What’s the role of the Bass in Bluegrass

The Bass is the most underrated, yet at the same time, the most important instrument in a Bluegrass band. As bass players, we are responsible for the beat, the groove and the chord sequence. Have you ever been at session where a bass suddenly joins in? As soon as you play that first note, everyone’s face lights up, and the sound just lifts, even though you have only played a single note. Why is that?

A bluegrass band or session without a bass is like a ship without a captain. They might get to where they are going eventually, but the boat will weave all over the place before it gets there, rocking from side to side. There are no drums in bluegrass (normally) and so the role of the drummer in a rock band is distributed through out the band. The mandolin and guitar players handle the off-beat, and the banjo rolls provide the high hat clicks, but the main element, the bass drum, is provided by the bass player.

Just as in a rock band, where a poor drummer will make the whole group sound poor, a bluegrass bass player can make or break a band. Have you ever watched a band where everybody seems to be playing the right notes, but it sounds flat? That’s often the fault of the bass player, who may be playing the right notes in all the right places, but without any feel, or groove.

What is ‘The Groove’ ?

That’s the million dollar question. Its what all the great players have – listen to Missy Raines, Mike Bub, Todd Philips. Even when they are just playing simple ‘Root Five’, it sounds perfect and the band that they are with sound perfect. That’s because the notes they are playing are in exactly the right place with exactly the right tone and attack. So what do I mean by that? ‘The Groove’ is a mixture of Tone, Timing and Feel.


When we play a single note, we pluck the string, which vibrates and makes a sound. What note that is (also know as the pitch) is controlled with where we are fretting the string with our right hand (or the string may be open). However, how that note sound is controlled by what we have done with the right hand. Lightly stoking the string will produce a weak, indistinct note. Gently plucking it will create a clearer but quiet note. Tugging at it hard will create something that is loud but not necessarily pleasant. What we are after is something that is clear, distinct, and firm. It’s very hard to describe in writing, and something to practice, trying different approaches until you are happy with the sound. Using the tip or the side of the finger will affect what it sounds like, and to get what we are after requires experimentation until you find what suits you, with your instrument, as no two people or basses are the same.


Its no good having the best sounding note if its played in the wrong place! Bluegrass in particular requires a strong rhythmic feel, and at the heart of this is the bass player. An ability to play in time is an absolute must, and one of the best was to do this is to practice with a metronome. Effective practice is a whole separate topic, but using a metronome is at the heart of this. It is only by having good timing that we can contribute towards the elusive groove. If the bass player is in time, then the rest of the band will be as well. Even if another player in the group is not in time, as long as the bass player is, then the band as a whole will be in time.

In someways, it is one of the hardest things to practice, as we tend to be very good at telling ourselves that we are in time when we are not. A good way to test this is to record ourselves playing along with the metronome. When listening back, ask yourself if the notes are being played exactly at the same time as the metronome click. Is the bass note just in front, or is it happening just afterwards? 


Once we have have conquered Tone and Timing we then have to think about Feel. Although the bass player must have a good sense of time, playing must not sound like a computer. Feel is a lot to do within what notes we play, and how we play them. There are lots of thing to consider, such as how loud is a particular note played, how long is it ringing for, where about are we playing it on the neck. For example, a G can be played on the third fret of the E string or the open G string. Both of these are the ‘same’ note, but sound different. They are at different pitches, and will sound quite different on most basses, as the E string and the G string are different thicknesses and have different tones. Which note to play is a completely subjective view, and at the heart of having a good feel. 

Who’s in Charge ?

In most bands there’s a band leader. At sessions, someone will normally lead each song of tune, so it’s natural to assume that they are in charge of the band. But are they?

Leading from the back

The bass player traditionally stands at the back, so that the rest of the band can hear the bass, which is a good illustration of who is really in charge when a group is playing. The bass player can make or break a performance, be it a gig, a practice, or a jam session. A solid bass player will be able to help the group speeding up or slowing down, and if they are playing with a good groove, then the rest of the players will be able to relax and sit on top of it. 

It should be the case that bands will be able to stay with the bass player, and part of rehearsing should be to make sure that everyone is playing together, and in time. In a session, things can be a bit more unpredictable, and this is the the bass player has to work harder top keep things under control. An essential part of the bass players groove is playing the right number of notes. If a session is trying to get faster, then simple, solid, ‘Root / Fifth’ playing will help it to stay in time, rather than intimate walking bass lines. Where a session has an inherent feel, the bass player can play more melodically, without compromising the performance.

Although the main focus for a bass player is playing in time, there is also the question of what notes to play. Constant ‘Root / Fifth’ playing will make the group stable, but the bass player can also led the band with the harmonic changes, as they are just about the only instrument that starts to change chord before the chord change appears. (The exception to this is where the guitarist will play bass runs to change chords).

Walking bass lines serve to make playing over a chord more interesting, but also help to move towards the next chord. This a whole separate topic which is covered elsewhere, but is all part of the bass player’s role, in leading from the back.