“What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians?” goes the hoary old musicians’ joke. Answer: “a bass player.” Hahaha. Very funny. And just plain untrue. Maybe the bass has fewer strings to master than the guitar, but it requires better timing, and — most importantly — more listening than any other instrument in a band setting. Or so says Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band I sometimes think of as a bunch of guys who hang out with a bass player.
All musicians need to listen carefully to other players on stage, but the bass player’s role is special, Flea says in the video above, excerpted from the hour-long bass lesson you can watch in full below. Bassists need to listen to melody players and soloists, supporting their parts with subtlety and nuance, without (says Flea of all people) doing the kind of showboating that pulls focus from the leads. Bass players also need to lock in with the drummer, listening so intently they can fit their notes right in the center of each drum hit.
This hardly sounds like unskilled musical labor, even if most bassists can’t — and don’t need to — play with the speed and ferocity as our instructor above. But Flea as teacher isn’t trying to teach others how to play the way he does, a style inspired by legends like slap bass pioneer Larry Graham and Motown stalwart James Jamerson. He’s giving students his take on the basics — first learn to walk, then learn to walk really, really well, with lots of practice. These basics include going over the parts of a bass guitar, talking about tuning, and learning different ways of hitting the strings, from plucking to picking to, yes, slapping, within reason.
Coming from a player who so commands the spotlight with his bass theatrics, Flea’s advice to aspiring players might seem oddly conservative. But it’s the bass player’s job, he says, to make everyone else in the band sound good. And the better a bassist is at helping other players shine, the more they stand out as a great musician in their own right.
See timestamps for the different topics in Flea’s lesson just below: