When you’ve listened to enough bands, you learn the roles each instrument plays to produce a rich, musical tapestry. The drums drive the band; the keyboard and guitars flesh out the harmony, and the vocals or horns often carry the melody. Then there’s the bass. It’s the foundation, the harmonic grounding. Bass is the engine that, coupled with the drums, defines a band’s groove.
It takes immense skill and musicianship to master the role of a bass player. Now, add vocal abilities on top of that, and you have something of a musical savant. Carrying a band vocally while holding down its bassline is no easy feat. Singing bass players are mutants.
Many try and fail at the split-brain gymnastics involved in performing two very different musical roles. But, singing bass players are rare for a good reason. It’s really hard to pull off.
There are, however, a collection of musical heavyweights who have mastered the art of singing and playing bass simultaneously. Let’s dive into some of the most prominent singing bassists and what it takes to master this very demanding skill set.
Some of the best singing bassists of all time
We cannot cover a who’s who of singing bass players unless we give a mention to one unique performer of his day. Slam Stewart was born Leroy Elliot Stewart in 1914. After hearing Pay Pearson singing along with his violin in unison, Slam took the approach and applied it to his upright bass improvisations.
He later developed a unique style where he would sing an octave above what he played on the bass with a bow. What resulted was an intriguing and personal sound that stood out from other bassists at the time.
Slam worked with many of the jazz greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Fats Waller. Although he didn’t sing and play in the same way as bassists in the rock and pop world, Slam Stewart was able to demonstrate the versatility of the bass and how it could take center stage along with all other instruments.
Apart from being a successful record producer, songwriter, and arranger, Willie Dixon (1915-1992) was a very influential singing bassist in his time. During his long career, Dixon contributed many songs that are standards in the blues repertoire.
Dixon can be seen as a link between blues and rock in the 1950s. He’s also said to be one of the main contributors to the development of Chicago blues. From 1951 on, he worked full time for Chess Records, where some of his songs put artists such as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley on the road to stardom.
Legend of rock and roll and founding member of The Beatles, Paul McCartney has for decades combined his vocal and bass skills to produce some of the most timeless pop songs of the 20th century. His recognizable bass riffs are as well known as his 1963 Hofner 500/1 violin bass, a fixture of The Beatles’ sound and image.
McCartney started out playing guitar and piano. But, after joining the Beatles and taking up the bass, he adapted his singing style. McCartney produced bass lines that acted like counter-melodies to the vocal, an impressive feat when carrying the vocals at the same time.
Singer, bassist, and songwriter Jack Bruce (1943-2014) was the founding member of the British rock supergroup Cream. He was also a master of the craft of singing and playing bass.
Aside from Cream, Bruce enjoyed a successful career as a solo artist, collaborating with an eclectic mix of artists exploring many genres. Given Bruce’s background as a cellist, he applied cello techniques to the bass, producing a unique approach that garnered high acclaim from both musicians and fans.
Born Gary Lee Weinrib in 1953, Geddy Lee’s technical skill, signature tone, and distinct falsetto voice made him one of the best singing bass players of his era. If you’ve ever been to or watched a professional hockey game, you’ve heard Rush.
Lee’s playing utilizes fast, bluesy riffs backed up by a high treble, punchy tone. His bass playing and tone matched his falsetto vocal delivery. It made for an intricate bassline with an equally dynamic vocal style, which fit the prog-rock style of Rush perfectly.
Tom Mulhern, in his book Bass Heroes: Styles, Stories and Secrets of 30 Great Bass Players, calls Geddy Lee a “one-man rhythm section,” alluding to Lee’s prowess in using different instruments on stage while still carrying the lead vocals.
Side note: The Fender Geddy Lee Jazz bass is one of the best feeling basses in the history of Fender instruments. Scientific fact.
Bursting onto the popular music scene with the band Police, Sting (born Gordon Sumner) has been a creative force as a gifted songwriter. He’s also definitely a mutant singing bass player.
Sting’s explorations into jazz, classical, and other musical genres throughout his career reveal a massive body of work where he combined his intricate lyrics with sparse, thoughtful bass lines. Sting captures the essence of the craft of singing and playing bass across different styles of music.
Bassist and founder of legendary groups such as Minutemen, Dos, and Firehose, Mike Watt has been noted as one of the top bassists of his generation, a singer-bassist who redefined the punk genre.
