Welcome to the second post in my "tone hunter" blog series. Throughout my time as a developing bass player, having explored many roads seeking the "next level" of playing the instrument, I have found several things to be true. These truths are what I like to think of as the "cut the bullshit" paths to skill and knowledge development. I present below some of these findings in the hope that you take them onboard and employ them in your weekly practice time. In 6 months message me back and let me know how feel now as a player? We're looking for a noticeable "new version of you", something is definitely different, in some way just "better".
As I mentioned in the previous post, it's about the journey! If you've chosen to play any instrument, and aim to gain some proficiency with it, accept that it is part of your life. The time you put into it will keep paying you back over the coming years. You must be prepared to work for it though, it's the only way. Grafting hard on your playing doesn't have to be a "grind", it must be balanced out! Yes drilling arpeggios in a variety of shapes and sequences must be done, but this can be balanced out with some improvisation in your routine, or learning bass lines of artists you like in an attempt to replicate the style.
There are many ways to get better at bass guitar, if you take nothing else from this post, please remember that what matters is that you are "doing". Be proactive about just getting better, what exercises or methods you choose to work towards that "better" is not as important.
Having said all of that, here are my top tips to develop your bass playing skills in an efficient manner, saving you time in the long term.
Make a good space for practice.
Before we get into the what to practice, we must sort out your practice environment. Where you practice needs to be an environment that is none distracting, tidy, and with everything you need to get going quickly. This space needs to have a feeling about it that doesn't put you off wanting to go there, it really wants to be somewhere you don't mind sitting and spending some time.
Having moved a lot over the years, I have somehow managed to achieve a minimalist approach to my practice space. Everyone needs a room, or even an area of a room that is dedicated to playing bass. With minimal gear you can have a modest setup adequate to all your needs. The space in the picture below is where I practice. It's not a whole room (as i've had in the past), it's the right hand corner of my living room. The room itself isn't massive being a cottage, so this forced me to be stripped back with my needs. When i'm sat in this space i'm "at work" so to speak, so I try to minimise the amount of distractions in the room like the TV etc. My conscience won't allow me to have more than one night off practicing in the week, when i'm in this room and in this space its simply "to play".
I'm sure there will be some science somewhere to backup my observations, but I can attest to this one as a large factor of getting better, simply because you have created an environment that suites that purpose, and thus more inclined to visit this space more frequently. More frequency means more hours practiced, which in turn = you getting better faster.
What's in my setup? well i've got a simple small folding table (doubles up as my photography table when doing small product shots etc), office chair (graciously donated by Sean Webster), mood lighting in the form of a lamp (lamps and a nice relaxed feel to a space). For gear i'm using my 2011 Macbook Pro, an Apogee Duet (Mk1), a Klark Teknik D100 Active DI box, and a pair of Sennheiser over ear headphones. Everything is routed through Logic Pro, which is essentially always setup on a bass amp template, using native plugins, nothing fancy here. The last elements are the various software programs regularly used. These are, in no order of preference;
iReal Pro - Basically my practice band in a box, great for running through some jazz charts, making your own backing tracks for scale / arpeggio practice. etc etc.
Spotify - Great for researching artists / players styles. I usually use it in the van whenever i'm driving to absorb one artist / players style. I create a playlist for learning later.
iTunes - Buying tracks from the spotify list, organising them, and dropping into Transcribe. iTunes also holds playlists for any projects i'm working with. In the case of a bit of downtime, I can dive into a playlist before upcoming shows just to freshen up parts. Any books I buy for studying (I like books) that contain a CD gets added to iTunes so there is a backup if Iose the original disc.
Transcribe - Fantastic bit of kit for working out other peoples parts by ear. You can slow down music without altering the pitch, loop a current section, mess about with the EQ etc. Massively helpful stuff if you learn a lot of songs...... and you ought to be learning a lot of songs thats for sure.
Thats it! the odd book here and there to study of course, but by and large a simple effective "silent" practice solution, at least an ideal of sorts to aim for. You only need the basics, you can add to this over time, but don't get into the trap that more gear is better! gear quality matters, not the quantity. So start basic and go from there.
So you wanna get better at bass in less time?
This is a massive topic and can be a bit bewildering. The longer you have been playing the more you find out there is to learn, the harder it is to focus on "what should I be doing now?" I've been there and its not nice. But all it takes is a change of mindset. Stop wasting time trying to research and analyse what the best thing to be practicing is, don't concern yourself with the endless possibilities and which one is right. You would be better turning the attention to you first. What do you want to be able to do? pick one area like...."fretboard knowledge" I.e. how do I play something that fits with what other instrumentalists play, whilst having the freedom to go where I want on the instrument with minimal thought or physical effort. I and many others need to refine this constantly because we play a lot with various musicians and styles in our life time, we need to be good at this skill in particular. So this topic area would be a good "general topic" to be working on / refining. If you know what "skill needs" you have personal to you, this is where to start with setting a long term goal for yourself.
