How to Play Metal Bass (NOT Like a Guitar Player)

By Jason Stallworth

August 30, 2020


Many guitar players assume they already know how to play bass guitar. In fact, those same guitarists assume bass is easier.

They say things like: ‘Bass is just the first four strings of a guitar!’

If they only knew how ignorant that sounds. But…I was one of those people, too, at one time. And you may be one, too (don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone…just keep reading!).

The truth is that the bass guitar is a completely different instrument than a regular guitar. Sure, you have the same notes. But any good bass player knows that bass is far more than just notes. Rather, the bass is a feeling.

In this post, I’m going to show you how to play bass without sounding like a guitar player playing bass!

I’m also going to share the 3 common mistakes that guitarists make when they attempt to play bass. And after reading this, you’re going to be able to lay down some awesome bass tracks like a real bass player!

The Purpose of Bass Guitar in Music

The bass plays a specific role in music and it’s a role that no other instrument can compensate for. In a sense, the bass guitar lines are what holds the song together while filling in the many dead spots that you’d hear without it.

Daniel Herber explains the role of the bass guitar perfectly here…

The role of the bassist in a band is the sonic link between the rhythmical and melodic elements of any band. With drums, it provides the backbone. In addition, the traditional function of the bass guitar is to flesh out any bands’ sound. By being played in such a way that the percussive elements of the instrument reinforce and supplies power and groove.

‘The Role of the Bassist in a Band’ by Daniel Herber, April 19, 2010, guitarexcellence.co.za

You see, the bass guitar is a powerful instrument. And you certainly do not want that to be the weakest link in your song.

The bass essentially makes everything else sound better, more pristine, and professional. It’s what drives the song and carries that bottom end.

3 Mistakes Guitar Players Make Playing Bass

Now let’s talk about the most common mistakes that guitarists make when they attempt to play bass or record their own bass tracks.

You can watch the video below, but I’m going to go in more depth after that in this post.

**In the video, I’m playing an ESP LTD D-5 (5-string) bass. You see that and all the other gear I use here: Jason’s Gear Page

Mistake 1 – Don’t Play Every Note the Guitar Plays on Bass

One of the biggest and most ‘newbie’ mistakes that guitarists make when they pick up the bass is thinking that they need to play every single guitar note.

This is actually one of the worst things you can do, especially if you’re playing metal music. There are certain parts of the song where if the bass is playing the exact same notes as the guitar, it’s going to completely ruin the song.

The problem with this mentality is…

  • It takes the focus away from what the bass is really supposed to be doing
  • It can make the overall mix and song sound muddy and jumbled
  • You lose the element that drives the song

These are mainly in those moments where the rhythm guitar is going off of the beaten path and doing some complex riffs, throwing in a lot of extra notes. If you’re trying to play the exact same notes on bass all of the time, then it’s going to sound like the guitar and bass are competing with one another.

Now, let’s step back for a moment. There are times when the bass and guitar sound better in unison. And this doesn’t mean you can riff on the bass. It doesn’t mean that you should just sit back and play the same boring one-liner notes all the time.

What it means is you have to be focused on what sounds best for the song. Does it make sense to riff with the guitar in certain sections? What sections do you need to back off and just play those driving notes instead?

The bass guitar is what keeps the rhythm section moving. Again, you can venture off and play riffs on bass. But not necessarily every time the guitar is playing riffs. In fact, we’re going to talk about the opposing side of this concept next…

Mistake 2 – Not Playing Enough

Opposite from what we just talked about, there are times when the song may called for the bass to be moving more and playing more notes than the guitar.

A perfect example is when a power chord is being held out. This is the perfect time for the bass guitar to play some riffs to give the song more punch and feeling.

Or there could be a part of the song where the guitar is just playing a series of power chords. You could throw in some bass runs here, which will help keep the rhythm section moving and exciting.

Another example is between certain sections or phrases of the song. Sometimes a little bass run or riff may really spice up the song.

Let’s say you’re going from the verse to the chorus and it’s just one chord to another. You can play a run or scale that connects those chords, which will make the transition more vibrant.

Mistake 3 – Assuming You Must Play with Your Fingers

No matter what anyone tells you, there’s no right or wrong way to play the bass when it comes to picking methods.

It’s true that many amazing bass players play with their fingers. Robert Trujillo, bassist for Metallica explains why he plays with his fingers in on the Ultimate Guitar website in his article ‘Robert Trujillo: Why I Play Bass With Fingers.’

But there are also phenomenal metal bassists who play with a pick. Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson described on Blabbermouth why he plays with a pick in the article ‘Megadeth’s David Ellefson: Why I Play Bass with a Pick.’

There you have it. Two amazing metal bass players with contrasting styles. So that proves the point that there’s no right or wrong way.

You should play what feels comfortable and natural to you. Of course, you can challenge yourself to try new methods. But in the end, it doesn’t matter as long as what you’re doing sounds good in the mix.

Don’t Leave the Bass Out of the Mix

As a guitarist we tend to focus more on the guitar in our mixes. We always feel like the guitars aren’t loud enough and God forbid the solo isn’t cutting through the mix.

Sure, metal music is indeed guitar-based. But just make sure that you don’t drown out the bass guitar as Metallica did on the Justice album.

Here’s a method you can try that I often use when I’m mixing the bass:

  • Play the current mix
  • Mute the bass
  • Unmute the bass
  • If you can’t tell a big difference, then turn the bass track up

You will also need to work with things like the EQ and compression when you’re recording and mixing bass. More than often it’s an issue of frequencies not volume.

Another thing you can do to help the bass be more prominent in the mix is boost the mids and add a little overdrive or distortion for heavy parts of the song.

What About Bass Solos?

By all means, throw in a bass solo from time to time! Just remember that playing a solo on bass is probably going to sound better with a more melodic edge to it.

If you try to do play a bass solo like a guitar solo, it’s probably not going to sound that great. Actually, it will more than likely sound like total crap. Then again, try it and see what happens…just be honest with yourself.

I actually added bass solo parts in two songs from my Masterpeace album (released in 2019):

  • ‘Passing Through’ – the verses of this song are driven by the bass guitar
  • ‘Never Enough’ – there’s a bass solos that ends the intro of the song transitioning into the first verse

And you can think of countless metal songs with prominent bass parts like Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells’ and Metallica’s ‘Anesthesia: Pulling Teeth.’

Here’s a short video sharing 15 awesome bass solos in metal history:

You now have the knowledge to crank out some great bass lines that compliment your metal songs and mixes.

The thing you have to remember is you have think a little differently when you switch over to bass. You really have to do what sounds best for the song.

One final note, after playing bass it feels so much easier to play guitar…you can really shred once you pick it back up!

Keep it Metal,

Jason

Jason Stallworth

About the author

Melodic death metal with a side of thrash is what my music is all about. My goal is to deliver quality metal music you!

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