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Inept at Improv

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Reflective, Nov 3, 2012.

  1. Reflective


    Sep 6, 2009
    A recent situation made it clear to me how nonexistant my improv skills are. I sat down with a friend and my bass, he had his guitar and he said "Ok, go. you're the bass." I paused for a second, and delivered something totally half-assed, almost immediately cutting it off. We ended up just talking about theory, mostly because I wanted to avoid more embarassment.

    I've been playing for about 9 years, almost entirely by myself. Covering songs, figuring them out by ear, trying to improv to random songs (I'll queue up songs from Pandora I haven't heard), technique practice, and theory study have been my main points of focus. I played a few times with a group that did beatles and old standards but other than that my social playing experience is nonexistant.

    I want to break out and actually do something with music, but -

    1. I'm too afraid of the social pressure
    2. I don't feel I have the skills to play with people.

    Does anyone have some advice about this? Like for #2, what kind of things could I practice to not be caught with my pants down again at a jam? Any suggestions are appreciated.
  2. I think having the skills to play with people comes from playing with people so it's kind of a catch 22. The social pressure will be relieved when you finally find some people that you synch up with musically. At least a little bit.

    I think you could practice groove. I find that my favorite improv artists can keep my attention just by staying locked in the rhythm. Think about it you could just mute the strings and play drum beats with your hands. I did that with my son earlier today while he jammed a crazy keyboard solo (he's 2). As far as notes go there are only 12 so if you learn where they all are all over the neck then there should be nothing stopping you from jamming with someone and finding the note that works with someone else. You can always ask what chords are being played and then just follow the rhythm with root note grooves. Check out videos of groove bassists like Brad Houser and Bill Laswell to get a feel for how they set the tone and develop a jam with only a few notes.

    Hope this helps.
  3. Reflective


    Sep 6, 2009
    Thank you for your advice. Practicing groove would probably be a good start as i think the rhythm is where I'm lacking. I don't think I'd have a ton of trouble playing along with others when something is already in place, meshing in to other people who are already playing. My problem is when other people are trying to use me to do that where I have to be the inspiration for others.

    Any tips for practicing groove other than doing muted drum rhythms?
  4. MalcolmAmos

    MalcolmAmos Supporting Member

    IMO you do not need any more grooves. You do not need to learn anything more about how to play your instrument - you already know enough to sit in with a band. You need to learn how to play with others - that are better than you - out in the World. So.....

    We all learn by doing. Sure you have to get all the fundamentals down and you have to understand how music thinks, but, the actual doing it comes from doing it.

    So get with musicians - that are better than you - and start doing it. New kid with the band, no one expects you to be great right off the bat, that's why you have to help set up and tear down, that's why you are expected to help carry the old guys amps in and out. Fitting in with a band is more important than how you play.

    Make yourself useful and the guys don't mind a few mistakes and will be glad to help you all they can.

    Relax - go get with other musicians and play - every chance you can. The more you do the better you get. I know the question is how do I find a band that needs a bassist? I think you will find that a good bassist is always in demand, you just have to let people know you are looking.

    Improvising - seek out cover bands and leave the lead solos to the solo instruments. You get lead breaks when the person having the lead gives you the nod. You are not going to get the nod before you are ready to handle it.
  5. wingmanborge


    Apr 12, 2012
    IMO you should learn to relax. Believe the fact tha you have been playing for a long time, and can pick up things by ear. You should know what style of music you like playing - jamming in and artrock setting is some what different than jamming in a funk setting. If you keep ending up in settings where people expect you to start off the jam, then memorize a groove and chordprogression in the style you like playing the most/or setting you have been set in. If someone else starts of, then take your time, listen and start out easy, not stepping on too many toes and see where it takes you. If there is room for more then put in some more, and before you know it you will be in charge. Bill Laswell is a good place to go for inspiration - he is perfect at finding that sweet spot between the groove and the notes.
  6. Reflective


    Sep 6, 2009
    Thank you much, guys. Sometimes the best advice is hard to hear, but I know that what you are saying is true. Borrowing grooves to use if needed at a jam session makes sense, cause you'll never be caught off guard... at the same time I feel like I should be making the grooves. But that can come later, yeah?
  7. dieselbass


    May 15, 2010
    Davis CA
    might help to learn some blues progressions. Guitar players I play with all really enjoy noodling around over a I-IV-V or some walking. Fun for both parties.
  8. burnunit

    burnunit obsolete Supporting Member

    Nov 17, 2007
    Charlotte, NC
    Relax and keep it very simple. Feel the pulse and trust your fingers. Guitarists don't need anything complicated to play over and generally appreciate a clear clean groove with lots of space.

