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7 Ways To Improve Your Playing

OK . . . this is going to piss off a few bass players, but I’m just going to say it:

Bass is easy to learn.

Come on bass players, let’s just admit it to ourselves and everyone else. The bass guitar really wasn’t that difficult to figure out, was it?

Unlike guitar players, who had to figure out chords, scales, leads and solos, or drummers who had to figure out how to make their four limbs work together and separately at the same time, we had it pretty easy.

If you could afford a couple quick lessons or had a decent ear, you were off to the races, thump-thumping to your heart’s content.

At its most basic level, bass is a pretty simple instrument. Unless you’re into some weird, freaky-ass jazz fusion kinda shit, you can get away with banging out root eighth notes most of the time. Learn to play the right notes, more or less in time, and you pretty much have a gig for life.

And there’s the problem — so many bass players learn to get by on so little skill because their services are so in demand.

Let’s face it, we all get lazy. Especially when no one is pushing us to get better.

So here’s my challenge to you: Is your playing sub-par? Get better. Already pretty good? There’s always room for improvement.

Here are 7 ways to improve your playing:

1. Play with musicians who are better than you.

Nothing will motivate you to get better as much as the prospect of being a band’s weak link. Nobody wants to be the guy that can’t keep up. So seek out opportunities to play with musicians who are more accomplished than you are — and then work your ass off so you don’t embarrass yourself.

2. Explore different genres.

I’ve always been a rock guy. But a few years ago I spent some time with a band that did some country music. I HATE country music, but it was a great learning experience — especially in the art of walking bass lines. I later put those skills to use in an original hard rock project.

3. Play only with the best drummers you can find.

Everyone knows that drums and bass go hand in hand in creating a band’s foundation. A great drummer will elevate your bass playing to new heights. A shitty drummer will drag you (and the rest of the band) down into a pit of mediocrity. The drummer needs to be the most accomplished member of the band. He’s the quarterback of the team.  And it doesn’t matter how strong the offensive line is, if the quarterback gets sacked, or fumbles the ball, the play is over. So if your drummer sucks, get rid of him — even if he’s your buddy.

4. Think like a drummer.

Better yet, think like YOUR drummer. Your job as a bass player is to lock in with the drums. Period. You need to tune into your drummer on a much deeper level than other members of the band. This takes time, but you can speed up the process by studying your drummer’s playing. Watch his kick drum foot. Pay attention to how and when he plays cymbal accents and fills. Over time, your playing will begin to take on some of your drummer’s characteristics. This is when you know you’ve found your groove as a rhythm section.

5. Find a bass guitar that you’re comfortable with.

Don’t play a bass just because you think it looks cool or because your favorite bass player plays it. A bass has to fit you and your playing style. Basses come in a variety of styles and shapes. There are different neck sizes, pick-up configurations and on-board electronics. Even a bass’ inherent tonal qualities will affect your playing ability. A bass that doesn’t feel or sound the way you want it too will impair your playing ability and negatively affect your playing enjoyment. Try different basses until you find the one that feels right. Experiment with different price points.  Don’t assume that a higher-priced bass is the answer. That $3,000 boutique bass may feel like the worst piece of crap you’ve ever played, while the $400 Squire Precision fits like a glove. Be open minded and don’t worry about what other people think about what you’re playing.

6. Practice with a metronome.

To get the most out of your practice time, make sure you’re using a metronome. A metronome keeps you focused on what’s most important to your role as a bass player — rhythm and timing. Start at about 100 beats-per-minute and work on playing nice steady quarter and eighth notes. Every few minutes, bump up the beats-per-minute so that you’re spreading your practice across a range of tempos. Do this for 30-45 minutes every day and watch your chops improve dramatically.

7. Ask your band mates for feedback.

Finally, no one knows your playing better than the musicians who play with you all the time. So don’t be afraid to ask them for some constructive feedback. They may be able to point out things about your playing that you are completely unaware of. As musicians and performers, we tend to be a little sensitive and resistant to criticism, but a little feedback can go a long way in motivating you to get better at your craft. Your band mates rely on you to be the steady, driving force that keeps things nice and tight — so give ’em what they want and everyone will be happy!

