Want to learn bass? Get good at playing the blues.

As a bass player, almost everything you play will be rooted in the blues

By Jon Liebman
December 2, 2022

How many times has this happened to you:

You get together with some people to play music. They could be classic rock fans, jazz aficionados, country music lovers… whatever.

You may or may not know each other or ever played together before. 

What’s the first thing someone inevitably suggests?

You guessed it: “How about a blues?”

No matter what style you want to play, chances are it’s rooted in the blues.

It all comes from the blues

I was talking with jazz bassist Jeff Denson in a conversation published as this week’s FBPO interview. When I asked him what advice he had for someone who wants to learn bass, he didn’t bat an eye. He said you’ve got to learn the blues.

“This is key to playing any music in the United States, absolutely,” Jeff says. “Blues is the heart of all American musical forms.”

It doesn’t matter what style you ultimately want to play. The blues can be found pretty much everywhere, Jeff says.

“Put on Willie Nelson,” says Jeff. “Sure enough, you’re going to hear some blues. Put on Appalachian bluegrass. Sure enough, you’re going to hear blues. Put on James Brown. Put on Led Zeppelin. Put on any classic rock. You’re going to get some dose of (the blues).”

What is the blues?

Jeff says the blues can be defined as having three elements: blues as a style, blues as a musical form, and blues as a language.

“A lot of times you’re going to get the straight-up form,” he says, “and then the language-isms, like blues-isms, use of blue notes, the use of bending notes,” he adds, citing Motown, R&B, and gospel as additional examples.

Naturally, each blues sub-genre puts its own spin on things too, but no matter what you’re playing or listening to, in nearly every case there’s an underlying thread that can be traced back to classic blues.

Different… but similar

“If you study the blues and practice playing blues and learn to hear those progressions,” Jeff says, “there are some basic things that occur. Harmonically, we talk about the ‘one’ (chord) and then we’re going eventually to go to go to the ‘four.’” 

Beyond that, each type of blues injects its own vocabulary, its own “blues-isms,” especially at the turnarounds, Jeff says.

“They could be more or less complicated if you’re looking at bebop blues progressions as opposed to electric blues or country blues,” says Jeff, “but once you start, you get into that and you hear that and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah. Of course.’” 

Learn to play the blues

My advice to you if you want to learn bass: Get into the blues. It could be Buddy Guy or Muddy Waters. It could be the Stones or Led Zeppelin. It could be Johnny Cash or Garth Brooks. Whatever kind of music you’re into, chances are it’s rooted in the blues.

Take it from me, you won’t go wrong: If you want to learn to be a better bass player, learn to play the blues.

“You just said the magic word,” says Jeff. “And that’s ‘blues.’”

Your turn. How about you? What kind of music do you love? How much of that music is rooted in the blues? I bet it’s more than you think. Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. And be sure to watch my interview with Jeff here.

For the most comprehensive resource for learning to play the blues, order Jon Liebman’s bestselling Blues Bass book from the FBPO store.

Comments on Want to learn bass? Get good at playing the blues.

  1. Grayden Provis says:

    Perfect 😜👍🏼. I was watching a Jim Stinnett video recently where he talked about the bass player has to be able to “play the same thing over and over”. If they find that boring, he said, maybe they should choose another instrument! The Groove is everything and the blues is ALL about groove. I’ve been a drummer in bands where the bass player can’t groove and it’s miserable. That experience has made me a much better player that’s for sure! Great article Jon…thankyou 👍🏼

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great points, Grayden. Thanks!

  2. Hi Jon, Spot on both: Jeff Denson: you’ve got to learn the blues, and your remark to that: I am surprised that answeer don’t come up more often. I guess many of us bassplayers beeing featured in your interviews maybe looks for something personal an original to say, and we forget this. I remember at age 15 my improvisation theacher Rob Waring gave me an assignement to check out Blues, He gave me three examples, BB king, Milt Jackson with Ray Brown, Paul Bley with Gary Peacock. Worlds apart, still blues. Congratulations also to Jeff Denson his new album sounds great.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks for the comment, Thomas! Looks like you had a great teacher, exposing you to quite a cross-section of artists. “Worlds apart,” as you say. “Still blues.” Right on!

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