Bass Guitar for Worship
I am an ‘80s baby but really a product of the ‘90s. Other than brass banding, my musical influence came from what my parents listened to at home which included everything from Mahler symphonies to Harry Connick Jr. to Queen! As a teenager, that ‘90s grunge music took hold of me, made especially easy by mail order subscription services like BMG and Columbia House. I had an electric guitar and tried to play along with some of the bands I listened to, but it never clicked for me.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when our very small volunteer drama club decided to put on the show Little Shop of Horrors. My friend Jesse, who also played bass guitar, asked if I was willing to play in the pit band for the show. He knew I was a musician that could read well and would just need to learn bass guitar technique. I gladly said yes, so I borrowed Jesse’s bass and got to work. I was immediately thrown into the deep end as far as technique goes. There was a lot of slap bass, sixteenth note funk rhythms, and a sound world that I was unaccustomed to, but I loved it!
I fell in love with bass guitar and immediately my musical palette switched from teenage grunge and alternative to smooth soul, jazz, and gospel music. For bass players, there was much more feeling and a lot of technique in this world, so I found myself immersed in stacks of “gospel greats” albums along with classic and modern soul. I never took lessons (more on this later) but I learned that playing bass is all about feel and groove. This is something I’ve spent many years trying to get right, and I’m still working on it today.
You might be wondering how this applies to playing bass in worship. I think there are two parts to this. The first part is experiential, and the second part is educational/pedagogical.
My first gig was accompanying the songsters (choir) that was led by my mother. Not quite the same as turning up the volume to 11 and rocking out, but it helped me to be a sensitive, team player during Sunday morning worship. I also started playing at an alternative Saturday night young adult worship service at my corps (church) where I was exposed to a lot of contemporary Christian music.
This was around the same time that I was still working on technique and exploring the virtuosic side of the bass guitar. For one Saturday night service, I thought I would try and throw in some flashy slap bass into a relatively mellow worship song. My brother was in the audience and had this look on his face. Afterwards, he said to me, “What were you trying to do in that song? It was so out of place and distracting.” He wasn’t wrong.
A couple years later, I was fortunate enough to play with a fantastic Dove Award winning gospel choir that was associated with my university (Michigan – Flint). This was one of the more memorable events that shaped me as a player. There was absolute freedom in worship and a true leading of the Spirit in the music.
I highlight all of this to show that the role of a worship bassist can look very different. We need to do the best we can to be well-rounded musicians. To be honest, at times there is not a whole lot going on musically for bass players in contemporary Christian music so it can feel like everything becomes repetitive. But why not try to bring a higher standard of musicality to whatever genre you are playing? I don’t mean slapping your way through a song and completely putting the focus on you, the bassist, instead of our Creator and the One we are worshipping! But it is okay to add some elements that can enhance a phrase or lyric or bring attention to a poignant moment in the worship experience.
I mentioned previously that listening played a valuable role in my journey as a bass player. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I find myself never being bored of music because there is always so much to learn from all the great genres that use the electric bass. However, I would change a few things on my own journey. I mentioned before that I had never taken private lessons. As a student of the tuba for more than a decade before I picked up a bass guitar, I felt that I could figure it out on my own. For the most part, this worked out for me except for the basic fundamentals that any instrumentalist should learn, no matter what their instrument may be. I admit that I skipped over playing scales, arpeggios, and learning proper finger positioning and technique. This started to haunt me after 20 years of playing, even with live, studio, volunteer, and professional experience. I was struggling to play in a finger style that I so desperately wanted to be able to do. It was very frustrating for me.
It wasn’t until 2020 during the COVID lockdown that I decided to do something about it. I found a fantastic online educational resource that provided videos and instruction for the issue I wanted to fix. I went back to basics! I started from square one as a bass player and completely relearned to play the instrument. It was slow and physically painful as I worked on undoing bad habits learned over the years. I stuck to the plan, playing my scales and arpeggios, doing the boring grunt work that most instrumentalists despise. After several weeks, I started to see a change. I became less fatigued and was able to slowly work up my speed and ease of playing even when I had the metronome set to a high speed. I never lost the feel that I had for playing bass, but I was more efficient and much more disciplined. I started to feel so much more freedom when playing in live worship since I focused less on the technical aspects of playing and focused more on why and who I was playing for.
The possibilities are endless on the bass guitar. There is no right way or wrong way, as long as it is appropriate. Tone, equipment, and instrument maintenance are all important factors in being successful, but if you love playing as much as I do, you will understand that feeling when you hear a great line or lick. Try to harness that feeling in your own playing and don’t neglect the basics. And yes, take a lesson.