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Techniques for learning long, complex bass lines

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by socialleper, Feb 13, 2013.

  1. socialleper

    socialleper Bringer of doom and top shelf beer Supporting Member

    May 31, 2009
    Canyon Country, CA
    I've been playing bass for more than 20 years and have been really, actively 'listening' to music (as opposed to just passively hearing music) since I was pretty young. If there is one thing I've never been able to wrap my head around is how musicians remember very complex, very long streams of music. Classical, jazz, progressive and technical death metal are full of examples of well executed runs of notes that don't seem to have a "riff" to them, that go on for minutes. I get that the physical ability to play difficult pieces comes with practice, but I can't figure out how you can even remember that many notes that happen in such a short space of time, without much in the way of catchy, memorable, riff-iness.

    Since it is done a lot, there must be something to it I don't understand. What is the methodology or process behind learning long, complex pieces that have little or no repeating patterns, or who's patterns are minutes apart?
  2. Awesome Sauce

    Awesome Sauce Already tired tomorrow

    Dec 21, 2011
    NW Chicago 'burbs
  3. For me it's all Muscle Memory. I learn alot of things in strings, not just individual notes. If I try to play one of my more difficult/technical songs I have to start at the begining and let my hands just take over. I don't think much about it. If I tried to start in the middle of a phrase or something like that I'd be lost.
  4. Piggy8692


    Oct 2, 2010
    Northern Utah
    I think that it has a lot to do with mental capacity. If a player only learned riffs that repeated every 4th beat. for years and years that's what they would be accustomed to. Have someone throw in a pattern that only repeats after 16 beats and that might be confusing.

    I'm not saying that the OP can only count to 4 by any means. I think that it just takes time to get used to playing longer and longer lines. Maybe start out playing something that has 16 beats per revolution. Play If that's easy, bump it up. Eventually, you should be able to play very long sequences.
  5. The first think I look for is the key(s) that the song in.
    So insted of learning a million individual notes, I reduce it to scales more or less.
    Lots of times a song can be in one key but will borrow chord/scales from parallel or related keys. But when you know these things, you can always boil down a song to a formula.

    Please excuse my spelling, spell check don't work.
  6. fdeck

    fdeck Supporting Member Commercial User

    Mar 20, 2004
    Madison WI
    HPF Technology LLC
    I started out in classical music, playing flute and cello through high school, while picking up electric bass along the way. Over the years I've memorized a fair number of relatively lengthy pieces, such as portions of the Bach cello suites, and comparable material for solo flute.

    I can't say much about it, other than to do it a lot. One thing that happens is that you internalize what I would call a sense for whether a note "works" in a specific passage. The less random a passage seems, the easier it will be to memorize. It's like repeating a sentence in your native language is easier than repeating a sentence spoken in a language that is foreign to you.

    Sight reading is probably vital to the process, because it opens up access to "long" pieces that would otherwise be tedious to transcribe. But at the same time, transcribing is also a great way to memorize. I'll bet that if you tried to transcribe some Bach off a recording, by the time you were done, you'd also have committed it to memory.

    Likewise, I think ear training is beneficial, as it is similar to learning a language.

    Chances are, everything that you do, to develop yourself as a total musician, will also help your memorization.

    Now, I attended a performance on Friday, of a classical piece that was several levels above my ability: The Prokofiev cello concerto. And I found myself asking the same question: How the hell could the soloist memorize that thing? It is doubtlessly a matter of training, raw intelligence, and endless practice.
  7. nolezmaj


    Sep 22, 2011
    Writing down chords and listening the song carefully over and over is good start (I listen to music I will be playing, on my way to work every day).

    That is a good idea for developing better memory. Something similar worked for me: playing same 4 beat line four times in a row, but with a little bit different ending every time (i.e, second and third time I finish with a simple, and forth time with a little more complex lick). This way you build more and more complex lines and get used to them.
  8. socialleper

    socialleper Bringer of doom and top shelf beer Supporting Member

    May 31, 2009
    Canyon Country, CA
    Some interesting observations; thanks.

    Piggy: I think you might be on to something with that since I tend to remember things in patterns. To me a song is a series of blocks that contain patterns and those blocks tend to repeat themselves. I learn the riffs and then glue the riffs together. If there aren't any riffs, but instead of stream musical consciousness, I don't know where to go with that.

    Ray: I was wondering how much context means for this. Most music I pick up or write as no written music; its either verbal or tab. Keys and progressions are never laid out.

    fdek: I have an ear for sound but zero for notes. I can hear a few chords or sometimes the sound of a specific recording and tell you what it is. However I can't learn music by ear and can't find notes unless its a long whole note that holds long enough for me to run through the possibilities.
  9. Toptube

    Toptube Supporting Member

    Feb 9, 2009
    I think a lot of recorded bass lines/solos that are long or have several little changes in them are half improvised by the original player. In other words, they are comfortable enough to "speak" through the instrument. I mean, they go into the song with the main idea ready, but the little things here or there are improvised. Its like how an actor doesn't always deliver a line the same way, take by take. Especially several takes later, where they probably aren't "feeling" the situation in the same way.

