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Getting Better On Your Own

When I was six years old I can remember cutting the strings off my dad’s tennis racket and attaching one of his belts to it to make my first “guitar”.  I faked playing along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” on the radio.  I finally got my first real electric guitar (a Washburn Lyon, by the way...) when I was 12.  It wasn’t until six years later that I moved over to bass.  For someone who grew up wanting to play music for as long as I can remember, it’s a little odd that I never sought out any professional training on how to play.

If you’re like me, a self-taught, converted guitarist, it can be difficult to know how to get better at bass.  When you don’t know scales or theory, the only way to get better is to play, and play a lot.  Play with any band that will have you - it will make you better.  If you can’t find a band, try starting one.  Play with the best drummers you can find...even if you can’t keep up because it will make you better.  Practicing with a metronome is another guaranteed way to make you a better player.  I’ll get into all of these tips in more detail with some help from some guest bass bloggers over the next few months. 

For now, let’s talk about a fairly simple way to get better at playing the bass.

This exercise is something that anyone can do. It will take everyone varying times to complete it, and some people will get more out of it than others, but it’s good to do regardless of your ability.  It’s a little like telling a room full of people to go outside and run a mile.  Most people can do it.  Some can do it in under five minutes wearing flip flops.  Others won’t make it to the end of the street and it will take them weeks or months to build up to completing the mile.

Here’s the idea.  Pick a handful of songs from bands you are currently listening to, bass players you like, or your all-time favorite bands.  Then learn the basslines to those songs by ear.  Listen to them over and over with your bass and figure out the bassline.  Don’t find the tabs online.  That’s like running the mile on someone else’s back.

By playing the bass parts of other players, you will be surprised by how many things you will learn.  Notes to play over certain chords, when not to play, right and left hand techniques that you’ve never thought of, and the list goes on and on.  As you figure out the bassline, think about what you would have played for that song.  It’s also a really good exercise to try to mimic the bassist’s tone on the song.  Mess with your EQ and dial in some effects until you get close.  I’ve found that being versatile with your equipment gives you a better flexibility in your live performance, as well as when recording to find the sound you’re looking for.

Whatever you do, don’t try to do this on laptop speakers.  I spent around $80 for a little Boston Acoustics laptop speaker set.  Two small desk speakers and a powered subwoofer that you can crank while trying to make out the bass parts.

Here are the five songs that I’m going to learn:

1. Cake  “The Winter” from the album Showroom of Compassion

Cake has been one of my favorite bands since the first time I heard “The Distance”.  Their bass player, Gabe Nelson, is incredible.  Just about every Cake song centers around a catchy, pocket-groove bassline played on some flatwound strings.  See Cake play live, you won’t be disappointed.

2. Adele  “He Won’t Go” from the album 21

This is my favorite song on the album, and the bass part is Pino Palladino at his best.  A great example of an insane pocket bass groove.  Pino is one of my all time favorite bassists.  He plays stuff that I would’ve never thought of, stuff that takes me a lot of practice to even be able to play, and he plays a lot of different styles of music well.  He also knows when NOT to play and when less is more.  There will be a lot of Pino talk on this site.  If you don’t have D’Angelo’s album Voodoo - you need to buy it now.  Pino’s bass parts on “Playa Playa”, “Devil’s Pie”, and “The Line” to name a few will make you a better bass player.

3. John Mayer  “In Repair” from the album Continuum

I’m a big fan of this song and it’s overall feel.  Charlie Hunter on his 8 string bass-electric guitar hybrid.  It’s pretty amazing to watch him play that thing.  You should really check out the video “One Song, One Day”.  It shows John Mayer, Charlie Hunter, and Steve Jordan getting together in the studio to write the song.

4. Hall & Oates  “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” from the album Private Eyes

Yep. I’m going Hall & Oates on ya.  T-Bone Wolk was as solid as they come on the bass.  Daryl Hall referred to Wolk as the “ampersand” of Hall & Oates when T-Bone passed away last year.  Check out the Very Best of Hall & Oates for a trip down memory lane.  You’ll be surprised how many great songs these guys wrote - it’s impressive.

5. 311  “Don’t Tread On Me” from the album Don’t Tread On Me

Last, but certainly not least - you’ve got to have something from P-Nut.  I worked at a local drugstore when I was 15, and the assistant manager gave me the 311 Grassroots album, and I’ve been a fan ever since.  When I started playing bass, I developed a whole new appreciation for this band.  P-Nut has a unique tone, very versatile playing style, and his plucking hand work is amazing.  Listening to 311 has made me get a lot better at my right hand attack.  This song also shows how well they go back and forth from a heavy, straight-ahead drive to a pocket groove.  Something to add to your music bucket list: see 311 on 311 day (March 11th).  The 2012 show is in Vegas.  Start training for it now - because they play 60+ songs. It’s one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had, hands down.  

Alright, let’s get to work!

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