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Unorthodox Instructionals Part 2 – 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’….

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 effortless playing.

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:

IMG_1759

Adopting the idea of a 3-fret position allows me to reach all of the notes without stretching or straining my left hand:

IMG_1760
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:

Screen shot 2014-09-18 at 13.20.12

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.

Veteran bassist Lee Sklar recently picked reading music as one of his top 5 skills for bassists.

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.

1 Comment on Unorthodox Instructionals Part 2 – Franz Simandl’s New Method For The Double Bass

5 Unorthodox Books That Will Transform Your Bass Playing

I have a confession to make: I’m an addict. Over the last 15 years I’ve built a comprehensive library of instructional materials; books, DVDs, play-a-long CDs, online video lessons, VHS…

I have a confession to make: I’m an addict.

Over the last 15 years I’ve built a comprehensive library of instructional materials; books, DVDs, play-a-long CDs, online video lessons, VHS (yes, I’m that old). Here’s a glimpse of part of my bookshelf:

 

 

The problem is that I’ve never really used half of them; I find it difficult to stick to one method at a time, so most of the things I buy get retired to a bookshelf fairly swiftly.

Sound familiar? Then read on…

This series of posts books looks at the handful of books that have helped me make significant improvements to not only my bass playing but also my general musicianship.

One thing that they have in common is that none of them were written for electric bassists, which might well be the reason why I’ve found them so enlightening.

 

Part 1: ‘The Advancing Guitarist’ by Mick Goodrick

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best book I’ve ever read on any subject. It was recommended – or, more accurately, prescribed – to me by Richard Niles (whose work has sold more than 250 million records, so I try take his advice wherever possible).

You can buy The Advancing Guitarist here for just over £10. Do it. Now.

What’s it about?

This book is so broad in its scope that it would actually be easier to list the things that it doesn’t cover – there’s enough material in ‘The Advancing Guitarist’ to keep you busy for several lifetimes.

These are the key areas that Mick Goodrick covers:

* Single string playing
* Positional playing
* Modal improvisation
* Intervals
* Triads, 7th chords, slash chords
* ‘Commentaries’ – short articles on a range of musical topics

Sounds just like every other guitar method book, right? Wrong.

What I love about this book is that it is the polar opposite of 99% of other instructional methods.

Rather than prescribing specific exercises, the author presents a series of musical topics and forces you to work out what to do with them. While this might sound like a cop out on his part, I found that it meant that I actually got much more out of the book – by having to find my own route through the material I found that I gained a deeper understanding of musical concepts that I’d seen numerous times before in other books.

How will it change my playing?

In my opinion, there are only two items of information that anyone needs to be a proficient guitarist (or bassist):

1. The notes used to construct different chord types
2. The location of those notes on the instrument

All other considerations (technique/articulation/phrasing/tone/vocabulary) are dependent on the style of music that you’re playing and are, for the most part, subjective.

Is that a gross oversimplification? I don’t think so.

The ugly truth is that most players fall short of the mark on point 1, and an extremely small number of people that I’ve encountered, including professional players and teachers, have a really thorough understanding of number 2.

Right from the outset, ‘The Advancing Guitarist’ forces you to constantly think about which note you’re playing and how it relates to the chord that you’re playing over. For me this was nothing short of life changing.

BENEFIT #1 – This book will drastically increase your fretboard knowledge, liberating you from playing the same old licks and patterns

 

Confused about modes? Join the club

In my experience as a teacher, modes seem to be one of the greatest sources of confusion for students; Learning the names is confusing enough, let alone understanding how to use them.

‘The Advancing Guitarist’ clearly explains the construction and derivation of the modes of the major, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales and presents a number of practical ways to apply them.

BENEFIT #2 – Modes will no longer be a mystery

Need help finding your voice?

For me the real value of working through the book on bass is that it forces me to work on things I rarely hear other bassists play but that (to my ears, at least) have a lot of musical value. There’s plenty of discussion amongst musicians regarding the importance of finding your own ‘voice’ on your instrument, and several chapters of the book have allowed me to uncover things on the bass that I otherwise might never have explored.

BENEFIT #3 – Working through this book allows you to sound more like you and less like everyone else

‘Commentaries’

The last section of the book is composed of a series of short articles on various aspects of musicianship, including (but not limited to):

* Time, tempo and rhythm
* Reflection and self-evaluation
* Improvisation and composition
* Technique
* How to approach different playing situations

It’s rare that guitar books cross into the realm of philosophy, but I’ve found Goodrick’s insights to be a great source of inspiration, particularly if I find myself stuck in a rut with practising.

BENEFIT #4 – Examining your playing beyond the ‘nuts and bolts’ level will improve your musicianship and give you a fresh perspective on how you approach the bass

 

Whilst it’s obviously aimed squarely at guitarists, the book still works for bassists (and other stringed instruments) because it presents a series of musical topics and forces you to work out how they apply to your instrument. The information is presented in an extremely logical manner and everything is arranged to provide the reader with a clear sense of development as they work through the book.

