David LaBruyere is a bass guitarist, songwriter and producer who has been in the music industry for more than 30 years. He’s worked with Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Shawn Mullins and collaborated on several albums with John Mayer. David explains the art of working with a bass guitarist in the band, how to get the best out of them, the Nashville scene and his time as John Mayer’s bassist and collaborator.
iSing: What is the role of the bass player?
DLB: If you look at a band architecturally, the singer and the drummer are the core and the bass guitarist is the glue between them. The bass guitarist plays a lot of root notes and simple rhythms. They give the singer a foundation on which to sing melody. Because it’s low frequency, the bass guitar often falls under the radar. When a bass guitarist shifts gear, often the listener just notices that something has changed, but they can’t pinpoint what that change is.
iSing: What should a singer know about the bass guitarist’s role?
DLB: Sometimes singers overlook the bass guitarist. When they want to make a change, but can’t quite find what they want, they’ll look to the guitar player or the piano player without realising the bass guitarist could help. There have been many times on sessions where I’ll hear the singer say something. I know what they mean but I don’t say “Let me change this on the bass guitar”. I might just suggest we try it again and I’ll make a few subtle shifts. No one will have any idea that I’ve changed what I’m doing, except perhaps the engineer. Then the singer will say: “That’s great. That’s more like what I wanted.” But they have no idea what has changed.
iSing: What are some examples of how working with a bass guitarist well can subtly influence a song?
DLB: Listen to Willy Weeks play bass on Donny Hathaway Live [Spotify] He uses small pickup notes in the second half of a verse to create a little bit more excitement. He doesn’t create a distraction, but he lifts the excitement. Also listen to Tony Levins on Double Fantasy [Spotify] – the John Lennon and Yoko Ono album. You can hear the progression of the bass guitar, the note placement and the way that he sits a note varies as the song progresses.
iSing: What common mistakes do singers or bands make when working with a bass guitarist?
DLB: One piece of advice for a young singer or band is not to flood the performance or rehearsal space with low-end frequencies – that is the first thing that will throw a singer. When low frequencies start bouncing off reflective surfaces and start becoming slightly sharp or flat you get what we call a rub. This is when frequencies hit each other, creating something that’s not a note, just noise. That’s the first thing that’s going to make a singer lose their tonal centre.
iSing: What information should a singer offer when working with a bass guitarist?
DLB: The difficulty is a lot of people don’t have the language to communicate what they want. If you’re going to hire musicians, start with a good recording of the song. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you need to be able to hear the lyrics and the chord structure. Outside of that, it depends on the circumstances. If you’re preparing for a tour, the whole band is going to develop naturally. But it’s best to start by finding the singer’s comfort zone – and then go from there. Don’t try and reinvent a song on the first day of rehearsal.
If a singer wants to communicate more detail to me as a bass player, I prefer it in the form of a chart. Put what you want on the chart. I think using other recordings for reference is the last resort. For me, the aim is to make something happen that’s not directly influenced by another recording. If you’re trying to do something original and figure out your sound, work with the musicians and the producer without using other recordings as references. You want to find the things that are unique to you.
Get David’s extensive advice to singers on working with a bass guitarist on our YouTube Channel
iSing: You’ve worked extensively with John Mayer. How did this collaboration influence your music?
DLB: I was introduced to John by a mutual friend at this great music venue in Atlanta called Eddie’s Attic. Eddie’s was like a second home to me and John was playing there. John and I just clicked. We started talking, and it felt like a friendship began with the first conversation.
John has a 360-degree view of what he does artistically; he sees the visual, the lyrics, the music, and how the melody and the content of the lyrics affect each other.
John wrote a lot of material for his first record while we were sitting together with the drum loop. I would then introduce something rhythmically or melodic, a countermelody that would then take him into a different direction and vice versa. The way he wrote was very fluid in real time. There were times where we’d be playing a show at Eddie’s Attic and he would end up writing part of a song on the fly. There was a certain amount of egging each other on. I think we influenced each other.
iSing: You’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville. How has it changed over the years?
DLB: I started coming to Nashville regularly in 1993. At that time there was a thriving music business with world-class players, great singers and artists who had longevity. There was a lot of money coming in. But anything that was outside of the country genre was really outside of the local economy.
Since then the entire recording industry has shrunk to such a degree that it’s much more open to other genres now. The doors have swung open. Now there’s so much happening and what’s called country music isn’t really based in country music. It’s based in pop music, but with some elements that would identify with country music.
iSing: What are the benefits of being in Nashville?
DLB: When you come to Nashville, you see where the bar really is. If you’re considered a standout singer in your town and everybody champions you, then you should come here. You’re either going to up your game or figure out what to do with your life and what role music plays in your life.
On the downside, if you spend a lot of time here constantly listening to other people’s music and talking about the music business, it can start to feel old. If you feel like your own voice is starting to get lost, it may make sense to move somewhere that’s not a music business hub. It’s important to be aware of how your surroundings influence you and do what’s healthy for you.
iSing: What is your advice to artists trying to make a career in the music industry?
DLB: Be prepared to give, not receive. When you’re playing a show, you’re not there to receive anything from the audience. You’re there to create something that is part of people’s day or week. We all need to make a living, but this is a lifestyle choice. It’s okay to have expectations and to want to reach the largest audience possible but do it by being yourself. I don’t navigate my career by finances. I navigate by finding the music that I want to do and pursuing that.
iSing: What’s next for David LaBruyere?
DLB: I’ve been a studio rat for the past 10 years. I’ve never really been a big touring musician, but I’m going to do more touring and continue to do more recordings from home. If you’re a singer and you need to hire a band, hit me up. I’ll help you!
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