Musical cross-training

taking a drum break

If there’s one title that should be on my gravestone, it’s ‘bassist’.  I know this, it’s the foundation of who I am.  But I’ve got to admit a dirty secret – being relegated to 4 (or more commonly, 5) strings isn’t enough to quell my need to learn.  Musical cross-training is my new jam.  And I’m not sure I can stop.

Originally the goal was to write music. I felt limited as a bassist who heard music in other voices, but didn’t have the skills to express them alone.  I usually felt like a pretender on other instruments, even when I had a little skill under my fingertips.  It wasn’t until I actually played my first gig as a not-bassist that things started to shift around for me.

My first real live gig as a guitarist – my first big stage, big crowd, need-ear-plugs kind of gig not on a bass – was just 5 years ago.  Before that I’d played cello a few times on stage (which is a rather odd experience) but in a minor role. This was entirely different. I immediately noticed that I was listening more to myself than anything else, likely just a bit of self-consciousness.  And as the first few songs of the first gig progressed, I noticed little nuances of sense that I hadn’t really been exposed to on bass.  Any disparity in volume between my amp’s channels (ouch).  Barely-conscious shifts of hand position to mute open strings from ringing.  How a guitar at super loud volumes reacted tonally and in terms of managing feedback.  Lots of little things.

But the big things took a bit longer to sink in.  The fact that I really only had a few good chord patterns for each major ‘family’ of chord, and tended to reuse ideas a bit much. I was trying to fill space a bit much, and not giving breathing room to my lines (probably also self-consciousness). And I was thinking about guitar parts, not songs.  Focusing way too much on the instrument.

And then things got fun. I ended up taking a few online guitar courses and shedding through a few good jazz technique and chord theory books, and then rearranged my parts in the original songs I’d been playing.  Not really chanting them up, just refining and simplifying them.  Pulling out ghost notes, monster chords, and rhythmic palm mutes that sound just fine when you’re playing a guitar alone, but clutter up a mix when you’re in a band.  Everyone immediately started noting how much better my guitar sounded, but I really didn’t change tone or EQ much- just gave more space and refined my phrasing, dynamics and feel.

As soon as I switched back to bass for a few gigs after that 4-5 month stint on guitar, I then started noticing things about my bass playing that annoyed me.  Things I hadn’t noticed when I was playing bass, but stuck out like a sore thumb when playing with other bassists. Again these were issues mostly related to note choices, articulation, and dynamics… not so much tone and effects.  I tended to overthink the kick drum/bass relationship at times, and not let it naturally ebb and flow.  How I’d tend to have a super boomy tone that added a shit-ton of low end, but didn’t necessarily mix with guitars as well as it could.  Or give some space for a kick drum to properly cut through.

And as before, I got some comments almost immediately from friends and colleagues that things ‘just got even tighter’.  Sweet.

I recently did a small stint of studio gigs on drums.  Although it wasn’t live, it was under the harsh lens of the studio, which gave me an even finer perspective to add.  Although I’d played drums many times in pick-up, low-pressure situations – I’d never done it under the clinical environment of the studio.  Every slightly-off hit was like fingernails on a chalkboard during playback.  My relative lack of dynamics jumped out at me like a jack-in-the-box.  It was probably the most humbling experience I’ve had musically.

But again, I adjusted.  I got to experience my issues with bass guitar/kick drum from the other side of the rhythm section fence.  As with ghost notes and palm mutes on bass and guitar, my need to over-ghost notes on the drums (usually because I was most comfortable playing solo) was a common thread I started to refine first.  Dynamics came second – the fact that I could now perfectly hear every drum allowed me to loosen up my wrists and play lighter overall, with the benefit of much better tone.  And fills that sounded great in my head started to evolve quickly into ones that actually served a song and didn’t feel like a scream for attention in their cleverness.

The net result of this is that I honestly don’t think I’d be the bass player I am today if it wasn’t for my time spent on other instruments.  It’s led to far more restraint and better note choices in ways I wouldn’t have considered were I not able to literally put me in the shoes of other instrumentalists.

Today I generally do all the drums on my demos to keep things simple, as they help me really lay out what I feel as a songwriter and set the right interaction with the higher-order instruments.

Guitar is a most-of-the-time thing for me.  I keep current so I have at least one good chordal instrument I can write with (I’m less versed on keys at this point), and fill in for people in case of emergency.  It’s teaching me restraint and simplicity, despite being a more complicated instrument.

And when I’m back on bass, I now know how to lay back and really let the other instruments shine, giving percussion room to evolve and pitched instruments room to have space and texture.  It really feels like even though I spend a lot of time ‘stepping out’ on my main instrument, what I bring back to it is far more than the sum of it’s parts.

Win, win.