Learn bass from others, but keep your own voice

Nobody else has got what you’ve got

By Jon Liebman
May 6, 2022

Throughout your lifetime, how much time do you think you’ve spent listening to records?

At first, you did it just for the enjoyment. Then, as you got more into music, you tried to play exactly what you heard on those records. Maybe you even discovered a few bass influences, “bass heroes,” and you wanted to play just like them.

While it’s a lot of fun to be inspired to play like your favorite bass player, a word of caution is advised. Listening to records is great for learning bass, but you may need to adjust your expectations. 

And that’s a good thing.

In this week’s FBPO interview with Kenny Aaronson (Bob Dylan, The Yardbirds, Edgar Winter… as well as the bassist on the Stories’ #1 hit “Brother Louie”), Kenny talked all about how he learned from listening to records. But he put a different “spin” on it, with a super helpful takeaway for how listening to records can be good for learning bass – and how it can actually hold you back.

The benefits – and perils – of listening to records

“I learned from listening to records, over and over,” Kenny remembers, “till my parents thought they were going to just pull their hair out. We just did things that way. I learned from records.”

Hearing Kenny’s story reminded me of the countless hours I used to spend learning Jaco licks, Stanley Clarke tunes, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen walking lines… 

But there’s danger in trying to sound like someone else. Case in point: we’ve got plenty of Jaco clones, but there was only one Jaco.

“If I spent 12 hours a day every day of the week trying to play like Jaco, I’d never do it,” Kenny says. “It’s not gonna happen, which is fine, because I don’t want to play like that.”

Learn from others, but don’t try to become someone else

There’s definitely a lot of benefit to listening to records and learning from great bass players. But you have to be sure you go into it with the right mindset and the right expectations. 

In other words, try to learn from those players; don’t try to become those players.

“There’s always those people that I’ve loved over the years,” says Kenny, “whether it’s Jaco or the fusion cats like Stanley Clarke, or this one or that one. Something that they play will stand out to you. It affects you on some level and you go, ‘Ah!’ And you take it in and you regurgitate it out in your own way.”

That’s it right there. Kenny’s point is dead on: Learn from others, but make it your own.

How to develop your own voice as a bass player

“It becomes something that you take in and you use it somewhere,” says Kenny, “not exactly like that, but it just becomes part of a little new thing, and part of your vocabulary.”

The benefits of this approach can be astounding. It lets you be inspired by others, but it also lets you keep your independence and develop your own voice.

So go ahead and listen to those records, learn that way cool lick from your favorite bass player, figure out how to lay down that funky groove, get that killer blues riff under your fingers… But don’t rely on repeating those things verbatim when it comes time to play. Use them as a learning tool, then let your uniqueness shine through. 

Is there a new technical hack you just came across?
Try injecting it into something you’re already doing!

Did someone make you discover a new and better way of getting from A to B?
Incorporate that into your own bass lines!

Have you noticed the way someone uses space between the notes, giving the phrasing a whole different feel?
See if that approach makes you sound more confident in your playing!

Learn from others, but keep developing your own sound. Nobody else has got what you’ve got. You need to share it with the world!

What about you? Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know how listening to others has affected you and your bass playing. In the meantime, watch my interview with Kenny here.

Comments on Learn bass from others, but keep your own voice

  1. vail johnson says:

    just like when you’re learning a language, it’s imperative to eventually stop listening to other people speak that language so you can….oh…..wait…..never mind……..:-)

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      That’s the point, Vail (sort of). You just wrote it in “Vail-ese!” LOL!

  2. Keith says:

    Listening to records, cassettes and CDs was and still is vital to my development as a bass player!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      For sure, Keith! I’m sure it was helpful to you in developing your own voice too. Thanks for weighing in!

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