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Beginner Bassists: Are There Things You Should Absolutely Learn On Bass?

Early last week I checked my Quora account to find that I had a few notifications. There were people asking me to answer some of their bass guitar related questions. One of the questions I was asked to answer was what’s the best way to practice bass guitar at home?

Here were the main points of my answer:

  • Listen to everything critically and
  • Play something everyday

It was a very long answer that touched on a lot of different topics so rather than writing it all out again or even copying and pasting it, you can read the whole thing here.

I purposefully left the door very open to the person who asked me to answer because I have never been a big believer that there are so many different ways to learn music. To simply say ‘learn some Bach chorales’ or ‘record yourself every time you practice’ is, I believe, a very shortsighted approach to directing someone to learning bass guitar or music in the bigger picture.

Advising someone in such a way paints a picture that learning these things will make you a better player and not learning them won’t – guaranteed.

Is There A Right Way to Learn Bass Guitar?

No.

That’s the short answer.

Here’s the long answer.

Music, like dance, or the visual arts, is driven more by aesthetic rather than hard and fast rules like math or science. It’s guided more by what the creator likes personally and feels good making.

I’ve covered this idea extensively in past posts exploring the idea of what makes a good bass player and the idea about modeling your musical heroes. The bottom line of these posts is that there are so many factors that go into learning music but the one that determines whether or not you’re going to keep playing music for months and years to come is if the act of playing bass guitar really really excites you. Meaning, playing it, learning it, studying it, breathing it and becoming a student of it seems like something you can really get invested in and doesn’t seem like a chore that is about to get added into your life. If it doesn’t excite you, you’re not going to stick with it and you’re going to drop it.

Everyone I know in my musical world learned music differently. No two people have the same musical origin stories. Some were entirely self taught, learning their craft only by replaying Strokes songs. Others picked up one instrument in middle school, dropped it and moved over to another in high school and stuck with it. Some had formal teachers at the local music shop for two years before leaving them and going on their own, others (like me) had them for a summer before deciding teachers weren’t for them, and others are paying thousands of dollars to go to school to learn their craft. With each of these routes, no one learned their instrument the same way. Everyone found a route to satisfy their own musical aesthetic and are still (for the most part) learning and growing.

Are There Things That You Should Learn On Bass?

Perhaps, but they vary depending on what you want to do with the bass and why you picked it up in the first place.

Universally speaking, there are a few things all bass players should know regardless of your ambitions, goals or reasons for picking up the instrument:

  1. How to keep time
  2. How to play with a drummer
  3. How to follow chord changes
  4. How to physically play the bass (develop the fretting hand strength and at least 1 finger on the plucking hand and/or how to use a pick)

Beyond that, it’s an open playing field and the reasons for playing bass and where you want to take it can influence what and how you learn immensely.

Let’s say for example, if you have 3 weeks to learn bass guitar to fill a spot in, it would behoove you to learn:

  1. the chord changes to the songs you’re expected to learn
  2. how to use a pick (if that’s your preference towards bass) or how to play with at least 1 finger on your plucking hand
  3. how to get your fretting hand ready to deal with the extra strength needed to play bass

That’s it. At the bare minimum, you should at least know what the songs are and how to play the bass long enough to make others think you can do it. You don’t need to know Bach chorales or Boogie On Reggae Woman by Stevie Wonder. You just need to know how to function.

Here’s another example. If you picked up bass to play your favorite classic rock songs and your ultimate goal was to get good enough that you and your friends could put together a 30 minute set and play the local bar down the road. In addition to those core tenets of bass playing above, it would be in your best interest to:

  1. figure out what songs you want to learn first, starting with your favorite songs of course (no sense in learning something you don’t like doing)
  2. make time to play as often as you can with your friends so you understand s quickly as possible how they play and how you work as a bass player within the unit
  3. practice and play something everyday. If you have a busy personal life, square off at least 30 minutes to re-hash what you learned in prior weeks and learn something new, building your knowledge of the instrument and songs slowly but diligently.

If you wanted to take it a step further and really immerse yourself in the learning process, study up on who these bass players were/are. Learn about how they learned the instrument and the ins and outs of their musical backstory.

One more example. Let’s say you were smitten with bass guitar at an early age and you know right off the bat you want to be a professional session musician in Nashville. That’s a tall order to fill and will require many years of learning and commitment to the instrument. In this case, some of the things that would be in your best interest to learn include:

  1. as many different genres of music as possible to improve your chances of getting work in different areas of music
  2. develop your musical ear to make learning new music and new songs on the fly easier
  3. develop your improvisational skills
  4. develop your ability to read music as it’s likely that a musician who has commissioned you has a very specific bass line they want played and has it written out for you to learn

Of course there are many other bullet points that fit in each of those examples, but the bigger point is that learning Bach chorales might not be of interest to the cover band bassist as it would be to the Nashville bassist. Recording yourself everyday might not matter to the hobbyist as it would to the professional.

Final Thoughts

When it comes right down to it, there isn’t a right or wrong way to learn bass. Advice sections, whether on a forum, Quora or even on this site, are dealt with the best of intentions but never forget why you picked up bass in the first place.

At the end of the day, if learning a Bach chorale or a very difficult song is something you want to try, absolutely try it and try to master it. You absolutely should. But is it required to know in order to learn bass “properly”? Is it an answer to the question what should I learn on bass if being asked by a beginner? Probably not.

Advise to beginner bass players and musicians alike can be as beneficial as it can be misleading and dangerous. Not everyone needs to know Bach, or record themselves playing each session or learn tapping or learn to read standard notation to be considered a ‘good’ bass player. At the end of the day, if you’re driven to learn, embrace it. But never forget why you decided to pick up bass in the first place.