Obviously, if I’m going to record my goofy version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, one of my tasks is breaking the song down into its various components and trying to master them piece by piece. I’ve already put some time in on the fiddle bits — the basic tune isn’t actually too complex, and all I really need to do with it is start it slow and work on building up the right amount of speed. My preferred fiddle style tends to be more Celtic-flavored than Bluegrass, so I’m going to have to crunch it a bit differently, but it’s not too bad. It’s actually kind of fun!
The bass part, however, is kicking my ass.
I am not a skilled bass player. I am a raw beginner, in fact — I’ve only been playing for a few months, and I’m almost entirely self-taught. I’m not in the same spot as someone who’s never played an instrument, of course. I’ve got enough time in on other instruments and enough theoretical knowledge to push me along a little further, perhaps, than would have been possible if I were truly starting from scratch. I’ve got a good enough ear to guide me when I have to guess, and I already know how to read tab in addition to regular musical notation. Just the same, I’m not nearly good enough to just pick the thing up and get it right. My mind is still, after all of these years, a violinist’s mind, and my hands are still a violinist’s hands. The frets remain more obstacle than assistance, and I have to fight the temptation to force my left hand into a position that, while appropriate on the neck of a violin, is quite counterproductive for reaching notes on a bass. I find the idea that I must be prepared to mute unplayed strings…strange. I’m comfortable with shifting positions on the violin, but I still stall, sometimes, when I have to shift up on the bass, even when I know that the sound is better up high and the changes are easier. It’s easier than the usual guitar in some ways, of course — I’ve always been a single-note thinker, so following a bass line is reasonably within my grasp (much more so than the kind of chord-thinking required for guitar). It’s still far from simple, though.
What this struggle makes me appreciate all the more, however, is two things: the structure of the song I’m playing and the subtle rules of the instrument itself.
Obviously this particular song isn’t exactly Beethoven, but the shape revealed by my efforts at unravelling it remains intriguing to me. When I listen to music, I know that I often find myself concentrating primarily on one part of what I hear, letting the rest fill itself in around me as I find my place in it; that’s how I learned to sing harmony. Taking a tune apart and rebuilding it one instrumental voice at a time changes that, especially at the rhythm end. The foundational structure provided by the bass line isn’t like a harmony or a melody — finding it is less a matter of adapting than it is a matter of asserting, and the tools that make successful adaptation possible only go so far when it comes to asserting what the bass line must say in order to do what it exists to do.
Right now, my bass playing merely whispers, hesitantly. I have to work to reach that point at which it chants and claims and holds its line with confidence. I think of it as a classical orator, standing before an assembly and thundering forth with language (or, right now, as a nervous kid giving a speech for the first time…I’m no Cicero, yet!).