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The Andrew Pouska Interview: The Mastermind Behind StudyBass

Have you ever  looked up something about bass guitar? Maybe how to play a certain scale, or what the musical modes were? Then there’s a good chance you landed on StudyBass.

Since its founding in 2003, StudyBass has been and continues to be a tremendous resource for bass players just starting out to seasoned veterans. The site’s founder, Andrew Pouska, is the mastermind behind this website. A trailblazer in his own right, before Scott Devine and other bass teachers set up their digital bass academies, Pouska took the fundamentals of bass guitar and put them into one comprehensive website, a site that he says is still growing and has a lot more growing to do.

I was very fortunate to get in contact with Andrew for an interview for Smart Bass. To me as this site’s curator, a bass player and as someone who used StudyBass as a reference and learning resource many years ago starting out on bass, this is a huge interview and one that is long overdue for the bass playing community.

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Mike Emiliani (ME): How did you first get into playing bass? Who were some of your early influences on the instrument? What kept you playing bass guitar? Can you share some insights into your journey as a bass player (teachers you had and really learned a lot from, albums and musicians you learned from, notable gigs, jobs held, etc.)

Andrew Pouska (AP): I actually started on piano and keyboards. Very few bass players start on bass. Bass just isn’t on most peoples’ radar unless they have musicians in their immediate surroundings. But, I am seeing more students start on bass compared to 20 years ago. When I played on keyboards, I discovered I loved the low-end. I was always humming the bass parts in music. A guitar player friend of mine needed someone to play bass, so I went and got a bass and discovered it was my instrument.

 I remember the first thing I did was pick out the bass parts to every Police, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett album. I could hear the bass clearly, and the basslines really grabbed me. You couldn’t just look up a tab like now. You’d have to go by ear, which is better for you anyway. If you were lucky, you had a CD and not a tape to rewind constantly!

One thing I was lucky to learn early was to try a lot of different teachers. Unfortunately, since it’s hard to make a living as a musician, there are lots of people teaching who shouldn’t be. And, just because someone can play doesn’t mean they can teach.

After going through a few lick and song teachers, I was lucky to take lessons with Dave Nichols. He wasn’t just a bass teacher, he was a music teacher. He set me on the path of learning the right things like harmony, rhythm, and improvisation. You’ll see I dedicated StudyBass to him. He tragically died of cancer at 33 years old.

ME: What drew you to teaching bass guitar? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered as a teacher? What are some of the most consistent topics you find students struggling with? What advice and instruction do you give to those students?

AP:  The ability to create music is one of the most beautiful things you can develop. Helping others on their journey is really important to me. Teaching feels very natural to me. People tell me I have a knack for making complex ideas simple. Some people make learning music so needlessly hard for themselves and for others. It makes me happy to make it easier for someone.

One big challenge is getting students to listen. Listening is your biggest asset as a musician. The student needs to play slowly enough so they can be mindful and hear what they are playing. If you’re just caught up in finger movements, you’re not really playing music. 

The most consistent problem for students is not a musical problem, but how to manage their practice time. Everyone seems more distracted and overworked than ever. It’s really hard to put in the consistent time needed to make progress. Honestly, no one cares if you learn to play the bass. It’s all up to you. If you want it, you have to sacrifice and fight for the time to learn. I’m adding new features to StudyBass to help students manage their time better.

ME: Most of the internet seems to know your name through your work as the man behind StudyBass. What prompted you to start StudyBass?

AP: As the internet started to take off, my students were getting confused by a lot of online material. I saw that more and more people would be going to the internet to learn. So, in 2003 I dreamed up what I thought would be the best website for people learning bass guitar online, and StudyBass was born.

ME: StudyBass is certainly the most comprehensive bass guitar education site out there. I can’t name many other online resources, with the exception of Scott Devine’s Scotts Bass Lessons that are  as comprehensive and as thorough as StudyBass. What challenges did you encounter when putting together StudyBass?

AP: People always say that, but I don’t think it’s comprehensive at all yet. I’m working on it. So far StudyBass covers what I teach students in the first 6 to 18 months of lessons depending on how much and how well they practice. Looking at my plans I’m about 3% finished with my vision for StudyBass. I’ve recently cut back my private lesson schedule to devote more time to StudyBass. Now that I’ve launched the part of the site where users can support the project, everyone should see the site grow faster.

The biggest challenge has been technology. In 2003, there weren’t many tools to build the website I imagined. I had no tech background at all, and I couldn’t afford to hire anyone. So I had to teach myself how to create an interactive website. The original site relied heavily on the Flash plugin which was a great cross-platform tool. I had lots of things underway, but then Apple killed Flash, and I had to start over. It took me over a year to recreate the old site with new technology. I’m excited to be back writing and recording lessons on the new site.

ME: Do you find that it’s more difficult to explain bass guitar in writing and through a website than in person with a student right in front of you?

AP: If you haven’t taught a lot of people face-to-face, creating good material for the web will be difficult. Since I’ve taught these lessons so many times, I know where people have questions or where they get stuck. That’s always been a major problem with instructional material out there. People know stuff, but they’ve never seen anyone learn it. Teaching isn’t just information, it’s structure. It’s knowing when to say what and how to say it.

One big difference is in person I can get a sense of what a student understands. In writing you can’t. Online I have to go into more detail to make sure the reader is getting it. That’s one advantage of the web over printed books. There’s unlimited space to get a point across if you need it.

