Do you look at fretboard when you play?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by doran.dragic, Jul 12, 2020.

  1. doran.dragic


    Jul 2, 2014
    I've been playing more upright bass lately and I noticed how much more I have to rely on muscle memory compared to what I see, which started to make me rethink the way I orient myself on the fretboard.

    Personally I'm OK with not looking at the fingerboard as long as I'm playing in the same 3/4/5 fret position, but anything more I usually have to look at the fretboard. This is not a problem when I'm playing simple songs, but if I have to read music that requires shifts or jumps I'm usually having issues.

    I also saw a video of Thundercat where it doesn't look like he he's watching the neck much even though he's making a lot of shifts and jumps.

    What's your take on this? Should I try and develop the muscle memory the same way I would on an upright bass?
  2. Malcolm35

    Malcolm35 Supporting Member

    Understand I do not play from standard notation. Take this in mind as you read the following.

    My answer deals with find the chord then play the chord's tones. That established, On electric bass -- muscle memory is important and not looking for the next note is kinda what is expected. However if moving to a new (key) position I see no reason not to take a peak at the side markers.

    Once the key area is established, the fingers take over. But, always a but, I don't play a lot of music where moving to a new position (key) is necessary. I think this is one of the differences you will find on our key board vs your fretboard.

    I'm playing chord tones so everything I need is normally in one area.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2020
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  3. Papageno


    Nov 16, 2015
    I play mostly DB and also fretless. Although visual cues are helpful, it is good not to be strictly dependent on them.

    I like to practice with closed eyes as it makes me focus very strongly on what my ears tell me. There is a kind of satisfaction to it. A solid and reliable hand shape (for me it's Simandl 1-2-4) is an essential asset for this.

    Start by playing in a given position. Then practice small shifts (1 or 2 half steps), where you can use the finger replacement technique.

    Then go to longer shifts (shifts of a 4th or 5th). Don't do only upshifts; practice also down shifts. Those long shifts with closed eyed require dome amount of "trust"; you land wrong at first. Repeat and correct them until they come in tune. Don't use you eyes at all for this; only your ears, by comparing wich open strings and harmonics.

    As for the question whether you try or not to improve on this, you are the only that can decide on it. But as you say that you feel limitations when you have sight read, it seems to me that you have answered your own question...
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2020
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  4. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    I look a lot, but not always by any means, depends on what I'm playing. And I rarely, if ever, actually look at the face of the fingerboard - I'm almost always looking at the side edge markers in relation to my finger positions though, yeah.

    And yeah, Thundercat is good enough he doesn't really need to look at all. He also mostly plays fretted, too, doesn't he?
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  5. ELG60


    Apr 26, 2017
    When I'm learning a song or difficult progression, I'll look at the fretboard more often than not, at least at first. When I'm playing, I tend not to unless there are large jumps involved . . . Like having to go from the money area to the upper frets.
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  6. luciens


    Feb 9, 2020
    Agree with the other guys, though I am one of those kooks who thinks it's ok to look at the fingerboard as much as you want.

    In saying that, though, I know when you're gigging you don't always have that option. I don't gig anymore, but if I did I'd rely on muscle memory when in a particular position, to play the intended shape without looking at the board. But if I have to shift, I currently suck enough that I have to look unless it's a place on the neck I play a lot (I'm an addict of first position for tunes in F for example).

    Otherwise, unless it's dark or you're having to read music/charts/etc., I say keep your eyes on that sucker all you want.

    Again, with the proviso that a) I suck and b) if I were gigging again I'd just use a fretted bass and pray they don't fire me before I got paid.

  7. Yes, I do look at the fretboard, especially when I'm playing fretless.

    I can play just fine without looking. But I can play even better if I do look.
  8. misterCRUSH

    misterCRUSH It's all's ALL jazz...

