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The Bass Player’s Book Club #2: Reading

Ever wondered what the best sight reading books for bass are, or how to practise sight reading? Episode 2 of the bass player’s book club focuses on some of my…

Ever wondered what the best sight reading books for bass are, or how to practise sight reading? Episode 2 of the bass player’s book club focuses on some of my favourite books for developing your sight reading skills and some strategies for using them with maximum efficiency.

This post is not meant to debate the relative merits of TAB vs. notation. It might seem odd for someone who runs a bass transcription website to say it, but I don’t actually believe that taking music in ‘by eye’ is the best way to do things. It is, however, very useful in a number of situations when you need to communicate musical ideas quickly. I also believe that being able to read is an integral part of being a well-rounded musician; people seem to be happy to nod along when someone trots out the very tired ‘music is a language’ analogy, but are often reluctant to actually do the work of learning how to read and write the language fluently.

Confessions of a Teen TAB-aholic

I took up the bass at the age of 14, largely because I was too scared to talk to girls and thought it would help (it didn’t). I started having lessons at school with a guitar teacher who played a bit of bass and straight away I was introduced to TAB – what a great system! It tells you exactly where to place your fingers and out comes Green Day… What could be better?

Eventually, I found myself arriving at music college at the age of 19 with plenty of technique but very little musical ability. I suddenly found myself confronted with notation and realised that I had to get my reading together quickly if I didn’t want to languish at the bottom of the class. Here are some strategies that helped me to get my act together – by the end of the first year, I had gone from zero reading ability to near the top of the class:

5 Tips for Better Sight Reading

 

1. Do it every day

If you don’t do it enough, then it won’t stick. Lectures didn’t start till 11am, so I’d get up at 7.30, make a big cup of green tea and get lots of notes in my face for an hour or so. You don’t have to put that much time in, but you have to do it regularly to have any hope of it becoming second nature.

 

2. Separate Rhythm from Pitch

The two big variables that we’re dealing with are the pitch of the note and its duration, so when learning the fundamentals of reading notation it’s good to practise the two separately.

For pitch, I used Gary Willis’ Xtreme Sight Reading page on his website, which randomly generates rows of pitches for you to play through. The range of notes and the probability of accidentals can be adjusted depending on your pain threshold:

 

For rhythm, I used Louis Bellson’s Modern Reading in 4/4 time (link further down the page), which focuses on reading syncopation. No pitch variation whatsoever, but it explores almost every rhythmic possibility from the simple to the vomit-inducing.

3. Read with a click

The main secret to sight reading is teaching your eyes to look ahead of where you are in the music; if you’re looking at the note that you’re playing, then there’s no way that you can prepare for what’s coming up. The only way that you can really develop this is by using a metronome when practising and not allowing yourself to go back and fix mistakes. This is good practice for ‘real world’ reading situations, where you can’t go slow down difficult passages or go back and fix the wrong notes you just played.

4. Be Well Read

In order to become a well-rounded reader, it’s important to expose yourself to a lot of different material; if you read classical studies all the time, then your rhythm reading skills might be lacking when it comes to read that Tower of Power chart.

5. Don’t Just Read Bass Music

Try to read any sheet music you can get your hands on: piano/vocal scores, violin sonatas, trombone etudes – doesn’t matter what it is – and work out how to fit it on your instrument. The sad reality is that nobody really cares about the bass player, so you have to stop expecting to show up at a gig and be given pristine bass clef charts that are nicely laid out. This is particularly true if you do any sort of musical theatre or cabaret engagement – they probably won’t have the budget to buy in ensemble parts or the resources to have them written out, so most of the time you have to work from the rehearsal piano score. The MD will probably say something really helpful to you like ‘well, the bass is just the left hand of the piano isn’t it?’

If you’ve ever been in a piano score situation, you’ll know that trying to construct your own part is an absolute nightmare – your survival depends on having a firm grasp on notes outside your range (super low left-hand octaves) and treble clef reading. In fact, treble clef reading is something that I’d recommend to everyone because most of the musical universe operates ‘above ground’ and you never know when you might get asked to take the melody on a tune you’ve never seen before. It’s also a very useful skill if you’re into taunting guitar players, which everybody should be.

My Top Sight Reading Books for Bass

Here are some of my favourite books that have helped me to develop my sight reading; I’ve grouped them roughly by ability level, so hopefully there’s something for everyone. Since editions of some books differ between countries I’ve included separate links for US and UK where appropriate; environmental considerations aside, I’d recommend AVOIDING Kindle versions of these books, because in my experience the formatting of musical notation is always horrible. Opt for physical copies instead.

Beginner Sight Reading Books

1. Simplified Sight Reading for Bass by Josquin Des Pres (UK | US)

Although I trashed one of his other books in episode 1, I really like this one because it separates out rhythm and pitch to start with.

2. M.I. Music Reading For Bass by Wendi Hreschovic (UK | US)

Another good general method which drip feeds in accidentals, key signatures and other notational devices.

3. Modern Reading in 4/4 Time by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

This is a staple of drum instructional material, and it offers all musicians a great way to get their rhythm reading together without having to worry about pitch. This book is focused on developing skills in reading syncopated rhythms, starting with very approachable studies and building to horrible 32nd note phrases intersected with triplets.

4. New Method for Double Bass by Franz Simandl (UK | US)

I seem to talk about this book in every single post or video, but that’s because it’s the book that has had the biggest impact on the way that I approach the instrument in terms of technique, fretboard positioning and articulation.

