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Category: Gear / Advice

Received Wisdom: 3 Pieces of Advice I Should Have Listened To

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am? While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:   Over…

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am?

While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:


  • Over the course of 2015, I taught roughly 1200 one-to-one music lessons
  • That’s in excess of 600 hours spent telling other people what I think that they should do to improve their playing.
  • That’s the equivalent of 25 whole days of dispensing advice about music. 



Why is this important? It shows that the amount of time I spend giving advice is wildly disproportionate to that which I allocate to receiving advice from others about my own playing (or teaching). 

This got me thinking about important lessons that I’ve taken in the 15 years since I first picked up the bass and reflecting on the pearls of wisdom that have had the most significant impact on my musical development. 

The most worrying fact is that the most valuable pieces of advice are the ones that I’ve actually paid the least attention to.


The 3 pieces of advice I should have taken on board


“Don’t party until you’re 25”


If (like me) you’re over 25, don’t panic – this can still be applied to a degree. Some readers will see this as a rather hardline approach, but for aspiring professionals it’s worth thinking about. 


The source: This nugget came courtesy of the owner of the only live music venue in the small town where I grew up. I was 18, and on the night in question I was helping out my teacher at the time as guitar tech for his band. I got chatting with the venue’s owner after the gig, and mentioned that I was getting ready to go to music college and wanted to make a career from music. The above was his only piece of advice on how to succeed. 


The meaning: Your teens and early 20s are when you will form the foundations of your musical identity. They are also the years in which you will (most probably) have more free time and fewer responsibilities than at any other age – devoting this free time to working on your musicianship will pay huge dividends later when ‘real life’ starts to eat into your practice time. 


Why it didn’t stick: I deluded myself into thinking that I was working hard enough and let other areas take equal priority over playing – the fact that the music college I went to was above a pub didn’t help matters… In short, I partied. 


What you can do about it: Sleep less. Watch less TV. Spend less time on social media. Have two drinks at the pub rather than seven. Stop wasting time reading blogs like this one and do some practice. This article by pianist James Rhodes is a wonderfully savage introduction to cutting out the rubbish in your life and getting back to what you love.


“Go after the sound you love”


The source: The venerable Richard Niles, award winning producer, arranger, guitarist and all-round musical übermensch. The quote itself is actually attributed to Pat Metheny, with whom Richard has worked with on frequent occasions. 


The meaning: Make the distinction between what you want to learn and what other people tell you that you should be learning. Embrace the music that you are passionate about and steal as much as you can from it – don’t shy away from your musical heritage. Don’t get distracted by people telling you that you should really listen to Miles Davis if the sound you’re after is bluegrass-meets-Squarepusher (I’d love to hear from anyone who is actually after that particular sonic equation). 


Why it didn’t stick: The short answer here is decision paralysis: presenting myself with too many options and failing to pursue any one of them to the level required to really absorb the sound into my playing. 


What you can do about it: Adopt the Helsinki Bus Station Theory (yes, really).



“If you have to practise* for the gig, you shouldn’t be on the gig”


*It’s important to note that I mean practise in the sense of developing mastery of a musical concept through persistent effort, rather than playing through new material that you might have to memorise for a gig. 


The source: Renowned bass educator (and No Treble contributor) Joe Hubbard


The meaning: Have the humility to realise that there are certain gigs that you should say ‘no’ to because they lie too far outside of your current comfort zone. Because of the many external (not to mention internal) sources of pressure that are present during any live performance situation, your musical ability has to be sufficient so that you can have a ‘buffer’ to absorb the distractions without your playing being compromised. 

Let’s say you have to learn a tune with a taxing unison line or ‘bass feature’ in it (‘Spain’, ‘Got A Match?’, ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ are just a few off the top of my head) and you’re struggling to get it up to tempo in the practice room. There is NO WAY that you’ll be able to execute that same part at tempo on stage in front of an audience – you need a technique buffer of roughly 10-20bpm that will allow you to absorb distractions and still play the part properly. 

This isn’t just a chops thing. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is saying ‘yes’ to a gig which involves playing music that puts you out of your depth stylistically – if you have no real interest in listening to and studying jazz then don’t pitch up on a standards gig with iReal Pro on your iPad and hope you can survive the evening. Don’t say ‘yes’ to the progressive metal gig if you’re not comfortable with odd time signatures – there’s no shame in being honest about what you can and can’t do musically. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be constantly striving to improve your playing and getting better gigs – there are plenty of opportunities to work on the performance aspect of music without being on a gig where the audience and the other musicians expect you to be on top form.


