If there’s a bassist who you could ask for a great piece of advice, then Keith Jones would be one of them. Although you may not hear his name as often, Jones has a pretty prolific career, working with the likes of Bob Marley, Kenny Loggins, Wayne Shorter, and Santana, just to name a few. So there’s no surprise when he was asked to share some tips for beginner bass players during his chat with For Bass Players Only.
Although a seemingly simple instrument, usually coming with no more than four strings, the answer was not that straightforward.
“There’s another approach to bass playing”
“There are a couple of ways you can look at the instrument,” Jones offered. “You can look at the instrument as an instrument that accompanies other instruments, right?”
“That’s good enough,” Keith continued. “But then you always need to have somebody else there if you’re just playing roots and fifths. But without the guitar player, the drummer, and the keyboard player, it’s just roots and fifths. How exciting can that be?”
As he further added, bass has a more melodic aspect and it’s more than just an instrument that holds down on the root note and an occasional third and fifth when it fits the chord progression or the context.
“So there’s another approach to bass playing,” he pointed out. “Actually, a lot of the younger bass players take this approach where they look at the instrument as a melodic instrument. So consider playing, say — it might sound pretty complicated, but it’s not that hard — the Bach Cello Suites, where it still fits on the instrument, but now it becomes a melodic instrument and a harmonic instrument.”
Keith shared an example of a simple bass line and then an upgraded, more melodic alternative to it. The idea here is to be more open to experimentation and then just “expand it from there.” In other words, it’s all about having fun.
But in order to have fun, you should still know your material well. According to Jones, whatever you’re playing, try not to focus only on your simple bass lines. Instead, learn all the parts of the song. That’s the next important step if you want to improve your skills. He added:
“I would recommend — learn melodies! Just learn the melodies. If you’re learning a tune, actually pick out the melody on the bass instead of just playing the bass note.”
“Just learn that stuff. And it will open up a whole new experience — a whole new world — as a bassist who is just by themselves.”
Along with drums, bass guitar lays the foundation for whatever goes on top of the rhythm section. However, that doesn’t mean that your role and responsibility as a bass player should end there. Instead, learning everything that goes on in a piece of music will help you learn more. In combination with proper knowledge of music theory, you can only grow as a musician and an artist. Discussing this further, Jones added:
“When you’re studying the instrument, it really makes sense to learn all the melodic content and to learn the harmony, so you actually know what you’re playing against. And you’ll find — as you get more into learning the melodic part — that you can play more!”
“You can play more than just the root”
And, again — it goes way beyond just playing your root notes. There’s a lot more than you can do, all while still functionally being a part of the rhythm section. As he added:
“You can play more than just the root. You can pick some other notes, so the bass actually becomes another voice, not just a support instrument.”
“The way to get there is to learn melody. It makes a lot of sense. Then you find that when you do play with other people, you’ll make adjustments, depending on what the instrumentation is.”
“Obviously, if there’s a keyboard player, that space is being filled up, and you’re going to play less. But if it’s a trio gig, even if it’s a rock trio gig — Geddy Lee, hello,” Keith said with a laugh.
During his career, Jones also worked as a mixing engineer and a producer. That aspect of the music business earned him some Grammy Awards nominations. For the most part, he has worked as a session player and has even participated in the recording process for film soundtracks.