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How do bassist learn songs in 15 seconds at jams?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by JoeNage, Dec 31, 2012.

  1. JoeNage


    Sep 18, 2009
    Hi all,

    I've been playing bass about 3 years and going to local blues jams for a few months. I do fine at the jams when the song has standard I-IV-V changes.

    But I'm struggle when I don't know the song's chords. For example, a singer will come up, glance back at me, say "Moondance in A minor" and then kick off the band.

    It's even worse when I've never heard of the song before. Sometimes, the guitar player will try to teach me the song in 15 seconds. Now if I had a written-out chart and 25 mins, I'm sure I could get it. But the set would be over by then.

    Now I do see more experienced bassists learn songs just like that....in 15 seconds. How do they do it?

    More importantly what do I need to do during my practice sessions to be able to do this? How do I break this skill down into the incremental steps I need to know?

    Appreciate any advice.
  2. If you haven't already, you might want to search out the threads about open mic nights and open jams. There are many threads on this and many good suggestions there that may be helpful to you in these situations. You are doing great just going to these jams! Your question is a good one, but I am going to defer to the many answers that have already been put down in this forum.
  3. Culpritbassman


    Sep 13, 2012
    Humble tx
    most of these guys, have a very well and trained memory. and....they do nothing but listen to music 24/7. about learning songs in seconds, or very short time, the major key is to learn all the scales, get very good at playing them fast, so your brain doesnt have to think about what to play, and improvise. improvise, very, very quickly.
  4. Not a simple answer, but here goes. Its a combination of having heard tunes before, and knowing the appropriate chord progression for the genre. For example, most tunes folks play at a blues jam will be tunes that follow the I-IV-V pattern. But there are variations, and if you're familiar with the Nashville # system, guys will tell you where to go (hold up 4 fingers, etc). Rarely will someone give you a chart.

    But it's more important to LISTEN to the other players, and pick up on where the song is going. (If there is a keyboard player, I can cheat by listening to what the left hand is doing) You might be a little late, but after the first verse you should be able to pick up on the song structure. Stick to the root notes first, then play more as you get familiar. Practice this at home with tunes you don't quite know. After a while you'll discover this happens very quickly.

    That's my take. Others may approach this differently. Good luck and have fun with it.
  5. You need to develop your faking skills. Knowing music theory helps a lot, but beyond that I would suggest that you keep an eye on the keyboard player's left hand, if there's a keys player there. You'll get some clues there as to the chords and the progression. Stick to roots until you get a feel for the song.

    Check out Ed Friedland's Working Bassist's Tool Kit book for more information about faking skills and how to develop them

  6. Joedog


    Jan 28, 2010
    Pensacola FL
    What it took for me: hosting blues jams every week for 5 plus years. Yeah, sometimes you stumble (and sweat) but it keeps getting easier and easier. Keep going to your jams. It's an excellent way to improve your "ear", and learn a song almost instantly. I also play along with CD's for practice, INCLUDING ones I'm not familiar with (and a lot more genres than just blues). That helps in the same way. It doesn't happen overnight, but keep at it, and down the road you will realize a BIG improvement in your ability to listen, and nail it!
  7. bass12

    bass12 And Grace, too Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2008
    Montreal, Canada
    Yes to the above. I've learned quite a few songs (well, "learned" well enough to get by :D) on stage. I have a pretty quick ear but it all depends, for me, on who I'm playing with. If, say, the keyboard player is playing chords and omitting the root notes it might be a bit more of a struggle for me to hear what's going on. Learning the vocabulary of certain styles can take you a long way. So if you're playing blues, for example, it can be helpful to know when a b5 chord or vi-ii-V turnaround might pop up. One of the best things you can do to work your ear (besides just working on chord identification) is to play through jazz standards. Learn to play the chord progressions (as chords, not just playing roots) and pay attention to where the ii-V turnarounds occur. This will be much more useful to you than practising scales.
  8. start by learning "Moondance" in A minor. Then in Cm, then Dm etc. Next time someone asks for 'Moondance", you're all set. People are calling tunes that most others on that stage already know.

    Learn songs. Learn to hear the chord progressions, and count out the measures, so you know the harmonic rhythm and form.
  9. Russell L

    Russell L

    Mar 5, 2011
    Cayce, SC
    Yeah, nothing worse than being the bass player and not knowing the tune. It's one reason I quit going to jams, EXCEPT, now I'm in the host band at a blues jam. I can play what we play, but when others get up there and I have to stay it's a crap shoot for me. And I have been a working musician since 1962, and have a degree in theory. Best I can do is try to get as much as I can the first time through, and hopefully do alright from there. If I had to do that all night every time it wouldn't be worth it. But, we try to stay with standard 12-bar progressions so no one has to be in that position (although that gets old after a set, or so) Also, there are some guys who I know will likely play obscure stuff I don't know, so I try to get another bass player up there when possible (but it's like lambs to the slaughter sometimes, lol).