Set a long term goal
What I now have from the above self analysis is a GOAL for myself. This is something I will now pursue until such a time as I feel enough of an improvement, or need a change in topic / stimulus to keep motivation in my practice time. I don't give up easy though, so a minimum i'd give any topic is 1 month. It takes what it takes! if its 3 months and you're not ready for a change for a bit....carry on! go with what you feel, just make sure you've felt some improvement first though.
The goal can come from inspiration of other players ability, an analysis of your own playing from a recent live show video, whatever! pick something that interests you and you don't mind doing a bit of graft on. See if you can push yourself up a notch in that chosen skill area, this is THE AIM, nothing else matters but that. Don't worry about losing skills gained in other areas because you're not focusing on them, you're playing bass with a purpose now, your brain, hands and fingers are still being used, you won't lose anything if you are "doing".
Be careful not to have too many goals at once either, it requires much more dedication to maintain practice in several topics, even though you want to develop them all. My answer to that is "cycle topics" every few months, this will keep things simple, and not bog you down with guilt if you cant face practicing because it there's too much to get through, we need you to "want to practice!"
So decide on a goal for you, something achievable over a few months. Not to master completely, but to see a noticeable difference in your ability. It can as simple as "I want to use all 4 fingers of my fretting hand when I play" this would be a good overall beginning goal. As would "I want to be able to add bass chords into my playing". They are both specific goals that you can find material to practice in a routine.
Work out a strategy
In order to save time with your practice sessions, or more importantly not waste time, I have found after you've got the right environment for practicing sorted, and a goal has been identified & defined, the next thing to look at is what exercises / activities are going to get you there.
Letsq take an example here. Lets say currently I'M wanting to develop my ability to throw in a variety of appropriate bass fills into songs I'm playing. In order to achieve this I need to source some material to work on. This material will need to contain within it all the areas i'm looking to develop. In this instance my inspiration will likely start with other artists / bass players for the inspiration. So as i'm in my Pino Palladino man crush stage at the minute, i'll start with him, specifically his work with Neo Soul legend D'Angelo, and the great John Mayer Trio. I listen to tracks as often as I can, mostly in the van when driving for good distances. I create a playlist in Spotify of all the songs with interesting or just 'damn cool' fills in. Now i'm gonna work my way through these in the coming practice sessions, mostly using Transcribe software to slow down and loop the parts, so I can hear / Analyse whats going on.
What i've done is find an activity that if completed will edge me a bit closer towards my main GOAL. This is really "Transcribing", only i'm not writing down the music, i'm just working out what he's playing. This is one activity in my routine for today, and may be part of my routine for several months until I feel enough development has occurred for now and I need new a stimulus or topics to work on.
I would likely add topics into a session that works with other aspects of the goal, this might be scale and arpeggio practice drills to one chord backing tracks, in a variety of patterns and positions. I always practice these things anyway, as they hold the key to seeing the overall map of the fretboard. That takes time, so I give them time.... a lot of time. In one session though only 30mins - 1hr max, as its only part of the session. The ability to recognise arpeggio and scale patterns on the fretboard gets better with repeatedly playing those patterns in a variety of note sequences and rhythmic patterns, not straight up and down all the time, you should only do that when learning a new pattern position / shape, purely because you only want to be focused on teaching the fingers the pattern nothing else at the start.
The key word here is "Analyse". Just learning / copying the fills alone from a piece of music alone won't be enough on its own. This will give me the phrasing of how to play like that, but it won't be any good for helping me throw my own fills into songs. Why? because I have no understanding of how one particular fill works over the music underneath by just doing that. I must learn this fill yes, but then I must find out "how" it is functioning over the music. This will give me something to practice in the next stage where i'll be improvising fills to a backing track, more on this in a bit. So i've found a fill, slowed it down, learnt it exactly as it is played, now i'm looking at the notes being played for the following information:
- What are the chords for this part in the tune under the fill? (grab a chord chart from the internet is the fastest way)
- What are the "chord tones" in those chords (arpeggio notes that make the chord)
- Are any of those "chord tones" in the fill itself? there will be some, because that is how it fits with the chords underneath!
When we get to this stage, and if you have some arpeggio patterns & modes under your belt you'll quickly see whats going on, and how the fill is connecting to the chord. For now if you can spot the arpeggio notes (chord tones) in the fill, look at the other notes used in the fill that may have been borrowed from a mode / scale. This will dictate whereabouts the chord you are on is in the harmony of the song. This is useful for learning the rest of the song, as it is gives you a reference point by which you can work out the chords likely to be around you, and thus the scales and arpeggios that go with them. This makes learning songs faster because you have a good idea of what notes are likely to be being used as the chords change. Much easier than trial and error hunting for the right notes.
