How To Play Bass-Guitar And Sing Lead Vocals

How To Go From Guitar-Strumming Novice To Band-Leading Singing-Bassist

The fact that you’ve arrived here means that you have likely watched musicians like Sting, Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee, or others, and asked yourself, “How did they get to the point they are today, shredding on the bass while singing their songs brilliantly?”.

Geddy Leecredit: A Hermida licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Get Backcredit: Rich007 licensed under CC by 2.0  
The POLICE Live @Le Vélodrome 03/06/2008credit: Elvire.R. licensed under CC BY 2.0
Geddy Lee unfurls his bass-pyrotechnics underneath a molasses blanket of science-fiction vocals written by their drummer Neil Peart. Paul McCartney shows us the way to write a pop-song, lead a band, and play the bass with the ease of an afterthought. Prefers playing bass, 40 years after making it big. Sting, the consummate guitarist turned band-leading singing-bassist. No longer needs to play the bass in concert, but chooses to nonetheless.

To spectators who are even mildly familiar with user-unfriendliness of the bass-guitar, the bravado and effortlessness of the singing and playing of these musicians is a magnetic aspect of their show. Singing and playing bass is anything but intuitive, and therefore the singing-bassist’s personal ability must be higher than that which is required for either singing, for playing bass, or for other parallel roles for that matter. It is clear that these world-class singing bassists are fine examples of indomitable human-nature: their sheer career-longevity indicates that mankind simply does not give up. It is no accident that Singing-Bassists often go on to achieve superlative feats as performers and as songwriters.

In the upper echelon’s of guitar-based rock, it is not so rare at all to find singing-bassists leading the bands. If we were to distill the correct decisions that these Singing-Bassists have made in learning how to play and sing, such that newcomers needn’t spend more than twenty years working like oxen in order to play and sing, what would that list of tips and tricks look like?

The methods and tips presented here are put together from our own experiences and experiments as well as interviewee’s information. It is important to understand the information on equipment and experience, as well as to know what is not covered here.

The Road From the Bedroom to the Stage

The road from guitar-strumming singer-songwriter, or primordial bass-player (in either case performing at home) to band-leading performer is fraught with twists, turns and pitfalls, yet I claim that there exist three phases to this transition.

The Three Phases of the Transition

Note that each subsequent phase requires more ability than the prior phase:

  1. Woodshedding is the phase in which the musician has no other audience than perhaps a house-pet.

    credit: esivesind licensed under CC by 2.0

    Woodshedding is called such, because it invokes the image of the musician practicing alone in his woodshed where nobody can hear him. The boundary between woodshedding and songwriting is always murky. Geddy Lee mentioned once:

    Invariably, it leads me to just start writing something. It’s hard for me to just practice without writing something.

    The majority of our content deals with the woodshedding phase, as this is the phase in which you alone can dictate everything.

  2. The Group phase is when the musician jams and (later) rehearses with a group. This is already a form of Performance, in that it often requires an Audition of some form to commence. For the singing-bassist, this phase represents the essential musical conversation with a drummer. The drummer is the bassist’s policeman, but the drummer also opens the door for new musical horizons of the bassist. You can find out more about the challenges, tricks, and benefits of playing in the group phase in excercise number 4 of Dennis Alstrand’s article, Exercises For Playing Bass and Singing:

    If you can get a drummer to spend time helping you out, play (while singing) with that drummer for hours on end. Have the drummer listen carefully to your rhythm and if you fall off his/her beat in any way, have them do something to let you know. Back in the day I did this with my drummer brother for hours. It was effective because out of some sort of pride I would not want the guy to let me know I was falling off the beat. That caused me to stay on the beat out of anguish.

  3. The Performance phase encompasses that in which the musician performs in front of music-consumers, or is the phase in which the musician records songs for public release. Performance represents the shot of adrenaline which transforms a bass-plucker into a musician. As Jack Bruce stated, “You can practise and practise and practise, and it’s good to do that, but you don’t really start playing until you play live.“.

From Practicing to Playing: The upcoming Gig

The performing musician must convey a sense of ease in his/her playing, and therefore it is essential that the musician’s practiced ability greatly exceeds that which is required for the stage.

  • For example, performing a song-length bass-riff of downstrokes at 160 bpm should be practiced up to 120% of the performance bpm, i.e. 192bpm, rendering the concert-performance no-sweat.

