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7 Actionable Ways to Improve Your Bass Playing This Weekend

Do you feel like you’re bass playing has flat lined?

Have you been playing and playing and playing but don’t feel like you’re getting any better?

Well, good news! You can change that – and in a weekend’s time, no less!

Whether you’re learning bass, learning to program software or learning to whittle, we all want to improve our skill in a craft and continue to learn.

Whether it’s the human condition or otherwise, continuous learning and continuous improvement seems to be something that we enjoy. We thrive on beating ourselves and achieving that next threshold of challenge and excitement.

In this weeks doozy of a post, I’ll show you 7 ways you can…

  • Improve your bass playing,
  • Get better at playing bass on your own and with people,
  • How to find local musicians to jam with,
  • Improve your playing form,
  • How to eliminate distractions from your playing and more

The goal of this post is to answer the question: How Do I Get Better At Bass Fast and How to improve your bass playing

Gaining new skill takes time for sure, but that doesn’t mean you can jump on trying some new things that can move you towards getting better faster this weekend.

7 Ways to Get Better at Playing Bass (For Real)

1. Focus on Right Hand Finger Movement

While it’s your left hand making the choices for notes on the fretboard, it’s the right hand that’s adding the rhythmic component, the consistency and the actual drive behind those notes.

It’s very difficult to dissect rhythm without talking about melody and harmony and this instance is no different. The right hand provides the Yin to your left hand’s Yang and Yang doesn’t mean anything without the Yin.

Developing a consistent routine for working out the right hand is essential to developing a consistent, fluid style of playing and while you’ll hear me consistently harp on about integrated and contextual learning being the best way to learn ANY kind of skill (see point #3), but here are some starting blocks to get you started developing a smoother, more fluid right hand technique:

Using just your index finger, try playing these exercises JUST to get the feel of things. These exercises, again, are meant to be starters to get you in the mindset.

You shouldn’t be spending more than 10 minutes TOPS on these exercises COMBINED.

Once you’re warmed up, start thinking of your own bass lines and improvising to your own satisfaction. Also:

  • Though these examples are written for C major and C minor, I encourage you to experiment with these exercises up and down the neck starting on different root notes
  • Though these are written as eighth notes, feel free to turn these into 16th note exercises, where instead of playing 2 notes per pitch, you play 4 notes per pitch or even into triplet exercises.
  • Lastly, these exercise frameworks can be applied just as equally to playing with one finger, two fingers or three fingers and if you’re in the market for learning how to incorporate another finger into your playing, use these exercises as well as springboards.

super short right hand bass guitar exercise

minor scale right hand bass exercise

major arpeggio right hand exercise for bass guitar

minor arpeggio right hand exercise for bass guitar

2. Jam On Techniques Rather than Following Rote Exercises

This is a method that I personally use and encourage others to try out and really explore even if it doesn’t seem to make sense the first time around.

The methodology is rather than sitting down and cracking a book of slap bass exercises or double thumb techniques, actually try to incorporate the technique as much as possible into your natural playing style.

When you learn in context, the learning process speeds up tremendously because you are now using the technique as you would if you were making a bass line to compliment your band’s guitar lead melody or drummer’s groove.

The problem with books of exercises is that they are in a vacuum and unrealistic. Like learning a butt-load of theory but having nowhere to apply it, exercises are just that – exercises.

4 levels of learning

How many times have you used a practice exercise as a bass line for a song and found that not only did it fit extremely well in the song, but it also felt right to play? How many of your friends can say this as well?

Probably none.

By using exercises and rote learning as a tool to get past the Unconscious Incompetence stage – aka the Serious-Beginner-Just-Picked-Up-The-Bass stage and move through the Conscious Incompetence – aka the Starting-to-Get-It-And-Getting-Bored-With-The-Beginner-Stuff stage and beyond through being able to take a technique and think independently and creatively with it.

Action: Take one technique you’re currently working on, set a timer for 10 minutes and just play being mindful to incorporate the technique in small doses in different areas. The goal here is just to begin to work the technique into a real-time playing setting and out of the exercise book.

3. Learning to Play Song Melodies Rather Than Just Bass Lines to Songs

Jaco Pastorius claimed that one of the methods that helped him see the bass in another dimension was learning melodies to songs in addition to bass lines. Take Jaco’s famous arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” – the entire song is Parker’s melodic lead:

Finding a melody to learn and play can be a bit of a challenge, but many of the steps are the same as learning a bass line to a song.

The key is first identifying what part of the song actually is the melody.

Melody in music theory is defined many different ways depending who you ask, but for sake of simplicity, let’s start with 2 provided by Merriam-Webster: a rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole; a sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds.

Those definitions are pretty broad – but very encompassing. In other words, melodies are the parts of songs that you’re most likely to hum and remember. The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” , Beethoven’s Ode To Joy and beyond are all examples of melodies that can be learned.

