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I have played the guitar for about 17 years now and I have become quite comfortable with the instrument. I have also been singing for about two years and though its not a very long time, I am okay at it.

Recently I have met this band (actually a duo) comprising a guitarist and a drummer and they need a bass player and singer.

Have any one of you ever made this switch from a (primarily) guitar player to being a bass player and singer in a band. If so what tips do you have?

  • Have you rehearsed the set yet? How did you get on? Bass/vox is not as simple as some people would have you think. If there's nothing challenging in the duo's set, try some Police, Thin Lizzy or if you're feeling adventurous, Level 42. Basically, you need to be able to totally forget you're playing bass & only have to concentrate on the vox. – Tetsujin Mar 6 '18 at 9:43
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I made the switch many years ago because the band needed a bass player, and we had a guitarist who was much better than I was. I am a decent singer - sang some lead vocals and some harmony - there was another guitarist who sang well and just played chords.

Since I took up bass, I hardly do any singing unless I put down the bass. When playing bass the best I can do is usually simple harmony. There a few reasons for this:

  • What you're playing on bass - at least bass in its traditional role as a rhythm instrument and fundamental harmonic foundation - is usually very far removed from the melody that you have to sing, both rhythmically and harmonically: You're playing back-beats and syncopation in opposition to the forward flow of the music led by the vocal melody. You're focusing on rhythm and not melody - you're listening mostly to the drummer and blocking out everything else - your role as a bass player is entirely different than when you're playing guitar. The flow of the chords on most guitar work (at least in more modern music) is closely couple to the melody and works with it - you're playing something that works harmonically and rhythmically in sync with the melody line and vocals - vocal enhances guitar and vice versa so singing comes rather naturally when playing chords on guitar. Not so with bass.

    When you sing and play bass you are essentially playing two different instruments simultaneously with two different roles that are almost opposition to one another: Your voice and your bass. Granted, pianists and drummers do similar things all the time, but I think there is a difference, because bass tends to be a lot more physically demanding than the left hand of the piano or the ride cymbal. Bass also demands a great of focus and precision because of of the central role it plays in the rhythm section - it is an unforgiving instrument playing a central role. It also carries its load on its own - bass has a unique and solitary place in the ensemble, except for some occasional help from the bass drum or an old school second guitarist (virtually extinct today...). Bass is also loud and enveloping, putting your focus on it.

  • To add to the difficultly, you usually have to play bass almost constantly. Many lead guitarists also sing lead vocals, but they don't do much very challenging guitar work when they're singing, and they have that luxury: They sing, then they play some guitar, then they sing some more - meanwhile the rest of the band - the bass, the drums and the keys, etc - keep things going while they sing. (Some extraordinarily skilled/talented artists - SRV and Jimi Hendrix come to mind - were often able to do both.)

Certainly there are some great singing bass players - people like Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, Geddy Lee, Mark King, Sting and Lemmy come to mind. But all of those artists are on a completely different level in general in terms of their musical talent. I suppose if I had the talent of Sting I'd also be able to play and sing like he does - also write songs like his... Interestingly, many in that list play bass in a non-traditional way. For example, Mark King and Lemmy use bass more like a guitar, playing chords to accompany their vocals. Chris Squire (Yes) and Robert DeLeo (STP) - both great players - also did quite a bit of singing, but mostly harmony parts.


If you take a survey among bass players, you'll discover that most of those players who they considered the great, iconic players and stylists never sang a note, or at most just bit of harmony - people like James Jamerson, Jack Casady, Anthony Jackson, Chuck Rainey, Jaco Pastorious (he could sing very well and play, but he usually didn't), Bruce Babbit, John Entwhistle, Pino Palladino... (I'll leave traditional jazz out of it) . It's because they were dedicated to the bass, which precluded vocals - musically, or resource-wise - time and effort. They considered themselves bassists, not vocalists: A separate vocation playing an instrument with a special role of its own, not an accessory or subsidiary to something else. I don't believe you'll find nearly as many guitarists or keyboard players in any of the popular genres that assume such a role for themselves. (Drummers tend to be like bassists in that respect - the rhythm section is just different.)


On TalkBass.com - a very popular site for professional bass players, the consensus is that if you want to sing lead and play bass, your bass playing has to go on 'auto-pilot' - you know your part cold and can play it reflexively - without thinking about it all. Then you can focus on your vocals.

So, if you're ready to take that on, go for a lot of up front singing. Otherwise, probably better to stick to harmony parts.

Try it - maybe you've got the talent and you won't find it difficult. Start by playing bare bones bass parts to simple songs while singing the simple melody. Maybe try a simple melody of your own with the bass and metronome - humming even, so you don't have to worry about getting the lyrics right. Try playing a simple 12 bar blues at a slow tempo and just play roots and 5ths while you work out your singing. You must get to the point where you can forgot about what your playing on the bass entirely and not mess up.

Personally I never went that route, because I really enjoyed focusing and working on bass, although in terms of my usefulness in bands that held me back. If you want to sing and play bass and you are able to do it well, you will be a valuable, in-demand musician.


Additional Perspective:

Although your question is about vx, as we've been discussing in the comments with @Basstickler, when you move from guitar to bass, you're not just playing a guitar with thicker strings in a lower register. You are a playing a different instrument with a different role: You're now playing a Bass. It's a Bass Guitar, but in most situations ( to exclude players like Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten and Mark King... ) , what that means is essentially an upright bass in guitar form, which is how the instrument was originally conceived: As a portable, easier to manage, louder sounding version of the upright bass.

