Here's what it sounds like when you use a bass as a rhythm guitar, lead guitar, & bass together

I’ve played bass for all but the first 12 years of my 32 in this world. In that time, I’ve also played guitar, but as the bass is my primary instrument, my preference is to try to maximize the ability of what I can do with the bass, before bringing the guitar into things.

While I do use guitar on the majority of tracks I’ve recorded, I decided to do one with no guitar at all, using the bass (the same one, in this case - a Fender Precision) to strum chords for the rhythm guitar part, to play the lead part and solo (with some distortion), and of course to play a conventional bass part as well. Here is the result. Yeah, I’m shamelessly using this board to plug my music…

…keen listeners might be able to discern that the main melody of Hunting & Fishing is based almost entirely on an existing melody. Can anyone identify it?

Me and my Arrow, from The Point. I think.


Hopefully Harry’s estate won’t sue me.

How do you play rhythm guitar on a bass?

The same way as on a guitar: you play chords.

My Precision is set up for low action to make chords easier. My Jazz has very high action, with the A and D strings slightly higher up than the E and G, just like an upright bass. My Bruce Thomas Profile Bass (a modified version of a Precision) is medium action.

Do you strum, or sort of finger pick?

Strum with the nails of my first 3 fingers, while resting my thumb on the E string as I typically do while playing in any style.

Here is a brief clip of strumming chords on the Precision and then on the Jazz, for the purposes of demonstrating the subtle difference in sound, a while ago.

Thanks for the info. Just starting out on bass, so I could use any intel I can get.

And a great flick it was!

Well, I can help you with virtually anything conceivable regarding the bass, except for two things which I have never done: 1. slapping, 2. playing with a pick. EVERYTHING else within the world of basses, I can help you with, electric or upright (though my ability at the former is more substantial than the latter.) There’s no one way to play the bass, but I always play with my thumb resting on the E string. I never consciously did this but it became second nature over time and whenever I play anything on the E string my thumb temporarily lifts off of it, like a physical reflex. I have never played a bass with more than 4 strings (I mean, I’ve PLAYED them, but never owned one and never will, I really prefer 4 strings and see no reason to have more.)

The best advice I could give to anyone starting out on the bass is to PLAY ALONG with whatever music you like, as often as you can (if you want to get good.) DO NOT USE TABS, they are a waste of time and they encourage you to think in completely the wrong way about musicianship, tabs are useless, do NOT ever use them. Learn by ear. You need to develop the ear. You need to be able to follow along with chord changes and you’ll eventually learn intuitively that most pop and rock songs use fourths a lot, and other things about intervals, it’s all very confusing for someone starting out, DON’T try to absorb everything at once, it’s impossible. The ear is more important than knowledge of theory. Play along with a lot of Paul McCartney, Bruce Thomas (from The Attractions, Elvis Costello’s band), Leland Sklar, Phil Lesh, Carol Kaye, James Jamerson, Wilton Felder (Jackson 5 and Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark), etc, I could go on and on and on, just play along and try to duplicate exactly what they are playing. Be patient. It will happen eventually, you just need to keep at it. Eventually you WILL get it. Also, something to keep in mind: if you continuously play along with recordings and directly copy other bassists’ styles, eventually YOU WILL develop your own stylistic touches intuitively and your own style will emerge. But you need the copying to form the basis of it.

If you have musician friends, jam regularly. Try to experiment with stuff, don’t just play simple repetitive songs, definitely improvise a lot. Don’t just play along with the chords when you jam - as the bassist, YOU control the chords as much as any other instrument. Outline chord arpeggios on the bass and YOU can be the chord changes.

Read the biography of Jaco Pastorius by Bill Milkowski and study his career closely, listening intently to all his playing, especially on the Joni Mitchell albums and the Shadows and Light live recording…listen very carefully to how he always ‘sings along’ on the bass with whatever else is going on, he plays so creatively and melodically but never drops the beat. That’s the goal you want to reach for. Jaco himself freely admitted that he developed his style through sheer chops-building and hard work playing along with recordings for years, not through some kind of innate God-given gift. He just played his bass all the time. He played along with whatever was playing on the radio in his room. He played along with the score to TV shows and the music on animated cartoons; he’d play along with advertising jingles; he just played along with everything. That’s all you gotta do.

Thanks for all the info, much appreciated. I should mention I already play guitar, mandolin, lap steel and harmonica. Picked up a buddy’s bass at a jam last night and kind of got hooked. So, I went out and bought one today!

FWIW, two of my favorite basslines are the ones on Dylan’s As I Went Out One Morning, and the Beatles’ Dear Prudence.

Thanks again!

Ever heard of Lightning Bolt? I’ve written about them before; they’re a duo, just drums and bass (and vocals, natch). The bass player, Brian Gibson plays bass, rhythm guitar and some faux-lead work all at the same time. Their music is very aggressive; here’s The Metal East.

And the great thing is that the drummer, who also records solo under the name Black Pus, doesn’t even really need the bass player. Check him out goofing around in his attic, eh.

Anyway I love them because they’re both punk as fuck and I thought you might be interested to know about them.

It’s not my style of music (although I love the video) but it’s indeed a great example of how the bass can be used as a lead instrument. The high register of the bass isn’t any less capable than a guitar of playing melodic hooks.

The drummer has crazy chops and his playing is awesome to behold.

Royal Blood is another good bass/drums power-duo.

There’s the Fender Bass VI.

Yep the Bass VI, the bane of every guitar player who is a Cure fan. (or cream or the church)

Fender just released (in the past decade) a pawnshop version (that I own) and a squire version that are fun to play with and affordable.

For a bit of craziness, Darin Schaffer plays a piccolo strung acoustic bass (ovation tuned to guitar) using slap and a bow from time to time too. A bit more ambient but good to listen to consider what is possible.

Never been able to play one of those six-string “basses” - 19 years of muscle memory from the string spacing of a standard Fender bass makes it impossible for me to adjust.

This brief instrumental arrangement, Sardinian, also has a bass solo (and harpsichord, bass clarinet and a number of other interesting touches.)

And this unfinished track from my upcoming album Geographic is basically just a symphony of basses, with four or five overdubbed bass tracks in various registers making up the chord voicings.

I love it.

Thanks man. Follow me on Soundcloud if you use it.

Morphine was another band that used the bass in an unconventional way - Mark Sandman, the lead singer, played a two-stringed bass and often played fifths as power chords to back his vocals. The only other members of the band were a drummer and sax player.

The pioneer of this concept was the immortal Chris Squire, whose 1972 piece “The Fish (Schindleria praematurus)” was composed entirely of the bass, including rhythm chords, lead melody, and even percussion.

Chris Squire was, quite simply, the man, so, basically, yeah.