    Dec 27, 2015
    Fayetteville, Arkansas
    I play fretless exclusively, and look a great deal of the time at the fretboard. initially it was for comfort, but now i enjoy jazz, espescially complicated jazz like Brad Mehldau or Hiromi. I'm not good enough to be looking around while playing along with stuff like that. not yet anyway
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  9. sean_on_bass


    Dec 29, 2005
    Yes! With practice you don't need to look to see your shifts as you discovered with upright bass. You can actually feel the shift distance in the left hand as well as see it in your mind. With that said, i might take a peak every now and then if i lose my bearing of where i am on the fretboard or doing a particularly difficult passage.
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  10. I look at mine, using the side markers, but I try not to.

    More often than not, it's because the song is new and not familiar or I'm trying to avoid eye contact with someone in the audience. :smug:
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  11. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    There's nothing wrong with glancing at the fretboard, especially when doing big shifts. I think mastery of, or at least great familiarity with the instrument means that you don't HAVE to.
  12. gebass6

    gebass6 We're not all trying to play the same music. Supporting Member

    All the time.
    Especially when playing fretless.

    Now I'd like to be one of those guys who play complex lines with their eyes closed.
    But I'm not.
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  13. SidNitzerglobin


    Feb 12, 2019
    Most of the time once I've got something pretty well hardwired I don't need to & try not to just to enhance situational awareness. I think I wind up learning the new stuff faster the sooner I stop looking at my fingers too.

    What seriously screws w/ me is when the side markers are non-standard or omitted, never realized how much I was cueing position from them in my peripheral vision until I got my Wattplower...
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  14. spantini


    Jun 13, 2020
    Lakeland, FL USA
    I play fretted electric and almost always watching the frets. Past bands have done lots of original material and writing my parts consisted of pure improvisation. So while I was fretting, I was also scanning ahead with thoughts and perceived sounds of what could be done in the next few seconds. At the same time I was playing off the other's sounds.

    Staring at the frets helped me visualize on the fly as well as remember positions.

    I only checked the side dots when fretting the E.
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  15. gebass6

    gebass6 We're not all trying to play the same music. Supporting Member

    Not looking at the fretboard while playing is overrated.
    You could lose your concentration while playing a complicated piece.
  16. Stevej66


    Feb 23, 2020
    I'm a learner, and I'd therefore like to edit the title of the opening post, changing "at" to "away from".

    I'm in bewildered awe of anyone who can do it, whether I'm watching an instructional video, live music like my beloved Maiden's Steve Harris who never seems to look anywhere except the crowd (and sings along to boot), or reading about you guys on here as accomplished players.

    If it's a repetitive, straightforward piece then I can make a stab at it - Brick in the wall pt2 as an example. And for a bar or two I get away with it, but after that anything can happen and usually does.

    I suppose I could claim I'm writing a cover of it, and can see some adaptations. Deliberate half tone out's got to work for someone surely?
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  17. Papageno


    Nov 16, 2015
    When practicing, it is useful to work on "not looking at your hands", which you may view as a combination of ear training and "muscle memory" training.

    When performing, then do what is best on the moment to serve the music, which maybe looking at your left hand for intonation accuracy, making eye contact with your band mates or the audience, reading sheet music, or closing your eyes if this helps you focussing better.

    None of the above options is better than the others; the only thing that matters is whether we serve the music.
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  18. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    Do you look at fretboard when you play?

    i also look at:
    - my music = i'm reading on every gig! ;)
    - the audience = i still care! :laugh:
    - my bandmates = for cues...are we on the same page? :D

    not having to look at your fingerboard constantly is a skill. knowing when to look is a skill. if you are blind = you use other skills. if you are sighted = use what you've got!
  19. James Collins

    James Collins Guest

    Mar 25, 2017
    Maybe for like 7+ fret shifts. A lot of times, I feel like I'm looking at the fingerboard more passively, without thinking about what fret I'm playing.
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  20. Bassist59


    Oct 4, 2010
    Houston, TX
    For me, it depends on what I’m playing. If it’s a song all in one basic area of the neck, it’s a good idea to get the whole song down without having to look. You’ll be that much better off when you get in front of people.

    Lately, I’ve been studying some difficult exercises and technique examples from a book and there is no way I can pull any of that off without looking at the neck. To be honest, I need some reflective side markers....some big white fretboard inlays would be nice, too!
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