Why it didn’t stick: It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll turn down certain work until you realise that you have to pay your rent this month. Learning how to say ‘no’ to work also takes time for both financial and psychological reasons – it’s an ego boost to be called for a gig, and you might not want to have to pass on work to other musicians for fear that you won’t ever get called for anything ever again.


Do you have any wise words to share?

If there’s a piece of advice that has really helped you in your musical development then why not share it by commenting on this post?


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Reality Check: You Are Not Your Gig

Almost every week of the year I play function gigs; weddings, parties, corporate events, fundraisers, product launches – the occasions are varied but the music is largely the same. Regardless…

Almost every week of the year I play function gigs; weddings, parties, corporate events, fundraisers, product launches – the occasions are varied but the music is largely the same. Regardless of whether I’m working with bands that I play with regularly or depping (usually at short notice and always without rehearsal) in an unfamiliar band there are always tunes that crop up on every single gig.

Some of these songs are great, while others are thoroughly loathsome. The challenge is treating them all the same.

When I left music college some years ago, I was naive and principled in thinking that I’d be able to forge a career as a musician through only playing music that I liked, and I even had a list of gigs that I’d never ever do.

Seven years later and I’ve done almost all of them.

So what changed? Firstly, it’s easy to be idealistic about what you deem to be musically credible until your rent is due.

Reality Check: Realising That Your Job is Not Your Career

Attempting to make a living through music in London (or anywhere else, for that matter) is a tall order, and if it’s a choice between doing a musically dubious gig or having to take a non-musical ‘day job’ to make ends meet then the former will always trump the latter.

The second change was that I grew up (well, a little…) and accepted that part of being a professional involves treating all music equally regardless of personal tastes. The audience members at every gig deserve your respect, the other musicians deserve your respect and, crucially, the music deserves your respect.

One of the items on my list of gigs that I’d never do was anything related to tribute acts – then about 5 years ago I accepted a corporate gig where one of the sets was entirely of ABBA tunes. Whilst I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to dress up for the gig, I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the prospect of learning 20 songs by a band that I wasn’t remotely keen on.

The process of transcribing a number of ABBA songs forced me to reconsider my viewpoint of music that I’d previously deemed to be cheesy, lightweight pop nonsense – the bass playing (courtesy of the late Rutger Gunnarsson) is creative and melodic whilst always serving the songs, with many of his lines bearing the influence of Paul McCartney and James Jamerson.

The charts that I made for that gig have been tidied up and are now available for download from the transcriptions page.

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Groove Of The Week #28: The Weeknd – 'Can't Feel My Face'

Following a request to include something more contemporary in the series, I scoured mainstream radio for something bass-heavy to transcribe: View this post on Instagram Had requests for a more…

Following a request to include something more contemporary in the series, I scoured mainstream radio for something bass-heavy to transcribe:

Here are the dots:

GOTW Can t Feel My Face

In order to emulate the original sound from the recording I used one of my favourite pedals, the Boss OC-2. Although my gear hoard includes a bass synth (an original Novation BassStation for the gear nerds), I rarely take it out on gigs as it’s a hassle to pack the extra gear for one or two songs in a set.

I find that an octave pedal, such as the OC-2, provides a decent approximation of many bass synth sounds found on recordings*. If there’s song that originally had a bass part played on a synth then I’ll tend to use an octave pedal with the dry signal turned down and the effected octave-below sound close to 100%. This results in a tone which makes the attack and envelope of each note closer to that of a keyboard and less like a bass guitar.

It’s not just a case of using the pedal to reach notes that are below the range of a 4-string bass – I’ll often use an octave pedal on gigs rather than use a 5-string because of the tone that it provides.

*for the curious, other function tunes that I give the octave pedal treatment include ‘Superstition’, Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Shake Your Body’, Florence + The Machine’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’ and Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger’.

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The Gear Fallacy (and why I still fall for it)

I have a problem. An addiction, if you will. It’s plagued me with varying degrees of severity for the last 15 years, and although I go through long stints of…

I have a problem. An addiction, if you will. It’s plagued me with varying degrees of severity for the last 15 years, and although I go through long stints of being ‘on the wagon’ a relapse is never far away. 

