Join the Low End: Some Tips for Those Thinking of Learning Bass Guitar

These are some personal opinions on getting started playing bass (and music in general). This is definitely not the only approach. If anyone reads this and disagrees or feels I have made an omission please let me know so I can improve this missive.

First off, do it!

Bass is a wonderful instrument to play. It has a crucial role in many genres of music. You can have immense positive influence on your fellow musicians and be the coolest cat on stage.

Bass guitar by Feliciano Guimarães, source Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Bass guitar by Feliciano Guimarães, source Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Is it easier than guitar?

Bass is more than two-thirds of a guitar. It is a very different instrument, requiring a different mindset and performing different functions. It is very difficult to make comparisons about how easy an instrument is to learn. I think that you can be a very useful bass player if you become skilled at some simple things. The learning curves are different. Bass has a shallower slope to start but it just keeps rising where guitar has a steeper start and becomes shallower.

Getting a bass

The good news is that you can get a perfectly fine bass for a reasonable amount of money these days. Computer controlled lathes and assembly in the Far-East make getting a first bass doesn’t have to break the bank. Of course if you can borrow one to get you going that’s even better.

It is important that your bass is not too hard to play and that it stays in tune. Beyond this not that much matters. Shapes, colours, woods and even things like pickup types don’t matter that much when you are starting out. It helps if you feel positive towards your bass. Picking one you think is cool is no bad thing.

There are a couple of things to check that will help you know if your bass will be decent to play and stay in tune. The first thing is how high are the strings above the fretboard (the action). Somewhere between 2mm and 4mm is good. The neck should be fairly straight, with a very slight bow away from the strings. This bow is called relief and it helps so stop the strings buzzing against the frets. You can sight down the neck from the headstock towards the body to see this.

As to staying in tune. This is largely down to the quality of the tuners. This is harder to judge on sight. The best way is to play the bass and see if the tuning is stable. You don’t have to play anything complicated. Just make some noise on the thing. Play all the open strings. Then try fretting some notes at the 3rd and 5th frets. Then go wild and fret some notes at the 12th fret. This will often have double dots on the fretboard or some other different mark to distinguish it.

Your bass should be comfortable for you to hold and play. It should sound good to you. You are going to be spending a lot of time with this thing. Make sure to try a few out to see what you like.

I urge you strongly to patronise your local music shop rather than buy sight unseen on the web. The shop should have some different models for you to try and should be able to answer your questions. Basses can be adjusted for action, relief and all sorts of things. The shop should be able to do this for you. If they’re a good shop they will make you feel welcome and help you. If they don’t find another shop.

You will also need an amp. To start out a practice amp will do. You need to get started practising. Practice amps are usually moderately powerful so you shouldn’t annoy your neighbours or house-mates too much. It can be useful if it has a headphone output so you can practice silently and an input for your iPod so you can play along with music is useful too.

As with the bass the sounds coming out of your amp should sound pleasant to you. Try a few different amps out to see what the differences are. Try out all the different controls on the amp too. See what they do and how the effect the sound.

Don’t play through an amp simulator on your computer. Some of the high-end ones are very good, but unless you have a great audio interface you will have a degree of lag in the system. The sound will come a bit delayed to allow the computer to crunch the numbers. It is better to have a more direct relationship between your intent, your hands, your bass and your ears to start.

Starting to play

Learn songs by ear. Find songs you like the bass on, listen to them and copy what they do. Work on just a few bars at a time. You can use an audio editor like Audacity to slow tracks down to help pick things out.

I would suggest good places to start are,

Sing the basslines out loud. Building a connection between your ear, your voice and your fingers (to play the lines) will help you massively as you develop as a musician.

It is easy to get sucked in to the idea of playing an instrument being about performing movements with your body. That is a big part of it, but the result is sound. Focus on the sounds.

This is why I would avoid using tablature. Tabs are fine, but they push you in a mechanical mindset. Develop your ear as well as your fingers. Learn to hear and copy. This skill is really useful in playing with other people.

Get fast by starting slow

Start slowly. When learning anything accuracy is more important than speed. In fact, to get fast you have to start slowly, really slowly. For instance, Steve Harris’s iconic metal bassline on The Trooper runs at about 160 bpm. I would recommend starting to learn that with a metronome set at 60bpm or even lower.