Watt placed the bass up front and used the bass as a foundation in his songwriting. He’s even discussed using the bass guitar as a compositional instrument, something that isn’t often done in rock, pop, and punk.
Finding commercial success with Irish hard rock group Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott’s creative output was a fusion of his pick-centered bass playing, aggressive yet poetic lyrics, and off-beat vocal phrasing.
Towards the late 1970s, Lynott pursued a solo career expanding on his creativity by publishing two books of poetry.
Born Stephen Lee Bruner in 1984, Thundercat has risen to become one of the most prominent singer-bassists of the 21 century. After working as a member of the band Suicidal Tendencies, Thundercat has developed a successful solo career.
Over the years, he’s collaborated with artists such as Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. Thundercat’s music takes on all styles, from jazz fusion to pop-funk and hip hop. He often mixes genres together in unexpected ways as well.
Thundercat’s sound is highly processed and features heavy use of chords in his bass lines. It’s often difficult to point out where his bass might stop and a synth might begin.
Side note: Make sure to catch Thundercat in a couple of great cameo appearances in The Book of Boba Fett.
Tina Weymouth is a key figure in the rare collection of singing bass players of the rock world. She is best known for her work as a founding member and singing bassist in the group Talking Heads.
Weymouth picked up the bass for the first time when she joined Talking Heads. Over time, she developed a bass style that combines funk riffs with punk characteristics. Her tone and sparse groove style matched well with her brand of art rock and dub that she also explored in Tom Tom Club.
Esperanza Spalding, who won the Grammy for best new artist in 2011, has gone on to not only win three more Grammys but secure her place as one of the most formidable singing bassists of the current day.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Spalding graduated from the esteemed Berklee College of Music. Since then, she’s gone on to release several albums that have been extremely well received. Her musical influences range from Afro-Brazilian rhythms to jazz, funk, soul, and many others.
Esperanza’s vocal abilities mimic the dexterity of her bass playing, with biting and intelligent lyrics contrasting her rich bass tone. There’s a playful quality that matches well with her serious, grounded talent in her music. This counterpoint is one of the most interesting things about Spalding’s music.
Why are singing bass players so rare?
Let’s face it, seeing a bassist leading a band is not as common as it is with a guitar or keyboard player. But why is this the case? There can be many reasons, and some of them can be a simple lack of perception.
As the bass player is creating a foundation for a song, they often don’t necessarily need to be at the center of attention.
To your average listener, the lyrics are the focal point. They’re the musical element we relate to most often. Generally, there is one member who tackles the vocals, or the guitarist does double-duty.
There’s this perception that, as the bass line forms the foundation, the bassist stays in the background. But, if you listen to genres like funk, soul, and fusion, the bass line takes on a very prominent role. The bass isn’t merely laying down the roots of chords and keeping time.
The rarity of singing bass players fronting a band is due mostly to the intricacies of the skill set. Playing bass already has its challenges. Now, try being a competent vocalist with good phrasing and intonation. This makes things much more complicated.
To perform the two separate skills in unison requires many hours of focused practice, which might not be the desired objective for some bassists.
When you listen to the most famous singing bassists, you realize that they are often the creative force in the bands they perform in. Whether it’s Paul McCartney, Sting, or Esperanza Spalding, they’re also usually the main songwriter or leader. It’s a strong creative energy that drives these artists to combine their singing and bass skills into one artistic vision.
Why is playing bass and singing so hard?
We’ve seen many examples of extraordinary musicians who have mastered the art of singing and playing bass. Still, learning how to sing and play bass at the same time is easier said than done.
There are many components at work, and creating a flawless performance requires hours of practice. To add even more of a challenge, you need the ability to think independently with each component. Imagine rubbing your stomach and patting your head…times ten!
What’s actually happening with singing bass players’ brains?
Playing bass and singing involves many different mental and motor skills. To achieve the fluidity and proficiency you need to do both at once takes lots of time and effort. As a research study from Science.org suggests, the human brain is able to tackle two tasks at once, but beyond this, it has its limits. As the brain only has two hemispheres, it only has two areas to assign different tasks.
If we look at the art of singing and playing bass simultaneously, we can see that two tasks are at work here. They require countless hours of practice so that one task becomes automatic while the other task can be performed with more freedom. Most singing bassists work on getting their basslines automatic, which allows them to put more attention to their vocal delivery.
