Why Do You Play Bass?

Is it because all the “good” instruments were taken?

November 15, 2018

Having conducted somewhere around 600 bass player interviews (so far), I’ve found only a handful of players that started on bass as their first instrument. Most bassists, it seems, began on other instruments, then, for a variety of reasons switched over. The list includes everyone from Paul McCartney (trumpet) and Lemmy (guitar), to Mark Egan (trumpet), Will Lee (violin, trumpet, French horn), Chuck Rainey (piano, viola, trumpet, baritone horn), and many others.

This week’s interviewee, Scott Whitley, was actually a drummer before he became a bass player. “I kinda got pushed onto the bass,” he says, thinking (hoping?) it was only temporary. Then he discovered Mark King of Level 42 and decided that “bass was cool.” Scott eventually embarked on what turned out to be a long and successful music career – as a bass player. Currently playing with Big Country, Scott has also held down the low end for the Animals, Boomtown Rats and loads of other musical acts.

Many of your favorite bassists (including Will Lee) started on other instruments

We bass players have come a long way, from the days when our stature was that of an “unimportant” player. The bassist was just someone who stood in the background and went 1-5, 1-5 all night long. Or, as the inimitable Mike Watt once told me, the role of bass was “where you put your retarded friend” (his words, not mine).

While we may not be 100% there yet in terms of having attained all the respect we deserve, the bass has truly become a force to be reckoned with, indelibly fixated on the musical map, thanks in no small part to Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Billy Sheehan, Marcus Miller, Hadrien Feraud, and so many other great innovators (not all of whom started on bass, actually).

How about you? Did you go straight for the bass, or did you take more of a meandering path to get down here? Feel free to leave a comment.

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

17 comments to Why Do You Play Bass?

  • Pete Bremy

    I started on drums because of, who else, Ringo. Later I wanted to play guitar because it was difficult carting drums around before I could drive, but my friend talked me into bass because “we already have enough guitars.” I never regretted it. Also, I credit my drum skills for making me the bassist I am today. I can think like a drummer and lock better. Yeah, bass wasn’t my first choice, but I saw the light.

  • Joe Dashiell

    Although I played clarinet for small time in second grade as well as piano lessons at that time,it wasn’t until I was 15 and my buddies wanted to start a band, since they had guitar and drums taken, I was selected for bass. As I learned Beatles songs and Led Zeppelin, cream etc I began to love it. It moved me. Later as I learned other Instument such as guitar and mandolin I found my true calling was the Bass.

  • marcus davis

    My Mother had me take piano lessons when i was a kid ,then i discovered Billy Cobham and switched to Drums ,then my Mother bought me a cheap Bass and i gravitated towards that.So my main instrument now is the Bass but i still dabble with Keyboards & Drums when i’m recording tracks.

  • George McConathy

    In either December 1964 or January ’65 my next door neighbor, who could play piano, a couple of friends, one had bought an elec. guitar & the other played drums in school, and myself decided to start a band. I had a really old acoustic guitar I had paid $5 for. The first time we played together I said I needed to buy an elec. guitar; my neighbor said I should buy a bass. And the rest, as they say, is history. My mother took me to Sears and let me buy a Silvertone bass and a cheap amp.

  • john

    I began my foray on violin

  • Vivian Tanis

    I tried guitar but it was too complex for me. I love so many instruments, but I love the sound of the bass. I have been in bands as a singer but wanted to do something more and the bass in my husbands man cave called me. He tried to learn it but gave up. I went in there for a flashlight and for some odd reason the bass stood out among the clutter. I jacked it. Why waste such a beautiful object that has made me feel good about music. I just love it.

  • David

    My mother was a music teacher and required all us kids to take 2 years of piano. At age 10, my mother walked in the door one day with a cornet. I played that, and a little tuba, for 7 years. At 17 I got a classical guitar. (Gettin closer. ) at 19 I bought my first bass. (The instrument that stuck)

  • Chekwalah

    I started with an inexpensive 12 string guitar with a warped top and mile high action. I couldn’t chord with it or barely pick a melody. The Bass Gods looked down on me and wept. As their tears hit the strings they began to break eventually leaving me with only E,A,D. So I wound up sitting in my room with a transistor radio learning all the pop hits of the 60’s. Eventually I bought the crappiest bass and amp ever made and one thing led to another.