21 thoughts on “7 Ways To Improve Your Playing

  1. Hi Thabu,

    Thanks for your comment. I’ll be posting more very soon. Maybe I’ll follow up this post with another 7 (or more) ways to improve your playing.

    Thanks for visiting!

    Paul

  2. Hey, these kinda helped.
    I’m in a band called Sacred Wasteland and we can’t really communicate very well, as you guessed I’m the bassist and we don’t really seem to have a lot of practises, BUT! I’m going to follow these tips to the best of my ability and I’ll get back to you.

    Thanks x

  3. Hey Sarah, glad you liked the post!

    Practice, practice, practice . . . it’s the ONLY way to get better!

  4. “Come on bass players, let’s just admit it to ourselves and everyone else. The bass guitar really wasn’t that difficult to figure out, was it?”

    There are varying levels of complexity for all instruments. Violin for example, requires more athleticism than other instruments. Musicianship and artistry essentially have nothing to do with complexity.

    There are many elements to playing a stringed instrument:

    Dynamics, pitch, meter, rhythm, articulation, harmonics, phrasing, timbre, melodic motif, rhythmic motif, relative harmonic relationships changing as to the root, etc.

    One thing missing from the skill set and artistry of many beginner bass players I’ve heard is the understanding that bass is actually -not- a simple thing, rather it involves many things besides just plucking one particular note after another in a certain order. Articulation is crucial for quality bass playing for example, and is the sign of a mature player.

    Yada ya…

    It’s true that 6 string guitars have a complex matrix of possible harmonic and sonority choices (the timbre changes for a particular note, depending on where you choose to play it), but complexity can exist in the nuances that define the difference between monkey motion and the work of an expressive artist.

    🙂

  5. Oops…

    “Musicianship and artistry essentially have nothing to do with complexity. ”

    Well, I misstated my idea here. I think what I am trying to say is that complexity exists in music in many dimensions or areas of playing a particular instrument. That the basic things people think of when learning, like pitch, duration, dynamic and meter are just the beginning. When the basics become more refined there are still many other ways to turn an instrument into an expressive voice. It’s like building a vocabulary of techniques and then putting them all together.

    Hope that adds to your topic!

    😛

  6. What is articulation?

    Here’s a simple thing to try:

    Play one note on your bass, but experiment with ways to make it expressive, all the things you can do to make that one note different. For example:

    Fretboard finger pressure, duration of finger pressure, timing of finger pressure, damping notes with fretboard fingers, sliding up to or down to a note, bending a note up or down, picking with a pick or with fingers, the type of pick used, picking force, picking up or down, using the thumb, growing your fingernails or trimming them off, damping with picking fingers, damping with the palm of your picking hand, damping with the pick, double picking i.e. up and down, or picking in just one direction i.e. up or down, how close to the bridge you damp with your picking fingers or hand, where you pick in relation to the pickups and harmonics along the length of the string, etc.

    If you experiment you will find many other things…

    Build a vocabulary of skills and techniques, then choose the things that you like or that fit the song or style and you will have built a vocabulary for expressive playing, not just note plucking. Eventually, like learning to ride a bike, if your reach a level where you’re playing becomes second nature, then you may find that you can enjoy playing more than you thought possible. 🙂

    Me, I’m still trying to remember the notes! 😮

  7. Hey Sky . . . thanks for your comments. Yes, that adds a lot to the topic for sure! I guess the best way to sum it up is that the bass is easy to learn, but difficult to master. I think that’s where most bass players drop the ball, and was the point of my post.

    Just about anyone can learn to pluck notes . . . not everyone can develop an expressive and nuanced playing voice.

