectly, for about a half hour. That's the job. You just can't have the beat waver when your people are trying to get down, so consistency is the number-one requirement in a bass player.

2. Time

Ah, time. Some people have it, and some people don't. Make sure your bassist is someone who does. Just as with consistency, any song that exhibits tempo issues is going to lead to an empty room. Obviously nobody is perfect – we can't all be James Jamerson – but keep in mind that whatever slack is created from your bass player is going to be picked up by your drummer, so plan accordingly.

When done right, the bassist should really be driving the band, right there with the drummer in perfect unison. Try not to have one over the other too much, which can sound awkward. If your bass player tends to sound like he or she has had a long day halfway through a song, either get somebody new or have him or her sit down with a metronome and groove every day for about an hour, and he or she will figure out the hard way what it means to be a good bassist.

3. The right attitude

Much like creativity, this attribute in any good bass player is a trait that reaches into many different practical applications. First off, your bassist has to have the right attitude as a person, show up on time, know the songs, and be careful not to step on people's toes, whether sonic or otherwise. This all interlocks with the bassist's musical choices: sitting well in the mix, tasteful note choice, everything!

Baseball legend Wade Boggs once eloquently put it: "A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events, and outcomes. It is a catalyst and it sparks extraordinary results."

4. Creativity

This may not be the first step on this list, but it's a great one. Even just a bit of creativity from a bass player who already has good time and consistency can take the whole band's sound from good to great. Just like any other job, the first priority is to cover your necessities, but a bass player who's an artist is a true gem. For references to creative bassists, look to Paul McCartney, Thundercat, Paul Bender of Hiatus Kaiyote, or Pino Paladino.

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5. Tone

The tone. This is where we separate the boys from the men, or, more accurately, the snobs from the noobs. One of the coolest things about working with your tone is that there's no one right answer. Every amp and instrument combination will produce a different tone. Start mixing pedals in there and you've got endless possibilities. However, this issue really isn't as mysterious as it first appears. In fact, it couldn't be simpler: You want the instrument to sound good, and to serve the song. That's it! A good bass player should take a decent amount of pride in his or her tone, so take a listen to how the bass sounds next time you see a band, and you might just be surprised.

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6. Space

The final frontier. Space can be an amazing tool, and it's all too often grossly underutilized. The presence of space in music, and especially in a bassline, creates a great sense of impact for the figures being played. It's also a great way to create tension. The use of space will likely go along with a bass player with the right attitude. A good bassist will know how to let the songs breathe and when to lay out instead of cramming as many notes as possible into a song. Space isn't just for one genre either; any genre can benefit from a nice, tight, spacious bassline.


Max Monahan is a bassist and a writer living in Los Angeles. He spends his time working for an audio licensing website and shredding sweet bass riffs.

Topics: Performing, Honing Your Craft, bass


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