Working with layers

One of my negative aspects of the bass is the difficulty of playing more than one thing at the time. Some bass players have found their way around this and developed two-handed tapping for instance, but I feel that tapping techniques doesn’t really work that well with my acoustic instruments, so it is something that I haven’t spent that much time doing. But I have been interested in finding ways to create what I like think of as musical layers. What I mean by this is to have different sounds happening, not necessarily at the same time but in the same way a drummer can hit a cymbal to refresh the sound. Since the range of notes is limited on a bass I try to think about playing in all registers and not just playing melodies and chords higher on the neck for instance but using the full range. This limitation of notes invites other sounds to happen otherwise I feel it can become boring to listen to, not because the music is boring but simply because you are listening to the same sort of sounds for a long period of time. I think the most commonly used layer by bass players are harmonics which are easy to play and they sound great but it’s easy to overuse them once you acquire a taste for them. If I would use effect pedals then those could be thought of, and used ,as layers, but since I decided to do it the hard way not using any effects I had to think of something else.

The thing I miss the most when playing solo is a beat. I think every bass player enjoys playing with a good drummer but when I’m on my own nobody is there to provide a groove for me. So I’ve been trying to incorporate all these advanced percussive techniques like playing rhythms on the instruments body and doing percussive patterns on muted strings while playing notes on other strings. Although I’m really happy with the results of this practice it can also be seen as bypassing some steps and jumping straight to hyper-advanced level. Because what is the one rhythmical layer than most musicians already do on perhaps an unconscious level? Stomping feet! Having been surrounded by many fiddle players in the Swedish folk music tradition it is impossible not to notice that stomping feet can be used as a great tool when there is a need for a pulse. Good news for me! The sad part is that I realized how little control I have over my feet. Since I would be stomping my feet anyway I don’t think of this as breaking my own rules when I wrote ”All sounds should come from my hands”. At the same time I decided that hitting the string with the ring on my right middle finger is not allowed because it can be seen as a tool even though it’s part of my hand (the rules only apply for this project, when playing with something else I will most likely go crazy using effects, rings and special tunings just because I’m free to do so!).

The musicians with the most foot control are without doubt drummers, with church-organists coming in at a close second. Meeting and speaking with different drummers has been a good way of finding ways to practice this new skill. These issues arose on the way:

* I prefer tapping my right foot but because the instrument also rests on my right leg it can be a problem with balance.

* Since I change positions while playing it requires some thought on how to position my legs. If I have them crossed, tapping my left foot, then my foot is likely to tire faster because it has to lift the right leg as well. Switching between positions while keeping a steady beat with my feet is rather complicated so it’s better to have one position until the foot should stop.

* The coordination of the feet takes time and if I don’t pay attention they might revert back to whatever they feel like doing. Therefore it’s important to take it slow and concentrate on the feet while listening to what they sound like together with what the hands are doing.

What sound you get depends on what part of the foot is used, how hard, the shoe and the floor. I’m working on trying to create 3 different stomping sounds: heel (kick drum), toe (snare drum) and full (kick and snare). I can also slide the foot along the ground after stomping to produce a sound that would represent a hi-hat. In this video you can see a short demonstration of how I have practiced different patterns for my feet.
First is you just see the different parts of the foot that I use then comes a pattern of 4 (right heel, left toe, right toe, left heel), then a pattern of 6 (right heel, left heel, right toe, left toe, right toe, left heel) and finally a pattern of 2 with sliding the foot in between.

This is perfect practice when riding the subway and I try to work out new patterns to continue to develop my feet.
Using various techniques of hitting the instrument to produce percussive sounds (either a groove or just as an effect) is a layer that I enjoy but adding a pulse with the feet has proved to be much more effective to find this rhythmical platform that I’ve missed when playing solo. When adding these sounds that aren’t exactly sounding as notes (such as scraping the string with the nail or bending the string to get a distorted effect), giving the ear some rest from hearing the bass as a bass, I have quite many layers to choose from.

In the future I would like to work on adding my voice to my playing. I never felt comfortable singing and my ability to play and singing even the ugliest note simultaneously is horrible. I either sing what I play or play what I sing and none of them sound like music to my ears. My idea is to use the voice for singing harmony, keeping a root or doing rhythmical patterns but I have to complete many practice hours before this will become anywhere close to music. Richard Bona is not only a great bass player but he has a wonderful voice as well and he does some crazy playing while singing and it all fits together very natural. If it ever was questioned then Bona is proof that learning to sing can be a useful tool for any musician and a very nice layer for us bass players to make use of.