Technique Freak? Theorist? Whatever works?

Discussion in 'Bassists [BG]' started by MarMar, Oct 17, 2020.

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  1. MarMar

    MarMar Inactive

    Sep 9, 2020
    Over my years of playing, I have run into musicians who swear a bassist is useless/talentless/unskilled/worthless to a band because they don't know music theory, etc.

    Then I have learned that many famous, high grossing musicians don't know music theory, can't read sheet music, etc.

    What's the deal here? If someone has to know the ins and outs of bass guitar to be in a band, why are there players such as Paul McCartney, etc. who might not know much but have done so well?
    Rabidhamster likes this.
  2. There are jerks in every field. Music is no exception. Some people feel it's necessary to belittle others. Maybe it's insecurity or jealousy. Who knows? From my experience, bassists are usually not only the most intelligent and humble members of bands, but have a good working knowledge of music and how it functions. Try getting into a discussion on the intricacies of counterpoint with a diva, drummer or lead guitarist. See? And, yes, a diva is a band member and not a belittling insult. Sort of both, really.
    SteveCS, MonetBass, bass10bfb and 2 others like this.
  3. MarMar

    MarMar Inactive

    Sep 9, 2020
    I have felt on numerous occasions that the riffs I contributed to a song made it better. I don't know much about playing but I can tell when I am playing if it sounds good or bad.
    jamro217 likes this.
  4. buldog5151bass

    buldog5151bass Kibble, milkbones, and P Basses. And redheads.

    Oct 22, 2003
    Paul understood theory, but not the language. But frankly, without Martin (who obviously knew theory, and was trained), the band likely would never have progressed as they did.

    Knowledge is never bad.
  5. JeezyMcNuggles

    JeezyMcNuggles Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2018
    Santa Maria, CA
    I suck, but nobody really notices
    Yes, bassists don't know music theory. None of them. Not one. Drummers are the only real musicians in any band. They know every scale, mode, and play in every key flawlessly. Effortlessly connecting thier chord and note progressions into perfect harmony. Everytime.
  6. Dr. Cheese

    Dr. Cheese Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 3, 2004
    Metro St. Louis
    One thing my teacher has stressed to me, although it took me a long time to appreciate it, is that a bassist should not discount what he or she has learned from seat of pants playing. In other words, just by playing a long with records, we figure out chord progressions and intervals even if we don’t know the name for them. I knew I could recognize a cycle of fifths progression long before I knew the name for it. I recognized thirds, fifths, fourths, etc. before I knew what they were. Seriously, do you think the rest of Tower of Power cared if Rocco could diagram and spell out The Oakland Stroke or Only So Much Oil in the Ground? Listen to Billy Sheehan explain his method, he may not talk in terms of notes, but he has developed a system that helps him fly across the fingerboard. Andrew Gouche has a great ear and can individually hear every note in any chord, but he does not know scales or modes, but the dude clearly has a heck of a system that created the template for Urban Gospel Bass.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2020
    LBS-bass, Roger W, MonetBass and 5 others like this.
  7. We're heading for a cliff here. One side is about training and the other is about prodigy. If you take someone with above average musical aptitude and little training and compare them to someone with little musical aptitude and intense training it may be a closer race than you'd think. Some people just have natural talent and there are some things that are inherent and cannot be taught. You can't teach someone to be a star athlete. You can coach and cultivate them in order to develop their talent but you can't make use of abilities that simply aren't there. No amount of training will help in some instances. Those who are star prodigies may need help focusing in on what they're attempting to accomplish or honing their skills. They don't need a teacher as much as a mentor. These are polar opposites of examples and most of us fall in the space in between. Let's just say that learning all you can about music is important. Learning to play other instruments is extremely helpful for musical growth and gives insight into what being a good bassist is all about. Don't let the negative opinions of others deter you from your musical journey.
    equill, OogieWaWa, Dr. Cheese and 2 others like this.
  8. Esteban Garcia

    Esteban Garcia bassist, arranger, aelurophile Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2018
    Portland, OR
    Rock doesn't require a lot of theory IME. Just good feel and some hot licks. If you want to play anything more sophisticated, you'll probably want to learn some of the fundamentals of harmony so you can keep up.
    thabassmon and bassobrutto like this.
  9. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    Do not think for a second that McCartney doesn't know much! McCartney knows theory inside and out and knows every note on the stage. The only thing he doesn't know is how to read music.
    dougjwray, MVE, OogieWaWa and 6 others like this.
  10. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    The things that always gets missed in the Paul McCartney (or whoever) doesn’t know theory nonsense is first, their abundance of natural talent; and second, they played six nights a week for years; along with a lot of other factors that contribute to their playing ability.

    Most of us don’t have Paul’s talent, didn’t play six nights a week with other capable musicians, or have someone like George Martin around to fill in the gaps.
    MonetBass, jamro217 and Dr. Cheese like this.
  11. Mushroo

    Mushroo Guest

    Apr 2, 2007
    Rock n Roll is all about attitude and image. I betcha a lot of the rock greats know a lot more music theory than they let on; they just don't want their fans to think they're nerds. "I never studied or practiced; I just like to PARTY!!!" is a sexier sound-bite than "actually I worked really hard to get where I am, and it takes a lot of discipline to succeed in the music biz, so stay in school, kids!"

    I listened to Little Steven interviewing Paul McCartney on his radio show, and they were having a really intelligent conversation about "why did you play C instead of C# during the chorus?" and that sort of thing. Sir Paul is a music theory genius. Musically ignorant people don't write songs like "Michelle" or "Yesterday."
  12. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    Lots to unpack. There are examples of brilliant musicians who don't have a lot of classical training in theory. McCartney may be one outlier example but there are thousands. You and McCartney get to play some pretty cool styles because of untrained folks like Lead Belly and Link Wray and Elvis.
    There are some highly educated musicians who just spew notes in what sounds like an incoherent mess except to themselves. Pat Metheny is definitely smart enough to explain why most people aren't savvy enough to understand his messmaking. Point - McCartney.

