memorization vs improvisation

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by patrickj, Jan 31, 2006.

  1. patrickj


    Aug 13, 2001
    Baltimore, MD
    I don't even think I can desribe this very well. Been trying to put it into words. Maybe it'll make sense. I don't mean it to come off as snooty, pretentious, etc.

    I can't memorize stuff anymore beyond chord progressions, timing and rhythm, etc. When I play - live, gig, practice, recording, whatever and regardless of original or cover material - I play an 'impression' of the song as opposed to any written bassline that may exist (either root of the chord or all over the place). Similarly, I can't write a repeatable bassline to save my life. Everything is like playing to a fake book. It's fun - I never play the same thing twice, keeps me thinking, avoids routine, etc. But when I come up with something really good, it's a fluke and I'll never be able to do it again.

    Lately I've been recording myself during practice and then editing that down into something I can listen to, try to memorize, etc. Is this a good approach?

    I'm only 28 so I don't think my memory is failing quite yet. I think it's more of an discipline-attitude shift towards my playing as I've gotten further and further away from school, written music, etc.

    If that made sense to anybody, have you been in the same situation?
  2. cowsgomoo

    cowsgomoo gone to Longstanton Spice Museum

    Feb 8, 2003
    I suppose it depends what kind of band you're playing in... if you're playing extremely orchestrated stuff where everything has to lock in exactly with everything else, then your approach might not fit in...

    but in a more jazzy or improvisational context, and one where the other musicians you play with are similarly flexible, it can be wonderful

    as long as you have the ability to do either, then it's a matter of taste... I reckon if a person can't play memorised lines accurately it's a skill they need to learn
  3. I'm in the same situation myself.

    I play mostly original music, and although I may have very repetitive parts, they are only repetitive "to a point."

    That is, if they were notated very precisely (by someone who could do that - which is not me!) there are always subtle differences in the way I play it, since I am interacting with the other guys in the band and it is a more fluid situation.

    I'm playing what I feel, or trying to, and I don't always feel the same thing at the same point in the song.

    If I were playing Bach or the like, I'm sure the audience would expect Bach, exactly, not my "version" of it. But I'm not, so I'm free to do what I like.

    My question is - why do you feel you must be able to memorize, or duplicate things precisely? Is it causing problems, or just a goal you want to achieve?
  4. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    When I come up with something "really good" I'll jot it down. I'll write a song around it asap so I don't forget it.

    I hate the "ones that got away", especially in band practice. "What was that?". "I don't know - I was just goofing. Doh!" One of these days I'll invest in a cheap Fostex or something - but 'til then, longhand.

    I think it's a good thing to come up with and memorize bass lines. It doesn't have to be so rigid that you couldn't have variations.
  5. patrickj


    Aug 13, 2001
    Baltimore, MD
    It's definitely more a goal than a necessity. I'm starting to write a lot again (individually and collaborative - haven't since college) and I'm noticing that the way I used to write and create/save ideas isn't working for me like it used to. Mainly because of my memorization issues and my changes in 'creative' discipline from school til now.

    I think mainly that my problem is the old way of doing things just isn't working anymore. To me, it feels like 'damn, I know this stuff, I used to be able to do it fine, why do I have to relearn', etc. Really, like most things, I think it's just a case where I need to continuously adapt (arrr would be simpler if it just worked though!). It's reassuring to know other people have gone through the same quasi-writers block as well.

    Damn it's hard to explain abstract stuff.
  6. All_¥our_Bass


    Dec 26, 2004
    Well, what I did is take a lot of time to get some basic theory and intervals down, remember my scales and keys, where teh notes are on the fretboard. But when I play it depends on what comes out of my efforts, sometimes I'll play something taht feel like it should be repeated and other times I come up with more solo-ish things that are extremely improvy but are based off of two or three easily blendable scales (minor and phrygian for example)
  7. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Interesting topic

    I find I have tendancy towards that way of playing too.. constantly varying what I'm playing, sometimes even too much for an improvisational context like jazz - which is what I (try to) play most of the time now. It's fun and it can be great,


    In my opinion, there's one huge downside, it is not entirely compatable with the foundational role of the bass. Even in improvised music, the music needs a foundation, a centre, something to reference, for the other band members and the listener. So I make a conscious effort to keep a foundational role.

