Join us for our traditional look back at the news and features that floated your boat this year. This story was originally published in August.
Best of 2023: Amos Heller is playing on the biggest gig in music history right now; Taylor Swift's Eras tour is breaking records all over the place, and as a longtime member of her band he's got an inside perspective of a bassist at the highest level of popular music. And he still puts in the work every day.
"If I'm going to have fun, I need to be prepared," he tells the Scott's Bass Lessons podcast. "The more prepared I am the more fun I have."
"Faking on bass is the worst thing in the world," he says about being unprepared for a gig and trying to wing it. And if you want to get the job when vacancies come up, you need to put the time in. He's got a system that any musician preparing to learn a live set can benefit from. And it doesn't result in having charts or iPads in front of him onstage.
"Something I would always recommend is learning a song, especially an artist's song – covers can be their own thing – but if you get a demo that has a bass part on it, learn it ice cold. Get it exact as much as you can. Every fill. Try to solve the puzzle of, are they shifting here or here – is this third fret on the A or eighth on the E? Try to get that as much as you can.
"If the artist is most comfortable with it exactly like the record, you always want to be able to say yes. 'Can you do this exactly like the record?' Absolutely. That takes homework. If it's a little bit looser and the drummer is doing something different, follow that – read the room, do the thing. But the second somebody goes, 'I want this exactly like the record' you want to be able to say yes to that. I would recommend that because it will make you learn the song deeply and you'll find yourself cueing lyrics and drum fills.
"This is a recent thing for me too but try and play it in the clear, not even wearing [headphones], pick up your bass in your room, count it off in your head and come in when you're supposed to come in and see if you can play the whole thing with nothing [not accompanying the music]. What I've figured out for me is that takes a lot of time. I wish I was one of those folks that can hear a song two or three times and just do it but I'm not. I don't have a lot of formal musical training in that sense so I need time. And I can set myself a diet of around two songs a day at that intensity, that I can learn all the way through ice cold."
But the songs will still need refreshing – Heller never gets complacent. "If I'm doing it right and I've got ten songs to learn and the artist wants them exactly like the record, that's five days, for me," he explains. "Because [learning] that third song [in the same day] isn't as good. I've tried it. Not only is the third song not as good but then song one and two start suffering as well."
The system the bassist has works for him, but more prep will sometimes go into the evenings as Heller works around his children at home…
"If I'm really after it then the day session is learning the two songs; so one and two, then three and four, five and six [on other days], then when the kids go to bed, repetitions. Just run them all – run the set, get used to – if we know the set order – how you can hear the next song from when the last song is over like on an album, or a mixtape you've really fallen in love with.
"Because there's gonna be variables on the day," he points out. "There's gonna be. The mix is going to be weird, there's a last-minute substitution… you may find the singer [you're working with] doesn't have a ton of experience or maybe they're having a rough day, you may find yourself leaning over to whisper lyrics. Anything you can do to make the gig go better, you prepare, prepare, prepare. That's my approach broadly; take it as seriously as you can. And for me it's just time – making sure I have the time to give the attention to the thing that it needs."