Its musical role is the bass's role: A rhythm instrument that keeps time, provides rhythmic interplay and states the underlying harmonic fundamentals of the music. It's an entirely different role than the guitar, a lead-solo instrument and/or one that's playing chords that enhance the melody line. To be a good bass player you need to aware of that difference and adjust - you're not playing guitar any more. That difference in the role of bass is the biggest factor making singing more challenging for most than guitar and vx.

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    I agree with most of this - except the piano or drums bit. Playing proper piano also includes putting down a bass line - as well as everything else, making it more arduous. Drums, well, playing ride or hi-hat probably helps with the singing, but when one considers that a drummer is schizophrenic in four directions, then it's a miracle he can even shout at the bassist, let alone sing! One other point, looking at someone like Mark Knopfler, he keeps all the widdly bits for in between the sung parts, so gets away nicely. – Tim Mar 7 '18 at 10:18
  • @Tim Playing proper piano also includes putting down a bass line Piano does not make the physical demands of bass, and while the left hand is a bass part it is not the same as a bassline in an ensemble. There are a zillion singing pianists. The left hand of the piano does not do the rhythmic heavy lifting the bass has to. See BassTickler's answer on here. The issue is not just the multi-tasking - there are things about playing bass. – Stinkfoot Mar 7 '18 at 14:29
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    Since I play bass and piano, I have a little experience. 50yrs +. If there's no bass playing, that's what my l.h. tries to compensate for. Obviously if there is, life's just got easier, and the singing with it, too. That's all I'm trying to say. – Tim Mar 7 '18 at 15:03
  • If there's no bass playing, that's what my l.h. tries to compensate - OK, yeah, that's a little different than the LH in a group with a bass or even just a pianist/vocalist, where you don't necessarily need a real bassline. – Stinkfoot Mar 8 '18 at 1:52
  • @Tim Your comment about the drummer being schizoid in 4 directions and shouting at the bassist made me laugh so hard it hurt. And I have seen keyboardist who can fill in for a missing bass player by playing the bass line with left hand and other stuff with the right hand and it takes as much talent as playing four parts simultaneously on a full drum kit. I'm not coordinated enough to do either with any proficiency. But I know how much talent and coordination it takes because I have tried. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 9 '18 at 2:18
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I have to guess that you don't play bass as a rule. If so, you'll find it not so easy - singing one thing and playing something different - and on a new instrument. I often find that when I'm singing, the bass playing takes a back seat - quite a long way back! And I've been doing both for a long, long time. It tends to be very bassic (sic) in comparison to what I play when not singing.

It can be done, as is apparent in bands like Level 42, and guys like Sting and Phil Lynott, as already quoted. But I guess a lot of people who do both simultaneously will have it down pat - in other words, have learned the two parts, and as such will deliver the same or close each time they play/sing.

It may be a better option for the original guitar player - presumably strumming during the singing parts - to play bass, while you sing and strum. In fact, it would be a good feature and increase the set list somewhat.

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As a bass player that is most definitely not a singer, I have a few things to add to the conversation. First off, I'll note that I do sing all the time on stage, just not into a microphone because no one wants to hear that. What I've found while just singing for my own pleasure on stage is that there isn't exactly a consistency to what is easy for me to sing and play at the same time. There are some rather complicated or active bass lines I do that I can easily sing on top of and some rather easy ones that if I try, I tend to mess up the bass part. I'm ultimately of the opinion that I could sing over anything if I really put my mind to it. The point of all this is to say that there may be inconsistent struggles you face in developing this multitasking skill.

As others have mentioned, one of the most important parts of this is to get the bass playing to be second nature so that you don't have to think about it to be able to play it. I might recommend practicing speaking while you play as well, since this may be even more difficult since speech is not necessarily going to be in sync rhythmically. It will basically allow you to develop a separation between playing and vocal mechanics beyond individual songs.

On a more general note, if you're transitioning from playing guitar to playing bass, there are a lot of things that get missed by others doing this. There is a lot of subtlety and nuance to bass playing that guitar players miss. I'm not sure this is the best place to provide all of those thoughts but it's important to think about. Some of these nuances, such as articulation and tone (as a result of technique) may make it more difficult to sing on top of as well, so it would be good make sure those are actively considered as you progress. These nuances are what will make you sound like a bass player instead of sounding like a guitar player playing the bass.

  • Some of these nuances, such as articulation and tone (as a result of technique) may make it more difficult to sing on top of as well Yup - good execution on bass can require serious concentration - that's part of what I meant about the physical aspect of bass that makes vx more difficult. Often I have to really concentrate on nailing that line just right - bass can be very unforgiving - very hard to sing when that's the case. As I mentioned, many of great singing bass players did not play bass in the traditional way. – Stinkfoot Mar 7 '18 at 14:14
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    @Stinkfoot Yeah, lots of guitar players miss the mark when they try to play bass or, like one of my friends is dealing with in her band, the bass player does well but plays as if he were playing lead guitar, ie, overplaying. As you mentioned, there have definitely been plenty of great bass players that are unconventional and still sing, such as Les Claypool, but they are more of an exception. Similarly, you don't see too many lead guitar players that sing while they're playing lead lines. – Basstickler Mar 7 '18 at 14:30
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    like one of my friends is dealing with in her band, the bass player does well ..., ie, overplaying - Yeah, I had to make that adjustment. My hands got used to bass but that was only part of the problem-I got complaints that my basslines were not good. I did some homework - listened to a lot of unknown old school bass players on blues, RnB and jazz records to learn what the bass was supposed to be doing. It didn't help that when i started playing -ancient times - 'lead bass' was the thing in cutting edge rock - players like Jack Bruce and jack Casady were getting lots of attention. – Stinkfoot Mar 7 '18 at 23:12

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