How To Make Money Playing Bass

Many bassists assume that to be a “professional” they need to achieve the highest levels of technical proficiency, master and embellish upon the most difficult pieces in the four-string canon, produce at least five videos with over 900,000 views each, and grace the cover of Bass Slapper magazine.

Another supposed route to “professionalism” is to record the key basslines on over 100 best-selling singles while Eric Clapton and Miley Cyrus fight over who gets you for their world tour.

While these are noble goals, none of them relate directly to the reality of playing bass professionally. There is only one way to become a professional bassist: to accept money in exchange for playing your bass.

Whether serenading the drunks at your local whiskey swillery every weekend or backing up a national act on tour, exchanging low notes for fungible currency makes you a pro. Whether or not you can make a living playing bass is a question for another article.

Personally, I have been gigging professionally for 25 years now. Along the way, I’ve met all kinds of pros who not only play better and more often than I do but also get paid more.

Even so, I’ve noticed that there are some things we all do as successful gigging bassists. They might be completely unsexy things, but they’re absolutely inescapable if you want to succeed in the music business.

Yeah, it’s cool to be able to double-thump all of the Bach sonatas, but the following underrated skills are what really get bassists paid.

1. Memorize Classic Parts

“My Girl.” “Brick House.” “Hava Nagila.” “Give It Away.” “So What.”

Professional bassists aren’t hired to play bass. Professional bassists are hired to play bass parts. This might seem like an esoteric game of semantics, but the immediately recognizable musical motifs of the song are what people want to hear. There’s only a very small percentage of the listening population that actually wants to hear you jam complexities over D7 for twenty minutes at a time, and they’re not signing your check.

Yes, I know you’re learning “your songs” and that you would never compromise your original music for a repertoire as humiliating as covers, but I did say this was about professional musicians. And, like it or not, getting paid to play oftentimes means playing covers. Your audience wants to hear the hits, and your paycheck relies on you delivering.

Also, if it was good enough for Aerosmith and Van Halen, it’s good enough for you.

So which simple basslines should you learn?

Well, all of them. While it may seem like a lot, remember that you’re going into this as your profession and being thorough is important. Pick a genre or a decade or a band. The more you specialize, the better your gigging potential.

Want to learn every bassline from Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson? There’s a Saturday night gig at a honky-tonk with your name on it. It probably won’t pay half bad, either.

Look up a playlist for the greatest hits of the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s. Learn all the hooks. Congratulations - you can now play weddings. Those usually pay triple the rate of your regular bar gig, and some of these are pretty fun, too. “The Humpty Dance” is basically just tuning down to Eb and sliding up to the octave lewdly. “Walkin’ On Sunshine” is a really fun, groovy 1-4-5.

Boom. Now you’re a crowd pleaser. And crowd pleasers get paid.

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2. Show Up On Time

There is gear that is amazing, and there is gear that is essential. I adore my Origin Effects Cali ’76 compressor and my Eventide H9 Max. These pedals are amazing. My watch is essential.

If you want a successful career in music, show up on time. The gig is at 10 pm and you said you’d show up at 9 pm? Use your watch or phone and show up at 8:45 pm.

As bassists, we’re responsible for solving non-flashy problems. My career playing Latin music is a great example. When I started in the genre, I was roundly terrible - couldn’t follow the clave, didn’t know the repertoire, and still dressed like an insurance salesman. But the guys in the bands knew that if they were ever out of options, they could count on me to turn up on time with functional gear. And eventually, I figured out the clave thing.

There is no replacement for showing up on time.

3. Change Your Strings

One of the main differences between professionals and amateurs is that a professional always sounds good, no matter the circumstance. I can usually tell if I’m going to hear a good band just by whether the bass player has dead strings. If he can’t be bothered to do basic instrument maintenance, chances are he didn’t bother practicing, either.

