Everyone says learning bass should be fun. But how are they being taught?
By Jon Liebman
October 14, 2022
When you set out to learn bass, there are certain things you need to know, basic fundamentals for becoming a competent bass player. Call it Bass 101.
A lot of students feel like this stage is a chore and that the fun doesn’t really start until they get over a hump. They’re not expected to have any fun until they “graduate” to the next stage and are deemed ready to play, for real.
Typically, that’s because of the way learning bass is presented to them.
I’ve always felt those things should be enjoyable. Learning bass should be fun, right? Even at the 101 level.
So why are so many wannabe bass players subjected to boring drills and things like scales for the sake of scales?
Make everything groove
There’s definitely a lot of benefit to learning your scales, modes, pentatonics, etc. But wouldn’t it be so much more enjoyable if you were grooving while you were learning?
I can’t tell you how many “instructional” videos I’ve seen where the student is told to go up and down the fingerboard, chromatically, one fret at a time, ad nauseum.
Will that get your fingers in shape? Sure. But is it fun? No!
Does it groove? Definitely not.
The same can be said for practicing your scales and modes without injecting any real musicality into what you’re playing. Sure, you can become an expert on your scales and modes, but you can be getting so much more out of it.
It’s all in the way you’re taught
I got talking about the subject during a super fun conversation with Julia Lage, published as this week’s FBPO interview. Originally from Brazil, Julia has worked with Pat Travers, Elliot Easton of the Cars, and Richie Kotzen – who happens to be her husband. She’s also a member of the all-female rock band Vixen.
“You have to have fun with your instrument,” Julia says. “You have to enjoy the process because (otherwise) it can be annoying as hell.”
When it comes to learning music, Julia has had both positive and negative experiences, especially in the early years.
“I remember growing up, trying to learn bass,” she says. “The guy, the teacher just shoveled me a bunch of scales, and I’m like, ‘I wanna play ‘Tom Sawyer.’ I don’t want to learn this shit,’” she continues, laughing.
When I explained my approach to learning bass and how I believe everything should groove, Julia lit up.
“That’s being a great teacher!” she says. “It’s all about that.”
The reason you want to learn bass, after all, is so you can make music, so you can groove and have fun.
Don’t be a button-pusher
I’m not saying you shouldn’t practice your scales and modes. I’m saying you shouldn’t do it mindlessly, just because you’re “supposed to” do it, or because “they” say you should. That’s just learning scales for the sake of scales. If you don’t know how to apply those skills to actual music making, what’s the point?
Not surprisingly, Julia favored the teachers who had her actually making music while learning bass.
“I remember back in the day,” she says, “my teacher would bring me, like, three chords, with grooves, and then pentatonics for example. Now you know. So now go around and try to do solos using those notes.”
That teacher should be commended for providing a simple framework with some real context.
I don’t want my students to be button pushers. When I provide technique-building lessons, it’s always with an eye toward grooving and making music. That’s the approach I take in my books, clinics, masterclasses, and of course my online resources, most notably my Bottom Line Club membership and my Power Grooving digital course.
Do you know what you’re supposed to do with all those notes?
Go ahead and build your bass technique. Learn your scales, learn your modes. Become technically proficient on the bass. Just remember why you’re doing those things. They should be a means to an end.
As I’m always asking my students, “Now that you’ve practiced your scales and modes, do you know what you’re supposed to do with all those notes?”
Like Julia says, “You actually play music by that! And that’s very, very, very important. Because if you’re not having fun, it’s nonsense. Nobody wants to do that.”
Your turn. How were you first exposed to learning bass? Were you forced to practice a bunch of boring drills, or did you learn within some kind of musical context? Leave a comment below and share your story. And be sure to watch my interview with Julia here.
I had guitarists as bass teachers and they would start me at the beginning as if I was learning music for the first time. “Play a c now a d”etc. There were no bass teachers around me. This is rural Maine. I bought books and studied from them and learned some bass lines from cds. I already knew music, just not the bass. I never was good at it and then my husband died and I stopped playing anything. 16 years later I’m starting up again. Now I have Lyme Arthritis, so my hands don’t seem to move the same. I am thinking of buying a short scale bass, though.
Thanks for sharing your info, Joyce. I’m glad you’re back to learning bass. I encourage you to learn your scales in a way that’s musically satisfying and rewarding. It CAN be done! Also, I have a lot of students with arthritis and various other physical ailments. Many have found a short-scale bass to be helpful. Remember too, very often even the simplest bass line can really make the music feel good. Playing bass doesn’t need to inflict a lot of wear and tear on your body. Be sure to keep me posted on your progress!
I was told to KNOW my scales. Major Minor Dominant
I added Blues scales and pentatonic scales too
But not grooving just up and down. BORING!
They are important to know, Joe. But it’s what you do with them that’s really important. My feeling is that you should be able to learn your scales in a musical fashion and enjoy the process. Yes, even scales can be fun! 🙂
What’s our job? It’s two-fold- to define the harmony AND to tie the purely rhytmic parts of music to the harmonic & melodic parts. Both are equally important. To focus on one at the expense of the other does a dis-service to the music. So, learn scales and play them with musical expression. I think a lot of the false dichotomy comes from not truly understanding what “know your scales” means. It’s not that you can rip the Hungarian minor in 16th notes at 140 BPM at all. To KNOW a scale means:
A. You know its construction- arrangment of whole-steps, half-steps, etc., that you know the intervals of the scale.
B. You know what chords are intrinsic to that scale, e.g. you know how to harmonize it. It’s not enough to know that the chords of the diatonic major scale are Maj 7, min 7, min 7, Maj 7, dom 7, min 7, min 7 b5, but you understand WHY they are- how they got there by stacking thirds>
C. YOu know what it sounds like- you can correctly hear the next note in your head BEFORE you pluck the string.
D. You can execute it fluidly from the lowest note on your bass to the highest one and back down, regardless of root. So you can start a D major scale on your 5-string starting on the open B (the 6th) all the way up and back down, hearing each note first.
So instead of thinking you need to practice every mode in every key, just spend time really knowing the diatonic major scale. Then start playing it with different rhythm patterns. LOOK for the scale and arpeggios in bass lines. E.G., Jack Bruce’s line for “Badge” has that Amin arpeggio, has the descending E minor scale, etc.
Great points, John! Thanks.