‘The Advancing Guitarist’ is one of the only methods that I’ve come across which fully outlines both the complexities and the limitations of the guitar (or bass) and provides a progressive route to a greater understanding of how harmony applies to the instrument.

One more thing- it’s also the funniest guitar book I’ve ever read. Always focused and succinct but never stale.

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 (or VHS…) that you love and feel deserves a wider audience then let me know by commenting on this post.

3 Comments on 5 Unorthodox Books That Will Transform Your Bass Playing

Fret less, Say More

Last year I got a call to play some bass on some tracks for Records On Ribs artist Talk Less Say More. The plan was to make a record with…

Last year I got a call to play some bass on some tracks for Records On Ribs artist Talk Less Say More. The plan was to make a record with a decidedly 80s feel, which meant that I got to stretch out and take some risks doing things that I don’t usually do as part of my ‘day job’. I seem to remember the conversation going something like this:

“It’d be great to have some fretless bass. Do you have a fretless bass?”

“No…”

“Oh ok… Do you play fretless at all?”

“Sorry, I’ve never played fretless…”

“Ok no problem, we’ll hire you a fretless. It’ll be fine.”

In almost 15 years of playing this was the first time I’d had someone ask for fretless. So, the night before the session I take delivery of an unlined Fender P/J and do my best to get my fingers (and ears) around it.

 

 

On the day I tried to channel the spirit of Pino Palladino/Jaco/Bakithi Kumalo and other fretless players that I’d grown up listening to. Here’s how some of it turned out:

 

 

 

 

So, did the experience persuade me to take the plunge and go fretless? In a word, no.

In spite of the fact that I really enjoyed the session I don’t feel that fretless fits with my ‘voice’ as a bassist – although I’m heavily influenced by fretless players I’m sure if I made the switch then I’d end up sounding even more like a sub-par Jaco or Pino clone.

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7 Steps To Better Practice

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’…

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’ or ‘I’ll get better at bass’ have already started to let things slip. This post deals with how to make the most of your practice time and create a routine that is both effective and sustainable.

The bulk of the information in this post is concerned with the why and how of practising rather than the what – everyone has different things that need attention so I’m reluctant to give advice on the content of your practice schedule.

A brief disclaimer: all of this is based on my personal experience of what works best for me and my practice routine. This is not the only way to do things, but I’ve had positive feedback from many students regarding the concepts outlined in this post. I’m always open to alternative strategies, so if there’s something that works for you but isn’t covered here then leave a comment to let me know…

In keeping with the New Year theme of the post, I’ve organised things along the lines of a meal (my main non-musical obsession is food). Think of this as a new musical diet plan for 2014.

APPETISERS 

1. Practising vs. Playing

The first step is making the distinction between practising and playing. 

Practising allows you to hone in around on the areas of music (note that I didn’t say ‘bass playing’) that are currently outside of your comfort zone. These could involve instrumental technique, application of harmonic/melodic ideas, sight reading, ear training or knowledge of music theory.

Playing covers situations where you’re in your comfort zone, often playing material that you can already play well. This includes gigs/rehearsals/jamming/noodling, all of which are enjoyable but aren’t stretching your playing and therefore won’t result in significant improvement.

In order to maximise your musical development, you need to strike the balance between practising and playing. If all you do is practise, then you deny yourself the opportunity to apply all of the things that you’ve been working on in a ‘real world’ scenario. On the other hand, if all you do is play then you run the risk of getting stuck in a rut and never evolving as a musician.

I use playing situations (gigs/rehearsals etc) as a measure of how well my practice schedule is working. We’re all the best player in the world in the safety of our own practice rooms, but in a performance environment things feel very different. I find that recording gigs and later critiquing my performance is one of the most effective (and painful) strategies for establishing which concepts have worked their way into my playing and which still need work.

2. Reality Checks

Getting a second opinion on your playing is hugely important for your musical development. I find it difficult to be entirely objective about my playing (particularly while I’m in the act of performing) so I make an effort to seek constructive criticism from people who I respect musically.

More often than not these ‘critical friends’ are other musicians that I’m on a gig with, but I also try and take lessons whenever I can. Having a mentor who gives me a brutally honest assessment of my playing inspires me to put more hours of practice time in, informs the content of my practice time and helps to keep my ego in check.

Some people find it odd that I still continue to take lessons even though I make my living through gigging and teaching (“…I thought you knew how to play bass?!”) but I feel that continuing to study music with someone more knowledgeable than myself is the only way to ensure that I keep growing as a musician. Michael Brecker continued to have a coach long into his career and Mike Stern studied with the same teacher for almost 30 years. If it’s good enough for them then it’s good enough for me (important note – I am in NO WAY comparing myself to either Brecker or Stern…)

3. Goal Setting

Make a list of all the things that you’d like to change about your playing. Focus on 2 or 3 areas in particular and write a set of related goals that are measurable. Once you’ve established what you’re aiming for you can then choose (or create) appropriate exercises that will help bring you closer to your goals.

It’s also wise to ask yourself why you’re practising certain things – how will what you’re about to work on bring you closer to your goals? If you can’t directly trace how a particular exercise will improve a specific area of your playing then cut it out of your practice regime.

