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Dan's Thoughts On Playing Bass Guitar for Praise and Worship

Dan playing bass for Easter Service, Ogden, Utah, 1993

I've been playing the bass guitar for about 27 years, and playing as part of a church praise and worship music team ever since I was saved in 1988. So, here are some thoughts of mine on playing as part of a praise and worship team, and particularly as a bass player. (Fair warning: it's a pretty long essay...)

First and foremost, the purpose of praise and worship music is to guide us into giving our praise and worship to our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to keep our focus on the worship of Jesus, and not confuse the experience of playing praise and worship music with the praise and worship itself. For this to work properly, and for the music team to effectively lead worship, I believe every member of the praise team must already have a personal relationship with Jesus.

As a praise team bass player I'm part of a team; we work as a group to bring others into an attitude of worship and thus into the presence of God. Paul warns us in 1 Timothy 3:1-6 that one who seeks to be a church leader "must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited." I don't think a person should be prevented from serving on a praise team based on how long he or she has been saved, but I think conceit and pride are special risks for musicians. It's easy to get caught up in the performance aspect, but it's not about us. It's about Jesus. A recurring prayer among my current praise team is that the congregation will not even be aware of us, but will be able to come into the presence of God and truly worship. If we draw attention to ourselves, we're distracting from the purpose of being there.

Team members must, of course, be submitted to the Lord. Lately, when I get a compliment about my playing, I say, "Praise God," because all the glory should go to him, and none to me. We must also be willing to submit to the music team leader, and the team leader should be a mature Christian who can disciple his members as necessary. The team must also be accountable to the pastor, who is ultimately the real worship leader.

Dan playing string bass for Calvary Chapel Men's Conference, in Fort Valley, Georgia, in 2002

We need to be worshippers to lead worship, but we can't get lost in one-to-one communion with the Lord and still keep playing. This is a sacrifice we make for the sake of our fellow worshippers - even though I do worship while playing, I willingly give up at least some of my own chance to worship in order to help them worship.

Psalm 33 tells us to play skillfully on the strings. There's no pre-determined minimum level of ability we need to have, but it's important to strive to be excellent, and to keep an attitude of learning. I've found that playing with other people is the fastest way for me to improve, and it motivates me to keep practicing. Memorizing the songs also helps by freeing me from the sheet music. That way I can move around, watch the team and the congregation, avoid the distraction of turning pages, and follow any changes (like an extra chorus) that our leader makes. (It also makes it easier to cover over mistakes...)

In addition, Scripture tells us,

When David was old and full of years, he...gathered together all the leaders of Israel... The Levites thirty years old or more were counted, and the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand. David said, "Of these...four thousand are to praise the LORD with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose." (1 Chr 23:1-5)
"David...set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals... Along with their relatives-all of them trained and skilled in music for the LORD-they numbered 288." (1 Chr 25:1-6)
We see here that men of Israel had to spend time training and practicing to become skilled in music before they had the opportunity to serve. The opportunity then came to those who had become skillful.

A corollary to this: if you have a passion for playing bass--or any other instrument--and you really believe it's something the Lord has placed on your heart to do, but you donŐt have opportunities to play for worship, then play by yourself or with friends. Learn songs, practice sightreading, jam with other musicians. Be open to other opportunities the Lord may bring, like leading your family or home fellowship group in musical worship. Then again, maybe the Lord wants you to wait. His timing is perfect, after all. Besides, there are always other ways to serve in the meantime. Then, when the right opportunity comes, you'll be "trained and skilled in music for the LORD."

Dan playing for an outdoor worship service in Utah, 1992

Listening to and watching other bass players is helpful for learning new things. I don't know the names of bassists who influenced me, but I listen to lots of music and try to understand what the bass player is doing. Don't worry about trying to play every kind of style; the simplest bass lines, played with feeling and confidence, are often the best in a group setting anyway. (Rich Appleman, chairman of the bass department at Berklee College of Music, said in the March 1994 issue of Bass Player, "As a bassist you don't have to be noticed, and you don't even need to be heard that well - but you've got to know you're contributing to a good performance.") Be the best musician you can be, keep learning, and thank God for His gifts to you of musical talent, skill, and the opportunity to use them to His glory.