    Good advice above from everyone. Just keep listening. Play along with the radio, I used to do that a lot. It helps you get used to trying to play things you don't know.
  10. mconklin


    Sep 24, 2012
    play your scales and listen to the relationship between intervals..count the intervals out loud.. and play your scales skipping intervals and sing the number of the interval, so you will quickly recognise what the 3rd, 5th, octave etc sound like in context..then you will be able to predict where the song is going because you will understand the relationship between intervals when you hear it you will be able to pick up quickly where the song is going..it will get to the point were you will feel it and you will be able to predict where its going without thinking to much..even if you have never heard the song. I also play guitar, and am familiar with the keyboard layout..so I can sometimes look at the guitar player and pick it up that way...and if all else fails you can ride certain notes in a key and it wont sound off..haha..its like a "pedal tone" in classcal music, so ride that one out until you get an idea of where the song is going..no one will notice unless the note is really sour or they know the song really well.
  11. armybass

    armybass Gold Supporting Member

    Jul 19, 2001
    Basic concept of theory and experience. In my band, we do not rehearse and we do not have songlists... we play requests... My guitar player/singer is a walking jukebox and we just follow him on the fly. If I did not have a degree in music, or at least the theory background that I have nor the 30 years of playing experience...there would be no way I could do it.

    But the real answer to your question is that music, like English is just a language.... you know some basic speaking patterns now...but you need to learn more words (chord progressions). I IV V is the first chord prog most of us learn, then you add things like the ii V I pattern and I vi IV V ect. There are lots of standard patterns that most songs are built around. There have been some great suggestions above. But remember....it takes time. You are doing good sitting in at jams after only playing 3 years. Keep it up!
  12. kreider204


    Nov 29, 2008
    WI, USA
    Theory, ear training, experience.
  13. Never been to been of these open jams, but I would think it might be a good idea if you called the venue you were planning to go to and ask them what songs are typically played on these nights, and then go practice them in different keys. Think that might work?
  14. Tewest86

    Tewest86 Supporting Member

    Sep 7, 2007
    Slidell, LA
    Playing in church, you have to develop an ear. Not sure if you ever listen to Gospel music but it one of the most difficult to play behind jazz. It has a lot of jazz in it. You have to learn theory and work on your ear. Listen to the radio and call out to changes. I don't have perfect pitch but I have relative pitch. I love country, rock, r&b, etc... Practice your ear man. It gets easy after a while.
  15. I've done 4 hour sets and not known a song a head of time.

    If someone else in the band can throw numbers at me I'll usually have it after a verse and a chorus.
  16. bass12

    bass12 And Grace, too Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2008
    Montreal, Canada
    This is very true (the whole quote). The more you listen to music the more you start to hear the kinds of progressions that are common and also the kinds of cues you might hear to let you know where the song is going.

    Check this out when you have a minute!

  17. Joebone

    Joebone Supporting Member

    Oct 31, 2005
    Los Angeles
    Good advice from the posts above.

    Doing this sort of thing is a lifelong study. I've been playing bass seriously for 5-6 years, but had long experience as a pro trombonist many years ago, so I had a leg up...but it's been humbling in terms of refining my sense of time and groove, and trying to tranfer all that 'bone knowledge into a bass context.

    Being able to play in any key is a given, but there are lots of ways to work on that - take a tune you know and play it in all keys, work scales and arpeggios in all keys, etc. etc.

    Groove is trickier - but playing along with tunes or loops is useful.

    I see song structure as being critical, on two levels: the macro level is figuring out how verses, choruses and bridges/interludes/whatever fit together. The micro level is having a handle on the chord changes for four, eight or 12-bar phrases, with particular emphasis on the turnarounds as you head into each next section of a tune.

    Knowledge of theory helps, but plenty of great players also do this solely by ear. I've always thought it would be cool to have theory and ear in equal measure (I'm more of an ear guy).

    Find a radio station and just play along with EVERYTHING. Do the same thing with stations playing styles that you don't usually play in. You can do the same thing with a body of tunes you assemble on the playback device of your choice, but the sheer randomness of a radio playalong, where you don't know what's coming next, makes it a great way to learn how to to deal with the unexpected. You'll end up working through different keys, different grooves, and start to get get a better sense for song structure.

    Also, learning a bunch of jazz classics can't hurt. The standards include a lot of the building blocks that show up in all kinds of genres, and help you internalize your sense of song form on the micro and macro levels.

    And the Nashville number system is marvelous. It helps you to internalize the importance of how the chords relate to each other, rather than getting hung up on whatever key they happen to be in.

  18. ubassman


    Jul 23, 2012
    Simple answer - add to the chord intervals that you already know the sound of I - IV and I - V ...so what does a I - III sound like? Can you tell the difference between I minor chord going up to IV minor?, and the difference between 1minor chord going up to IV Major . Educate your ear and the you will always hear the changes.

    Hearing the intervals doesn't take long as most songs are combinations of IVs and Vs progressions and you can build really quickly .

    Learn to hear major and minor sounds - get that nailed along with hearing intervals and you can pretty much play anything!

    Jazz bassist will learn the interval chord progression of a song -rather than learning the chords in a key. Once you know the interval progression you can play it in any key - just like you can already do with the blues in 12 keys if you know I,IV,V !! Good luck!

    BIG TIP - watch the guitarist chords!
  19. PrairieDogma


    Jul 11, 2012
    Hamilton, ON
    Lot's of good tips here, ears being key, but when I'm completely lost, knowing guitar chord shapes and piano keys have been good cheats.
  20. bass12

    bass12 And Grace, too Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2008
    Montreal, Canada
    Yeah, and having a pianist or guitarist who can yell out the chords ahead of time is even better! :D