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Re-Learning Bass Guitar After a 25-Year Hiatus: It’s Not Like Riding a Bike

Image from LessonsThatRock.com
Image from LessonsThatRock.com

This is a guest post from bassist and Smart Bass reader Jeff McWilliams

I had a friend in high school who was a pretty good guitarist. Not a great lead, but a really solid rhythm guitarist who had a fairly large repertoire of songs that he could belt out pretty well.  Good enough for me to grab a 12 pack and listen to music being made right up in my face.  He had a small drum kit and a bass that a couple of his friends left behind and rarely played.

On one of my visits, he encouraged me to pick up the bass and learn how to play along. I found that I could pick up the notes by ear pretty easily and with a lot of practice, learned to play fairly well.  I could keep up and rarely hit the wrong notes.

That’s where I learned to love the bass guitar and ultimately why I bought my own Fender knockoff and I giant Peavey amp.

We spent many afternoons jamming. I can’t remember better times during that part of my life (unless they involved girls).  That is when I learned to love the instrument.

I played music and bass through my last two and a half years of high school and a bit into college. While in college, I also picked up a Strat copy and learned a few chords to expand my music knowledge. I learned enough to play some of the simpler classic rock songs. In my mind, I “played” guitar and bass. In reality, I kind of did.

Fast forward a few years into college and beyond, I quit playing and sold all of my gear. I had too many other things to do, too much money to make, and too many places to travel.  I thought ‘I could always pick it back up in a couple of years when I settle in one place, right?’

That didn’t happen.  But I thought about picking it back up quite often.

25 years of life blew by pretty fast. I have no regrets, but here I am, pushing 50, learning how to play the instrument again after 25 years. Learning music again wouldn’t quite be the same uphill challenge like it was the first time. This time I would be armed with some basic musical education and structure and would need to rehash my old knowledge.

My family helped me relearn and remember my old musical education. I have a couple of brothers-in-law who played  guitar at small gatherings around New Orleans and at family functions and thought maybe I could join them some day and play along.

Learning to play bass and music again has been a fantastic experience. I am a technical guy with a technical job. I’m an engineer whose job doesn’t allow much room for creativity.  Since learning to play again, I’ve found that playing bass helps fuel that other side of my brain and a part of me that had atrophied long ago.

If you’re an older person like myself and you put away your bass a long time ago and gave up playing, or just lost interest until recently, perhaps this little article will help you start up again.  If you are picking it up again, maybe this will help.

First thing to do is to buy a bass, obviously.  I decided to go cheap until I am a respectable player again, and a cheap bass would be sufficient for this purpose.  There are plenty to choose from on eBay. I ended up choosing a Davison Chinese made bass. It is a Fender body style that I picked up for $100, but it looked cool with the gold metal flake paint job, and it stays in tune.  I also bought a $50 Orange “Micro Crush” 3-watt amp which and measures 6” x 6” X 3” – I plug in a set of headphones and it sounds just fine.  Perfect for learning and won’t disturb my wife or my neighbors.

I had decided to try and do this thing as close to right as I could do on my own. Doing so meant learning a little bit of music theory and technical information on how to play.

I researched websites such as this one and many different video lessons on YouTube (Billy Sheehan has some pretty good lessons). I rounded out my rehash of my music education with a bit of musical theory including a refresher on the bass fingerboard chart, steps, how to read music a bit, tempo, and scales.

For me, going through the basic scales has been the single most valuable tool for learning how to play the bass correctly, and with minimal misfires.  At least they are minimal for me.

I have found that the most fundamental and useful (at least for me) bits are as follows:

  • Know the physical parts of the bass and how to adjust the instrument.  I learned to adjust the position of my strings until I hit the notes as easy as possible with nominal buzzing.  It’s a cheap bass (its going to buzz), but at least I was able to adjust the saddles until the strings were pretty close to the frets, helping me hit the notes with minimal effort.
  • Learn where to position the bass along your torso.  Too low and you won’t be able hit the notes along the fingerboard very efficiently, too high and you will have trouble with your plucking hand.  Position my bass somewhere along your torso so that is hangs “balanced”, with the headstock at about a 15-30 degree angle from the horizontal.  This has worked for me, with the center of the body at about my waistline.  Play with it and see what works for you.
  • Learn how to change the strings!  Yes, there is a right and wrong way to do this and you want to stay in tune as much as possible.  Even with my cheap bass I am able to stay in tune for long periods of time.
  • Learn how to tune – many little gadgets that will help you with this.  My Orange ‘Mini Crush’ amp has a built in tuner, so that has been enormously helpful.
  • If you pluck with your fingers, (instead of a pick) work on plucking smoothly every time you play.  I am still learning to pluck with my first and middle fingers in a way that is even and steady. You might find (like I did) that your second (middle) finger will pluck a little harder and less even than your first finger.  Only practice and focus can fix your technique.  Try playing “Under Pressure” and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Play softly at first – focus on playing soft and slow.  Work on smooth plucking, and positioning your hand along the fretboard as close to the fret as possible.  This is easier said than done.  I still mostly hit in between frets which takes more effort and increases the chance of buzz, but it will come along with practice.
  • Learn your scales.  This has been invaluable in relearning how to play and know where the notes are along the fretboard.  Although they are not particularly hard to play, I have to really concentrate on my hand position and the notes.  Play the scales up and down the fretboard, and really pay attention to the notes.  I started with four scales:  Major, minor, Major Pentatonic, and Minor Pentatonic.  I found these four to be all I need at this time to both learn my notes and play several bass riffs.
  • Play songs in between practice exercises.  It’s a fun way to measure progress.
  • Obviously, you need to practice on a regular basis, as often as you can, for at least 30 ,minutes to an hour or so.  I try to practice every day, and have found I can get in at least five days per week.

By learning some fundamentals, I have not (yet) regressed in my playing, I have only improved.  Although I am still a novice, I pick something up, maybe something very small, each day and I get just a little better each time I practice.  I am betting these small and obvious tips will help you as well.  After all, if you love the instrument, practice will be a pleasure.

Works for me – and I’m hard to please.