Folks, I’m not arguing for that zingy, piano wire tone. I’m not overlooking “broken-in” roundwound strings, either. You don’t need a new pack of strings every night unless you’re sweating under hot lights on tour or have a string endorsement. Nor, for the love of all that is holy, would I ever argue against properly seasoned flatwound strings, lest St. James of Jamerson strike me down from heaven.

No. I’m talking about the pitchy, blobby sound of dead strings. The strings that make every note sound like you’re playing with peanut butter gloves on. It simply makes the bass sound less professional than it might otherwise.

Professionals arrive for every musical engagement ready to play and sounding their best. That also means having pots that don’t scratch, input jacks that don’t crackle in and out, batteries changed in onboard preamps, truss rods adjusted to reduce fret noise, and all the rest.

Professionals don’t make excuses.

4. Carry a Spare Cable

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Remember that thing about bassists solving non-flashy problems? For years, I have traveled with multiple 1/4-inch cables in my gig bag for two reasons:

  • I never want to be without one.
  • Somebody else usually forgets his or hers at some point.

Almost every club owner I know wants to tear their hair out when a less-than-professional band shows up and asks for things. Extra cables, extension cords, hairspray, or whatever else they just can’t play without but couldn’t be bothered to remember to bring.

I decided years ago after being that guy to never be that guy. So not only do I travel with extra cables, I usually pack extra 9v batteries, truss rod wrenches, small screwdrivers, and most of what you need to save a gig.

That’s the kind of thing that reminds people to hire you again.

5. Turn It Down

Nothing says “amateur” like the desire to blast all 500 watts of your bass amp over people's Eggs Benedict during a brunch gig.

Perhaps you don’t need your 4x10 cabinet for twenty patrons, after all.

6. Tune Often

The most unassuming yet important piece of gear you can own is a tuner with a silent switch. I use the TC Electronic Polytune Mini, which lets you tune up silently between songs with just the tap of a foot. But there are also apps for your phone, handheld tuners, and pitchpipes. In any case, nothing makes me think “unprofessional” like that first pitchy note that clashes with all the other guys who also sorta tuned.

The world should not be governed by chaos. A440. Get there somehow.

7. Learn Happy Birthday

This one may seem really weird, but I swear it’s been the key to several lucrative gigs that paid for years because my fellow musicians and I knew how to kick up a party.

Here’s how it goes down. You’re in a club. People are drinking and having an OK time. Then you find out “IT’S ANGELA’S 25TH BIRTHDAY!”

I don’t care what kind of band you are. If you can bust out “Happy Birthday” at that moment and bring up Angela on stage, your goodwill with the patrons and therefore the talent booker will shoot through the roof. The band will probably get asked back, and somebody just might tip you for it.

Overall, knowing a bunch of specialty tunes off the top of your head - sports anthems, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, the Elmo Song, whatever - will make you and your colleagues seem like you play music for a living.

8. Learn To Read Music

This last bit may simply sound like an exhortation to attend music school. I don’t care about notating the Picardy third or the French sixth chord, or learning how to write in cello clef. Life is too short.

I mean that to be a real professional, you need to be able to fake proficiency in someone else’s music on short notice. And that comes from knowing how to read music in some shape or form.

Standard musical notation in bass clef - sure. But learning how to follow simple chord charts with the proper symbols will get you a long way, too. The Nashville guys all swear by the Number System, which assumes that most tunes are in diatonic harmony common to pop music - no twelve-tone rows - so you can just discuss tunes in terms of 1-6-2-5 chord progressions.

Sight-reading can seem daunting, but if you recall first grade, so was reading from a book. You got over that by simply reading all the time.

Music can be much the same. As a professional, you’ll need this skill on a regular basis. You might as well get your hands on some charts and start practicing how to read music now.

These eight tips are not all that’s required to be a professional musician, but they do give you a head start. Later you can tackle advanced material, such as why to bring subtle lighting for reading charts in dark environments, or the potential dangers of inviting multiple romantic interests to the same gig on the same night.

Let’s stick to the basics for now.


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