  • Dave

    While in grade school they passed around song flutes to see if any kids had any musical ability. My Dad at the time was a music professor so naturally…..any way then they passed around photos of music instruments. Naturally all of the male kids pointed to the drums and was told not everyone could pick the drums. So I picked the next biggest instrument I could see which was the stand up bass. Been playing the bass ever since. I’m 57 by the way.

  • Darrell Aquino

    I started off playing guitar when I was 10 yrs old. When I turned 15 an friend wanted to learn to play the guitar so I helped him get started. He got so good that I said let’s make a band and I’ll play bass. That was it, and I’m glad I did!!

  • Aires Pereira

    I’m proudly bass player and was st the first time the instrument that I thought….. yeah !!! I want play bass like Steve Harris 🙂
    Since more than 27 years I dreamed to be as I actually I’m , a touring musician. As a session player or in Moonspell that it’s my band since 16 years ago over the world .


    Don Aires Pereira.( Moonspell)

  • John Sillasen

    I began guitar lessons at 8 years old. By the time I was 12, there were enough kids in town and even nearby towns that another rhythm guitar made Tommy James look like an orchestra so what could I do, compete or be a stand out? I made my own bass by piecing together a Hagstrom bass neck on to a “Norma” guitar body playing through a battery powered or AC Olsen Electronics amplifier with a 6 or 8″ speaker. I was part of ‘the band.’ College saw a return to guitar with a classical guitar as my major instrument. Hey, at least the neck was wider, right? Although I tried string bass for the orchestra. Ended up taking lessons with a senior student in the orchestra because as the orchestra conductor said to me, “we don’t play pizzicato all that much, you must use a bow.” German or English bow? Classical guitar rocked some great jam runs. Another 20 years later, I had my first Chapman Stick and then a Stick Bass but my favorite is still my ’64 Gibson Thunderbird IV.

  • Mick Holland

    I actually started on Bass, and have never wanted to play any other instrument. in 1967 I saw Geezer Butler on “Top of the Pops”(a British music show) and knowing at that very moment that he was the koolest M/F on the planet… and I wanted to be that kool as well. A few short weeks later I was introduced to King Crimson(with John Wetton), Yes, Jethro Tull and was immediately hooked on Prog… still a Bass player, Still Progger…

  • Terri Templeman

    I started out playing accordion (gasp!) in elementary school and all the way through high school. Then, like everyone else at the time, I taught myself guitar but could never get past those basic chords. I thought about playing bass at that time but figured it would be too complicated for me to learn. When I was 30 I decided to take the plunge and have been playing ever since!

  • Dennis LeBlanc

    I started playing piano and I loved the low notes, then I saw Chris Squire of Yes at The Montreal Forum in 1978. A week later I purchased a Ricky copy by Univox. I have been playing bass now for 40 years. I have met so many of my current friends, because I played bass.

  • Paul Martin

    My introduction came as an invitation in Junior High School to be John Paul Jones in a Air Guitar Led Zepplin band for a talent show (this was 1976).
    My parents bought me a used Peavey amp and a Fender MusicMaster bass for My birthday the folowing year and I have played bass ever since then.
    Once I heard and saw the Chapman Stick I wanted to transition and play that. Many years later I purchased a 8 string SB8 from Stick Enterprises.
    Play both now for fun.

  • Rae Runge

    Started on piano and got to grade 6 Toronto Conservatory but never liked playing the piano. Picked up a tenor guitar in the early 60s and started playing with my cousin in folk clubs. Moved on to a 6 string classical (which I still have a play periodically). Was in college in 1961 and my room mate had a Hofner bass and I started messing around with it while he tried to learn the trombone. The bass was something that just felt “right” and I began playing it regularly (almost exclusively) in about 1985. Have been playing ever since.

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