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Fuck Virtuosity: A Healthy Skepticism of Music-For-Musicians

An excerpt from my upcoming book, “How Do I Bass?”, edited slightly from an earlier version posted on Facebook.

Lots of modern players talk about “expanding the role of the bass” or words to that effect. Certainly there are many techniques only possible on the bass and no other instrument, and the solo repertoire has expanded exponentially in the last 30 or 40 years. But the role of the bass as a solo instrument is very different from its role in a group, and the audience for virtuosic bass playing is, overwhelmingly, other bass players. This is not to say you shouldn’t always be trying to get better. Everything you play makes you better at everything else you play, and extended techniques deepen your relationship with the instrument. But if you spend more time on double-tapping and artificial harmonics than on arpeggios, scales, and playing simple subdivisions along with a metronome, you are limiting your ability to be useful in 98% of musical situations. Victor Wooten is an amazing musician, but you would be much better off trying to imitate Duck Dunn. When the drummer looks at you sideways because you played a fancy ornamentation at the end of a break, don’t get mad. Consider the possibility that he or she might have the right idea.

Maybe you are on some deep Jaco Pastorius backing up Joni Mitchell shit and you are so unimpeachably musical that you can make highly technical playing sound completely natural and perfect and not obnoxious in a pop music context. But there are really very few musicians of this caliber in any particular generation, and unless you work hard and have the killer instinct you are unlikely to be one of them. So am I. So you can either get together a band of other virtuosos who like to show off their tasty licks and hit the jazz fusion circuit for an audience of your greasy-haired peers, or you can show some restraint and try to make music that people will put on in the morning to gird themselves against the crushing mundanity of another day of work or school, or when they have a party and want people to dance, or when they are reflecting on serious life shit and the silence is distracting, or when they’re making a mixtape for someone they are trying to sleep with. That’s what the fuck I do this for, I don’t know about you.

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