    One great way of doing this is an idea I've heard called "resisting the urge" :eyebrow:
    Basically, for every THREE urges to fill, vary the feel, line, groove, note choice, or to noodle, or whatever.. you only play ONE.
    So you have one urge to noodle, you ignore it and stick to the groove, you do the same with the second urge, resist it... then play on the third urge you have.

    Sounds a bit silly - and you might think "I dont really have conscious ideas or urges, I just play", and it might feel contrived to start off, but it makes you focus one what you play in a really interesting and, probbaly, new way. Believe me, it works! It's like it somehow consentrates the meaning into one expression rather than three weaker ones. I find it also creates more space in your playing and makes you sound so much more musical, makes what I do play so much more intentional, much stronger.

    ..and of course you nail the groove for everyone else, which is your job! :)

    Another thing that helped me was joining a function band where I was required to play reasonably precise grooves. Peopel dont pay to hear me play at their wedding :D
  8. I always viewed this as the "human" element of providing the bass sound.

    Some bands get away with using sequenced bass. Most listeners wouldn't know the difference. It can play exactly the same thing all night long in perfect time. I know a cover band that's been around forever like that. Program in the bass line and off you go. Probably only the bass players in the audience notice.

    It also sounds like a soulless machine. (So on drum machines they have that "humanize" function that adds a little random variation.)

    I guess the idea is to be able to be a bass machine when it's right for the song, and a bass person otherwise.
  9. d8g3jdh

    d8g3jdh Guest

    Aug 9, 2005
    worked for the grateful dead.

    seriously, phil lesh was awesome. if you can do that then your set.
  10. Jazzin'

    Jazzin' ...Bluesin' and Funkin'

    I'm the same way. I will play an original bassline, but I quickly get bored and improvise because it's more fun and challenging. I find repeating basslines way to boring to play for a whole song. Those are the songs where I will always end up inventing.
  11. i play in a covers band, i can sit there, play the origional line note for note, and if i feel like it, ill do it that way, but i rarely am (i do that to get into the hip hop mentality) so ill do little fills here and there to spice it up and add my touch to it, but i never learn solo's, never, i dont like it, ill always improv a solo, and im leading the band so just before a solo ill ask the guitarist if he wants it if he doesnt then im off...keeps things interesting
  12. Andy Brown

    Andy Brown Supporting Member

    Jul 23, 2004
    Rhode Island
    Founder: Wing Bass
    Variety is the spice of life.

    If I had to play the same exact bass lines perfectly every single time (I mainly play covers), I'd probably loose the 'feel' and be excrutiatingly bored. Sometimes, the things I throw in sound better than the original line. Keep it fresh... it's more important to have fun with it than to be a machine, especially in a live situation. This doesn't mean ignore the important changes and bass fills that are signatures of the song, or over-do the embellishments, but once you learn the songs, feel it more than play it.

    (I hope this made sense)
  13. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    It really depends on the style of music and the situation.

    Jazz is freedom and expression and IMHO the whole idea of the form of jazz is to explore through impovisation. If I hear the same pattern repeated over and over again in jazz it just don't soung right.

    Rock (for the most part) is more pattern and riff oriented in the basslines. But that doesn't mean ya can't tweak 'em or improve upon 'em. And patterns aren't a hard, fast rule either: look at JE and Jacks Casady and Bruce. I hear more pattern stuff today than I did back then.

    When I played in cover bands I would learn the bassline and start exploring from there. The main idea for me was to get the basic groove and my personal expression was in fills and licks and, of course, solos. Once you've played a song over and over for about six months then yer gonna alter parts or you'll go insane!
  14. Geezerman


    Nov 28, 2004
    Chicago, IL
  15. Jazzin'

    Jazzin' ...Bluesin' and Funkin'

    Memorization is for computers.
    Improvisation is for humans.