THE MAIN COURSE

4.’Chunking’

My preference is to divide my practice time into small ‘chunks’ rather than working on anything for a protracted length of time. I find that 15-20 minutes of focused practice interspersed with short (2-3 minute) breaks produces the best results. I started this approach after going to a masterclass with Todd Johnson in which he suggested using a similar approach; I almost immediately found that I seemed to be getting more practice done in less time than previously and that I retained more information on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s say you have 3 areas that you need to work on (e.g. ear training, reading and repertoire) and you have about an hour a day of practice time. A sample ‘chunking’ routine would look like this:

15 mins on Topic A

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic B

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic C

-3 min break

At this point you still might have time for another chunk, so go back and spend more time on the topic that you feel weakest on.

15 mins on Topic B

A small note on breaks – be disciplined and use a timer! 3 minutes easily become 5 minutes which easily become 10 minutes which easily become…

Having more than an hour to practice allows for more opportunities to revisit topics multiple times over the course of a practice session without losing focus or suffering information overload.

I’ve been using this method for 5 years or so and find that it allows me to do a relatively high volume of practice and not feel exhausted afterwards. The concept of alternating intensely focused periods of work with brief rest periods is well established amongst athletes and academics alike (see the ‘resources’ section below for literature on this subject).

5. ROTATING SCHEDULES

One issue that almost everyone that I talk to mentions is not having enough time to practice. One way to get around this is to have two (or more) practice routines that you cycle through on alternating days – an ‘A’ routine and a ‘B’ routine. Again, this is nothing new – athletes do this all the time.

Let’s imagine that you have the following areas to work on:

  • Sight reading
  • Arpeggios
  • Repertoire

Now let’s think about some of the possible variables for each of these areas:

i. Sight Reading

  • Rhythm reading (no pitch variation)
  • Pitch recognition (no rhythmic variation)
  • Combination reading (‘real’ music)
  • Reading in different clefs (treble/tenor/alto)

ii. Arpeggios

  • Different chord types (major/minor/augmented/diminished/suspended)
  • Transposition through all keys
  • Single string vs. multi-string (2-6 string, depending on your instrument)
  • Inversions

iii. Repertoire

  • Transcription of material to be learnt
  • Memorisation of new material
  • Revision of existing repertoire

If we combine the idea of rotating with some ‘chunks’ we begin to get an idea of what an alternating practice schedule looks like.

Here’s a sample ‘A’ routine:

-15 minutes on rhythm reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (#s), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes on learning new repertoire

The sample ‘B’ routine might look something like this:

-15 minutes on pitch reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (bs), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes revising existing repertoire

Splitting your practice routine in this way means that you can still make significant improvements to your playing without having to work on every element each day.

This is a very brief (and simplified) overview, but it should give you an idea of how to apply the concept to whatever you’re working on. It may seem really obvious, but I’m surprised at how many people who come to me for lessons complain of not having enough practice time because they’re trying to do everything every day.

6.TRACKING

This is one of the most crucial areas of any practice routine – and one that is often overlooked by many players. The act of keeping a record of what you practice helps to keep track of your progress over a given period of time and make adjustments if necessary.

I have two methods of logging my practice time: a practice diary and a checklist. These represent the micro and the macro aspects of practice. In the diary I keep a record of the exercises I do every day, together with notes on which keys/chord types/tempo ranges I’ve worked on:

This has largely replaced my short term memory...

I find this really useful on a purely practical basis, as my preference for ‘chunking’ means that I tend to be working on lots of different things and my short term memory is terrible.

The purpose of the checklist is for tracking progress towards longer term goals – mostly related to repertoire, transcriptions and technical exercises. I keep the checklist on a whiteboard that stays in my office as a visible reminder that I always have things to be working on…

DESSERT

7. MOTIVATION

One of the biggest sticking points that I’ve encountered when it comes to practising is maintaining motivation. When I’m busy with teaching and gigs and I get a few hours off, practising is not always the most appealing option. I have a number of strategies that I use to make sure that I keep pushing myself:

i. Visible Reminders

This is the first thing I see when i wake up. It helps set the tone for the day:

Bass wall hanger

Along with the Whiteboard Of Doom (see ‘tracking’), these are part of a series of things that I have around my house to remind me that there’s always work to be done.

Awkward confession time… I’m also one of those people that owns motivational crockery:

SmugCringeworthy, but surprisingly effective.

ii. Books

All of these have helped to shape my musical development in some way:

LibraryYes, there’s a cookbook in there. And yes, that is Arnie’s biography. Both have proved to be unusual sources of wisdom.

There are several books in particular that contain great advice on strategies for keeping to your resolutions (musical or otherwise); Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds and Switch by Chip & Dan Heath both include strategies for making resolutions stick, while Outliers and The Talent Code are both great for reminding yourself that great players are made, not born.

An area that I’d strongly recommend looking into (before you investigate anything else in this post) is time management-The Four Hour Work Week and No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs are good starting points (my mentor put me on to the second book after I complained that I didn’t have enough time to practice…).

So there you have it – try some of these ideas and let me know if they work for you.

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