If I had to learn bass all over again, here’s how I would do it

Be sure to ask the right questions and strive for the right goals

By Jon Liebman
December 29, 2023

I remember when I first started learning bass and all the things that excited me at that time. It was somewhere in the mid-’70s. I started on the electric and listened to a lot of Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson, Anthony Jackson…

As I look back on those days, I realize now that I was going about it all wrong. I was asking the wrong questions and striving for the wrong things. I wanted to play fast. I wanted to be a flashy player. I wanted chops.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those things, if you know when to apply them and, more importantly, when not to. My head was definitely not in the right place. I didn’t have a good understanding of the role of the bass player, and my mindset was all wrong.

Learning from the past

Those stark reminders came rushing back to me when I was talking to Jesse Dietschi for this week’s FBPO interview. The conversation really made me think. I had a major pang of I wish I knew then what I know now.

To call Jesse multi-faceted would be an understatement. He excels at both electric and upright bass. Jesse is a highly accomplished orchestral player, he can play pop tunes like nobody’s business, and he’s one nasty funk and R&B player.

We were talking about how students learning bass at For Bass Players Only tend to be above the average age of a beginning music student. In fact, most of them are over 50, and in many cases, even older than over 50. 🙂

These people aren’t setting out to be rock stars or to have a career in music. They just want to learn bass so they can play their favorite classic rock riffs, or some blues shuffles, or walking bass lines, or whatever feels good to them.

So I asked Jesse what advice he could impart to someone like that who wants to learn bass.

It’s not about how technically gifted you are

“The number one thing I would remind people of,” Jesse says, “is that it’s not about being the most technically gifted musician. It’s about understanding your role in the ensemble and taking pride in filling that role to the absolute best ability that you can.”

Boy, I wish that’s the kind of stuff I was thinking about back in the day.

Don’t forget the “soft” skills too

Like in most situations, whether they’re musically-related or not, the soft skills are vitally important too. It’s always nice when the people we work with have the right attitude and a high degree of professionalism.

“We call this person,” says Jesse, describing the ideal bassist, “they come in and they just they just lay it down. They show up on time, they’re fun to be around. You know, they enjoy doing this.”

It’s also important that they’re musically mature and emotionally secure.

“They’re not constantly trying to reinvent the wheel or draw attention to themselves,” Jesse adds. “They’re just there to serve the music, make the music sound good and have a good time doing it.”

Nobody’s arguing that technique isn’t important. But you know what’s even more important? The music.

Three things you need to know

“I think, especially when you’re playing rock,” Jesse says, “it doesn’t matter if you can do all sorts of elaborate things on the instrument.”

What does matter, then? Jesse sums it up by asking three important questions:

1.   Do you fill the sonic space of the bass, that bottom end?

2.   Do you have good time, reliable time, where you keep chuggin’ away?

3.   Can you outline the chords really clearly, which ultimately means: Do you know the tunes? 

Learning Stanley Clarke solos is not going to endear you to anyone if that’s all you know how to play.

“Some hotshot coming in who doesn’t know the tunes is actually going to be more of a liability than a help,” says Jesse.

Practicing should be fun

So how do you take all those technique-building exercises and transform them into actually grooving and making music?

“I think to me the most valuable skill for someone in that position,” Jesse says, “is (to) play along with recordings. If you can make it sound and feel good when you’re playing with the people who did the tune originally, then you’re gonna be good when you get together with your friends, with your colleagues, and jam a bit.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t spend time practicing scales and other technical exercises. But playing along with records is a perfect illustration of what we’re trying to achieve by learning bass.

“It’s also way more fun to practice that way,” Jesse says, “because, if you’re not in it as a career, then you want to enjoy practicing too. If practicing is a chore then you’re not gonna want to do it. I think anything that makes practicing enjoyable is great.”

How about you?

Have you ever had trouble finding that balance between building technique for technique’s sake versus laying down an honest, feel-good groove on the bass? Leave a comment below and share your story. And be sure to watch my interview with Jesse here.

Comments on If I had to learn bass all over again, here’s how I would do it

  1. Dave Bedini says:

    I’m a guitar player, started playing out in the late 60s. When I play solo, I’m my own bass player, and I always tried to support the song with solid, appropriate lines.

    44 years ago, I got my first bass, and I tried at all times to be the bass player I wanted to have if I was the guitarist. So, first, be in the pocket, second, play the chord changes, hopefully connecting the chords when possible with passing tones and melodic ideas. But above all, whether working with a drummer or not, keep the groove. By the way, I’ve always thought that the real test of a bassist was to play in a combo that didn’t have a drummer, and stay rock solid.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great approach, Dave. Thanks for weighing in!

  2. John Evans says:

    I started as a guitar player around 1970. Got a gig as a bass player in July ’76 and still thought (and probably acted) like a guitar player until January ’77 when I played with a really good drummer (and had enough experience to understand what that was) in a good band. I gigged as a bass player, taught electric bass, and thought like a bass player through 2015. Took a break from gigging but about a year ago an old friend and bandmate asked if I’d be up for playing guitar in a structured jam he was starting. I’m the 3rd or 4th guitar player depending on who shows up. The point is all three of these questions are things that also come to mind as a guitar player. I try to play guitar the way I want to hear it when I’m playing bass. I don’t work so much for “my sound” as a guitar sound (equipment, and the way I play) that fits into the rest of the group. I try to think like “what would Steve Cropper, Joe Messina et. al. (the Funk Brothers), Mike Campbell, George Harrison, John Lennon, etc. play” rather than what Eric Clapton, Albert Lee, or Joe Walsh play.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, John. It’s always good to see how a lot of perspectives translate from one instrument to another!

  3. Tony Figueroa says:

    I started playing bass during the era of “superchops” and people peddling the “secrets” of bass playing. I could slap, pop, and tap but I was tossed out of a blues jam because I couldn’t play bass in the true sense of the word. My only saving grace was that I studied theory heavily. But I could not translate the academic into the creative.I took Jeff Berlin’s advice from his columns and began working hard on chord tones and construction. I also use YouTube backing tracks to play grooves over chord progressions. My playing is better than ever but the idea of playing with others terrifies me.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Sometimes we have to learn the hard way. I did my share of trying to display my “superchops” back in the day too. Live and learn. Thanks for sharing your story, Tony.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *