Learn bass by asking the right questions

Do you have your priorities right?

By Jon Liebman
September 22, 2023

Back when I was young and first getting interested in playing music, I was so eager to learn and to get great on the bass. 

But like a lot of young people, I didn’t have my priorities right.

If I had to do it over again, I would have a very different focus. I’d ask very different questions about what it means to be a good bass player.

Then vs. now

Like all kids, I suppose, I wanted to play fast. I wanted to be flashy. I wanted to be Mr. Super Chops.

I suppose one could cut me some slack for being, I don’t know, 18 or whatever I was.

But that was a long time ago and now I’ve got a very different agenda. Today I’m asking what I can do to help the song, what I can contribute to the music.

Did I spend a lot of time practicing all my scales and learning all my modes in those days? You bet I did. Did it help me? Of course. 

But I had the wrong goal in mind.

Do what’s expected of a bass player

With everything I’ve done in the professional music world – all the gigs, tours, shows, recording sessions – it was pretty hard not to learn what the right thing to do is – and sometimes the wrong thing.

Over the years, I figured it out. I learned a lot, mostly on the job. I’ve been in the professional music world for more than 40 years, and I’m still learning.

Teaching has been a great way to learn too. Having helped so many thousands of students over the years, I’ve managed to learn a lot from them as well.

It’s about expression and emotion

At the end of the day, it’s not about you or me; it’s about the music. I know, everybody says that, but how many people are really living it?

I was speaking with Wade Biery recently, in a conversation published as this week’s FBPO interview. Wade, who’s currently touring with Kenny Loggins, has a lot to say about how he believes we should approach music, especially someone who’s learning bass.

“If you want to play bass, you go play bass,” Wade says. “Music is not the province of the professional musician; music is the province of humanity. And if we want to go make a noise, go make that noise.”

In other words, music isn’t about showing off your chops; it’s about expression and emotion.

“I know very little about music technically,” Wade says, “but I know a great deal about playing it. I care about the energy, the connection, the organic expression.”

Go play, man!

When we got around to talking about adults who want to learn bass, specifically, those learning bass here at For Bass Players Only, I asked Wade what suggestions he had for them.

“Most people, in this context you’re talking about,” he says, “they’re going to be weekend warriors. I mean they’re going to have another career or maybe they’re retired or whatever it is, but they just want to play.”

His advice?

“Go play, man! It’s so good for your soul and people need to hear us making music.”

Make that noise

The conversation then came full circle, right back to finding the right balance between the technical and the musical aspects.

“Learn what you think is great,” Wade says. “Learn how to play that. Make that noise.”

All along, he was very open and appreciative of whatever someone wants to learn, even if it’s technically oriented.

“If you feel like you’ll be better at it and it’ll make you more facile and make you more hirable even,” he says, “then definitely do the studying. Anything that you feel like you want to do, you should absolutely do it.”

Put your music boots on

Basically, Wade’s message is to play what you like, learn what you want, and enjoy it. It’s okay, even desirable, to be technically proficient. There’s nothing wrong with being Mr. or Ms. Super Chops, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s about the music. Always.

“Don’t get buried in technicality,” says Wade. “Go play. Put your music boots on and get wading in the river.”

How about you?

As you’re learning bass, are you asking the right questions and do you have your priorities right?  Leave a comment below and share your situation. And be sure to check out my interview with Wade here.

Comments on Learn bass by asking the right questions

  1. John A Ewing says:

    What a great read. I remember having slide guitar, mandolin and other things. Realized they were keeping me from focusing on my Bass. So I play Bass and have gotten better over the years.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      I’m glad you liked it, John. Thanks for weighing in!

  2. Sydney Nagle says:

    I recall missing out in a band audition because I couldn’t play a proper ‘riff’ in a minor key, so I went and learned how play riffs is many keys and modes, and along the way learned how to ‘overplay’ everything, and had to demonstrate that I knew all those notes. A while later [and I had not played in too many bands by then] during an audition, the keyboard player asked if I wanted to go home early? Puzzled, I asked why did he ask that? He responded that I had played so many notes that I could leave early and the band would work with the rest. Embarrassed, I said that I did not understand and simply, he said that I was overplaying everything. Whilst I had a good tone he could not use all those notes. He suggested I listen to the bass line from the Hollies “Long Cool Woman in a black dress” and try to understand the relation between the chords and drums. When the penny finally dropped, my playing went from lots of notes to those only required to make the music flow, it seems this keyboard player who I never saw again, was probably the wisest man I ever met in music. I went on the get many gigs that also involved recording in a studio [that I loved] because I discovered the feel for and realised just how wonderful music can be regardless of Genre or Era.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks for sharing that inspiring story, Sydney. I admire your persistence and I’m glad it had a happy ending!

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