The lion’s share of the singing-bassist’s preparation occurs in the woodshedding phase. Why? Because entering into a band requires an audition which itself is a form of public performance. Rehearsal is in many ways more demanding than Concert Performances, because in a Rehearsal, the Audience consists of other musicians, who are more critical than paying concert attendees.

Woodshedding Exposed : Self-Study

Self-study is thus paramount for the singing-bassist. Our content focuses on automating the fine-motor skills to a level to play a song on the bass and to sing. In other words, transferring the bass-playing knowledge of the song from the thinking brain to the moving fingers is a vital aspect of playing bass and singing. A singing-bassist’s bass-playing must be almost completely automated, in order to free up concentration for expressive singing performances.

Playing Blind

Another important aspect of playing bass and singing is the requirement to play blindly. The singing-bassist should not stare at his fretboard for the duration of the concert. The singing-bassist’s role as Singer dictates that he looks at his audience (for the vast majority of time onstage). Another aspect which precludes fretboard-gazing is that proper singing posture obliges the singing bassist to abandon hunched-over fretboard-gazing postures.

More research is being conducted into texturing systems for fretboard position by touch.

A very useful exercise for practicing singing and playing blindly has been provided by Dennis Alstrand, again from his article Exercises for Playing Bass and Singing:

pick a note, any note and then find that note on the neck in four places. Go through every note by fifths (i.e. start with E, B, F#, C#, Ab, Eb, Bb, F, C, G, D, A). Find four notes quickly for each note. If you can’t find one, stop and locate them then start the exercise from that note. Do this without looking at the neck.

Navigating the Landmarks

Key to undertaking the role of singing-bassist is the ability to deconstruct and dissect a song, isolating the “collisions of” or “connections betweens” the bass-lines and the vocal-lines. Chris Ballew of The Presidents of the USA coined the term “Landmarks”, which is an apt metaphor.

  1. How to find the landmarks in a recording? Play and sing along with a recording. Landmarks are the locations where it is impossible to play and sing at first pass.
  2. Locate the landmarks in your own songs by making multi-track recordings of the bass- and vocal-lines separately, and bouncing them down to stereo or mono for playback. For cover songs, examine existing recordings for the landmarks.
  3. Slow down the recordings around these landmarks to ascertain where exactly the bass-notes and for instance the words of the song intersect

Up to the 1970s, slowing the playback of a recording was possible using half-speed tape-players and by using a finger on a record. James Hetfield (Metallica) has mentioned learning guitar-solos by slowing down records (source needed).

With digital recordings it is possible to use software such as Audacity to slow down recordings of intricate instrumentation, which is useful for the singing bassist to establish a mental lattice of bass-notes and vocals. Digitally slowing down a recording has the advantage of retaining the pitch while slowing down the playback (impossible with a phonograph). Slow down the recording to a speed at which you can already play and sing.

Using the “Change Tempo” feature of Audacity to work out problem areas of a recording..

Then use a metronome to gradually accelerate accurate playing of these problem areas, up to a tempo which is faster than (120% of) performance speed.

I would not burden the band with the woodshedding-struggle.
– Chris Ballew, Singing-Bassitarist of The Presidents of the United States of America.

I break it all down into bars and beats, and where the voice and the bass connect with each other. Once I have that map figured out, and then coordinate with the drums, then I’m pretty good to go. It becomes instinctive. I don’t need to think about it any longer.
– Royston Langdon, Singing-Bassist of Spacehog

Connecting the Dots and Hitting the Stage

The greatest bassist-vocalists emit multiple intricate melodies from their fingers and from their vocal-chords simultaneously. In order to become a singing-bassist yourself, it is essential to (a) demystify their performance – watch the videos in our subscribers’ section, and (b) to deconstruct these activities into small manageable portions, and (c) to master your bass-guitar to the point of unsupervised automation.

To get started along the path towards leading a band with your voice and your bass-guitar, take the lessons from the self-study section of this article seriously. Achieve a certain level of visual independence while playing the bass. Locate and work through the landmarks of the songs using Audacity and a metronome. Once you do that, you won’t appear a fool when singing and playing bass with a drummer, who will help you further attain an automated sense of rhythm. Then you will be able to simultaneously occupy two posts within the band and navigate the landmarks of whichever songs come your way.

These methods are best conveyed in a few examples. Sign up below to receive these, including videos.