Use a metronome. A good sense of time in music is one of the key differ­en­tiators between a player you want to make music with and one you don’t. This is partic­ularly true for bassists. It can seem difficult at times dealing with that click, but if this happens just slow it down. It will pay off massively.

Correct mistakes

Don’t practice in mistakes. If you are practising something and make a mistake stop, go back and correct it. You are teaching your body to repeat desirable actions. If you let the mistakes slide you are practising the mistakes. If you can’t play something at a particular speed, slow it down and/or break things into smaller blocks.

Record yourself playing regularly. Learning a musical instrument is a massive task. This can seem daunting, but along the way to your ultimate goal there will be lots of inter­mediate successes. Record yourself practising regularly and go back and listen to your recordings from a few months ago periodically.

The recordings don’t have to be fancy. Your phone is fine. You just want a record of your playing. Label the recording with the date if you can for future reference.

It is very easy to get sucked into looking at very short scales of time. That can be demor­alising, “Why is it taking me so long to learn this line?” However if you are practising regularly you will get noticeably better over longer time scales. In general the better you get the longer you might need to look back to see big improvements. Starting out a month should do. When you start shredding like Billy Sheehan you might need to look back six months to see improvements but they are there. Enjoy your successes.

Be a regular guy/girl

Practice regularly. Regularity is more important than volume. It is much better to practice effectively for 10 minutes five times a week than for an hour once a week. Try and play every day. Even if this is just noodling around. It is good to feel your instrument in your hands every day. Mindful practice is better and regular mindful practice is best.

Enjoy yourself. Playing music is great fun. You are on a path to becoming a wizard. Have fun.

Better in the Old Days? Steve Lukather’s Thoughts on the Music Industry

Steve Lukather has released a passionate critique of the state of the modern music industry. His main concerns are,

  • Low aImage-SteveLukatherrtist earnings (partic­ularly from streaming)
  • Saturation of the market with low quality
  • Lack of investment in artist by labels
  • Death of the album

It might seem easy to dismiss this as the bitter cavilling of an old man (he jokes about being, “108 this year”) he is 58, but Lukather has been recording for 40 years and has played guitar on many several seminal pop and rock records. He is perhaps best known as part of the yacht-rock combo Toto. In addition to this he has performed on over 1,500 recordings by other artists. He embodies the expert behind the scenes musician as well as anybody I can think of.

He also cares about musical culture this is clear from his message. It is worth considering what he has to say, but perhaps filtering it through an under­standing of his specific viewpoint.

Streaming Doesn’t Pay for Artists

Lukather says he is not making any money from streaming royalties. Given his output that is shocking. If streaming is the future then it doesn’t seem to benefit artists with huge back catalogues. This is a big problem. By most measures Lukather is one of the most successful musicians around. He has earned the respect of his peers and is in some ways the ultimate industry insider (as a musician). Yet he is not benefiting from the streaming revenue model.

Some of the problem is just in how streaming has been set up, royalty rates are low, and some of the problem as Lukather says is in the old chestnut of record label accounting. Artists signed to labels get even less as the label takes their (signi­ficant) cut.
Streaming looks like it will be good for the companies operating the streams, Apple, Spotify, etc., and perhaps for publishing/record companies that control massive catalogues of music. If 40 years of active work doesn’t get you a meaningful slice of the pie what hope do emerging artists have? Continue reading Better in the Old Days? Steve Lukather’s Thoughts on the Music Industry

Love and Affection: Ode on a Sunny Day, a Song and Hope

I am not in love,
But I’m open to persuasion

With the launch of Apple’s streaming music platform there has been much talk about the value of music. Many musicians are worried at the rise of streaming culture as it will impact on their earnings and ability to fund making more music. Music is more than commerce and more than a recording. Culture is not just a thing of the present. It is a web that spans time, links people together and defines us through our tastes.

I recently found a video of Joan Armatrading performing Love and Affection at Glastonbury in 2008. The performance is on the Jazz/World Stage on a sunny day, and it has stuck with me. This captured moment from seven years ago has become my version of Keats’ grecian urn.

This four and a half minute video sends me spinning off into a web of thoughts, looking back to 1976 when it was recorded, seeing the contrast between the Joan Armatrading then and the woman performing the song 32 years later, looking at the resonance the song has on the audience in that sunny field in Somerset and seeing them as a visible indicator of the power of the song and the woman. Continue reading Love and Affection: Ode on a Sunny Day, a Song and Hope