Intermediate Sight Reading Books

If you feel like you’ve got a handle on the basics of reading and want to push your skills further, then these are worth a look:

5. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (UK | US)

James Jamerson was basically the first electric bass virtuoso, and these transcriptions of his lines provide a great reading workout; tons of rhythmic activity, lots of 16th-note syncopation and plenty of chromaticism. A great source of vocabulary, too.

6. 113 Etudes for Cello by J.J.F. Dotzauer (UK | US)

This was suggested to me as a good alternative to the very popular Hanon Virtuoso Pianist book, which became very popular with bass players when Janek Gwizdala revealed that he’d used it to build his not-inconsiderable technique. These are a good stepping stone between Simandl and more intense classical studies, which we’ll get to later. Cello repertoire tends to be a great source of melodic reading material, but you’ll need to do some transposing unless you have a 5-string bass because the cello is written at sounding pitch, while the electric and upright bass are both octave transposing.

7. 6 Suites for Violoncello by J.S. Bach (UK | US)

I’ll put the Bach Cello Suites alongside this; tough to read and play and it seems like everyone just plays Prelude No.1 in G major, but Bach really knew a thing or two about thematic development so definitely worth a look – I’ve always approached them as long-term studies rather than everyday sight reading material.

Advanced Sight Reading Books

8 & 9. Finger Funk Workbooks 1 & 2 by Anthony Vitti

Anthony Vitti is a bass player who doesn’t get nearly enough time in the spotlight; he’s been teaching at The Berklee College of Music for decades and his books are some of the best around. His Finger Funk Workbooks are filled with demanding 16th-note lines, which can be a real challenge to both read and execute at tempo – studying these books is also a great way to develop your technique in a musical way.

10. Giovannini Bottesini Upright Bass Method (UK)

This is effectively a more advanced version of the Simandl book. Lots of technically demading studies that contain plenty of position shifts and detailed phrase markings, which will really put your articulation skills to the test.

Extreme Sight Reading Books

If you’re seasoned reader who’s feeling particularly masochistic, then here are 3 books to give you a real workout:

11. Odd Time Reading by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

Like the Modern Reading in 4/4 time, this takes a static pitch and moves it through almost every possible rhythmic permutation, except this time you have to do it in odd meters, and then the exercises start shifting between different odd meters. Horrible, but very nutritious.

12. 60 Melodic Etudes by John Patitucci (UK | US)

John Patitucci is one of a handful of players who is a true virtuoso on both upright and electric bass, so it’s no surprise to find that his books are challenging; the 60 melodic etudes are designed to get your ears used to the sound of the major scale modes over their diatonic chord types in all 12 keys. Practising these studies over a drone or a static chord also serves as a great ear training tool, as well as a hardcore reading and technique workout. As the book title suggests, the etudes aren’t that rhythmically taxing, but there’s a huge pitch range and – unless you’re playing a 6-string bass – you’ll need to do a lot of position shifts.

13. Sight Reading Funk Rhythms by Anthony Vitti 

Anthony Vitti brings the pain with this collection of studies that combine syncopated 16th-note funk rhythms with plenty of unexpected pitch variations; his favourite trick is to build a central motif and, just as you think you’re getting the hang of it, he throws in subtle variations to trip you up. The sheer amount of rhythmic and melodic variation in these studies makes them difficult to memorise, making them ideal for sight reading practice.

If you have a favourite sight reading book that I’ve left out of this list then let me know in the comments below.

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The Bass Player’s Book Club #1: Chops

I’m a musical self-improvement addict, a condition which has manifested itself in my tendency to buy – and hoard – tons of books, instructional videos (including some very dubious Hot…

I’m a musical self-improvement addict, a condition which has manifested itself in my tendency to buy – and hoard – tons of books, instructional videos (including some very dubious Hot Licks VHS tapes) and apps in the hope of getting my playing to sound the way that I want it to. I use each one for approximately 3 days before feeling the need to try something different, hoping that this one will somehow revloutionise my playing.

Solid advice? or snake oil?

The problem is that not all books are created equal; some are life-changing, some are mediocre, others are terrible. This series will take a detailed look at a handful of books that have had the greatest positive impact on my playing over the last 18 years; I’ll be covering a range of areas, including technique, reading, music theory, ear training and improvisation.

But before we get to the good stuff, I thought it’d be actually more valuable to look at the worst offender – the book that’s proved to be the biggest waste of time and that I’d urge everyone to avoid at all costs; it also ties in with many things that I’ve seen in bass education that upset me because they’re not only irrelevant but also potentially damaging (both musically and physically).

This video covers:

  • The book that I feel actually hindered my musical development rather than helping it
  • How to sniff out BS in bass education (and how to spot if a teacher is a witch…)
  • What you should be practising in order to develop your musicianship (hint: it’s not technique)
  • How to organise your fretting hand in a safe, secure and musical manner according to what you’re playing and where you are on the neck

There’s also a PDF of all of the exercises that I demonstrate in the video available here:

Music, Not Chops

 

 

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Unorthodox Instructionals Part 5: The Worst Book For Bassists (and what to practise instead)

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:

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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:

IMG_1971

Gross.

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:

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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.

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Unorthodox Instructionals Part 4: Change The Way You Hear Music

So far we’ve looked at unorthodox methods for bass players to sharpen their grasp of harmony, develop a more secure technique and master written rhythms. This post deals with an…

So far we’ve looked at unorthodox methods for bass players to sharpen their grasp of harmony, develop a more secure technique and master written rhythms. This post deals with an aspect of playing (and practising) that many bass players often neglect: ear training.

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.

Primacy Of The Ear

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.

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