Learning bass (without the body of a Greek god)

Heavy on results, easy on the muscles and bones

By Jon Liebman
July 22, 2022

If you’re anything like I am, just the thought of playing bass is fun. You imagine yourself laying down those classic rock riffs, just like the ones you used to listen to back in the day. Or maybe it’s blues shuffles, walking bass lines… whatever your music is.

But you’ve always been told, “You need to walk before you can run,” which you interpret as having to go through a bunch of tedious, boring exercises before you can play anything cool.

What’s more, you’re a little apprehensive because, well, the ol’ body isn’t quite what it used to be. You might be dealing with things like arthritis, tendonitis, pain in the hands, neck, shoulder, back. Some days it feels like all of the above!

Well, hold the phone there.

Start with something easy and fun

You don’t need to be a world class athlete or built like a Greek god in order to play a bass line that sounds really good and, more importantly, feels really good. Sometimes the simplest bass lines are the best.

I was talking with Jeremy Nesse recently in a conversation published as this week’s For Bass Players Only interview. Jeremy is a passionate bassist and Chapman Stick player (with a bizarre fixation on the music of Peter Gabriel).

When I asked Jeremy what advice he had for someone who wants to learn bass, his first response was that you should start by playing music that you like, stuff that you want to play. He’s critical of music teachers who force students to play what they think the student should learn, with little or no regard for what the student wants to play.

“Start with what you know and what really you identify with,” Jeremy says. “What is it that you love about the instrument? What kind of music gets your heart and feet stomping? What is really in your DNA?”

Playing bass doesn’t require the body of a 24-year-old

And by the way, you don’t need to be a bodybuilder to do that, regardless of what instrument you’re learning.

“I have young kids,” Jeremy says. “My daughter is 6. She started to take guitar lessons.”

–       What is it that you want to learn?

–       “Baby Shark”

–       Have at it!

While I admired and respected what Jeremy said – I couldn’t help but smile at the mention of “Baby Shark” – I did express some concern about neglecting the importance of learning the basics. I mentioned Norm Stockton’s “eat your vegetables” analogy for learning bass from my most recent interview with him.

Heavy on the results, light on the muscles and bones

“Don’t get me wrong!” Jeremy says. “I drill my students with scales and modes and I make sure that they have an awareness. These are relevant things. I’m definitely a stickler when it comes to rudiments and fundamentals, but on a case-by-case basis. You have to identify what that student needs to get them going.”

Now Jeremy’s point started to resonate with me. In fact it’s very similar to the approach I use with my students at For Bass Players Only. While my students are learning the technical stuff, as well as music theory, the intricacies of all different styles of music, etc., they’re also grooving, they’re making music, every step of the way. As FBPO students will attest, with my trademarked Groove Grower™ framework, it can all be done simply, at whatever pace is right for you. And it doesn’t have to hurt!

Find the right balance

“Your role is to be supportive,” says Jeremy to all bass players, “and if you don’t have the rudiments, if you don’t know what a major scale is, if you don’t know what a natural minor is… if you don’t have these basic skills, then you’re just going to be tinkering and you’re not going to really see necessarily the growth that you might hope to have.”

Like most everything else, it’s a question of balance. You want to play what you want to play, but you’ve got to “eat your vegetables” too. I’ve often described my lessons as “exercises that groove, or grooves that are good for you.” That way, you’re getting good while you’re having fun, and you’re having fun while you’re getting good.

Most importantly, it can all be done without a lot of physical force or brut strength. It is possible to play what you want to play and build great bass technique at the same time, without putting a lot of wear and tear on your body. Grooving should be easy and playing bass should be fun. 

You turn: How about you? How are managing to find that balance between learning what you want to play and what you feel you “have” to play, in a way that your body will allow? Leave a comment below and share your story. In the meantime, watch my interview with Jeremy here.

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