Some gigs for whatever reason end up being a more intimate affair and your trusty drummer friend isn’t going to be there. It is not going to be the same experience for sure. If you are a new bass player what does this mean for you? This post goes through the pro’s and cons of playing without a drummer, offering some tips on how to get it right.
Like a lot of musicians, I can find myself playing a range of gigs in different settings with different band combinations. There are the big gigs, sometimes massive festivals and theatres to the cosey local pub or bar gigs.
One of the main factors in playing the bass especially the double bass is that it is a physical instrument, you need to play often and with meaning to keep up physically with the demands of the instrument as well as obviously staying on top of your game. In addition to all of that as a musician I enjoy playing, I like to have a variety of gigs. For this reason, I play in a variety of bands, some of which are full-on six-piece bands whilst others are local trios or even duos. In these smaller musical combos there is usually no drummer. Here is my take on playing a gig without a drummer, whether you are playing the double bass or bass guitar.
The Opportunity for the Bass Player
In some ways your role is as it was before to provide the foundation for the band, to help reinforce the tempo, but the role is now upgraded with the absence of a drummer. There is now a ‘space’ in the music which enables your bass playing to come to the fore, an opportunity to showcase your musicianship. This, of course, does not mean that you fill the void unnecessarily with notes, but it does allow you to add the percussion and take on some of those expressive elements, which the drums would have previously created.
The balance as always for the bass player is knowing when to play and when to hold back. The direction of the band is now in the hands of the bass player – your responsibility to keep time is now even more important. Greater focus is required to ensure the right groove is maintained or changed as the music needs.
Simpler, Quieter and Quicker Setup – Without Drums
Generally speaking, you’d expect less volume on stage, which is good for the old eardrums. You’ll find your bandmates will be relying on you and noticing you more in this combination and if you are a relatively new player you’ll feel less on the side-line. You will also be able to hear your fellow players much better, and of course, they can hear you too.
Some other pluses of not having a drummer are that the ‘get-in’ to a gig will be quicker, less time required to set-up and break down the drum kit. At some gigs especially festivals you can be in the situation where your drummers kit is being used by another band, so whilst you may have finished your gig, half the kit is still on the stage and you’ll need to hang around for the last band to play. Only at the end of the gig can the kit can be removed to the gig van and you can finally depart.
In short there is a welcome simplicity in travelling light.
What It REALLY Means to Play Without a Drummer
It sounds pretty good playing without a drummer so far, but there are ‘buts.’ There is a musicians joke here, as the drummer has gone it will be the bass player who is next! In other words, the opportunity comes the extra pressure.
You are going to have to hold your own as an instrumentalist. The bass is going to have to be very solid.
The bass and drums work so much in tandem they form a co-support role in the band together. You can feel a bit unstuck if you do not have your buddy in the corner. There is no-where to hide. For a new player, you may find yourself overthinking this responsibility to an extent you are thinking more than playing and losing the feeling of the music. If you find you are in this position, just know it is meant to be harder and not to be alarmed. You are learning to stand on your own. Having the experience of flying ‘solo’ without a drummer will ultimately mean when you are working with a drummer again you will be a better player for this experience.
A good tip to improving your playing in this set-up is to listen to a recording of your band, picking out the bass and the guitar to understand how tight they are. The ultimate position to be is where the band is so tight with its timing a recorded drum part could be dropped in on the track, and the final edit still sounds good.
Practicing with a metronome or drum machine is the obvious answer if you need any aid to keep time. Some instances a drum machine on stage can be used if you are struggling and if it suits the style of music.
Does a Band Need a Drummer?
This answer depends on the genre of music. If your drummer has to pull out of a gig at the last minute and you are a thrash metal band I would definitely consider cancelling the gig, but if your band is more singer-songwriter based, it could actually be an opportunity to explore musical possibilities of the songs. It all depends on what effect you want to project on stage without a drummer.
Some bands substitute in a drum machine, this option is highly dependent on the type of music, the style, the venue, and the overall aim of the performance. Many bands could rehearse without the singer but not all without the drummer!
One option is to add what’s called a stompbox that plays the part of the bass drum and can also be modified to give a snare sound too. It can be used by any member of the band who feels confident enough with tempo and groove while also playing or singing their own part. This frees up the bass player to interact more with the music to be able to play little lead fills or licks around the vocals, but please don’t overdo it. I am describing musical embellishments that can go in between the vocal lines. If you are playing some extra bass lead parts, you could try playing with less bass on the amplifier tone controls. If there is less bass tone on the amplifier the bass phrases will be more easily heard.
It all depends what type of gig you’re playing when it comes to drums, some styles of band such as dance bands or heavy metal bands generally need drums. Without a drummer you are ‘IT’ and you’ll feel the pressure, musically you will need to hold your own.
AND please remember the drummer is actually the most important member of any band regardless of whatever anybody says.