Most people wouldn’t gravitate towards the bass when given the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. Guitar? … sure, who wouldn’t want to get the chicks. Drums? … a whole lot of people just love the thought of smashing something with all of their might and getting paid for it. Violin? Piano? Flute? … heck, yes please, particularly females or those males with analytical thought processes. Even the trombone has appeal with some budding troubadours, although that’s admittedly a significantly smaller number.
But bass? You mean that big looking violin that one of the Smothers Brothers played on TV? (Smothers Brothers reference provided for the more aged among us). Often confused for a cello (the one that you sit down and play between your legs), the bass is the lowest toned member of the stringed instrument family. Formally, the double bass, contrabass, or more commonly, the upright bass. Less formally, the doghouse or slap bass or bass fiddle. The bass comes in the double bass (violin-looking version) or a bass guitar kinda like a big guitar but with only 4 strings (more about strings later). Bass. When most people see it written out they think of the fish, not the instrument.
The bass player in most (but not exclusively so) popular bands is the guy standing at the back next to the drummer. Frequently taller than most of the band, and almost as frequently, fatter than most of the band, the bass player stereotype is that of a shy, quiet, sometimes less-than-worldly individual. Watch almost any popular band on a TV show and you’ll see that the bass player is rarely given any camera time at all … oh, which one is the bass player, you ask? Well, the sort of tallish, kind of portly, doofus looking character standing in the shadows, the one to which no one pays any attention at all.
Yup, that’s me, described almost to perfection! I’ve always been the tall one, and until this past year I have almost always been the overweight chunker in the band. And without question, I have always been the dork. I fit the stereotype, including some of the positive aspects of being the bass player: well organized, musically educated, responsible, a take-charge type that keep all of the other flashy personalities under control. The bass player often takes care of the business side of the band activities, handling bookings, finances and marketing. The bass player is the bands control center, the go-to guy when things get rocky.
In other words … the boring guy …
In second grade, I was told I was going to be the bass player. They saw that I was tall and could physically hold the thing upright, so there ‘ya go! Bass player! I admit that I gravitated towards the instrument because of its size, preferring a big thing as compared to some little flute or clarinet. And in a weird way, I sort of liked that no one else wanted anything to do with the bass, that attitude playing directly towards my solitary nature. I didn’t come from a musical family … man, we didn’t even have a record player in the house until I was in my early teens … but my parents supported my desire to play an instrument. I think it was easy to say “yes”, allowing them to focus on rearing the next several kids in line behind me.
All through elementary school, then junior and senior high school, I was the bass player. I studied at Juilliard, became a professional touring musician. I proceeded to fall into all of the typical career-ending struggles of musicians in the ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s with drug abuses, bad career choices and failing to keep current with the music scene. I chose jazz as my preferred genre, failing to realize that jazz was the least-profitable of all of my potential choices. But through all of that, I was the bass player.
It got to a point in my inauspicious musical career that I had to get a “real job”, you know, one with insurance, benefits and a (gasp!!) weekly paycheck. This was the result of numerous circumstances, but primarily due to my previously mentioned stereotypical musician mistakes, along with a giant downturn in the music business. Electronic & digital music started making its presence felt in the mid-’90’s and musicians, being generally artistic and not business minded individuals, let the new age of the world wide web completely decimate the average musicians life style.
Even while maintaining a day gig, music was always a primary factor in my working career. Music remained a steady stream of income, supplementing my day work compensation, sometimes even exceeding the day gig pay. So while I did have a “normal job” for a period of time I was always a professional musician. That is how I filed taxes, filed out applications, completed medical forms … “professional musician”. My late wife, through our 35 years together, always introduced me to her friends as a musician. Now, my beautiful wife, Sheila, also characterizes me as a musician. Specifically, the bass player.
As I got older my instrument choices got a little broader than most of my peers. I began playing bass guitar more frequently than the double bass. In the mid-’90’s I purchased my very first 5 string electric bass … most basses, both double bass and electric bass guitar have 4 strings … and in the early ‘2000’s I started playing 6 & 7 string basses, and even an 8 string bass for a while. These “extra string” instruments are called extended range basses, or ERB’s, and I became an advocate for the use of these innovative instruments. Today, in 2018, ERB’s are a bit more accepted but, in far too many cases, still snubbed by the bass playing community.
Now, I’m retired … retired from my day gig AND retired from making a living playing music. But unlike the aftershock from the day gig, where I could really give two hoots about any of that anymore (not meant as a negative towards the former day job at all, BTW), you really don’t “retire” from actually playing music. Where I would never think about managing a business project now that I’m retired, I still play music every single day. And I play it as a sole pursuit and as a group member in assorted combinations of musical talent, genres and settings.
I never would have expected, way back (way, way, way back)(really, waayyy back) in 1958 when I was told I was the bass player, that I would I would have a life-long skill that would provide me with the sheer pleasure that has come with being a musician. Being able to earn my way through life using a skill (talent?) that not only rewarded me emotionally but also provided joy to countless others who have listened, clapped, encouraged and compensated that effort has been amazing. My musical career has not been glamorous or high-profile, but my path as a journeyman professional musician has completely satisfied me.
I have had many life changes over the past 3 years, culminating in meeting and marrying this beautiful woman, relocating to this wonderful section of the country and re-establishing my identity as a musician. Sheila graciously turned over a significant amount of space in our gorgeous home to put in a fully equipped music studio where musicians regularly gather and play all sorts of styles.
Now, reaping the rewards (and yes, there are rewards) after 58 years of playing music, I still get the chance to enjoy my craft. “What are you going to do when you retire?”, I’m regularly asked … play music is the answer, just as it has always been!