Training your ear so you can play songs

Learning bass is more than just scales and exercises

By Jon Liebman
October 27, 2023

Why do we have to learn scales and practice all those technical exercises when all we really want to do is make music? What do those things have to do with playing songs?

Excellent question.

Is there a reason for doing all the technical stuff and learning all that theory?

Of course there is or nobody would do it.

It’s what we do with those skills that counts.

Again, we want to play songs.

I had a fun conversation with Foghat bassist Rodney O’Quinn recently, published as this week’s FBPO interview, and I asked him to weigh in on the subject.

Training your ear

Rodney didn’t have any formal training on the bass. “I was self-taught,” he says, “just trying to dial in my ear and figure out what’s going on.”

Learning on his own, Rodney just did what made sense to him. He tried to understand what he was hearing in the music, keeping the end goal in mind. 

What’s important, Rodney says, is “training your ear, picking out parts… trying to get into playing songs, because that’s the real victory, when you’re actually playing songs.”

What about scales, exercises, and all that other stuff?

Rodney didn’t say spending time doing technical exercises is bad. He just had his eye on that “real victory,” right from the onset.

“You could just do scales all day,” he says, “or this exercise or that exercise. The main thing is you crank up your speakers and you wanna play along with something.”

Very true.

But that doesn’t give you a free pass for not learning your scales and the technical stuff.

Still, Rodney makes a good point. Making music, playing songs… That’s what we’re here to do. That’s the end goal.

So how do we do that?

Listen for the commonalities

“It’s trying to learn a lot of the formulas,” Rodney explains. “It’s not like reinventing the wheel.” 

Rather, it’s learning to recognize certain passages and how the chords are moving within the progression.

“Say the song is in G,” Rodney says. “All the sudden they kick it on the C and then they’ll go back to G, and that’s ‘one.’ And you start finding your direction around there. And that helps you create a road map real quick to getting the basic framework.”

As you may have heard me say in the Bottom Line Club membership or in my digital courses, there are only so many places a chord progression can go. Once you start to recognize what the “one,” “four” and “five” chords sound like, you’re about 90% there. In some case, even 100%.

I can feel like I’m in the band, man!

“And then from there,” Rodney says, “you start connecting the dots with the different walking lines and passing tones and stuff.”

Learning songs doesn’t have to be difficult. Sure, some songs are harder than others, but most songs follow a similar framework, usually with different variations of the same three or four chords. Once you understand that, you’re well on way to making music. 

And playing songs.

“For a lot of people that are attracted to your site,” Rodney tells me,” that’s what they’re probably looking for. ‘I want to learn how to play, but I want to try to get into playing some songs as quick as I can so I can feel like I’m in the band, man!’”

Spot on, Rodney! That’s the way to learn bass.

I’m not saying the technical stuff is a waste of time and effort. Just be sure to keep things in perspective with a proper balance. Don’t go all chops-crazy or on theory overload. 

Keep the end goal in mind: Making music and playing songs.

How about you?

What’s your biggest frustration when it comes to learning songs? Do you struggle between the technical stuff and the ear training stuff? Leave a comment below and share your experience. And be sure to check out my interview with Rodney here.

One more thing…

One of my most popular courses, Top 10 Chord Progressions Every Bass Player Must Know, has helped a lot of people learn songs. Get it here.

Comments on Training your ear so you can play songs

  1. Bob Burnham says:

    My grandmother was a piano teacher, my dad, an accomplished piano and keyboard player, but he couldn’t play ANYTHING unless the music was in front of him! He had a great idea: Give his son private guitar lessons and he would have a sideman! So I became that and played NUMEROUS events as teenager. I learned to give him GROOVE, reading chord charts and also making it up. Here comes my adult life, and I switched to bass, because all the cover bands needed one and I knew all the songs from the 1960s-70s without ANY charts or notation of any kind. I learned groove and playing in the pocket at a young age. In 3 piece bands, I was also known as the lead BASS player, because I learned how to fill between anchor notes and serve the song when the lead guitar player or singer couldn’t. I was by no means, a Jack Bruce, but knowing Motown as I did, was able to add a funk flair to everything. In the process we all had fun!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great story, Bob. Always good to hear from you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *