Forget bass technique!

First, though, be sure you’ve got it down

By Jon Liebman
Week of October 11, 2021

What do you think about when you practice your bass? Are you focused on improving your bass technique? Learning your scales? Finally getting proficient with your sightreading?

I hope you are. Those are all important things. 

What’s also important, though, is remembering the big picture, and looking at learning bass from the 30,000-foot view. Don’t forget to remind yourself that playing bass is about grooving and making the music feel good, and that all that other stuff should lead to that pursuit.

I had an amazing conversation recently with Harvey Brooks, a true bass legend, which I published as this week’s FBPO interview. As a bass player, Harvey’s performing and recording credits span an incredible spectrum of musical styles, as he’s played with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Cass Elliott, to Miles Davis and Seals & Crofts – with a whole lot of others in between.

I asked Harvey what the common denominator was for him as a bass player, given his experience with so many musical styles. His answer came immediately, without even a hint of hesitation.

“Feel. They all liked my feel,” he said. “I’m able to make things comfortable. That’s my mentality and was kind of like my personality.”

No doubt Harvey had put in the time on his instrument, learning his scales, practicing all the right exercises, etc. I can all but guarantee it, though, that none of that stuff was going through his mind when he was recording with Dylan or Miles. 

“Most of the music is me just playing what I felt,” he explains. “Not written down, not being told what to do. You hired Harvey Brooks and I came in and I did what I do.”

That mindset does require a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, they hired Harvey Brooks to be, well, Harvey Brooks. On the other hand, he was now joining a group of other players, where he needed to find his way in the midst of all that was going on around him.

Harvey explains it this way, citing advice he once got from acclaimed rock and blues bassist Billy Rich. “He said,” Harvey recalls, “‘You listen and you hear what the feel is. You hear what the bass drum is doing. You hear what the bridges in the songs are and you get a picture of the song. And then you anchor all of those things. And when you’re anchored, then you add your color.’ That was a good lesson and that stayed with me pretty much my whole life.”

In other words, don’t just focus on you and your bass playing. You’re there to play a role, as a member of a band, where everyone feeds off everyone else. You need to balance being yourself with blending in with what’s going on around you.

“Everything I go into,” Harvey says, “I’m still being who I am and I adapt to what’s there.”

Probably one of the most profound moments in Harvey’s career was taking part in a recording session with Miles Davis, alongside Joe Zawinul Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter, and other members of the jazz elite. Harvey was totally in awe.

I had never really sat in a room with musicians of that caliber,” Harvey recalls, “and we just went for it. And as it came on, I began to understand what was happening. Everybody was listening to what everybody else was doing and responding.”

That’s what making music – including learning bass – is all about. So keep working on your technique, scales, sightreading, and whatever else is on your list, all the while keeping the end result in mind. The ultimate goal is to get to a point where you can forget all that stuff, on a conscious level, as it’s all become second nature to you. That way, you’ll be able get on with the business at hand: making music.

In the meantime, let Harvey’s story will inspire you at your next practice session.

What about you? Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Harvey here.

Comments on Forget bass technique!

  1. Don Olsen says:

    Love Harvey Brooks playing, particularly his work with Electric Flag. His bass line for “Them Changes” is relentless and great! (Doesn’t hurt to have Buddy Miles singing either…)

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