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Beginner Bassists: Focus On Playing Your First Notes First

I had a very special opportunity to interview Thomas Risell, better known as Marlowe DK two weekends ago:

You’re probably wondering, ‘hey – where’s that interview?’

Well, this is a big interview for me personally. It’s the first interview I’ve done via Skype so there is a lot of video, a lot of audio and a lot of room to have the whole interview transcribed into a text document. So there is a considerable amount of work that is going into this project and a lot I want to release.

It’ll go live – don’t worry!

But onto this column.

While I was talking with Thomas, I made a point to ask him what was the difference between teaching bass guitar in person and teaching bass guitar over the Internet. A fair enough question considering online education and online course participation have jumped almost 96% in the last 5 years. Naturally, there’s a lot to consider when trying to convey a difficult concept like feel and touch as it pertains to bass guitar with a computer between you and your student.

Thomas gave a very interesting answer and one that I really had never heard before.

Thomas said that the most important thing when it comes to teaching bass guitar is getting the student to play the very first notes.

That really took me back.

He didn’t say scales.

Or chords.

Or songs.

Just getting the very first notes out of a budding bass player is the most important thing that a teacher can teach to a student.

After a while to think about it after the interview, I found that really did make a lot of sense.

After all, when you picked up the bass for the first time did you care about chords? What about the individual notes? Surely you cared about the modes, right?

You just wanted to play. You wanted the bass to make a sound that matched the one in your head. You wanted the instrument to actually make music and to serve you.

The first step in making that happen is actually playing a note. A perfectly round, well attacked, perfectly released note with good for from both hands so the door is open to play even more good notes in the future.

That, frankly, really is the best thing that a teacher can teach a budding bass player.

Actually Making Those First Notes Come Out

So now as you’re reading this, whether you’re a frustrated bass player, an aspiring teacher or a teacher who isn’t feeling like they’re reaching their student, you’re wondering: how do you convey these first steps to your student – or get it across to yourself.

Well, here’s a story.

I remember way back when I started playing bass guitar back in high school. The big thing I wanted to learn was music theory. I felt I had an understanding of it on a basic level, but I wanted to take my bass playing to the next level. What better way to do that then to learn the rhyme and the reason behind what’s going on musically?

So I found a teacher at my local music store. We met, shook hands, and he asked me some questions. Questions including how long have you been playing, what are some of your favorite players, what are some of your favorite bands – the basic questions one teacher might as a new student to better understand where they’re coming from.

Then it got to the big question: what do you want to learn the most?

I told him music theory.

He looked at me and said you don’t need that.

I was puzzled.

What did he mean I didn’t need that?

He said all you need to know is how to hold the bass and to play songs and you’ll be find.

My initial feelings about what I was going to get from this experience and how much I was going to grow as a player and become a ‘legitimate musician’ were crushed.

I didn’t want to learn songs. I wanted the behind the scenes stuff of music.

But I plugged on. Maybe I would get to theory some day (I didn’t).

The first song I learned was Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers. The next one, perhaps the most challenging song, was Badge by Cream. All throughout learning the song, my teacher hammered my form, how long I held notes and now I actually played the notes.

I hated every minute of it.

I didn’t want form or how to properly attack the note. I wanted theory.

Through the toughness I remember him asking me to count out 16th notes. I had no idea how to actually count and subdivide 16th notes. He got me.

That whole lesson and most of the next, we counted 16th notes over and over and over again.

As I played 16th notes, he checked my form over and over again and kept readjusting me so my hand wasn’t gripping the neck and my thumb was resting on the string above the one I was playing. He was making sure both my hands were moving as total units, not disjointed parts.

Needless to say, I quit learning from him after a few weeks. I didn’t feel like I was getting what wanted.

As months and years went on I eventually forgot how to play Badge, but I never forgot my form and never forgot how to count 16th notes.

It’s still those 2 things that I find so central to my playing and helped me to not only make those first notes but to make those first notes and then the second ones sound good, and the third and so on.

Almost 10 years later and as my playing improved, because I had good form from the start, I was able to accommodate the growth of my playing. I never like I couldn’t play something because of bad form. I always knew that if I learned the technique and practiced I was golden.

If anything, good form excelled my learning in later years and put me in a higher status of players than those that just worked through the pain but couldn’t sustain their improvements because of bad form.

First adn Foremost: Focus On Actually Playing the Bass

It’s been some time since I parted with my teacher, but those lessons he gave me about form and counting were some of the most important lessons about bass I ever got.

Just how the success and sound of the band start with the drummer, success and sound as a bass player start with your form. Your form must accommodate you and set you up to grow as a player. There’s nothing worse than having invested so much time and effort in a craft only to be stunted by your own mistakes.

You don’t want to throw ceilings on your learning or the learning of others.

For teachers reading this, stress proper form. For students reading this, invest in good form. For frustrated students or teachers reading this, work on your form first. With good form comes the first notes and with the first notes come the second, third, fourth and so on and before you know it, you’re playing bass – the right way.