How to Play the Bass

Fender Bass Teacher 5


How do you become a great bass player? How do you know what notes to play, how to articulate rhythms, how to play in the pocket? How do you make a band sound great, by laying down a fantastic, solid bass line that leaves no holes for anyone to fall though?  I had to think about and attempt to articulate some answers to these questions to them when a friend of mine asked me how I knew what to play when I played bass.How to Play the Bass

It’s a very interesting question, and one that gave me pause. How do I know what to play? I mean, I’ve been doing it for so long that at this point, I “just know.” I don’t have to think about it all that much from an intellectual standpoint anymore. It’s more or less automatic. I hear a groove and a chord, and I think, “Oh, it’s that thing, it’s that thing…”

But when I was asked the question, “How do you know what to play?” I had to stop and think of a way to explain (to a non-musician) how it was that I knew what to play. I thought about it for a few minutes, and then I gave an answer, which developed into a pretty good explanation of how one approaches learning to play bass. At least from my perspective.

It occurred to me that there seem to be four basic elements. Three of these elements are strictly technical: First, you must simply gain the physical dexterity to hold the strings down and pluck them. Second, you must learn the music theory required to know what notes will “work” in a given situation. Lastly, you must learn rhythms, which for the modern bass player centers around learning “grooves.”

The fourth element is decidedly non-technical . When one discusses the subject of learning music, it is easy to boil down everything to it’s technical elements. This is because the artistic components of music are considerably harder to define, quantify, and therefore discuss and teach. So, there is, at least, a fourth component to playing the bass, or, of course, any musical instrument. It’s you. It’s your soul. Or, maybe…it’s not you. Maybe it would be better to say that it’s the absence of you. While it is perhaps more difficult to enumerate the specific steps one might take to develop one’s sense of artistry than it is to explain how chords and scales are built, there are still a great number of specific things that can be said on this topic.

These are the general principles, or guide posts, as I see them. Physical dexterity, intellectual understanding of theory, intellectual understanding of rhythm, and development of the artistic and intuitive components that lead to good performance.

Each of these principles will be covered in loving and exaggerated detail in forthcoming posts. The beauty of real understanding lies in the cracks and corners of a subject. I do not intend to provide a survey or an overview of the aforementioned topics, but rather to explore them completely, turn them over, to hold them up to the light, and to consider them in all of their infinite complexity.  Click on the drop down menu under “Blog” at the top of the page to read more!