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Tag: Unorthodox Instructionals

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:


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.

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

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.

3 Comments on Unorthodox Instructionals Part 4: Change The Way You Hear Music

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