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Practicing Bass Guitar: What Is and Isn’t Practice

A common question among bassists starting off is the topic of practice. How much practice should someone do, what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practice, what should be focused on and what shouldn’t be, what are good practice habits to get into and many other questions are ones that circle the bass guitar forums and message boards all the time.

One question that’s seldom asked is what does and doesn’t constitute practice?

Are you only practicing when you’re sitting down in your practice space, reviewing scales or a new bass line? Are you practicing when you sit down with your bass and noodle around when you’re watching TV or checking your email? Is the topic of practice more fluid and dynamic than we once thought it was?

Practice as a Fun Choice Not a Chore

The idea of practice has been something that I’ve thought about much more in recent years. As a player, I don’t consider myself an expert, but I certainly don’t consider myself a beginner. As part of my musical growth, practice has come to mean something different than what I originally remember it being.

When I was just starting out, I remember being reminded of how often you needed to practice each day to get ‘good’. Daily practice for at least thirty minutes was the key to success and skill improvement.

At the time, daily practice wasn’t a problem. I was captivated with bass guitar and playing every day wasn’t a chore – it was a choice. A fun, exciting choice.

My dad practiced by devoting time each morning to learning Rage Against the Machine songs note for note. Each day, he turned on his rig and played for 2 hours straight nothing but Rage songs. To this day, he’s committed all the Rage and Audioslave bass lines to memory (around 75 songs). His goal was to learn all of Tim Commerford’s work. My goals were different.

I remember disliking sitting down and learning a rote bass line. Chalk it up to a short attention span or thinking far ahead to some other kind of theory about the fluidity of art and it’s inherently derivative nature but sitting down and learning rote lines seemed very boring and tedious. It was a time where mistakes were amplified in a musical vaccum. You didn’t get the luxury of playing with a band where mistakes could be talked about or rolled over into something new and exciting or a fun variation of an original idea.

No. You got to listen to yourself suck in your bed room for hours. For most, this is the improvement process. For me, it seemed tedious and boring. I later learned how to sit and learn a rote bass line, but starting off it seemed like a real drag on the learning process and really sucked the fun and excitement out of playing.

What was more exciting was improvising. It was playing on the fly and learning to roll with the musical punches as they came. Even better was improvising a bass line to my favorite Grateful Dead and Cream songs, songs that were built on jams that were different with each recording. Basically a whole new opportunity to create a brand new bass line every time I played the song back. Even better was the fact that the band was already there. Drums, guitars, keyboards, a song structure – it was all there. More often than not the bass couldn’t be heard too well through my old iMac speakers so, as a person looking to learn bass, it made for the perfect situation to fit right in with Jerry, Bob and the rest of the Dead.

Was I practicing my instrument? Or was I just noodling around for hours on end as a high schooler and college kid?

Define: Practice

One definition of practice according to Merriam-Webster is:

“to do something again and again in order to become better at it”

By this very broad definition, what I did for so many years could in fact be considered practice. The act of picking up the bass and playing it again and again was practice. It was a repeated act of consciously playing and exploring music. It wasn’t rote exercises, but it was, in retrospect, exercises in improvisation and developing a musical ear.

Another definition takes a slightly different look at practice:

“repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.”

A little more elegant way of saying the first definition but specific in some key areas, particularly the first bit: repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill.

By this definition, too, sitting in a room, playing back loose, improvisational music and jamming out tens of different bass lines hours on end day by day can sit along side sitting in a practice space rehearsing rote sheet music for hours on end. Both are acts of repeated exercise to a particular skill and both are done to achieve a greater proficiency at, in this case, bass guitar.

Observing the message boards and Quora question queue for bass guitar, the topic of practice comes up very often. As we’ve touched on in this piece, practice is fluid. Whether sitting in ones room playing along to records, interpreting them how you may please and growing your musical ears and sense of timing, feel, dynamics, tempo, pace and many other intangible musical qualities that are just as important as being able to identify notes on a page or on the fretboard or going over rote sheet music until mastery is achieved, both are forms of practice that get you the player better at some facet of the bass guitar.

There are classical musicians who can sight read like the greats, but have trouble improvising on the spot just as the inverse is true. One type of practice shouldn’t take authority over another. Ultimately, the type of practice you choose to invest in should move you closer towards your playing goals and reinforce why you decided to pick up and play bass in the first place.