  8. very good comments sky … couldnt agree with u more … but one thing i would like to add …. “6 string guitars have a complex matrix of possible harmonic and sonority choices” … when a player gets to the level of expression of a veteran player like myself, the six stringed instrument seems to be easier to play …. the options would appear to be less on a 4 string bass but in fact there are many ways to compensate … slipping in the odd chord here and there for punch for example …. or plucking a chord over a few beats much like a rhythm player would do for a ballad opens the mind for different routes to take for transitional runs ect …. i guess my point really is that there are just as many optons on the bass …. they are just harder to find and/or implement sometimes … a six string player has more freedom than a bass player since the bass player must follow a strict line of confinement to create whatever groove or feel that the song requires …. and still be able to break out in the forefront for what i call the “look at me” parts …. for example …. as a young guy i always heard so much about billy sheehan and what a great bass player he was …. i was never really impressed at all …. in my opinion he was a shredder … no groove … just a lot of notes in a short time … in some cases it was most of the song …. not what a bass player really needs to be …. then u look at some of the jazz greats … they are chording …plucking … slapping ect and doing some really complicated stuff that leaves ya with your mouth open thinking holy shit that is cool …. what makes it cool? … the fact they can do so much and not lose the groove …. and of course with only 4 strings …. dont ever think as a bass player u are in the shadow of the almighty six string …. many really good guitar players cant play bass the same as a real bass player

  9. I’m glad you were able to notice that people would not like your “bass is easy” comment. It’s because it has NO backing.

    You said guitarists have to learn chords? have u heard of bass arpeggios? guitarists have to learn scales… SO DO BASSISTS. And guitarists have to learn leads? A bassist who can’t do that is just a limited bassist.

    don’t single out bassists and say it’s easy when many of the major guitarists do nothing but jam their easy power chords, any instrument is as difficult or simple as you make it.

  10. Hi G . . . I don’t think you quite got the point of my post. The point is that to some extent, bass player can get by on much less technical skill and musical knowledge than guitar players, especially when they’re first starting out. Lots of bass players never get beyond the rudimentary skills they acquired when they first started learning the instrument . . . because they get lazy. That’s what I’m trying to point out. Essentially what I’m saying is that the bass is easy to learn, but difficult to MASTER.

    I certainly didn’t write this post to slam bass players . . . since I AM a bass player (and it’s the only instrument I play).

    Thanks for visiting my site, and thanks for your comment!

  11. I have been playing an instrument for 7 to 8 years and I have just started playing bass last summer and I think bass is my favorite instrument to play. But I would just like to say thank you for the tips and I know that they will come in handy soon thank you Paul for your advice.

  12. Hi Paul. Thanks for the tips. I totally agree with your statement about bass easy to learn, difficult to master. Took me 2 weeks to learn the basics (played classical guitar for 7-8 years previous finger style, so already had the moves) but now 4 months down the line, I am getting better and more used to harder bass lines and compose ones that I find difficult to play but push until I have it. Only way to get better! I am determined to be a great female bassist, not just a good one 🙂 x

  13. I am a bassist in BBC band @jigo in Bwari frm Abuja. NIGERIA., The following tips u’ve just left will heIp ar löng way thanks alot ull hear 4rm me.

  14. Hey Sankar . . . I wouldn’t call that a problem. If you really want in-depth knowledge of chords, scales and modes and that sort of thing, I would definitely formal lessons with a qualified teacher. If you want to teach yourself, there are lots of great books out there, but that takes a lot more time and trial and error. Also, find some good accomplished musicians to hang out and jam with, and soak everything you can from them!

  15. These are pretty important tips tbh, especially the metronome + drummer ones. I play bass in a death metal band so keeping up is pretty hard – I’m hunting out anything online for practicing two handed tapping/playing, 5-string scales and pretty much anything I can add to the start and end of my practice regime as just practicing the songs we play is making me very lazy.

    Cheers!

  16. dude, thanks for the recognizing the plight of all us drummers out here. a lot of us get slammed for having an “easy” instrument too, but like you said, doing the same and separate things with all four of your limbs at the same time isn’t simple. the same problem that you talked about here exists drumming. if you can get a few basic rhythms, fills and half-decent double-bass, you can play for 90 percent of these “metal” and “hardcore” bands out there and most people just stop there. its not until you start studying the intricacies of the instrument that you really find yourself intuitively playing music and REALLY enjoying it.

  17. Thanks for the tips! I’m actually only 13 years old, but our school joined me in a band clash as the bassist….My dad is a guitarist, bassist and keyboardist. Only we’re not really close. These tips would really help me before the competition!

    Thanks again!:D

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