Is playing bass easier – or harder – than you thought?

Mastering the art of “bassisms”

By Jon Liebman
December 1, 2023

Have you ever thought…

“Bass is only four strings. How hard can it be?”

Come on now.

Then, the next thought is likely to be something like… 

“Most of the time I’ll only be playing one note at a time. And a whole lot of those notes are roots. This’ll be easy!”

You now know there’s more to playing bass than that. 

So… is learning bass easy or hard?

I was talking to Bear Williams (a/k/a Larry Kimpel) the other day in a conversation published as this week’s FBPO interview.

Bear’s helped a lot of people learn bass, so I asked him what he thought was important for a bass student to know.

Leaning bass after 50

Bear started by saying, “I try to try to meet them where they are. ’What can I help you with? Tell me your story. How can I help you get to where you’re wanting to go?’”

I explained to Bear how most of the people who come to For Bass Players Only to learn bass, particularly those in the Bottom Line Club membership, tend to be adults, over 50. 

These people aren’t pursuing careers in music. They’re at a point in their lives where they just want to learn bass and have fun.

“You’re absolutely right,” says Bear. “Most of my students are not trying to be on big stages or anything like that. Most of them are trying to get a local group together or trying to be proficient going down to the jam session and not feel like they’re insufficient to get to get up there and jam with anybody.”

That’s an important distinction, calling for a completely different approach from that of a college music major.

So where do these people begin?

Make room for the music

“What I think is imperative to know about bass guitar in general,” Bear says, “is that it’s not as hard as people think, however, it does take work. You have to do the work.”

I told Bear how I’m constantly telling people that bass is not nearly as physically demanding as most people think. A lot of students are surprised at how great they can make the music feel just by laying down a super simple bass line. 

And when that’s the case, it frees up the mind – and the body – to put more emphasis on actually making music.

“That’s true,” Bear says. “That’s very true. It’s not just physical. There’s a whole lot of lot of things going on at the same time that make a good bassist.”

What about bass technique?

Not to say that building proper bass technique isn’t important. The point is that you don’t have to be a star athlete in order to learn to play the bass.

Bear instills that mindset in his students as well.

“I try to keep it simple and show them, ‘Yeah, you can do this. You can do this.’ That’s probably the biggest thing this thing, that it’s not as hard as you think but it does take work.”

It’s important to understand that learning bass technique is a means to an end. I’m often talking about the dangers of practicing scales just for the sake of scales or learning all your modes because, well because “they” say you’re supposed to. 

You need to know what to do with “all those notes” in order to make music.

Don’t lose sight of what’s most important

Yes, you should definitely make technique building a priority. Just be sure to keep the big picture in mind.

Bear takes that approach with his students as well.

“I’ll show them the structure you know the song,” he says. “It makes them makes them theory aware while we’re doing music.”

Learning why we play what we play is vital. It will catapult your playing infinitely farther than if you were just blindly hitting notes without knowing why.

“I try to get them to hear the notes, ”Bear continues, “to hear what’s coming next. It’s that ear training. It’s critical. It’s not a skill that’s insurmountable if you’re willing to put the work in.”

Great point. A lot of songs are structured very similarly. There are only so many chord possibilities, and you can pretty much count on there being a “one,” “four,” and “five” chord somewhere in virtually every song.

“I do try to drill that in because I always tell them, ‘Guess what? You’re going to play this again,’” Bear says. ”’You’re going to play it again, and again and again. Different songs, different genres, but it’s gonna be the same stuff over and over again.’”

That’s how ear training leads to becoming a better musician. Imagine how much better your bass playing could be if you could predict what’s coming up next.

Learning your “bassisms”

“I call a lot of these things that we do over and over and over again ‘bassisms,’” says Bear. 

There’s a lot of overlap in musicianship between bass and other instruments, but there are certain things that belong exclusively to the bass, like laying down the groove, locking in with the drummer, making the music feel good, etc.

And the best part about learning bass…

It’s fun!

“It’s a joyous instrument,” says Bear. “I have the former guitar players that have switched over and they just fell in love with the bass!”

If learning bass was that easy, how big of a deal would it be to be able to play it? There are a lot of things to keep track of and it does take some work, but as Bear says, they’re not insurmountable.

Doing your job as a bass player

Everyone in the band has a job to do. As thousands of my students will attest, learning the right way to play bass, including understanding what you’re playing, is definitely worth the effort.

“It all fits together in a nice little puzzle,” Bear says, “and if everybody’s not doing what they need to do, you can be you can be off the bandstand very quickly.” [laughs]

What about you?

What do you find easy when it comes to learning bass? What do you find difficult? Leave a comment below and share some of your experiences. Then be sure to watch my interview with Bear here.

Comments on Is playing bass easier – or harder – than you thought?

  1. Neil Bower says:

    Truer words have never been spoken, “You have to put in the work” I’m working on learning the upright bass, it’s fun Yes, but there is much work to truly understand this very low, very beautiful instrument.

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