How much theory goes into your playing?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by gazzabom, Jan 4, 2002.

  1. gazzabom

    gazzabom Guest

    Apr 9, 2001
    Our band has recently started writing our own material, and i find it difficult to use any theory when making my own basslines. I have started going to lessons, and I've asked my teacher to teach me theory, but when it comes to band practice it's all lost on me. I end up playing what just sounds good in my head. I sing a tune in my head that fits with the music, and then play it. So what I'm asking is how much theory goes into your playing, and also what I could do to improve my playing.

    Thanks in advance.
  2. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I think it depends on what type of music you're playing. I learnt music at school, but then got into playing in Punk/Pop/Rock bands for about 10 years and completely forgot any theory, as I just never used it as you say. Most of it was just following the guitarist and drummer.

    But when I started playing Jazz and making up improvised lines based on more complex chord sequences with drummers who don't just play very straightforward time, then I found I needed to think about theory all the time.

    In Jazz you are expected to come up with interesting, "non-repetitive" lines and solos and the chords, structures and occasionally the rhythms are much more complex - you always need to keep thinking about theory.

    Whereas in rock/pop etc. it was just a case of getting a line that fitted and then sticking with it - people actually got annoyed if you changed it, embellished or improvised - so it became more of a question of memory, rather than working anything out.

    My view is that as soon as you start studying theory then you get addicted to Jazz - anything else just becomes boring from a bass player's point of view! ;)
  3. I know absolutely nothing about musical theory. And IMO, that makes me much less of a player as a result.

    However, it's horses for courses. We play our own adaptations of covers - if that makes sense:eek: - so I'm basically playing what others have written. And when I say, 'written' I mean heard because I can't read music either!!

    I'm not sure what you can do to improve your playing. If you've got the chance to learn theory, grab it with both hands. Others have said a way to learn is to follow a musical style that's different to what you do currently. Eg. If you're into punk, try some classical: if you're into classical, try some punk.

    And I'd seriously recommend listening to guys like Bruce: they know what they're talking about.:D

  4. Phil Smith

    Phil Smith Mr Sumisu 2 U

    May 30, 2000
    Peoples Republic of Brooklyn
    Creator of: iGigBook for Android/iOS
    Other than a Jazz context, theory is still useful for transitions from chord to chord and the introduction of fills where there's space.

    Ultimately it is going to depend on what sounds good, but knowing some theory and studying the chord structure of a song could give rise to some other things that you can play. The more you have available on your musical palette, the more you can use to create things with.

    I record all rehearsals and gigs that I do and do a lot of listening to what I have played and what others have played. Sometimes this springs forth other ideas and my bass line or my approach to what I'm going to play changes. I would suggest sometimes playing something other than what may pop in your head first, because there's a strong tendency to go with what you know.

    Keep in mind simple or complex it ultimately comes down to what fits the music best.
  5. PunkerTrav


    Jul 18, 2001
    Canada & USA
    I guess I use a bit of theory when playing bass. I have been playing sax for along time and as Bruce L. said, Jazz is all about theory.

    Me and some friends did a cover of a song with out a bass line. We wrote one in short notice. In the end is sounded nearly the same as a sax solo I played a few years ago. It was in the same key and I remebered the same points of theory i used to play the solo.

  6. tmt


    Nov 10, 2001
    Jakarta, Indonesia
    You know what so cool about music?, you dont have to think about theory. :D when you play.
    It's fun, relief tension, make you every day fall in love, etc,etc.

    If you dont feel that way, sorry.. I think you get the wrong direction.

    How to improve?
    Again, express your emotional feelings toward your songs, music, instruments.

    Just my opinion.

    :rolleyes: :rolleyes:
  7. stephanie


    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    I guess it all depends on what I'm doing:

    I enjoy learning theory and spend a great amount of my practice time learning it.

    I use to not think about theory when playing a song (written by someone else). But lately it seems I'm starting to. It helps when I'm trying to learn a bassline. I haven't honed my ear-training skills so it's really helpful to know some theory. Like if I can just figure out a few notes of a bassline then I can find the key the song is in...and then it's much easier to figure out the bassline.

    When it comes to writing my own stuff, I mostly never think of theory until after it's written. I usually write what feels and sounds good to me. But I know there is theory behind it. I try not to let it get in the way, but I think it's important to know theory. It's not much fun in the long run speaking a language and not even knowing what you are saying.

    Sometimes, though, I will say "well, I'm gonna write a song in the key of E" and go along with that, or play around with intervals or something, but usually it's just "stream of consciousness" writing and playing (you know, when you just sit down in front of the TV and fiddle with your bass).

    Cheers! :)
  8. FalsehoodBass


    Jul 22, 2001
    Denver, CO
    i've found that theory works better for me backwards... like sometime's i'll write a part that i think sounds cool, and then upon looking at it i'll realize that its a minor third to augmented fifth, or something like that.... so it doesn't actually help me write but it helps me to explain what i'm doing, and allows me to expand on it.
  9. I really like what Phil and Bruce have said about this. :)

    While I agree that jazz is just one big theory class with tons of soul, personal feelings, and reckless abandon thrown in (hopefully), I do feel that it is incredibly useful in other musical contexts.

    I've found that a strong theoretical background has helped me to learn and understand songs much quicker. You learn patterns, you learn how and why patterns work in different situations, and you generally open your ears so that you can tune into what's going on around you.

    I would recommend learning some theory and then working your a$$ off to apply it - don't get stuck in a classroom, but try to learn tons of songs and take tons of gigs so that you can utilize the theory and fully assimilate it into your playing. When you see things you've seen in a classroom in a song, it helps to reinforce the song at hand and the classic song/musical idea much better, IMHO.
  10. uglybassplayer


    Aug 24, 2001
    New Jersey
    To steal a phrase from Vic Wooten...

