Bass Players, Payin’ Their Dues

How did these guys get where they are today?

November 29, 2018

I know you know it’s not easy to “break in” to the music scene and become an in-demand working bassist. When we look at people like Chuck Rainey, or Leland Sklar, sometimes it’s easy to forget how hard they worked to get where they are. Rather than a offering up a sober reminder of how you have to grind it out, do schlocky, cheesy gigs for little or no pay, without knowing if it’ll ever pay off, try to remember why you wanted to play music in the first place. Obviously, it satisfies something inside you.

I got to thinking about all this after my interview with Luke Bryan bassist James Cook, which we published this week. In the interview, James talks about all those gigs he used to do, just like a thousand other players, in the dives on Broadway Street in Nashville (if you’ve ever been there, you know what I’m talking about). Why do people do it? The general thinking is, someday you’ll meet someone on the gig and form a relationship that will lead to something substantial, or maybe that the “right” person will be in the audience, a producer or contractor who likes what you do and could really use your services.

In the meantime, though, you’ve got to pay the bills. In my first interview with Blasko (Ozzy Osbourne), he talked about working in a clothing store until things started happening for him. Johny Chow of Stone Sour shared how he’d done his fair share of work as a bartender.

Abraham LaborielStudio legend Abraham Laboriel paid his dues on the way up

Phil Chen recounted moving from Jamaica, all the way to England, in order to get work. After slugging it out, doing whatever gigs and sessions he could, Phil’s 6-month visit to London turned into a 19-year stay, where he ended up working with the likes of Rod Stewart, Brian May, Jeff Beck and many others.

Even the Beatles paid some serious dues, honing their craft night after night in, shall we say, “less than optimum” conditions.

Abraham Laboriel is one of the most recorded bass players ever. When Abraham moved to LA in 1972, he went with the expectation of finding work pretty readily, as he was told there was room for good electric bass players. Despite having connections like Johnny Mathis and Henry Mancini, Abe still had to sweat it out until things started happening for him.

But something else very significant came out of my conversation with Abe. He recalled how Henry Mancini had told him, “I can’t help you, but your peers can, and if your peers like you, they are the ones that are in a position to open doors” for you. I’m pretty sure Mancini was referring to musical prowess, but it got me thinking about something else that applies to everyone: Don’t be a jerk! Show up on time, give the music what it needs, be humble, and be pleasant to be around (I can think of a few professional athletes who would do well by this credo too).

And of course, you need to be prepared. John Myung recalled how he and his Dream Theater band mates would go to class at Berklee during the day, then spend six hours or so every night practicing together. Did they do that because they hoped that “someday” it would pay off, or did they really just love what they were doing? Whatever the reason, they did it. And things turned out pretty well for them.

Anyone who’s serious about a career in music has got to pay some serious dues. If things work out, great. If not, hopefully there’s some solace in knowing that you’re following your true passion, doing what you love.

Have a thought on paying dues, either from your own experience, or somebody else’s? Leave a comment below, and let me know what you think.

In the meantime, check out my interview with James here.

3 comments to Bass Players, Payin’ Their Dues

  • Stuart Balcomb

    I was a vibes player at Berklee in 1971, studying with Gary Burton. It was his first year there as a teacher. I was in an ensemble of his with about 4-5 mallet keyboards, Rhodes piano, two drummers, a boatload of percussion, and Abe on electric bass and Chip Jackson on acoustic bass. I think there were some blowers as well. Gary arranged all the tunes by Michael Gibbs, Carla Bley, and Eberhard Weber. It was an amazing sound.

  • Patrick Pfeiffer

    This is nice!
    Excellent article!
    Thanks, Jon!

  • Andrew Hudson

    Back in my ’20s, I thought “I have no problem paying my dues, but hot damn! I also have PAY MY RENT!” I came to peace a long time ago that being a full-time professional musician wasn’t in the cards for me. But I ended up using all the skills I learned on the gig (thinking on my feet, improvising, being ready for the gig, working together to create beautiful things, knowing when to lead and when to support, basic emotional intelligence) to become successful in national/local politics and as an entrepreneur. Today, I play music on my terms – about 6 gigs a month – and not worrying about where that next $100 gig is coming from. I tell my wife my gig money is my beer money. And I feel terrible that there is still so little respect for musicians. Clubs think musicians need them more than they need musicians. World class musicians hustling for that $100 gig. America’s relationship with musicians has got to change. My 18-year-old son makes $200 in 2 hours as a valet parking cars. I play at a jazz club for 4 hours and make $100. Something’s not right.

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