The video above shows what can happen when a bass player is unclear on their role. In the beginning of his song Mojo Hand, blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins begins on the I chord, then switches to the IV and then back to the I again, with the bassist pedaling on the root notes. The bassist then signals the V chord with a rising chromatic approach. Lightnin' looks back then shakes his head - he wasn't finished with the I chord yet!
Unlike most other musical skills, knowing your role is something you can't practice in the woodshed. After all, most people would probably agree with the bassist about where the chords should change. However, in this situation, the bassist used a musical cue that told the band–and the audience–that the V chord was happening before Lightnin' was ready. Big mistake! If you're familiar with Lightnin' Hopkins, you know that his unusual phrasing is part of his signature sound. When you're playing with him, you have to follow his lead!
This kind of knowledge along with some intuition and common sense is the key to finding your role in the band and avoiding nasty looks, or worse. To develop it, you have to listen carefully and watch the rest of the band like a hawk. (It also helps to keep in mind who hired you for the gig! You may want to watch and listen to them extra closely.)
Developing your musical intuition starts at home, listening to recordings and watching live music in a wide variety of genres and traditions will familiarize you with musical conventions and cues. Licks, phrasing, approach notes, and standard song endings are just some of the methods that musicians use to communicate with each other (and the audience). On stage, listen and watch carefully for cues and musical communication from other musicians. Visual cues are just as important as musical ones. Notice how Lightnin' Hopkins uses his guitar neck and then his raised hand to cue the band.
Even when your bandmates aren't trying to communicate with you, you can often predict what they're going to next by watching their hand on the fretboard when they are changing chords, or if they step up to the mic to sing a verse. If you're staring at your bass neck, you'll miss these important cues.
Giving good cues is as important as taking them! Pick the most effective musical cues you've seen used and make them your own. For bass players, chromatic approach notes (like the ones that were misused by the bassist in the video) are great ways to tell the rest of the band and the audience where to go. Visual cues tend to be the most effective, and also make for an exciting performance. Your bass neck makes a great conductor's baton (ok, technically it would be performing the role of the conductors left hand). Lift your headstock up to warn of an ending or hit and bring it down on the mark. Jumping around and making eye contact with your bandmates is also effective and entertaining.
When you start to become aware of band communication and how to communicate back, your role in the band will become more clear. You'll also notice that your role in the band will often shift constantly from song to song, and even during a song. For example, you may be expected to take the lead on one song and then step back during a solo. Don't hog the spotlight, but whatever you do, act confidently and decisively.
When you know your role in the band, everyone has more fun. Keep your ears open, keep your head on a swivel, and you'll make your bandmates and the audience happy.
Some additional context to the video above:
Through conversations with a lot of musicians, I have come to understand that many blues musicians have been known to tour alone and hire pick-up bands in each stop on their tour. In this case, the bands would perform with minimal rehearsal, a practice made fesible by the well-developed conventions and standards of the blues form, as well as the talent of the headliner and the backing musicians. It seems likely that the bassist in the video above was new to playing with Lightnin' Hopkins which is why he didn't follow him so well on this song. It also seems likely that they didn't play together much after this.
One bassist who did play regularly with Lightnin' Hopkins is Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. I had the benefit of sitting in on an interview with him during which he recalled some lessons he learned from playing with the blues master, including, "Change [chords] when Lightnin' wants you to change," suggesting that the exact duration of chords in Lighnin' Hopkins' songs was far from consistent night to night. Following a bandleader in this way requires a high level of musicianship, vigilance, as well as a shared musical intuition between the leader and the band members - explicit cues cannot always be given in these situations and so a certain amount of mind reading is required. According to Jack the experience was extremely important to his development as a player.
Eric is a musician, audio engineer, educator, and radio nerd based in Seattle, WA.