ME: What is the goal of StudyBass? Where does StudyBass fit in the bigger picture of online bass guitar education? I ask because I’ve seen some bass guitar sites have the mission and promise that by using their site and their resources, any player can go from a beginner level to an advanced or skilled player in a matter of time combined with diligent practice. Other sites exist for the purpose not so much to teach, but to act as a reference source for bass players; something to go to when a short, quick question emerges. 

AP: The goal of StudyBass is to turn people into creative musicians, not just song players. Some people just want to play a few songs on the bass, and that’s fine. The problem is, most of the material online focuses on learning songs, licks, and techniques. That’s just a small fraction of learning, and people teaching themselves often don’t realize there’s more to it than that. StudyBass is a structured course to teach you how music works and how the bass fits within music. It’s meant to help you understand the nuts and bolts so you can play in an original band, write music, improvise, and express yourself.

ME: With online guitar and bass learning becoming more of a thing in recent years, how do you believe online learning stacks up against private lessons? Some wholeheartedly believe that the only ‘true’ way to learn is with a teacher in person and others believe that online lessons plus some self-guided interest can get the job done. Of course there is a portion in the middle that believes in a balance of both, but what is your take on this?

AP: Anyone who is dedicated can learn, and there are lots of paths to get there. If everyone did the same thing, we’d all sound the same. The question is, will you pick the best path for yourself? For most people practice time is limited. There’s not much time to waste. A good teacher can really help you focus in the beginning. I get self-taught students coming in often. On average, most of them took 2 years to get to the same level as someone in lessons with me for 6 months. Most of that wasted time was spent trying to figure out what to practice or spent practicing the wrong things. Once you’re on the right track, you can learn a lot on your own.

Compared to 20 years ago, I’m seeing fewer young students in lessons. A lot of them are learning from the internet. It’s a great resource, but there’s so much information that it’s even easier to get lost and waste time practicing the wrong things. I’m trying to make the StudyBass experience as close to having a private teacher as possible. You need guidance. 

With that said, you’re not going to learn everything from a teacher, book, or website. Put yourself into as many playing situations as possible. As scary as it sounds, you’re ready to start playing with others the day you get your bass. Always play with people better than you. You’ll know you’re learning when you feel uncomfortable. If you play in a band, it will force you to focus on a lot of the right essentials. If you’re just sitting at home learning tabs, you’re missing a lot and wasting precious time.

ME: What are some of your favorite resources you refer students to for learning bass guitar (books, albums, YouTube videos, etc.)?

AP: I’ve written original material for most of what I teach my students. Eventually it’ll all be on the website. I do suggest a few books. I think the James Jamerson book Standing in the Shadows of Motown is the bass player’s bible. All of the essential aspects of playing bass are in those transcriptions. The Beatles Complete Scores is great for insight into McCartney’s basslines and composition. The Bass Tab White Pages is a decent collection of songs in many styles for not much money. 

ME: You’re learning a new piece of music for a high profile gig – how do you approach learning the new piece of music? What does your learning process look like?

AP: If you got the gig, you probably have the skills to play it already. Learning a new piece will really depend on what it is. If it’s full of complex riffs, you might need to slow it down and experiment with fingerings. If there are complicated harmonies to hear, you might play chord voicings on the bass or piano to get it in your ears. If there is a lot of reading, you might highlight repeats and codas or work out tricky bits. A good thing to do is play it faster than you expect to play it. Another thing to consider is whose gig it is and what makes them happy. 99% of the time you’re there to make others look good.

ME: Are there any plans on the horizon for StudyBass or new ventures in online bass guitar education?

AP: I have a lot planned for StudyBass. Like I mentioned before, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the whole site will be. I have hundreds of lessons and exercises to add to the site. I’ll be adding videos and new features. I’m pretty excited. A number of things planned I’ve never seen in books, videos, or online. I hope people will find it useful like my students have.

ME: Finally, on a lighter note, what are your 10 favorite basslines to play?

AP: Hmmm. I guess I don’t sit around playing other’s basslines like I used to. But, I’m never one to pass up a teaching opportunity. Instead, let’s make it 10 lines I think everyone can get a lot out of playing or at least listening to. 

Eight Days a Week – The Beatles – Paul McCartney. Moving a song forward with even the simplest bassline.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – James Jamerson. Harmony, rhythm, chromaticism. Almost everything.

Something – The Beatles – Paul McCartney. Making a bassline melodic.

New York Minute – Don Henley – Pino Pallidino. Counterpoint. Melodic playing. Accompanying a singer.

Prelude in G Major – Bach’s Cello Suite. How to create harmony one note at a time.

Cold Sweat – James Brown – Bernard Odum. Playing off of and around the kick drum.

St. Thomas – Sonny Rollins (Sonny’s saxophone solo). Thematicism!

In Time – Sly & The Family Stone – Larry Graham. Funk is where you put the notes and where you don’t.

Passion in Moisture – Mick Karn – Mick Karn. You don’t have to sound like anyone but yourself. Who are you?

Heart of the Sunrise – Yes – Chris Squire. Knowing when to play a lot and when to play a little. Also, how to kick ass.

Thanks for the interview. We got to cover a few things not brought up on StudyBass. It was fun.

Lastly, be sure to connect with Andrew and StudyBass: