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’.
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.
For the fifth and final installment of my ‘Unorthodox Instructionals’ series it’s time to deal with the number one thing that bass players seem to be bothered about. The Holy…
For the fifth and final installment of my ‘Unorthodox Instructionals’ series it’s time to deal with the number one thing that bass players seem to be bothered about.
The Holy Grail
Every bass magazine I read is full of it, every bass forum I visit has hundreds of threads debating what to do about it and every student that comes to see me wants more of it.
What am I talking about? Technique. Everyone seems preoccupied with how to have more control over their fingers, possess greater command of the instrument and coax more notes out of the bass with less effort.
Are You Wasting Your Time On Technique?
Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting more chops per se, it’s just that lots of us go about it in the wrong way. I’m talking about this sort of thing:
I bought this book when I was 16 and spent hours working through it cover to cover. It seemed to be the magic bullet for fixing my technique – after all, it proudly states that it’s endorsed by a host of big name players and major music schools so it had to be good, right?
Wrong. But why?
Why Bass Fitness Is The Biggest Waste Of Time For Bassists
There are lots of reasons why this book is junk*, but here’s the most important one:
None of the 200 finger exercises makes any musical sense – I can’t find a single one that contains genuinely worthwhile content that anyone in their right mind would actually play on a gig. Most of them look like this:
So why did I waste my time working through 200 finger-twisting patterns that would never really result in any improvement to my playing? I didn’t know any better.
As a teenager in the pre-Youtube world, I was at the mercy of what I saw in bass magazines and Hot Licks VHS tapes. As I got older (and, hopefully, wiser), I discovered that the way to develop my technique was to find music that tested my technical limitations and play the hell out of it really slowly.
Here’s the reality of the situation: you are what you practise. So, if you want to get better at playing music then practise music, not maths. It sounds obvious but it’s amazing how many players (including my former self) get sucked into looking for answers in the wrong places.
So, the real question is: “What should I practise instead if I want to work on technique?”
How To Effectively Develop Your Technique
The answer is to practice real music. Find something that you love the sound of but can’t play up to tempo yet, slow it down and work out how it fits on your instrument (using a couple of different fingerings if possible).
Start by playing it slower than you think you need to, without a metronome. Spend no more than 10 minutes at a time working on it but come back to it every day – within a couple of weeks, it’ll be second nature.
Final Book Recommendations
In keeping with the rest of the series I should recommend an unusual instructional book that I’ve found beneficial for my technique, so here’s one. In fact, here are two:
Piano exercises on bass? Back in 2005 when I was in my first year of my music degree I turned up to a morning sight reading lecture to find that we were having a guest lecture from a then relatively unknown bassist called Janek Gwizdala. Regardless of how you might feel about Janek or his approach to the instrument you can’t argue with his technique – I’d never seen anyone play the bass with such technical fluency. Being the curious type I quizzed him about what he’d worked on to develop his chops, and his response included the Hanon Virtuoso Pianist, which is a staple of classical piano pedagogy.
It’s essentially a series of exercises that involve sequencing the major scale in lots of different permutations, and since it’s written for pianists it contains a number of things that are technically awkward to play on a bass. Czerny is a similar idea, and I seem to remember reading in a Coltrane biography that he worked through it.
Good enough for Coltrane? Good enough for me.
With both of these titles the exercises are based on musical content, rather than permutations of finger patterns, so they definitely don’t fall into the ‘waste of time’ category. Occasionally I’ll dip into one (or both) if I feel that my fingers are being unusually disobedient.
Have I missed one of your favourite instructional books? Tell me about it!
So we’ve covered harmony, borrowing from upright bass, sight reading, ear training and technique – have I missed anything? let me know by commenting on this post.
*other reasons to avoid this book include (but are by no means limited to): heavy reliance on TAB, extensive use of 1 Finger Per Fret in the lower areas of the bass, the cover art.
Whereas previous posts in this series have focused on a single book, this instalment deals with two excellent books on the art of aural perception that I feel have helped me get my ears in shape.
How I Learned To Transcribe
In 2009 I began to have problems with tendonitis In my left elbow which meant that I had to scale back my playing and practice time dramatically. I was determined not to let my musicianship take a hit and so looked for ways that I could improve my playing without using my bass – transcription seemed like the obvious choice.
For roughly 18 months the vast majority of my practising revolved around ear training exercises and transcriptions. I was just about able to make it through a gig, but practising with the bass had to be severely reduced until my arm recovered.
The first book that I worked from during that time is Ron Gorow’s Hearing And Writing Music, a weighty tome that provides musicians with a progressive method for converting the sounds that they hear onto manuscript paper without going via an instrument. How Will It Benefit My Playing?
The first part of the book (and the section that helped me the most) focuses on developing mastery over the intervals of the major scale through a series of singing and visualisation exercises. Strengthening the relationship between your ear and your voice is the first step on the road to being able to play what you hear in your head on the bass. A number of renowned musicians (George Benson, Richard Bona, Esperanza Spalding, Janek Gwizdala and Oteil Burbridge to name but a few) vocalise their solos as they improvise, and the consensus is that it forces them to be more melodic and to pay close attention to their phrasing.
Readers who cringe at the thought of scatting along with their bass playing can still benefit from developing their inner ear through singing. Having a firm grasp of how different intervals sound gives you an invaluable set of tools for unlocking the music that you hear, whatever your musical goals happen to be:
Interested in transcription? Being able to hear different intervals clearly will not only dramatically reduce the time it takes you to analyse any music that you’re trying to transcribe but also improve the accuracy of your transcriptions.
Do you write music? Having a well developed ‘inner ear’ allows you to accurately reproduce the sounds that you hear in your head, which will speed up the compositional process and eliminate time wasted on searching for the ‘right’ note or chord.
Want to improve your soloing abilities? Being able to ‘pre-hear’ an idea before you play it is an essential skill for becoming an improvising musician. Mastering basic interval sounds also strengthens your ability to interact with other musicians on the gig.
Joining The Dots
The second book that I want to recommend came to my attention much more recently and serves as an ideal follow-on from Hearing And Writing Music. Ran Blake’s Primacy Of The Ear completely altered the way that I approach both listening to and transcribing music.
Whereas Ron Gorow’s book gave me the tools I needed to unlock and analyse the music I was hearing, Primacy Of The Ear provided me with a clear methodology for what to do with the material that I’d transcribed.
Being able to transcribe music is a hugely beneficial skill to possess, but its value is limited unless you know what to do with all those notes that you’ve written down. The notes on the page mean nothing until you put them on your instrument – the biggest mistake I made in the past was to not learn all of the material that I had transcribed. Because of my tendonitis, I wasn’t able to spend time working out how the music I had written down could be adapted for the bass and absorbed into my playing.
Does this mean that I’d wasted all of those hours that I’d spent painstakingly notating hundreds of pieces of music? Not at all. The process of accurately notating a passage of music in the clearest way possible is an art form that takes years to master, and the time I invested over that period definitely helped to improve the speed and accuracy of my transcribing.
The reason that Primacy Of The Ear is one of the best instructional books I’ve ever read is that Ran Blake provides a clear process with which to take the music that inspires you and assimilate it into your own playing style. A great deal of the book is devoted to developing your musical memory, which is something that I’ve struggled with in the past – once I switched from learning solos ‘by eye’ to by ear I found that things tended to stick in my brain and my fingers for far longer. Interested? Try This Experiment:
Here’s a challenge for you: For the next week, completely ignore your regular practice routine. Stop practising scales, bin the technique building exercises and cease the sight reading. The only thing you’re allowed to do is listen to music that inspires you and then figure out how it fits on your instrument.
It doesn’t matter if you choose Mozart, Meshuggah or Miley Cyrus – the only rule is that it has to be something that excites you. Listen to it repeatedly, sing it, internalise it and then get it under your fingers and play it to death. Then play it some more.
You might only get 4 bars together in a week, but I’m willing to bet that this process will allow you to discover something new about the music, even if it’s something that you’ve been listening to for years. You’ll also learn something about how you play your instrument, which is an invaluable insight that nobody else can teach you. 6 Words That Changed Everything
I once received this nugget of wisdom from a guitarist who’d worked extensively with Pat Metheny and been given the following advice by the man himself:
“Go after the sound that you love.”
This statement has stuck with me and remains the guiding principle if I ever get stuck on what to work on or transcribe next.
Louis Bellson’s ‘Modern Reading in 4/4 Time’ is a classic educational text for drummers. I was introduced to it by one of my tutors during my first term of music…
Louis Bellson’s ‘Modern Reading in 4/4 Time’ is a classic educational text for drummers. I was introduced to it by one of my tutors during my first term of music college as an accompaniment to the sight reading classes I was taking; prior to starting my music degree I’d grown up almost exclusively on TAB and had never seriously read notation on the bass – needless to say, it was a rude awakening…
This book helped me to dramatically improve my reading skills in a short amount of time, and I still dip into it if I’ve been on a reading gig and felt rhythmically rusty.
How Will It Benefit My Playing?
BENEFIT #1: Your sight reading skills will be transformed.
Less Sight Reading Stress
This might sound obvious, but rhythm is (in my opinion) the trickiest aspect of reading notation. Variations in pitch have relatively limited possibilities, especially as most bass lines operate within the range of an octave and we’re generally only playing one note at a time. In contrast, there is much greater scope for rhythmic variation, and bass players have to be comfortable with navigating a broad spectrum of note values. Take a look at these examples:
Example 1 – Jamiroquai ‘Runaway’
Example 2 – Me’shell Ndegeocello ‘Bittersweet’
Example 3 – Everything Everything ‘Cough Cough’
Increasing your familiarity with each type of rhythmic possibility (e.g. syncopated quavers, triplets, dotted and tied notes, semiquavers) will allow you to deal with complicated written phrases much more easily, as you instinctively know what each rhythmic ‘syllable’ sounds like. This knowledge allows you to ‘pre-hear’ a line that you’re reading before your fingers get to the notes.
BENEFIT #2: Mastering syncopation and subdivisions will improve your groove.
A Stronger Internal Clock
One of the ways that I help students to develop their sense of time is through internal clock exercises, which use changing subdivisions to help solidify each player’s rhythmic ability.
This is the first one:
Nearly everyone struggles with this, as it’s easy to fall into the trap of speeding up or slowing down when changing between subdivisions. In order to master this exercise, it’s vital to have a firm grasp on each individual subdivision before attempting to transition between them. Bellson’s book provides plenty of practice with each subdivision before combining them, covering every conceivable permutation of each rhythmic concept before introducing new material.
BENEFIT #3: Your ability to process complex rhythmic ideas will improve dramatically
A Broader Rhythmic Vocabulary
Once you’re confident with reading rhythmically complex ideas then these concepts will filter through into your ‘everyday’ bass playing, both in composition and improvisation. Becoming familiar with a range of rhythmic possibilities on paper also improves your ability to hear and reproduce those ideas when playing with other musicians.
BENEFIT #4: Improving your rhythm reading will make transcribing rhythms much easier. Your ability to write music is heavily dependent on your reading ability.
More Accurate Transcriptions
The ability to hear a rhythmic phrase and visualise how it looks on paper is an essential part of the transcription process, and many bass parts have limited melodic content but are rhythmically complex. My basic training with Bellson allows me to quickly and accurately notate rhythmic information, which is a lifesaver when I have to transcribe a lot of tunes for a gig in a short amount of time.
Do you have a favourite instructional book? Tell me about it!
I’m always interested to hear about different methods that have helped people develop musically. If there’s a book that you love and feel deserves a wider audience then let me know by commenting on this post.
In the 2nd post on unusual instructional books for electric bassists (part 1 can be found here) we’re examining the benefits of Franz Simandl’s ‘New Method For The Double Bass’….
In the 2nd post on unusual instructional books for electric bassists (part 1 can be found here) we’re examining the benefits of Franz Simandl’s ‘New Method For The Double Bass’.
I discovered this book while studying with Austrian bass titan (and ibassmag contributor Stefan Redtenbacher and spent a long time working through it on electric bass years before I ever touched a double bass.
What’s it about?
Way back in the early 1900s, Austrian double bass virtuoso and renowned educator Franz Simandl published his method for double bass, which offered bassists with a logical, incremental approach to mastering the instrument.
