A Pianist’s Perspective on Why a Real Bass is Better

The other day, I was asked to be a last-minute substitute in a musical theater production of All Shook Up. I laughed when asked if I could handle the job because all I needed to do was play the bass part on a keyboard. That meant I was reading just one note at a time for most of the show (there was only one double-stop I needed to play.) Since I am an excellent sight-reader, reading one note at a time is ridiculously easy. I could almost do it with my eyes closed (that’s a joke.) I did find it odd that there was no bass player. Why use a keyboard instead of a real bass? But the show was in full-swing; opening night had gone by, and it was not my place to ask questions, so I took the job.

The part was not difficult, note- or rhythm-wise. I got just about every note and rhythm correct. However, I was surprised at how tired my left hand became. The notes were easy, but the part was not idiomatic to the piano. I have never really played a bass part on a keyboard, though I play piano-y things in the bass section of a piano all the time. The two are quite different. The real bass part required me to play too many fast repeated notes. Some keyboards and pianos literally cannot keep up with fast repeated notes due to the time it takes for the key to bounce back up to be played again – something that is not an obstacle on a real bass. I also had to turn my hand in strange ways and make uncomfortable jumps which were not as smooth as they needed to be for the music. This put a greater strain on my hand than would usually be felt playing a left hand part written for the piano.

My son is a bassist, and I have played a little bit on his bass. Additionally I have some, though limited, experience playing other string instruments. I understand how the strings work and the general location of notes on the strings. As I played through the show, I thought to myself, “This surely would have been much easier for a bassist to play than it is for me.” Again, the part wasn’t hard – it just was a bit uncomfortable.

I never did ask why they didn’t use a bassist. Perhaps since many of the pit members were students at the school, they didn’t have one to ask and got a pianist to fill in the part instead. The keyboard and stand with my seat and the amplifier took up more space than an electric bass and amp set-up would have. The sound quality of the keyboard didn’t compare to the real thing. I was glad to get the job and have the opportunity to show off my ninja sight-reading skills, but in truth the part would have been better on bass.


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