This is the second in a series of articles on the best ways to learn how to play a particular instrument of your choosing. I will go into greater detail and focus on important aspects on how you can make learning to play exciting and maybe even have a little fun too.
In my previous post I started with the guitar, now it’s time for that other stringed instrument usually found playing a supporting role but is no less important when performing in a band. The bass guitar.
The bass guitar holds a special place in my heart because it’s the one instrument that allowed me to form a band with some of my high school friends and it really fits my personality: don’t mind laying low and kind of groovy!
I am going to share just some of the best ways to start learning the bass and pretty soon you’ll be “play that funky music…”
The Role of a Bass Player
Many bass players may be happy with just taking a backseat from other members of the band, especially the guitar player or even the drummer – yeah, they get most of the attention. A good, competent bass player knows it’s his or her responsibility to provide the foundation, the backbone that holds up the other instruments. You could say bass players are like the “bones” or skeleton that helps the rest of the band stand up and play. In genres like jazz and blues, this means settling into a groove and locking in with the drummer. In hard rock and metal, it means providing that extra oomph to the guitar riff, you know it when you hear it – that punchy sound that hits you like a ton of bricks.
The bass player in any band, be it rock, jazz, metal, or pop, acts as a vital link between the drummer and the rest of the band. A good bass player “locks” in with the bass drum and help to form a link between the main beat, or pulse of the music from the sound of the drum to the rich sound of the harmony and melodic content of the music. Think of the bass player as the “bridge” between the main melody of the guitar or keyboard player and the driving beats of the drummer.
Bass players, like myself, prefer to lay low rather than being the focus of attention. They are content with being part of a team and grooving to the rhythm of the music. They are not the flashy, “look-at-me” type. But there are plenty of bass players who are the focus of attention in their bands, and plenty of guitar players who would much rather focus on the music and not be in the spotlight, for example , Bootsy Collins, Flea, or Geddy Lee.
Here’s just a partial list of some the greatest bass players who know their role and where I found my inspiration and where you can find inspiration as well: James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, the aforementioned Bootsy Collins, Flea, and Geddy Lee, Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Paul Jones, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Cliff Burton, Billy Sheehan, Geezer Butler, Lemmy Kilmister, Steve Harris, Carol Kaye, John Myung and so many others.
Buy Yourself a Bass
Bass guitars come in a wide variety of types and styles, most have between four and six strings, some even have as much as eight strings, I even seen some with ten strings, but the most common is the four-string variety which is perfect for beginners because of their availability, price, and relatively short learning curve.
Like any other instrument, bass guitars vary in price with starter models usually priced under $200 dollars and top-of-the-line, custom-made, professional models that can cost thousands. As with anything, you get what you pay for.
Most starter models today are perfect beginners because they are made with a decent build quality and some even come bundled with a bass amplifier and some accessories.
When seeking out a bass guitar, set yourself a budget and have a clear understanding of what you want out of your new investment before handing over your hard-earned money.
Once you decided on a budget pay a visit to your local music store. Go ahead and start playing with the available models in your price range. Remember the most important factor is making sure the instrument feels comfortable to hold and to play. As a beginner you’re going to spend as much time as possible playing and practicing so you want a model that feels “just right.”
As you get better and better playing your bass guitar, you may decide you want to invest in a better instrument. When you arrive at that point it’s good to have more of an understanding of the pickups and electronics as these will play a pivotal role in shaping your own signature sound. But as a beginner you needn’t concern yourself if your bass has the latest humbucking gold-plated double coil active pickup. Most beginner no-frills models have more than adequate electronics inside and are suitable when you are just starting out. These beginner models usually just have just a volume and tone knob, 22 to 24 frets, and passive pickups.
Many of the well-known makers of bass guitars have excellent beginner models: Fender, Ibanez, Yamaha, Gibson, Epiphone, Music Man, and so many more.
For now, just focus on finding an instrument in your price range that feels good under your fingers and comfortable in your lap. Most beginner basses have adequate electronics and four strings. Play a bunch of different instruments and choose the one that feels right for you!
You Will Need Some Accessories
Once you decided on a bass, you will need some accessories to go with it. First, get yourself a strap so the bass can hang from your neck and shoulders while playing standing up. Make sure the strap is adjustable and comfortable to wear.
A guitar/bass stand is a must if you need to stand your bass upright rather than just leave it lying on your couch. Besides, it looks real cool standing there waiting to be picked up.
Since the bass can’t make any sounds on its own you’re going to need an amplifier. A small practice amp that’s rated at 25 – 50 watts should suffice. Any number of manufacturers such as Roland, Fender, Crate or Ampeg just to name a few make excellent, affordable practice amps which can be had for under $200.
And a gig bag is nice to have if you plan a schlepping your bass from gig to gig plus it great for storing your bass when not in use.
Tune Your Bass
Tuning your bass can be a little tricky especially if you’re a beginner. But the more you do it, the easier it will get. Tuning your instrument is crucial especially if you’re going to be playing with other musicians. Nothing is more displeasing to the ears when you are playing out of tune with the rest of your band mates.
The bass is tuned to the same four notes as the 4 lowest strings on the guitar: E, A, D, and G. The only difference is the bass is tuned one octave lower than the guitar.