The electric bass guitar has an interesting place in a praise music team. Bass is more percussive than most instruments (guitar, piano, organ, horns) but more melodic than drums, so it can be a "bridge" between the two. It serves to tie the group together. Sting said (in an interview in the April 1992 issue of Bass Player), "It's a very powerful yet very discreet instrument. You can control the music because you can dictate what the chord is - I mean, it's not a chord until the bass player decides what the root is." Each team has a different mix of instruments, so I adjust my playing accordingly. With drums, the bass shares responsibility for establishing the tempo and the rhythmic feel of the song, so I tune in to what the drummer is doing and try to complement it to get a good "tight" sound. On a team without drums, I have more rhythmic responsibility, so I try to establish a solid beat for the rest of the group (like a bass drum would). I was on a team once with a cellist who played melodic low parts, so I concentrated on rhythm and basic chord-backing, whereas on a team with a drummer I can play more melodically.

The bass, since it's amplified and carries well even in large rooms, can easily overwhelm other instruments. It's very helpful to have a good sound technician and to do a sound check before worship starts, to make sure the bass is balanced with the rest of the group. I also sometimes use a limiter or a compressor to keep the volume more even, especially on the rare occasions I plan to slap or pop the strings.

A praise team relies on the sound of the bass, in part, to help them keep together, so sometimes it can help to put my speaker behind the group as much as possible instead of off to one side. That decision depends on the specific set-up, though...currently I use a small amp right in front of me, facing back at me, and that seems to work fine.

Most people don't consciously listen to the bass - in fact, sometimes the best bass playing blends seamlessly into the overall sound - but they miss it immediately if it's not there. It takes a servant attitude sometimes to play bass, because you support the whole group, but you'll probably never be out front playing the melody or taking solos.

About basses: any reasonably well-built instrument will work; it's mostly up to your personal preference. I play a Peavey Foundation 4-string bass. I've used all kinds of strings, but lately I've been using roundwounds, 0.045-0.105 gauge, which have a bright, "punchy" sound. Your playing style will affect your sound, too - whether you use a light touch or heavy, where you pluck the string, whether you use a pick or fingers. There are at least 70 brands of electric basses - you should be able to find one you like. Don't worry about what you see other people playing; the sound is all that matters.

A helpful hint - if you use a passive bass (one without battery-powered electronics) it will probably sound best with its volume and tone controls turned up all the way. Control overall volume and tone at the amp. Try it for yourself.

About amplifiers: amps, like basses, come in all shapes and sizes (and prices). Find one you like. Portability is important; make sure you can lift it (and fit it into your car). Bass notes require a fair amount of power to produce sufficient volume, but any bass amp of 50 watts or more should be enough for a 300-500 seat room (unless drums are amplified or you're playing hard rock). It also works to go straight into the house sound system without an amp, but it may be hard to hear yourself.

Effects can be useful in moderation. Chorus can sound good - not so much as to be obvious, just to make a richer, broader sound. Lately, though, I like playing with no effects. Good sound and good tone start at your fingers and at the bass itself. Ultimately, the results depend much more on the player than the instrument.

No amount of equipment can replace practice, creativity, and sensitivity. Playing what's right for the song, what glorifies God, what brings others to a place where they can worship, is what you're there for.

In conclusion: pray, serve, worship, play low notes, and enjoy!

O.k., special treat for those of you who actually read the whole thing...some more photos!

Dan and Gaye playing with their Christian band, BASIC Faith, in Utah in 1993. "BASIC" stood for Brothers And Sisters In Christ.

Dan playing with his praise team, on a float in a parade in Ohio, in 1990.

Dan playing in a bluegrass band with his brother in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in 1980. Yes, I've been playing for about 27 years now!

all images © 1980, 1990, 1992, 1993, 2002 dan bullock
permission granted for non-commercial use