Singing while playing bass is a challenge, albeit a worthwhile one. There is a tendency for those who are new to this art to speed up their bass line when they start singing. The reason for this is that your brain is excited about trying this new venture out and it seems to take a while for the correct neurons to connect properly. Having played been a singing bass player (and closely watched many others, including Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, Chris Squire and Greg Lake), Iâ€™m excited about being asked to write this article. It covers my thoughts on the subject in as succinct a way as I can put it.
If youâ€™re starting out as a bass player, or if youâ€™re switching from another instrument and you want to sing, you have a choice to make. You can either have fun working at becoming good at singing/playing or you can look amateurish standing on stage. If youâ€™re reading this website (and this article) it sounds like youâ€™ve made the right choice.
For you, there has to be some guiding standard; an inner spark and desire to be good at combining the two and â€“ equally importantly – staying on the beat. The desire might well come from the drummer youâ€™re playing with who should expect you to stay on the beat and be able to play and sing as well. The desire might come from a drive for excellence on your behalf. It might come from the knowledge that if you fall off the beat, if you speed up while singing, you’re going to suck right in front of your audience. How many times have I seen a bass player do that? Well, not real often, but when I do, I think to myself,
“Here’s a bass player who has decided not to work to become professional”.
Hopefully you don’t want people saying this about you.
Two vital things about playing bass and singing are, 1) Getting to know every note on the neck of your bass without looking and 2) Learning how to play in rhythm along with a drummer while singing. Following are some exercises you might want to try.
- Find a song that has a driving bass line and a vocal that you want to sing. One of the first songs I learned to play and sing was the Beatlesâ€™ Hey Bulldog. Later, in the eighties, Addicted To Love was that song for me. Itâ€™s a good one to practice to. If you can master playing and singing that along with a drummer (or the CD), youâ€™ll be able to sing a lot of other songs. Green Day has a lot of songs that are a challenge to play and sing. Find ones that you like, songs that challenge you, and learn how to do them.
- Practice singing 12-bar blues with a walking bass line while singing. Play heavy and make the bass line walk all over the neck – up and down – not just follow established bass walking patterns. The important thing is not to get stuck only playing in E or A. What if you get in a horn band? Better practice Bb. And best to practice in all keys….every one of them.
- A great exercise to get to know the neck without looking is to 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.
- 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.
You may well come up with exercises that work better for you.
In the end, the idea is to get to where youâ€™re not thinking of the bass part so much, but of your vocal performance. What youâ€™re singing is what most people catch on to; what youâ€™re playing on bass should be coming naturally if youâ€™ve prepared.