A couple of days ago, I came across a Fender video on YouTube. It was promoting a signature P-Bass, named after Mike Dirnt, the bass player for Green Day.
I did like several of their songs when I was younger, but even back then, there was nothing about Mike's playing that struck any interest in me. He did his job okay and had a steady playing, yet he was just your every punk band's just-picking-nervously-the-roots-and-doing-nothing-else bass player. But hey, what he did was fitting the band's style, and I assumed for a long time that there would be nothing else to expect from the guy except this clichéd simplistic playing.
And he just erased that thought in the first five seconds of the aforesaid video, in which he played some intense and expressive slap sequence.
Later on in the same clip, he played a couple of chords for a short progression - to which he added a few harmonic variations, and even if that bit wasn't as technically impressive as the slap sequence, it was still executed well and had a nice melodic feel going with it, something I just never heard in punk bass playing before.
Even if I enjoyed being this pleasantly surprised by a simple P-Bass video, it kept me wondering. Seriously, if Mike had such capacities as a bass player, if he was indeed a much more versatile musician than what his band's style would need, why did he keep his bass lines that simple and unexpressive for years of career?
Don't get me wrong, guys. I don't know every single Green Day song by heart, far from it. I'm sure you Green Day fans can come up with a couple of songs in which Mike did use one nice turnaround or two, or did something that was more melodic than what he usually does. But seriously, has the guy been doing anything else than just bland and repetitive E string picking for all those years?
Which brings us to what I wanted to debate with this article.
Should we call someone a "good musician" because of what he's able to do as a musician? (to keep it simple, we'll just consider technical abilities, versatility and mastering of scales and modes)
Or should we instead deem someone a "good musician" if that person is able to write actually good and creative musical pieces, regardless of his overall ability as a musician?
If we consider that question stricto-sensus, it's all going to be in your abilities and nothing else. Mr. One is going to be a better musician than Mr. Two because, for example, he can play effortlessly at faster tempos, knows by heart way more scales and chords, is able to give more nuances to the notes he plays, ecc.
Furthermore, just because you are able to use several techniques and melodic variations doesn't mean you have to use them all in every single piece or song that you write. Sometimes, keeping it simple and efficient is better for the listener, especially if you're playing a simplistic style like punk rock for that matter. Some might say a good painter is not a painter that uses every single color he can get his hands on, but a painter that purposedly chooses the best suited colors for the effect intended by the artist.
If you're attempting to write an instrumental on the guitar, trying to cram too many fancy techniques like harmonics, tapping, or tricky finger picking, might make the thing sound too confusing and unfocused. Even if you've got a steady beat or melody going on, what you are trying to write may lose its original spark and be overshadowed by technical prowess - the kind of technical prowess that both general listeners and trained musicians tend to reject.
Thus, it would be fair to admit that what matters is not what you're able to do, but what you're able to tone down according to the style you're playing. In Mike Dirnt's case, even if he downplayed a lot of his bass abilities for Green Day, what he did with that band suited perfectly what was required from a pop-punk bass player, and that way, we could say that it makes Mike a damn fine player - who's also able, thanks to his musicianship, to outplay most punk bass amateurs that just stick with that one style.
Or is it? Just because a particular genre that you need to play - for whatever period, be it just a jam session, or a lifelong career in Mike Dirnt's case - requires you to stay in a certain niche and re-use certain "cliches," does limiting yourself to such standards actually make you a better musician? If you're not able to do your own thing out of it - all the while respecting such fundamentals, is there anything special about you at all, and so, is there anything interesting about your musical abilities?
If I stay in the rock dominion for the purpose of keeping this article short, I can still come up with several examples of musicians who have been able to showcase brilliant elements of their musicianship into songs which are inherently pretty simple and "mainstream-friendly," to say the least.
Let's quote a band. One of my favourite acts of all time, Deep Purple. If you break down most of their well-known songs, you'll notice that they are quite simplistic in terms of melody and diatonic construction - just like most rock songs, actually. Yet this band has been able to let each of its musicians express their own personal thing and perform elements of their own musicianship, thus making the songs and the band unique, and admired by critics, musicians, and casual listeners alike.
Let's quote a guitar player - we're on a guitar website, aren't we? Jimi Hendrix. He started up as a blues and rock player, but the man was able to give a great harmonic content to what those genres' niches have been so far. He included jazz chords to pop progressions and gave a tortured yet expressive feel to traditional blues soloing licks. To say that good old Jimi left its mark on both his musician peers and generations of listeners would be an understatement.
Let's quote a bass player - after all, I titled this article and started this reflexion because of a bass player. Allow me to choose my own personal favourite bassist, a legend named T. M. Stevens. He's mostly known as a session man, having worked with international acts such as Miles Davis, Billy Joel, Joe Cocker, Steve Vai, James Brown or Cyndi Lauper, just to name a few. He also recorded several funk metal albums. On these records, most of the songs have typical metal or rock chord progressions, yet he is always using a very distinctive bass playing style over them, mixing distortion to crazy slap beats and keyboard-like harmonic chords. His solos are also impressive too, fast and jazzy - it might be an influence from his early jazz gigs and maybe his unreleased sessions with Miles Davis.
Unfortunately, Stevens never enjoyed the same success as the other two acts I listed above, but still, he created himself a strong identity over a genre that was already established, and he is often quoted as a world class player.
In that regard, I think I would personally stick with the second point of view. Even if I was genuinely impressed by what Mike Dirnt was able to do in a video that wasn't even 3 minutes long, I still consider that he is not that great of a musician to begin with. Sure, he did his job okay, suited the style of his band, and kept the same quality of playing for years of touring and recording. Yet, he kept the thing simple to the point where his bass lines showcase no identity or musicianship, and could have been written by any other punk bass player. Thus, there is nothing memorable about those bass lines and the bass player behind them.
Of course, this is just my opinion on the matter, and I barely brushed the two sides of the question. Please share and comment, guys. Take care of yourselves, and play some more music.