How is a 100-year-old double bass method relevant to modern electric bassists?
Many bass players have borrowed the ‘1 finger per fret’ technique from the guitar, which in certain playing situations makes a lot of sense. The problem comes when trying to apply this concept in the lower positions of the bass where the frets are further apart – the popular ‘1234’ chromatic finger exercises that are still prescribed by instructional books, bass magazines and some teachers place unnecessary strain on the left hand and wrist when applied in the lower portion of the fretboard.
I’m not alone in my hatred of these exercises – Dave Marks has made a couple of excellent videos on the subject:
Renowned bass educator Joe Hubbard also makes the point that these exercises also make no musical sense in this blog post. If you’re not aware of Joe, his list of past students includes Pino Palladino, Paul Turner (Jamiroquai) and Dave Swift (Jools Holland). Not too shabby.
The alternative is to use the approach adopted by Simandl and other similar double bass methods – dividing the bass into a series of 3-fret positions and using position shifts rather than left hand stretching to reach notes that fall out of position. Horizontal shifting is one of the most fundamental aspects of bass playing but also one of the most awkward.
Being able to execute a horizontal position shift whilst maintaining a legato sound requires a great deal of attention to detail, and Simandl’s etudes offer plenty of practice in this area.
Using Simandl’s approach, the 3rd finger isn’t used for fretting notes and instead supports the 4th finger. Applying this ‘supportive fingering‘ concept to the electric bass leads to a more secure left-hand technique that reduces physical strain and (to my ears, at least) results in smoother, more effortlessplaying.
Benefit #1: adopting double bass technique reduces tension in the left hand, making your playing sound effortless and reducing the risk of injury.
Feel the benefit right now:
Let’s compare 1fpf with the 3-fret span concept using an F major scale:
1fpf means that I have to stretch my 3rd finger out to reach the notes at the 3rd fret, which results in a sharp bend in my left wrist which decreases blood flow and increases strain on the hand:
Adopting the idea of a 3-fret position allows me to reach all of the notes without stretching or straining my left hand:
The Lost Art of Articulation Studying Simandl’s classical etudes also directs our attention towards two areas that electric bassists often neglect: articulation and dynamics.
Since the exercises are rhythmically simple, the entire focus is on producing a smooth, consistent sound from the instrument. Directing your attention towards note length can reveal a lot about your left-hand technique and force you to reevaluate your approach – playing a passage of crotchets with seamless transitions between notes might seem like an easy exercise but the reality is surprisingly difficult.
Benefit #2: paying attention to your note length and articulation will give you greater control over the sound of the bass and enable you to adapt your sound to suit a variety of musical situations.
In addition to solidifying my technique and improving my ability to articulate notes in a variety of ways, Simandl helped me to really understand how to play in a variety of keys across the entire range of the bass.
Benefit #3: Working through the positional etudes will help to solidify your knowledge of key signatures and how each key ‘sits’ in different areas of the neck.
The fact that the entire book deals exclusively with standard notation means that studying the etudes will automatically bolster your reading abilities and improve your knowledge of the fretboard. The bass is a surprisingly difficult instrument to read on due to the fact that a single pitch can be played in a variety of locations. Play this G:
Where is on the bass? Open G string? 5th fret D string? 10th fret A string? 15th fret E string?? It’s all of them, and the deciding factors for a position are the notes that come before and after it.
Of course, you need to have a decent knowledge of the fretboard in order to know that these options are available to you, and some of them may be more appropriate than others. Reading music and having a working knowledge of the entire fretboard allows you the freedom to play music in the most appropriate way for you, rather than having positions and fingerings dictated by someone else. This is one of my main gripes with TAB – it’s someone else’s opinion of how I should play a line.
Benefit #4: Working with standard notation improves your fretboard knowledge, increases your familiarity with different key signatures and allows you to easily access music written for other instruments.
I think you get the point, so I’ll leave it there. You can get your copy of Simandl by clicking the links below:
Franz Simandl – New Method for the Double Bass book 1 (US Link | UK Link)
Do you have a favourite instructional book? Tell me about it!
I’m always interested to hear about different methods that have helped people develop musically. If there’s a book that you love and feel deserves a wider audience then let me know by commenting on this post.