    You will be fine and the more you do it the better you will get at the "radar" of knowing where the jam is headed and what it needs.
  9. I've been in the same spot myself, as I've only recently come back to playing bass full time.

    What I've done is just gone back to learning all the basic grooves and fundamentals, and I've learned to throw in some flashier stuff when appropriate.

    It doesn't always take much to get a groove going. If you know how to put a basic rhythm under various progressions, using standard lines and licks, it's a good start.

    My first time around, I was just thrown into bass playing without having much time to learn the basics, so I had all these bass lines I could play
    along with, but no skill in starting anything off.

    Now, if someone said "You start us off", I could. Won't be fancy yet, but it will be solid.

    Just keep getting the basics under your belt, learn the standardized lines and licks, and get out there and play. Everything else will come the more you play. Your ability to improv will improve as your skill and confidence do.
  10. Reflective


    Sep 6, 2009
    Thanks again. SquierJazz, you said learn all the basic grooves. What can I do or where can i look to work on that?
  11. I play mostly rock/blues, so I ended up finding a book on blues bass. Shows a lot about different ways that bass lines go under the standard 1-4-5 progression. I also have book 1 of Alfred's bass method, which also covers some basic grooves and licks in various keys.

    Chord tones, too. If you know the notes in a given chord, learn to construct lines using only notes from the chord you're currenty under.

    In a 1-4-5 in A, use notes from the A chord under the A chord, D notes under D, and E notes under E. Usually use the Root notes for the important changes and accents and the other notes for variety.

    Don't know if explained that so well, but there you are.

    Just keep listening to music and see if you can get into your own groove with it as well. Just playing around can teach you a lot.
  12. Jam with a drummer, learn to play drums, learn to program drums, play with a metronome. It has to do with poly rhythmic syncopation even when it's really simple and only one whole note. You can do a lot with a whole note.
  13. Rev J

    Rev J

    Jun 14, 2012
    Berkeley, Ca.
    I'd say this is a good start:

    As my old sax player used to say, "If one ain't there two ain't gonna follow."

    Stay Brown,
    Rev J
  14. pandros


    Oct 25, 2012
    hmmm, I think the guitarist kind of put you 'on the spot' ??

    I play guitar and bass. He could have started with a few chords in the style he wanted. You would then have naturally started to pop in a bass line (a drum machine would have been good too). Then....THEN...he could have gone off on his solo, which is what I think he wanted to do.

    I wouldn't worry about it too much. You'll be surprised how easy it is to play in a band, if you've playing for 9 years. As per many of the replies I've read on here...keep it simple...at least to start with.
    I know...Cos I'm a VERY average bass player! I'd bet.. you'd make me look silly.
  15. Reflective


    Sep 6, 2009
    All of the responses have been very helpful. I at least don't feel so bad about where I am at and have some things that give me direction, now.

    SquierJazz, you explained that perfectly well :) I believe that note choice is less of a problem as rhytm is for me. I guess I could use some work picking out chord progressions, but once the chords are there I can do note choice ok.
  16. BassMonstrum


    Mar 7, 2008
    I myself am completely inept at improv. The guitarist in our band always wants to start rehearsal with an improv as a warmup. This is where I crouch down over my pedalboard and pretend to fix the settings on my pedal...
  17. If rhythm is the issue, get with a metronome. I bought a digital Korg MA-1 that can be set for various tempos and rhythm patterns. Anything from straight grooves to various shuffles. Not terribly expensive, but very useful. When you're practicing on your own, some kind of metronome or drum machine/keyboard is a valuable tool, as others have said.

    I've recently found a drummer to jam with, so I am really glad I've been doing some timing/metronome work myself.
  18. I think in a situation like the one the guitarist put you in, it’s not really improvisation its composition.

    You don’t need to improvise the groove on the spot, you are completely in charge, the guitarist has to improvise something over what you already know.

    Get a drum machine and compose a heap of grooves on your own. Record them all as you go, because you will forget them. Go over them every couple of weeks as part of your regular practice routine. Then you have a brain bank of riffs to play when someone say “lets jam” .

    Learn all of MarloweDK’s grooves, he has about a million and they are all funky stuff.
  19. Reflective


    Sep 6, 2009
    bigboy, do you have a recommendation for a recording method?'

    HAHA just noticed bootsy's funk formula... and thats the funk, you know? you know?
  20. I use Garageband. Bass straigh into the line-in on my mac. I've just picked up a Zoom B.3 so I'm using that to USB now.

    You can get some cool things to record straigh to ipad & ipods these days.

    Or go old-school and press play&record on your tape deck. Quality isn't the concern, just reference.

    Write them down if you need to, learning 2 things then. Composition and Transcription.