Listen Up!

How bass players get their “groove indoctrination”

By Jon Liebman
Week of September 2, 2019

What a blast it was catching up with Frank Russell this week, an old friend who’s always been incredibly passionate about bass. Having done an untold number of gigs with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, Alphonse Mouzon, Wallace Roney, Henry Johnson, and countless others, Frank has come full circle, reclaiming his spot with Ladysmith Mambazo, the iconic South African group vocal made famous by their unforgettable tenure with Paul Simon, dating back to Paul’s Graceland days.

As I’m always looking for new insights into teaching bass, I asked Frank during the interview what advice he could impart to someone who wants to learn bass. I’ve begun asking all my interviewees that question lately, especially since migrating all my online lessons and courses over to For Bass Players Only from my previous bass instruction site. The answers I’ve been getting have been invaluable, touching on everything from hand position, tone, technical elements, and other tips and pointers for improving one’s bass playing.

But Frank’s response almost floored me. It’s so obvious, yet it’s not talked about nearly enough.

Frank advised, simply, to listen intently to other bass players. 

Simple, right? 

Or is it?

In Frank’s case, he zeroed in on the funk and R&B bassists, mostly from the ‘70s, like Larry Graham, James Jamerson, Verdine White, Stanley Clarke, and Louis Johnson. Great advice, for sure, and not just for the funky stuff. It applies equally well to improving your playing in any style, using any technique. 

You may be thinking, “Well, duh. We all know we need to listen!” 

True, but how closely are you paying attention to what’s being played? How focused are you on things like articulation, note duration, smoothness of the shifts, locking in with the drummer, blending in with the rest of the band, getting just the right tone, EQ, and a hundred other things?

When Frank began his listening obsession, as a teenager, he would lie in bed, listening to cassette tapes of his bass heroes. When the side of the tape had finished, he’d reach over to flip the cassette to the other side. The effect it had on him was one of subliminally letting the music sink in. He cited “an unconscious indoctrination” to funky bass playing, which proved to be invaluable to his career.

He then told me (un-prodded!) how he’s been sending people to For Bass Players Only so they won’t have to go through all the trial and error he went through during his up-and-coming days, before the prevalence of video. In addition to listening to what’s being played, says Frank, “now you can go online and see a guy, how you can go from this note to that note!” 

So I say, yes, practice your scales and arpeggios, your string crossings, your finger exercises, and all the other stuff that will help you improve your bass technique and proficiency. But also be sure to listen with a keen ear to, well, pretty much anyone who’s a better bass player than you. That way, you’ll always be getting that indoctrination of groove into your blood, whether consciously or unconsciously.

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

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