We’ve all either been there, or are there now – you’re bass skills aren’t where you want them to be, and you know you can be better, but you just don’t know how to get there. You listen to your favourite players and dream of ripping out those killer fills and runs, you try to play faster, or smoother, or come up with creativity on the fly. You get frustrated, you maybe even quit for a while.
But you’re a bass player! You don’t end up quitting for long, but the frustration still lingers.
So how do you make the quantum leap from just being good to being awesome?
Ask any experienced bass player and they will give you a version of the below 5 disciplines. It may be boring, and you may not always feel like it – but these 5 little things are guaranteed to break you through to where the groove is deeper.
1. Practice long-form major scales
I don’t know if that’s the proper name for them – it’s just what I call them. Let me explain what I mean.
You may be used to practising major scales like this:
What I call long-form major scales go like this:
You are restricting yourself only to two-fret reaches for each step. The benefits of this are twofold:
(a) it forces you to stretch your fingers, improving your reach, and
(b) it forces you to move your hand around the fretboard more.
By doing this, you are expanding your usable workspace on the fretboard and getting your fingers used to landing those awkward gaps. Before long you’ll be landing those octave leaps and key changes like they’re no big thing.
Start easy, say a D major scale starting on the fifth fret of the A string, but don’t stay there. Challenge yourself until you’re ripping these things out on the F.
2. Practice pentatonics
You can mix it up with the above technique on these or you can keep it close. But if you’re like me and have trouble coming up with cool fills on the fly, pentatonics are your saviour.
Don’t just stick to the majors on these either – for most rock tunes, the minor pentatonic is the go, because it fits in with both rock and blues sounds.
As a reminder, your minor pentatonic is like this:
The main benefit of practicing these things is in building your muscle memory – making them second-nature so they just come out at the mere thought of them. Eventually, when you’re at a four-set gig that starts at 11pm after you’ve been working all day and you’d really rather be home in bed, these bad boys will give you endless fill-fodder.
3. Play every day, no matter how little time you spend
This is my biggest challenge. It’s hard when you’re actually at home at 11pm after you’ve been working all day and being in bed is a viable alternative to pulling the bass out, but it’s totally worth it.
It comes back to our good friend Mr Muscle Memory. It doesn’t matter if you play one scale, or one pentatonic, or one halting version of your favourite song. What you are doing is training your fingers to see playing the bass as everyday reality. Your warmups will get shorter and your playing smoother.
And in all honesty, there is always the chance you get carried away, get caught up in a whirlwind solo session and finally nail that three-string run you’ve been trying to get down forever. You never know your luck.
4. Pick a song you love but can’t play, and practice it until you can
Without exception, every major advance I’ve made in my own bass skills has been a direct result of being forced to play a song I can’t play. There’s nothing quite like having to sweat it out on a line you’re hopeless at because you have to play it on stage next week.
Fortunately, this is a discipline I (eventually) learned to employ even when I was not under pressure. I’ll pick a song that I love but that also represents a technique I have yet to master. Yes I will download tabs as a guideline, and maybe obsessively watch the same 5-minute YouTube clip for hours on end, but I will always rely on my ear as my primary guide.
I still remember the first time I finally managed to lock down the bridge of Tom Sawyer. I nearly went through the roof in sheer elation. It inspired me to keep going, and I gained valuable skills that transferred itself into every other song I played.
5. Practice with a metronome
Argh! The M-word! How could you Lloyd?
But in all seriousness, the metronome is a misunderstood and undeservedly maligned tool. Wait! Let me explain…
It seems to me that people hate metronomes because they’re not “natural”. You’ve heard and – let’s face it – probably used this excuse many times before – “come on, man, how many drummers do you know who play metronomically perfect? Didn’t think so!”
But you’re missing the point. You don’t play with a metronome to get your timing perfect. You play with a metronome to develop your own inner sense of tempo.
Have you ever been to see a band that were awesome, and wondered why they were so awesome? Have you ever been to see a band that sucked, and wondered why they sucked? Being the analytical misfit that I am, I spent many an hour in my university bar, watching five bands in succession, wondering this very thing. What is this quintessential element that makes bands either rock or suck? Is it the skill level of the players? No – sucky bands can have awesome players. Is it the song choice? No – I’ve heard two different bands cover the same song; one went off, the other sucked. So what is it?
The one single thing that determines whether good players suck as a band or not is their collective sense of tempo. If the drummer is playing a straight four, do your straight notes line up with theirs? If both the guitar and the bass part are syncopated on the same line, do your syncopated notes happen at the same time as theirs, or is it a mess?
It’s the collective sense of tempo between the players, with all players feeling the tempo at the same speed and space that makes a band awesome, and it’s the metronome that will help you develop your own sense of internal tempo.
Practice with a metronome long enough and you’ll get a feel for when you tend to rush, when you tend to slow down, and when you tend to just tread all over a nuanced line, and you will improve. Your well-developed sense of inner tempo is what makes you groove, what makes the crowd’s hearts beat in time with your bass and what makes you an awesome bass player.
Remember this analogy
When I was at university I studied jazz. All the young players were so busy trying to be the next John Coltrane or Herbie Hancock they didn’t lock down the basics. My singing teacher put it this way:
“You have to learn to play inside the fence before we let you out in the field. We’ve given you plenty of space in here! There’s lots of room to move! But prove to us you can play inside the fence, then we’ll let you out in the field”.
The above disciplines might sound boring, tedious, repetitive etc. But if you’re serious about taking your bass skills to the next level, you will learn to play inside the field first before you try to jump the fence.
What do you think? Would you add anything to the above list, or take something away? Let us know! Drop us a line or comment on our Facebook page. Let’s make this a two-way street.