Can you start playing bass parts once you listen to a song?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by dustyshiv, Jun 4, 2020.

  1. Was in a local band which consisted of two experienced guitarists who had learnt music from childhood. We would vote for a song and play it on the music system . The guitarists would start jamming and playing lines on the second run of the song.

    For me, I had to find the key, listen multiple times to figure out the notes for verses, practice a couple of times so the shapes are engrained and was able to play the next day with confidence.

    Couple of times on gigs, we were asked to play a song from the audience that at least I did not know the key or chords for. The guitarists would jam in and I would have to back out for a more experienced bass player from another band to fill in. Dreaded these moments.

    What’s your experience in such a situation and what would be your suggestions for me to improve?
  2. Malcolm35

    Malcolm35 Supporting Member

    The guitars should call the key. If not ask. If a major key count on the I-IV-V, if it is Country or Pop. You could pound the tonic root note to get a feel for the song, and if the guys are not giving you the "fish eye" you are on the right track.

    Grabbing a 12 bar Blues progression and hanging on also works.
    V///|I///|IV///|V///| if looping or I if ending. The last line is kinda
    left up to you, i.e. V///|IV///|I///|V///|

    Rhythm and falling into a groove is more important than the actual notes you play. You are the foundation or bass line, the guitar guys I assume have played together so long they augment each other. They need your bottom line.

    Ask the guitar guys what they use for spur of the moment songs. Then do the same.

    Good luck.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2020
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  3. Having a good enough musical ear to play a song after a single listen is a skill. If you don’t yet have it, it must be developed. For most musicians, this skill takes years—even decades—to acquire, but don’t let that stop you.

    There’s lots of component skills to being able to do this:
    1. Ear Training. You must learn to recognize all intervals by ear. Then you have to learn to recognize chord qualities (major, minor, diminished, augmented, suspended). Then extensions (7, 9, 11, 13). Then harmonic movement (progressions, focusing on root movement).
    2. Experience playing and listening to your favorite genres. You will begin to notice chord and rhythm patterns. Eventually, you will be able to predict chord changes as you listen.
    3. Fretboard familiarity. Know how to play in every key, and be versatile on your neck. This is how you guarantee you can accurately reproduce what you hear.
    For ear training, I recommend all four semesters of college aural skills. Two years, and #1 is in the bag.

    For #2, experience playing and listening—well, there’s just no substitute for experience. If you’re into Rock, you’ve got 70 years of repertoire to catch up on. Listen and play often, and a whole bunch.

    For #3, every bassist should be able to navigate the fingerboard anyway. All of it, not just first position and the high notes—middle of the neck too.
  4. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    if you play enough of a particular style, its conventions become part of your musical vocabulary.

    I knew a guitarist when I first started out who amazed me with his ability to solo over just about anything I could make up. It turned out his magical ability was called the pentatonic scale.

    Another experienced guitarist / singer had what seemed like a very large repertoire of classic rock and pop tunes. We used to play "stump the guitarist" and try to name some classic rock or pop hit he couldn't play, but as long as he had heard it, he would inevitably launch into it until he ran out of lyrics that could be recalled.

    Over time I noticed a few things about the execution of songs he had 'memorized' :
    • they were almost always in the key of C or G
    • they always used basic open 'folk' chords
    • they were almost always a variation of a I -IV- V
    • he would frequently play a wrong chord and quickly adjust to the right one,
    making it sound like an accent or something.

    in other words, He hadn't memorized anything but the vocal line. He played enough tunes of the style to know how typical chord progressions went. He just picked a starting chord and improvised a simple, 'easy guitar' chord progression that fit.

    perhaps your guitarists are similar. To follow a guy like that on bass, learning the hits as recorded probably would not work. You have to watch the left hand and know some basic guitar chords. And, just as for him, you need to learn the sound of common chord progressions and know enough theory to be able to execute them in any key. if you play enough of a particular style, its conventions become part of your musical vocabulary.
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  5. Malcolm35

    Malcolm35 Supporting Member

    ^^! The ole I-IV-V or ii-V7-I, some pentatonic, a few licks, a little theory and watch the fretting hand of the rhythm guitar, plus singing under your breath with the vocalist seems to do it.

    Then Google can find fake chord on most everything. Yes fake chord sheet music is just a bare bone rendition of the song, but, a good starting place - it gives you the lyrics and chords and you fake the rest. The more you play the easier the faking gets.
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2020
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  6. Paulabass


    Sep 18, 2017
    The person who does know the song, or can fake it well enough, should be able to give you the rough outline of the song in just a few words.
    In the end, it all comes down to experience.
    Being house bass player at years of jams, I've learned how to just fake it enough that the song is recognizable.
    Level of difficulty is approx. A) Songs you know. B) Songs you've heard on the radio a million times. C) Songs you are familiar with the genre, but don't know how the song goes. C) Songs from totally out in left field.
    Things to try- Find out the key and a song outline (Things like- the chorus comes in on the IV). Let the band start. Gives you time to count, and figure out the groove. Drop in when you feel comfortable. Keep it simple the first few times around. Most songs are written so they build anyway, so by the time you hit the bridge you're fully acclimated.
    Don't get discouraged, you'll get it!
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  7. Pick a tune to jam with on Youtube and then from the suggested songs, pick another song and play along and then pick another. I did this the other day just to jam along to some tunes from the 70s that I knew, but never played on bass. I played George McCrae's Rock Me Baby and Double Barrel from Dave and Ansel Collins, etc. A while back I learned Hello Stranger first the Barbra Lewis version and then the Yvonne Elliman version.
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  8. Malcolm35

    Malcolm35 Supporting Member

    First things first. Someone needs to call the key. Why? So everyone has the same starting place.
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  9. Great insights and motivation guys. Really got some new ways of looking at things and their applications. Will work on these.

