Is it okay to steal bass licks from others?

If so, what happens next?

By Jon Liebman
Week of October 19, 2020

What’s the coolest thing you know how to play on the bass? Out of all the things you know how play on the instrument, what gives you the most joy and satisfaction?

Okay, how did you learn it?

Maybe you have similar memories to mine, as I look back on my younger days, sitting in my bedroom raising and lowering the tone arm on my turntable – and later, playing and rewinding my cassette player – striving to learn all kinds of licks, lines, solos, and more. Today we have YouTube, but the basic objective is the same: learning to play what somebody else has already played.

That’s one way to learn bass. Or any instrument, for that matter. But is it okay? And is it enough? The subject came up in a conversation I was having with Dan Maines, longtime bassist with the band Clutch, in an interview we published this week on FBPO. Dan shared some thoughts I found insightful and practical.

For starters, don’t just memorize, note-for-note, what your favorite bass player is doing. Notice I didn’t say don’t do it; I said don’t just do it.

It’s cool to learn new licks. It’s fun to play them, and even show them off. But don’t fall into a trap where you’re limiting yourself and your own creativity.

“I feel strongly that some form of instruction early on is key,” Dan says, “not just sitting in your bedroom trying to learn a song by your favorite band, which is not a bad thing.”

What Dan’s saying is to keep things in context. There’s nothing wrong with learning to copy someone else’s lines as long as it’s only one component of a broader, goal-oriented strategy.

“I mean, I do that all the time too,” he says, “but that’s going to box you into learning and knowing how to play exactly what may interest you at that particular time without having outside ideas, which will seed your creativity in writing your own music.”

Learning other people’s bass lines and solos is great for building your vocabulary of grooves and licks. It’s also great for developing a deeper understanding of music theory, not to mention doing wonders for your bass technique, as you’ll undoubtedly find your fingers moving in ways they’ve never moved before.

Ultimately, what’s important, though, is what you do with those newfound skills, and how having the right person show you how to apply them can make you a better bass player.

“The best approach,” Dan says, “is one that’s going to open your ears and your mind to understanding how other styles of music are played, giving you insight into why some of your favorite players are doing what they’re doing.”

So go ahead and learn what others are playing. Once you do, though, you’ve got to be yourself. After all, everyone else is already taken.

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

Comments on Is it okay to steal bass licks from others?

  1. Eric T Peterson aka Petey says:

    LOL! We do it all the time! Well; @ least I do. Look; you WILL hear a bass line somewhere down the line you will be like; OMG! I GOTTA learn that lick or bass line! BUT; don’t copy it note 4 note! Put your own twist or variation to it. Remember, we got to make our licks our OWN! People want to see how well YOU interpret the song; not how well you COPY (or steal) it. When I was younger we were playing Good Foot by James Brown and we had an incredible drummer. I was playing the bass line exactly the way the recording did and our band leader wasn’t too please with me. He told me he could hear the bass but couldn’t hear ME! I was 16 years back then, self taught and didn’t pick it up right away. Then he ‘schooled’ me. So I changed the bass line a little; added my twist to it and it worked. He didn’t call me a “thief” anymore. Musicians steal licks all the time; just disguises them!😌

  2. Geoff says:

    There are only a certain number of notes and combinations available. ‘Steal’ or ‘copy’ distinctive parts for another composition or arrangement (a bit sad), or be influenced by them ? For what purpose, in what scenario – songwriting, performing, jamming ? Seems to me some people can be a little too precious about owning something reasonably generic.

  3. Michael Anderson says:

    Great article..!!

  4. fretless says:

    Everybody steals….uhhh I mean borrow….lol….come on were one big happy bass family and we all learn from each other,I THANK ALL MY YOUTUBE BOTHERS AND SISTERS FOR MAKING ME A BETTER BASS PLAYER,AND BESIDES WHAT EVER YOU STEAL WILL COME OUT SOUNDING LIKE YOU AND YOU ALONE!……PEACE

Leave a Reply

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