Here’s what the opening melodic line to “And Your Bird Can Sing” looks like on guitar:

and your bird can sing guitar melody

Here’s what that exact same melody looks like when transcribed to bass:

and your bird can sing beatles bass transcription

 

Once you know the melody to a song, learning a new part of a song you might already know and love from another perspective is a worthwhile learning challenge.

Action: Go through your iTunes and find one song you really, really like (this is important – if you don’t love it, you won’t want to learn it). Then, by ear, try to learn the melody.

Don’t worry about trying to write it out or transcribe it, just focus on using your ears to find where the notes of the melody are on the neck, then how to arrange them and then put the piece together. 

It does not have to be perfect – it just has to be something. You can improve on something with time.

4. Incorporate the Left Hand Pinky into Your Playing

Though just a small physical addition to your playing, learning to incorporate the pinky into your playing is a worthwhile skill.

how to play bass with your pinky fingerThe pinky is useful for some very specific but distinct reasons. The first being that when you bring in your pinky, the old adage of one-finger-per-fret becomes very easy to fulfill and it a good baseline (no pun intended) for how to position your left hand for playing (ideally).

The second reason is speed and fluidity. For the same reason as avoiding to hold the bass neck like a baseball bat, bringing your pinky in makes playing quick and agile lines significantly easier because the workload is spread over to 4 fingers, rather than just 3: index, middle and ring.

Like learning bass guitar itself, working in the pinky can take some time. It’s ideal to start learning this skill early on in your bass playing, but that is by no means a requirement.

People of any skill level can learn this particular ability with a little bit of training.

While exercises are ideal, nothing can substitute – you guessed it – playing and gradual incorporation.

Action: Take the examples from the point above and instead of just focusing on the movements of the right hand now begin to focus playing these lines fluidly with 4 fingers on the left hand rather than just 3. Set a timer for 15 minutes and write down how you felt beginning to incorporate the pinky into your playing.

super short right hand bass guitar exercise minor scale right hand bass exercise major arpeggio right hand exercise for bass guitar minor arpeggio right hand exercise for bass guitar

5. Play With Other People

When it comes to learning a new skill, nothing will improve your bass playing faster than actually getting out and playing with other musicians.

But the number one issue standing in the way of this opportunity is the complaint that there aren’t any musicians around to play with.

Here are some great resources to meet musicians in your area to play with:

1. Craigslist.

Good ‘ol Craigslist. The go-to for everything from cheap furniture to apartments and beyond. Craigslist has become the new newspaper classified ads section where musicians used to take out ad space for a musician wanted listing. What’s great about Craigslist is that it automatically changes it’s listings to your region.

Just go to Craigslist and find the “Musicians” tab under “Community”:

finding musicians to play with on craigslist

 

Then, simply type in “bass player” or “bass player wanted” or any variation of those and scan the results until you find one that appeals to you.

Most people looking for a musician will provide contact information and basic things they’re looking for in a musician:

finding musicians to play with on craigslist 2

2. Reddit 

Reddit is a fantastic resource for just about anything. With over 6,000 subreddits, or interest-specific subdivisions of the site, there is something for just about everyone – including people looking for other musicians to play with.

Even a quick Google search of “reddit find musicians” and you get a good chunk of subreddits to choose from and people to possibly connect with to play with:

reddit find musicians

 

3. Meetup

Meetup is a site intended to connect people with similar interests with one another and, well, meetup and share the interest together.

What is a band but just a group of people who share a similar interest in making music and playing shows together.

Like Craigslist and reddit to an extent, Meetup works by matching people based on an interest and a zip code. Meetup, from my experience, is not the best medium for finding a band to play with but it really excels if you’re looking to jam with people – and jam often.

Many Meetup groups get together on a scheduled basis, so you always have an idea of when the next jam session is going to happen and can plan ahead for it.

find musicians meetup

4. Bandmix

Like Craigslist and Meetup, Bandmix is another site intended to connect musicians with one another whether just to jam or to form a band with.

Just like the sites before, just plug in your zip code and specify in the first box what exactly you’re looking for: a band, any musician, an ensamble, etc.

find musicians to play with bandmix

Action: If you’re having trouble finding people to play with, set a timer for 30 minutes, pick two of the sites mentioned above and reach out to 3 people.

6. Avoid Holding the Neck like a Baseball Bat

As I’ve said in my 2 part series on proper bass guitar form on YouTube, there are “ideal” ways to hold the bass, but each person has their own way of holding it.

Of course you the reader know how you hold the bass and I’m sure your way suits your playing and works to what you’re trying to achieve as a bass player.

But allow me to introduce this idea as my 6th bullet point: avoid holding the neck like it’show to hold the bass guitar a baseball bat.

Instead consider holding the bass so your fingers are parallel to the strings, your thumb rests center to the back of the neck and rather than moving your entire wrist and forearm to play up and down on the neck, you’re set up to play using only your fingers and reposition yourself by just sliding your hand up and down the neck using the thumb as a pivot point.

Why take this approach? Mobility and fluidity.

When you hold the bass guitar neck like it’s a baseball bat, in a near-full clench so that your thumb comes over the top of the neck and your wrist is doing most of the work and not your fingers, your ability to move quickly up and down the neck is serverely hampered.

