There are very few bass players, in my opinion, that really excel at both playing the groove and soloing. It’s obviously very difficult to be equally great at both skills. What I mean when I refer to soloing is being able to play a genre consistent solo, a solo that is appropriate for the genre, not the wonderful solo you always play regardless of the style of music.
I have focused on the groove my whole career and just kind of dabbled in soloing, picking up tips and ideas from the greats over the years. One of the most memorable is a lesson with John Patitucci many years ago where he explained, in detail, his approach at playing melodically. A lot of it went over my head, and I was too focused on still improving my groove at that point to spend the hours needed to become proficient in his suggested method of ear training and chord extension study, but the exposure motivated me to apply some of the concepts to my playing.
So my point here is that even if you never become a great soloist you can eventually find your voice without sacrificing your priority of laying down a creative and inspiring foundation. Here are a few tips that may help you smoothly switch hats from the keeper of the groove to the soloist, that guy in the spotlight that all ears and eyes are focused on.
Be sure to check out the videos at the bottom of this post that show a couple of my recent solos.
1. Take your time
tell a story, practice creating a beginning, middle and end to your solos
2. Develop a vocabulary
play melodies from fake books, learn scales and chords, learn to think differently when soloing versus holding down the bottom
3. Learn how some of the greats solo in a specific genre
Listen to a Paul Chamber jazz solo, a Cachao Latin solo, Larry Graham Funk solo, Willie Weeks R&B solo, Jack Bruce Rock solo,etc.
4. Listen to and mimic other solos besides bass solos
Sax, trumpet, guitar and even piano solos can provide outside of the box inspiration to create more melodic bass solos
5. Spend time learning some basic piano
6. Use practice aids
There are many bass-less playalong resources like the Jamey Abersold series or midi files that you can use to practice playing through chord changes and playing melodies
7. Be patient
Just like your human voice did not develop over night, neither will your soloing voice, just continue to develop it by exposing yourself to different resources and ideas
8. Stay in the pocket
Certainly there are times to get wild and crazy during a solo as you develop, but I have seen more than a few bass players reaching too far and falling flat. Reach but try not to overextend, you can create a great solo just by playing the groove sometimes. Just hearing the bass by itself, isolated, can provide enough contrast and create the excitement needed to move an audience.
9. Keep it in perspective
Soloing can be fun and a whole different and exciting way to express yourself as a bass player, but don’t get it twisted, unless you are a budding solo artist or part of a highly improvisational band, your groove will be significantly more important to those that you play with
10. Be melodic, go root-less
There is nothing wrong with starting a bass solo with lines centering around the root. I think it helps certain audiences transition from hearing the full rhythm section to the bass solo. I fully subscribe to this method of “introducing” the audience to the bass. But in your development of the solo it is sometimes nice to ditch the root and make use of the other notes in the chord or scale to help your solo become more melodic. 9ths, 13ths, 11’s and chromatic notes are all great extensions to learn about and use in your solos.
Here are a couple of examples of me soloing with two of my favorite guitar players. The first one is with Larry Carlton and after that is Robben Ford.