If you’re playing with a guitarist and he or she is in tune, you can have him or her play the four bottom strings. Turn the tuning pegs on your instrument to match the pitch of the guitar.
If you have a piano or keyboard handy you can simply match the pitch by turning your tuning pegs. And of course, there are apps for your smartphone that will help you tune your instrument in no time.
Electronic tuners are available and make tuning a snap and are relatively cheap.
Listen and Learn
One of the most important things to do as a beginner is listen. You need to listen to what you are playing and make sure you are playing it right. Are you playing in tune? Do the notes sound clean and distinct. Do the strings themselves sound OK? Are you getting the right kind of tone from you bass? These and other things are what you should be listening for.
To Pick or Not to Pick. That is the Question
Many bass players believe that playing with a pick is downright sinful. I myself don’t really use a pick and prefer to let my fingers pluck away at the strings so I am more “old school” that way. However, some of the great well-known bass players like Paul McCartney were known to occasionally use a pick, depending on the type of song they were playing.
So, should you start playing with a pick? There’s no right or wrong answer, it depends on what you prefer and what kind of music you plan on playing. If you’re into metal, rock ‘n roll, or funk, a pick can be very handy in getting the right hard tones, and especially for the fast tempos these genres are know for. But if you’re more into jazz, blues, or pop, you’ll want to use your fingers for more mellow or subdued, muted tones.
Learning to play with and without a pick is a great way to quickly learn more about the different styles and moods of certain genres, as well as learning to appreciate other genres of you may not have heard before.
Learn Music Theory
Should you learn music theory? Heck yeah! Not knowing any music theory is like a mathematician not knowing how to use equations and symbols to express his ideas. Or, how would you be able to learn an another language if you don’t learn how to read and write in that language.
I have heard many musicians out there who claim music theory is just too difficult to learn and it just “gets in the way” of their creativy, or they really don’t need it because many of their musical heroes never learned to read or write musical notation. That maybe true, but I believe music theory can boost your level of understanding and open up many new creative possibilities. When I first started taking music lessons for my saxophone in junior high school, I had to learn how to read and write musical notation and know what melody, timing, and other musical concepts mean. And guess what, it wasn’t that hard! I learned how to read music in a matter of days!
Having at least a rudimentary knowledge of music theory and notation goes a long way. As you progress in your musical journey, you may find yourself somewhat left out of the loop or out of sync with your band mates if you don’t understand notation. How else will you be able to communicate or express your musical ideas to others?
If you want to flex your creative muscle, you need to know concepts from songs you learn such as the use of rhythms, the way the notes are placed, what key signatures are being used, what tempos are being used and other various musical concepts. This is absolutely essential if you ever want to compose your own basslines and music. If you don’t study what makes the bass lines tick, you’re only going to limit your playability and creativity.
If you want to know what makes basslines and music work, you have to study the building blocks of music — melody, harmony, and rhythm, timing and tempo — as well as the technique to produce them. If you’re not studying the foundations of music, you won’t be able to make as much use of and make sense of the music you are learning and you will only grow more frustrated.
Learning to play any instrument is quite a challenge especially for beginners. It’s possible you can teach yourself how to play bass guitar, but it’s a good idea to study with a qualified teacher. They can help point out any mistakes in your playing, challenge you, and help you avoid bad habits. A good teacher will offer direction, inspiration, support and encouragement to get you through any difficulties that you may encounter.
If you are unable to get a teacher there are plenty of resources available such as books, apps that not only teach you but also keep track of your progress and of course there are vast number of YouTube videos to learn from.
Even if you decide to go your own route it would be of great benefit for you to seek out other musicians who are on the same skill level or have progressed ahead of you and just jam. This will help you to learn to play with others, expose your mistakes and learn from others.
Variety is the Spice of Life
The one thing that I think that will set your bass playing back is just sticking the one genre of music you care about. If you are the kind of guy who is only into metal or only likes jazz then you are limiting your abilities and you will not grow as a musician. Try not to define yourself as only liking one style or genre. Sure, you might prefer metal, but you might learn some useful concepts in funk or country that you can apply to metal.
Would you eat just spaghetti and meatballs every single day for the rest of your life? I don’t think so. You will soon get tired of eating the same thing over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, I love spaghetti and meatballs but I would get sick of it if I had to eat it everyday.
So why just limit yourself to one genre of music? There are so many other varieties of music to listen to and to learn from. I know I would get bored just listening to the same songs over and over again. There’s a whole new world of music out there for you to explore – music that can teach you new things and give inspiration for your own ideas.
Remember to Have Fun
Learning to play bass or any other instrument for the first time can be intimidating and nerve wracking. Don’t get overwhelmed with having to learn so much too quickly. When I first started, I studied my lessons in small chunks so it would be easier to digest. You are not going to learn anything when you try to take in so much information all at once. Your brain can’t handle it and you will only make learning more difficult. Pace yourself. Try to learn the fundamentals first before tackling that favorite songs of yours.
If you find yourself getting stuck somewhere and having some degree of difficulty, stop and put down the bass, take a breather and try to figure out what is causing the problem. Ask someone like a music teacher or someone with more experience to help you out. Check with your band mates to see if they can provide some answers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember, playing your bass should give a sense of satisfaction and joy, and most importantly don’t forget to have fun!
Rock on \m/