In several interviews, Sting stressed the importance of slowing the music down so he’s able to see how the vocal and bass parts fit together. He thinks of the vocals and bass as a counterpoint, and they must fit together like a puzzle to make sense when performing.
Breaking down the pieces
Let’s start with bass playing. As a bassist, timing and rhythm is everything. As the engine of the band, you have to have a strong sense of time and lock in with the drummer. Without good timing, the band falters. It might be easy to miss a note as a lead player, but not so forgiving when you’re the bassist.
Next, groove. Building a groove requires variation and decision making. Variation in patterns, as well as dynamics, helps keep a groove from getting stale and boring. Bassists need to understand and master this concept. Being able to play in time is one thing, grooving and making spontaneous musical decisions requires a whole different skill.
Finally, the vocals. Being a vocalist is an exposed role. Often, the vocals are what make the song memorable. The listener holds on to every word and follows each phrase. A singer has to be confident as the music plays underneath.
Not only do bassists need to have the bassline down flawlessly, they still need to project and weave the vocal melody, which is often in direct contrast to the bass line.
Needless to say, a singing bassist has their work cut out for them if they wish to combine two different musical disciplines.
How to play bass and sing at the same time
Comparing yourself to the bass gods and goddesses who sing intricate melodies over raging bass lines can leave you unmotivated. But like all skills, it can be learned.
Here are five tips to get you started learning how to sing and play bass at the same time:
1. Start with a simple song
Sometimes, the songs we’re most inspired by are the toughest ones to learn and master. It would be best to pick a song with a simple chord progression and an easy melody so you can focus on the core skill – linking the different musical elements together in one seamless performance.
2. Learn the bass part
Being able to play the bass part is one thing, internalizing it is another. When performing, you have two parts to execute, and there isn’t time to think about either one equally. Internalizing your bass part is key. It has to be automatic, like your fingers have a mind of their own.
What you’re aiming for here is muscle memory. Let your fingers “know” where to go next on their own. This takes a lot of time for most of us, even if you’re not planning on singing at the same time.
A crucial aspect of your practice session is to practice blind. What this means is you blindfold yourself so that you don’t look down at your fretboard. By doing so, you train yourself to feel the bassline, and subsequently keep your posture up when delivering the vocal melody. If you can trust yourself not to look at the fretboard, you can skip the blindfold. But, the idea is still the same.
3. Learn the vocal part
Firstly, you need to have the lyrics memorized well. The song, like the bassline, needs to be internalized. Then, work out areas of the song where there are transitions and changes in the bassline. Doing so will help in the next section.
Be sure at this point to focus on your breathing so that each note projects and your intonation is solid. It’s similar to knowing the fingering for a bassline. You don’t want to have to think about what finger goes where or when to take a breath either.
4. Begin connecting the bass and vocal parts
Here comes the tricky part. Once you can play the bass part without thinking and have internalized the vocal melody, you need to piece the two parts together. Start looking for cues to guide you along the way.
When connecting the two parts, look for “landmarks” where the vocals and bassline connect. For example, what words match up with a chord change? How does this signal where you should be on bass?
Break the song down into smaller parts and focus on the difficult areas. At this stage, it might help to record yourself. You can use any free recording software to record and listen back to the song, listening out for those connections and where you need to improve.
5. Start slow and build up to speed
Once all the connections are in place, start with a slower tempo and build up speed gradually. Follow with a metronome until you feel comfortable playing independently.
At this stage, you can start rehearsing the song with your band members, especially with the drummer, to lock in your bassline while keeping the vocal phrasing strong and focused.
Singing bass players: Final thoughts
Are singing bass players mutants? Most likely, they are. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t be one too. As we’ve seen, singing and playing bass at the same time is a skill that is learned through focused practice.
All of the greats stress the importance of slow practice and making each skill as natural as possible. The mind must be free to interpret the music and make musical choices in the moment.
Getting to grips with the bassline and melody at the same time can seem daunting. However, following actionable steps and enjoying the process will see you fronting the band in no time.
When commenting about playing bass and singing, Sting has this to say: “Well, it’s just practice. It’s what you do. I’ve always enjoyed having that particular skill set. I didn’t want to be a guitar hero. I play the guitar; I write guitar parts. But that’s not part of my thing. I want to be a bass player who sings.”