I realise I digressed a little there, if you aren't sure what the hell i'm on about with the whole Chord Tones, Arpeggios, Harmony thing then post in the comments below. If there is need for more exploration on those topics, they would make an excellent practice topic/s for you, no? It's essential you know intellectually and can play these things physically, they are the building blocks of everything else. Chip away at them over the years, just do it! is my best advice. I'll do a lesson on my approach to practicing these things in another post for sure if it helps.
So, as this is an article about saving time, lets recap on how we've saved time thus far. You have worked out a long term goal so you have something to focus on for the foreseeable future. This means you're not aimlessly noodling for an hour and wondering why you're not getting better. You've also worked out some activities to chip away at over time that will push you towards the main goal. These can be from Youtube videos (recommend www.scottsbasslessons.com), songs, books you've bought etc etc. the main thing is they are working on the specific skills related to the main goal. Don't have too many of these at once, i'd say 3 topics broken up over an hour or so is plenty. Having the source material sorted you just need to plan it out in a routine. This will organise your time in a balanced way so that no time is wasted here also.
plan a routine
Using the same example above, an idea of how I might organise a suitable routine to follow for a few months might be like this:
1hr total time (minimum) per session
- Warm up - Scales & arpeggio drills to backing tracks - 20mins
- Transcribing - Learning and analysing fills by example artist / player - 20mins
- Improvising fills over a backing track or any music, mimic style of artist - 20mins.
The warm up scale / arpeggio work is priming my brain and hands for working with the building blocks of music. This is going to help towards the long term goal, as mentioned before, it is unveiling the fretboard to me, seeing all available options is the goal. As this takes time I do this every session, and have done for years, it's good for you!
The transcribing / analysing is helping me make a connection between the building blocks, now fresh in my brain from the previous exercise topic, and the "music" in the piece of music I'm transcribing. As the building blocks are in my brain and hands already I can spot their use in real music more easily. This connection is what gives you the ability to reuse the information later down the line when improvising your own ideas. The stronger you make this connection the less restricted you will be when coming up with ideas on the fly, improvising fills and solos etc will come much easier.
The Improvising to backing tracks / other music at the end of the session, is the culmination of the harder work before it. Here you get to work on the direct skill set out in the initial long term goal specifically. Improvising fills over other music. It's not rocket science working out what you need to practice. Just like here in my example; to get better at being able to improvise fills over tracks on the fly, I "must do just that". The very act of repeatedly improvising with my new material, even if it sounds crap at the start breeds familiarity and comfort over time. Thats what I want! So there must be adequate time for improvising in this particular routine for me.
It sounds daft really, but the biggest problem I see with people that moan they aren't progressing is they are not "doing" what they know they should be doing. You have a method now, try it.....give it 3 - 6 months at least of regular practice. I don't mean everyday, but a good portion of the week should be set aside for practice within your lifestyle. Me i'd say I currently average at least 4 hours a week when I'm busy performing, its nothing! Some weeks its more etc. But I don't bust my balls about it, but I never do less than 4 hours spread over a week, and I invite you to be disciplined about it, you are training!
Can you do more time? yes of course! just spend longer on each topic. Don't push yourself to hard though, the body can only learn / process so much at once to be usable, and we don't want any injuries do we! Make sure you feel like your hands and fingers have "worked out" by the end of a session, not destroyed, just functioning well with strength and fluidity of movement. This feeling is what initiates the body to go "this guy wants me to get better at this", "i'd better adapt", and we need to adapt.
Lastly and very importantly we need to periodically review how we are getting on. This sounds formal, but it isn't really. All you need to do is to develop your self assessment skills whenever playing or practicing. Turn on the "awareness monitor" in your brain that monitors how you feel whilst doing an activity. When I play i'm aware of how my limbs feel, tight, slow, fast, lubricated. I'm also analysing my sound, my bass tone, my dynamics, how the instrument feels connected to me (strong or weak) etc. This monitoring is a background process that will eventually just sit "on" in the background whenever you are playing. It may be a conscious effort to start with, but keep doing it, it's gonna be your biggest friend in the future! It doesn't come over night, but just try to be aware whenever you are playing as much as you can, before you know it, it will be automated.
This awareness helps you make faster decisions in a live environment & help you choose new practice topics, as you will start to unravel other areas of your playing you want to develop in future practice sessions.
- Choose a long term goal, assess skills required
- Source practice material related to required skills
- Devise a routine from the material and get organised.
- Practice at least 4 separate hours a week minimum
- Switch on your awareness and review progress
- Give it at least 3 - 6 months
- Don't be in a rush, do it right! trust it will come.
Thanks for reading, if you have any comments or questions on any of the above, please get in touch / comment, I always reply. My parting advice is this, where possible keep things simple, don't over complicate practicing, or playing, progress happens over time, don't lose heart, trust the method and keep going, the new you is waiting up ahead!.