    Not that anyone is asking but I'd take soul 100 times to one over checking the boxes with qualifications.
    Neil Young, Liz Phair or Chan Marshall are powerful songwriters, I'd take that over John Mayer any day. Nothing personal. I wouldn't call Steve Vai a better guitarist than B.B. King. Just more trained. Point - McCartney

    So back to OP, if you're playing with a douchebag find someone else. Life is too short.
    Play with people who aren't A-holes and listen and write what you like, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Don't forget that music is art. The magic is in the creation, not the precision of reproduction. Not saying you shouldn't strive for your best. But yeah, don't hang out with jerks. Point - McCartney, Game Set Match.
    MarMar, ProbablyTooLoud and Low Crow like this.
  13. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    And I can read just fine, so can my kids. Go learn if you have time. But that's how musicians communicate, not how they create.
    Low Crow likes this.
  14. BAG


    May 5, 2014
    New Zealand
    My own personal experience is that theory is possibly more important to playing bass than guitar. I played guitar pretty decently for 30 years and with the exception of knowing some basic scales which allowed me to play some lead licks I learned very little theory.
    When I started playing bass I quickly realised that I needed to know more theory, and in the first year I learned more theory than in those 30 years of guitar and I continue to pick up more all the time.

    I think it is due to the fact that we can't get away with just learning and playing simple chord shapes like guitarists..... we need to know what notes make up those chords and how to use them appropriately. We need to know how to use scale and chord tones as lead-in notes to the next chord. We need to also do all this while keeping perfect time and groove.
    lizardking837 and Dr. Cheese like this.
  15. Valvehead


    Jun 21, 2020
    Those people are talking down their noses.
    A bass player that sounds good is good. There are no rules.
  16. ProbablyTooLoud


    Aug 1, 2020
    I'm just boosting any mention of my hometown songwriter Chan.
  17. ClusterFlux


    Apr 11, 2018
    I think the deal is that some musicians are $#@!!!s.

    That said, the need to know music theory, to know how to read music, to know advanced playing techniques and so on depends greatly on what you are trying to do musically. If you want to play jazz nowadays, usually it's going to be very difficult to do so without knowing how to at least read charts and memorize dozens of standards. Reading music is mandatory for classical musicians.

    However, if you just want to play your favorite blues-based rock songs with your buddies, you won't need to know much more than the basics. You can certainly benefit from knowing more, but the stakes are lower, the structures are simpler, and you can learn pretty much everything you need to know from listening and learning a few basic concepts.


    A bit of warning: I enjoy the music of the Beatles, but I find hyper-worship of them rather tiring. Their real advantage was their charisma, their ability to work hard, and a gigantic heaping of luck, mostly in the form of meeting up with George Martin. They were also together at a time when society, technology, and many genres of music were undergoing enormous change. (Hence the often less-impressive performances of their various solo efforts, even when working with Martin and/or another ex-Beatle.)

    Anyway. I'd say the main reason why some musicians can be very successful without training in music theory, or learning to read, is that they are working in contexts where formal training is optional; and they listen to enough music to internalize the rules, without formalizing them. E.g. the most basic I - IV - V progressions build tension, and you don't need to know terms like "tonic" or "dominant" to feel it, let alone use it.

    However, I'd also say that the intuitive approach has its limits. McCartney wrote the chords and most of the lyrics to "Eleanor Rigby," knew he wanted some kind of string arrangement, and knew he didn't want the strings to sound sappy. But he certainly didn't have the ability to compose the string arrangements (that was George Martin), or tell them to play staccato (Martin) or to mic the instruments very closely to get a harsher sound (Geoff Emerick).
    MarMar and lizardking837 like this.
  18. OogieWaWa


    Mar 17, 2013
    Oak Harbor, OH
    My thoughts: Always remember that the quality of the performance is the sum of the band, not some of the band.

    What's important is that everyone knows their role, and is willing to put in as much understanding and work is necessary to do their part well. Conversely, you can have a handle on both technique and theory and still not perform well; I guess you could call it skill. One could argue that "feel" is as important as all the rest, as well as the "playing well with others" skill. That's the groove and the mood for our role. Whatever it takes, the other stuff doesn't really matter.
    MarMar and jamro217 like this.
  19. buldog5151bass

    buldog5151bass Kibble, milkbones, and P Basses. And redheads.

    Oct 22, 2003
    It's more than that. You can learn how a car engine works by taking it apart and (eventually) putting it back together, but if you take courses and read manuals, you will learn how to do it more quickly, and how to do more with it. Knowing "how" and "why" will give you more than "what" by itself.
  20. Dr. Cheese

    Dr. Cheese Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 3, 2004
    Metro St. Louis
    This reminds me of what Jeff Berlin said about Billy Sheehan long ago. While Berlin had formal lessons, Sheehan was gigging constantly and learning songs. Sheehan heard things he wanted to do and figured out how to do them. As another person noted, not knowing theory can make hard to communicate. Saying the the song is in E- and the progression is II V I delivers a ton of information to the folks with whom you are playing.

    Finally, lots of learned musicians are not or were not good readers. Charlie Parker, the sax giant, studied the heck out of music but was not a good sight reader and neither was Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, nor is George Benson, just to name a few great Jazz Guitarists. Paul McCartney is in good company.
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2020
    Hachimitsu, jamro217 and lfmn16 like this.
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