    Thanks a ton.

    after my fretboard exercises, I pick a song, figure out the key and try to play the melody and then the bass lines. Some songs are easy and some are tough. But I know I am progressing.

    And today’s pick was- Holy wars- Megadeth
  10. It's not always about cheating with simplistic changes and pentatonic scales, so please don't set your bar that low if you really want to do ear training.

    I work with a guitarist who can play anything, and I mean anything, if he's heard it a few times. Doesn't matter how off the wall the changes are. We have been in rehearsals where the most bizarre distractions from our regular practice routine have come up, and he chases down those changes by ear and plays them well.

    Some people are really gifted with a good ear. Some people really do work very hard to develop this level of ability. It's important that you understand it can be done. Maybe none of us will ever be quite as quick as the guy with natural talent, but there's no reason to limit yourself by thinking that it's a matter of simple tricks. Nothing wrong with knowing 1-4-5 changes and scales but that isn't the end point.
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  11. MrLenny1


    Jan 17, 2009
    New England
    Yes. It took a long time to build up my ears though.
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  12. kevindahl


    Aug 21, 2006
    For me it really depends on the song or genre. There is no way I am going to be able to play a Dream Theater song after the second listen. Yeah I'll know the key and some chord changes but that's about it.

    Blues and country are another story. I have done plenty of Saturday jams and it definitely got easier for me. It's great when someone can verbally call out the chords before the song. ie verses are I and V, Chorus goes to the IV, watch out for vi in the bridge. Ideally this doesn't work for all music.

    Don't be too concerned, in a jam setting, about nailing the bass line note for note. Get the changes down. This also allows you to be more creative in coming up with lines yourself.
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  13. 2playbass


    Aug 12, 2013
    +1 on this. In a live situation, if I've never heard the song and it has changes or stops in weird spots, hopefully at least someone in the band knows so the rest of us can listen for a bit before jumping in. If it's anything in the basic rock, pop, or country lane, I can usually pick up the key by ear and jump in with standard changes.

    If it's in rehearsal, or we decide to learn a new song, I can usually have the basics nailed by ear with 2 or 3 runs through. It does depend on the tune though. We cover some complex stuff that requires time to pick apart and learn thoroughly to be able to pull it off convincingly.
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  14. Just for practice, I play Musical Roulette by playing along with my YouTube or iHeart radio stations.

    I don't know the song that's coming up - I have to get it on the fly and this is excellent training.

    You will find that in very short time your left hand will fly to the right position for the key which you're listening to.

    Sometimes I mix up radio stations - Pop, Jazz, CW, Motown, '60s rock (a favorite - I'm a Boomer after all!).
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  15. filmtex


    May 29, 2011
    This is one of my practice routines too, and has been for years. It has served me well.
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  16. Doing this, a bassist can "box-out" pretty much any song.

    Our music has patterns that for 90% of the time are predictable... and if you listen carefully the other instruments give us musical clues where we go next and when to go there.
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  17. I have been playing bass a little less than two years with limited musical experience (blues harmonica by ear).

    I have probably 75-100 songs I can play. I learned most of them by tabs or instructional videos. Mostly blues, blues rock, and 70's rock.

    I just started taking Skype lessons with a seasoned blues bass instructor (40 years playing and 20 years teaching) and he already is showing me how to learn songs by ear. His method works! I listened to a song I was not familiar with and by the time the song was halfway done, I was playing it.

    I do cheat and look up the chord chart (thanks Malcolm35) if I need extra help with more busy songs.

    Learning the notes on the fretboard and being able to hear the intervals helps me. Definately a lifetime work in process. I am trying to not be dependant on tabs.
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  18. sean_on_bass


    Dec 29, 2005
    I literally learned to play by putting on a recording, and creating my own bassline on top of it or matching the bass line on the recording. The more you do that, the easier it becomes. You are right to try to find the key center and start working out the chord progression. As your ear improves the process becomes quicker, to where you may have a song down after a few listens.

    Also, check this out:

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  19. Biggbass

    Biggbass Supporting Member

    Dec 14, 2011
    Planet Earth
    Unless it's a complicated part like Siberian Khatru, for example, I don't have a problem hearing it then playing it in any key. That's just one of the ways that years of musical training and lessons paid off.
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  20. Jared Houseman

    Jared Houseman

    Jul 5, 2018
    My advise is to learn a little bit of guitar. If you learn the basic chord shapes you can look at the guitarists hand to see what chord you are on. Also learn your basic chord progressions in every key, lots of songs just use I, IV, V, VI
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