    Playing music is like speaking a language.

    Theory, like technique, licks, ear training, etc... are all tools that allow you to communicate effectively thru your instrument, just like word, syntax, grammer and inflection are used in speech. The trick is to become so comfortable with them that you don't have to think about any of it when you play. When you talk, you don't necessarily focus on components such as the order of your words. You have a thought and out it comes right through your "word hole". Ideally, that's the way it should be with your instrument, to be so comfortable, that the music become a natural part of your musical vocabulary and you don't even have to think about it... you hear it in your head and it oozes out of your fingers.

    Then again, you can alway play a blues lick :D ;)

    - Frank.
  11. cassanova


    Sep 4, 2000
    Ive recently started studying theory and thats why I quoted this portion of your post.

    Since Ive started studying it, Ive found myself addicted to stuff Id never used to listen to. Latino/afro cuban stuff, Spyro Gyra, Tower of Power, Victor Wooten. Not necessarily jazz, but just more complex/intricate music in general. And Im only scratching the surface of all this good stuff. You are imo so right when you say everything else becomes boring. Dont get me wrong I still love rock, pop, country, but this other stuff Im hooked on now is just so much more technical. :D
  12. Fgenus, I could not agree more. I have been studying theory longer than I've been playing the bass (I switched to bass from trumpet and guitar) and it's part of everything I play.
    It doesn't matter what style you play, if you study and practice, it will start to come out in your playing. A gig is definitely NOT the place to try and fit it into your playing. That's what practice is for.

    All bass players use harmony, rhythms, scales, voice leading, etc.... That's what separates music from noise (although my theory professors from college woud disagree ;) ) Those of you who haven't studied any theory are using it and you don't know it. Studying just helps to put names to things and to organize it so that you can communicate with it and use it to expand your playing. If you want to improve, study theory AND it's application.


    Jeff in Chicago
  13. red-hot-bassist


    Sep 18, 2001
    if my knowlege of theory whent into my playing i would be hammering on the E with a hammer, yes this means i have to go leanr some, it's so damn difficult
  14. uglybassplayer


    Aug 24, 2001
    New Jersey
    I'm an applications developer (along with probably half the people on this board). Anyway, the same principals apply in my field. The programming language is the instrument. The application is the song. Learning the syntax of a particular programming language is not unlike learning how to play a particular instrument. The theory stuff, like understanding data relationships, error trapping concepts, etc... is pretty much the same and needs to be mastered no matter which programming language you develop in. The same goes for music. The same theory works whether your playing bass, trumpet, keyboards, vibes, steel drums... you get my point. Don't get me wrong, there are different rules when playing different instruments, just like there are in different programming languages, or between different languages of our world for that matter. But the underlying principals are similar, if not the same. Which brings me back to my original point of learning & practicing to a point where it becomes second nature to you. Too bad I haven't mastered this myself yet :( :D .

    - Frank.
  15. I agree that the trick is to become so comfortable you don't have to thinks about it.

    When I first started to learn theory I made a point of conciously trying to incorporate what I knew into whatever I was playing at the time. What I found was that my bass lines started to sound too 'calculated' and at times like I was performing some sort of technical excersize. I don't regret going through this phaze because it helped me get to the point where I could apply theory without having to think about it. It isn't until you start to incorporate what you've learned that you're going to get better at what you learned.

    Nowadays if someone plays me a chord progression I can think many ways I could approach the bass line, mainly because of the theory I know. I try to use what I know in my mind, what I'm hearing, what I'm feeling, and where my fingers happen to be at the time to come up with a bassline on 'off the cuff.' When everything's flowing it can be magical. The key is getting everything in place so you can get it to flow. ;)
  16. john turner

    john turner You don't want to do that. Trust me. Staff Member

    Mar 14, 2000
    atlanta ga
    the beautiful thing about music is that every musical passage you can play can be described in terms of music theory. music theory was created after the fact, after the first music, to describe the music itself, and it's been added to ever since.

    saying that you don't use music theory to create a bass line is like saying you don't use the alphabet to create words. it's just not possible - one just might not have the knowledge of the theory behind what one plays. the beautiful thing about knowing music theory is that one can know how to make something sound a certain way before they compose it - there are stylistic paradigms that can be followed, musical "rules" that describe why things sound the way they do. so if you want to make something sound anxious, sad, intense, mellow, happy or whatever, you can figure it out in a large part using scale, modal and chordal theory, and then fine tune it to taste.

    think of theory in this regard like recipes - obviously you're going to improvise a bit here and there to taste, but generally it provides good instructions on a tasty concoction.
  17. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    I like what fgenus had to say about this subject. I think theory is applicable in any style of music. Intuition, good ears and good technique are all definitely characteristic of a good musician, but there are some barriers you just can't cross unless you can apply a little theory to your playing.
  18. uglybassplayer


    Aug 24, 2001
    New Jersey
    My work here is done... Waiter, check please! :D :D :D
  19. Craig Garfinkel

    Craig Garfinkel

    Aug 25, 2000
    Hartford, CT
    Endorsing Artist: Sadowsky Guitars
    This type of thread has appeared here before, but certainly warrants repeating...especially with so many eloquent and accurate posts.

    It's possible to be a great musician...even in jazz...without having a strong knowledge of music theory (George Benson, James Taylor), but for us humans it sure comes in handy. You just have to persevere in your studies until you get to the point where you're not thinking about what you're doing. A good buddy of mine who's a gu*tar player likes to say..."if yer thinkin', then yer stinkin'."
  20. Pacman

    Pacman Layin' Down Time Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Endorsing Artist: Roscoe Guitars, DR Strings, Aguilar Amplification
    Where do you get the idea that Benson doesn't have a strong knowledge of theory?
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