Moreover, being able to play lines like this:

Is damn near impossible to do because all of your fingers are wrapped up on the neck, rather than (roughly) spaced 1-finger-per-fret

[pic]

Action: On Friday, choose a time and set a timer for 20 minutes and try playing your bass like the way. You can play a song, work out a technique, jam out – just focus on playing using this technique for 20 minutes. Repeat this process on Saturday and Sunday and write down on a piece of paper what you thought of playing like this.

The purpose of writing down how you felt is for reflection.

7. The Headphone Trick

This is my personal favorite and here’s why: it’s simple and effective.

The Headphone Trick is simply playing as you would normally in the woodshed but with a pair ofmike headphone 2 headphones on plugged into your amp, making it so you only hear the sound of your bass. No external distractions.

Believe it or not, one of the biggest things that stops bassists from effective practice is *gasp* distractions. Whether it’s the TV, or the lawnmower outside, or the nagging feeling that you need to do X, Y and Z things today, keeping your mind focused on your playing – even just for 30 minutes at a time – can be a bigger challenge than it might seem on the surface.

How does simply putting on a pair of headphones improve your bass playing? Well…

  • Like I said before, headphones (or even decent earbuds) isolates sound from distractions. If you’re someone like me who falls in and out of practicing with the TV on or my laptop streaming a basketball game, the sound of the game can be a big distraction from playing. With a decent set of sound-blocking headphones, that problem is virtually eliminated and your attention returns solely to the instrument
  • The sound is in your head. When you play without headphones, you’re listening from the amp and the amp spreads the sound out around you. It’s not focused directly on you. With a set of headphones, the sound of your bass and your playing is right in your head. You can’t escape it and the bass can’t escape you. Which leads me to my next point…
  • Having the sound of the bass so close to your ears is the best way to really focus on the nuances of your playing.

A word of caution: this technique loses it’s punch if you play with a metronome or a drum track going. With headphones on, you really can only hear either the bass or the click track – unless you’re crafty and have one headphone cup on one ear and the other free to hear the click track.

mike headphone

Action: If you have a pair of headphones, an adapter jack and an amp with a headphone input, plug your headphones into the amp and set a timer for 30 minutes.

Try practicing with headphones on and write down the result of the session.

How to Be a Good Bass Player With Other Musicians

So we’ve touched on how we can improve our own bass playing, now let’s look at how we can improve when it comes to playing with others and how to be a better bass player when it comes to playing with other musicians.

1. Adopting a “Less is More” Approach to Playing the Instrument

Compared to guitar players, who play many more notes and the value of each note and each riff tends to get diminished by the sheer quantity of notes and riffs being played, as a bass player, even just eighth notes or some well placed quarter and half notes can pull an entire song together instantly.

Bass players, fundamentally speaking, were never intended to play hundred-note runs after runs. The instrument itself was not meant to be used like that.

Although changes in technique and instrument design have opened up new playing options for bass players, generally speaking, even the best of the best know the value and worth of playing a handful of well placed notes versus thousands of notes all over a song.

Bearing in mind that if not careful, you can run the risk of playing on top of the lead and crowding the song. I – as well as many bassists I’m sure – are guilty of playing distastefully and treading over the song without really knowing it by playing too many notes to quickly or too recklessly.

2. Remember to Support, But Lead When Needed

If it hasn’t been drilled down already, here it is one more time: as a bass player, the job as the bassist at the core is to make the rest of the band sound good, support those who are taking lead positions and hold the groove and the feel of the music together alongside the drummer.

Bassists do have opportunities to take lead, but whenever possible, your focus should be tasteful support of the rest of the band and the lead above all else.

Like I mentioned in the above bullet, the bass guitar has transformed tremendously over the last 40 years and in many situations has taken on the role of a lead instrument, but it’s important to be cognizant of when the right times to lead are and how to do it.

If there are no other guiding principles you bear in mind if you’re considering taking lead parts more seriously in your playing, always remember never to lose the groove.

Too often when bassists go for the solo, the adopt the guitarist mentality of putting flash, note quantity and style above the song and the audience’s attention.

3. Last But Not Least: Be Mindful of the Bass-Drum Relationship

At your core, being the bass player means you’re going to be putting more into working with your drummer and playing along side him, rather than independently of him like you might have experienced as a guitar player.

Bass and drum are what get a room dancing and enjoying your band and the stronger a groove you can create with the drummer and the tighter your relationship with them is, the better any band you become a part of will be.

Think of how John Paul Jones and John Bonham work together, or Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, John Entwistle and Keith Moon and Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine.

A strong drum and bass relationship is something sought by just about every band and exactly for the reasons you might be thinking: a strong musical foundation makes the rest of the band sound better and keeps the room more musically engaged with what you have to play.

– – –

Hope these little tips give you something to chew over and hammer on in the wood shed this weekend!

-Mike

What did you think of this post? Love it? Hate it? Why? Let me know at mike@smartbassguitar.com.