I’m guessing many readers of this blog share the same addiction. Most might not admit it, but it’s a widespread problem that transcends age, gender and musical preferences. 


I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded Gear Acquistion Syndrome (G.A.S. for short). Perhaps you or someone close to you is affected by this debilitating compulsion to constantly seek out the latest piece of equipment in order to fill a void and find that sound which has as yet eluded them. Here’s a glimpse into the extent of my problem (excluding amps, cabinets, and double bass paraphernalia):
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: your gear matters far less than you think it does. 


“Many bassists are consumed by their pickups, amps and EQs, but so much of that is bogus.” – Marcus Miller
I’m reminded of this almost every time I pitch up on a gig with a new piece of gear, assuming that at the end of the set I’ll be swamped by bandmates and/or audience members who can’t wait to tell me how great the bass sounded. 


Reality check. It’s rare that anyone notices that you’ve put vintage pickups in your bass, traded your regular octave pedal for an obscure 1970s Japanese one or lugged that extra 1×12 cabinet to the gig. It’s even rarer that anyone cares (I say this as someone who has vintage pickups in his P bass, owns 5 different octave pedals and regularly regrets bringing that extra 1×12 to the gig).


What performers and punters care about is that you play the right thing at the right time. 


Here’s the goal: You should be able to make the music that you play feel good regardless of what’s on your headstock. If you (or I) can’t fulfill our job description by playing in TUNE, in TIME and with an awareness of TASTE then no amount of true bypass circuitry will save us. 


I’m not suggesting that you go on a gear purge and replace your current setup with one that’s a fraction of the price. What I’m advocating is making a realistic assessment of your gear needs as opposed to your gear wants. 


What do you need from your gear?
Gear Priority 1: Your gear needs to work properly


This sounds condescending, but small faults are often ignored – you’d be amazed how many bassists are gigging away with wobbly input sockets, crackling volume pots and buzzing nuts (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Either treat your bass to a decent setup by someone who knows what they’re doing or learn how to perform basic maintenance on your instrument to keep it working properly. There’s a wealth of information on YouTube on how to adjust your truss rod, alter your action, check your intonation and clean your pots. 


Gear Priority 2: Know the gear that you already own inside out
Learn what every knob, slider or switch on your bass, amplifier and pedals does and how you can use them to shape your sound for different situations. A wide range of tones can be coaxed out of any bass by simply changing the way in which you use your left and right hands.


“My philosophy is that most of the tone and sound comes from how the fingers are touching the strings, not by some secret EQ settings” – Mick Karn
Knowledge of how your technique affects your tone allows you to access a multitude of sounds from a single instrument before you even consider EQ settings – this is especially important if you’re frequently gigging with backline provided by other bands or the venue and still want to preserve ‘your’ sound when faced with unfamiliar amplification. 


Gear Priority 3: Buy gear with your ears (and hands), not your eyes


Try not to get sucked in by the marketing strategies that manufacturers use to maintain the pervasive notion that different genres of music require particular brands of equipment. If you really understand the music that you have to play then you can perform effectively using almost any bass and amplifier combination. 


“The first thing you should consider in choosing an instrument is feel – you want an instrument that feels good in your hands and on your body. Then find an amp that gives you a good sound for every technique you use. Don’t try to get your sound from the EQ.” – Victor Bailey
Price tags can also be misleading – the most expensive gear is not necessarily the best option. The best gear is whatever feels and sounds right to you, regardless of brand or aesthetic. 


When I last bought a bass almost 5 years ago, I spent a long time searching for something that felt right, and ended up buying a bass made by a company that I’d barely heard of that looked nothing like any of the basses I thought that I wanted. Since then, I’ve tried roughly 30 other instruments and none have come close, even though many were in a much higher price bracket.

So if I know all this, why do I still buy new gear? Why do I persist in a relentless pursuit of tonal perfection through equipment? The answer is simple – I’m in denial. It’s much easier to spend money on new gear than expend time and effort working on my playing. The arrival of shiny new equipment provides an ego boost and a temporary placebo effect that convinces me that owning this piece of gear will solve all my musical problems.


So here’s my premature 2016 resolution: No new gear whatsoever for an entire year. Totally cold turkey. If you see me trying to show off ANY sort of new gear then please call me out on it – recovering gear addicts need all the support that they can get.

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