    Once they get down the something they like, they can go back and study the nuances and rehearse it. Even then, players don't always play a song live exactly the same way it is on the recording. which can be frustrating for certain types of fans.

    Now, as far as learning/covering those long basslines/solos, this is what I do:

    I break them into chunks, using editing software or an MP3 player that lets me make chunks on the fly by setting an "A" and "B" flag. Its not always the same but its roughly about 5 - 8 second chunks, often instead of literally timing out a chunk, I will just split it where I feel like an "idea" is finished. and I learn that chunk. I learn it by listening to it on repeat over and over and over until I can hear it in my head, correctly. Until I can find the notes. I've never needed it, but you could also get software to slow it down.

    Then I move to the second chunk. Then I repeat those two, to make sure I didn't forget the first. Then I go to the third chunk.....you see what I'm saying?

    If its a repeating bassline with little changes, then I learn the main riff and then go back and work out the changes, chunk at a time.
  10. Duckwater


    May 10, 2010
    USA, Washington
    Ear training is incredibly helpful but it's not the be-all, end all. Having every chromatic pitch in your memory and learning how they sound together is extremely important for remembering passages, try Good-ear.com
  11. Piggy8692


    Oct 2, 2010
    Northern Utah
  12. fdeck

    fdeck Supporting Member Commercial User

    Mar 20, 2004
    Madison WI
    HPF Technology LLC
    Ear training probably works differently for different players. You might benefit from hearing yourself play pre-written material. Working through a method book might help you get over that hump. My college roommate, a guitarist, told me he could never make out bass lines in recordings until he developed an ear for the bass by accident, because he heard me practicing all the time.
  13. Toptube

    Toptube Supporting Member

    Feb 9, 2009
    another thing that helps with hearing bass lines in recordings:

    Listening to the song on various speakers/headphones. Even things you may not expect.

    example: to my ears, one of these...

    ....connected to a Sony NWZ S639...

    ...for some reason equals sound output that makes it notably easier to pick out bass guitar notes than just about any other speaker/headphone I have. and if I use my other MP3 player on that iPig, the effect is not as good. Something about the combo of the two just works for me.
  14. angryclown5

    angryclown5 Supporting Member

    May 26, 2006
    Nederland, Colorado
    Learn theory. Diatonic scales, triads, arpeggios, modes. There are likely no long strings of stream of consciousness lines. They are all actually lines that move about logically within keys.

    Example: G B E C A C# D F# G D E F#A E D this is a long (relatively) string of notes to memorize (for me), but put some bar lines in:

    G B E C | A C# D F# | G D E F# |A E DF#

    and its just walking around I vi II V changes in G. One of the most common progressions in a common key. And at this point it doesn't matter if you hit every note exactly as written as long as you perform the function correctly, i.e. walking from chord to chord.

    There's no substitute for knowing at least basic diatonic harmony.
  15. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2005
    Eastern NC USA
    1) I am stealing the word riff-iness and you can't have it back.

    2) Here's a thought. Those guys who played those really complex bass lines (in most cases) also WROTE them. I have helped with the writing of a few complex songs. Being in the room for hours (sometimes days) while all of those complex changes were hammered out helps with remembering them later. My only point is that you aren't stupid. It's much harder to remember complex bass lines that you didn't write. Those guys aren't gods. They just have more intimate knowledge of the songs than you do because they put some blood sweat and tears into the creation of them.
  16. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    How do you learn long riffs? The same way you learn short riffs...one note at a time.
  17. Piggy8692


    Oct 2, 2010
    Northern Utah
    Two Fingers - Nailed it.

    Maybe you should write a bunch of long complex lines. That would be a good start.
  18. socialleper

    socialleper Bringer of doom and top shelf beer Supporting Member

    May 31, 2009
    Canyon Country, CA
    I think you might be on to something here. Maybe I don't understand the context of the music. If it was a script I could understand where the conversation is going and use that as a guide to remember where I am in the speech. I don't have a similar frame of reference for music beyond counting who many times I've played a riff. (A "riff" would be an easily memorable chunk, lasting 2-4 measures, as I see it.)

    What you said in there in the middle is close to gibberish to me. I know you are referring to modes within a scale. Similarly I could look at something and tell you its Egyptian hieroglyphics, but I can't decipher them.
    So is it possible here that I'm handicapped but not being able to read music or have any formal training, and that prevents me from seeing the context required for seeing beyond simple 4 measure blocks of music?
  19. socialleper

    socialleper Bringer of doom and top shelf beer Supporting Member

    May 31, 2009
    Canyon Country, CA
    You are welcome to the word; I was tried to think of the best way to describe my thoughts.

    I've always pondered this as I've listened more and more intricate forms of music. What made me think about this really hard lately was a pretty technical band recently posted that they are looking for a bass player on FB. I jokingly shared it saying "I should do this....oh wait...I can't possibly play their stuff." Of course some overly optimistic friends told me, against all good sense, that I should try it. So I fired up songster and nearly laughed myself out of my chair as I watched a flurry of notes whiz by. I can play pretty fast, but there are parts that are just measure after measure of eighth note scales that I can't process.
    Here's a guy, who has done a few vids, that within about two weeks picked up their song and submitted it. Fast forward to about 50 seconds to see where the craziness starts. This one song probably contains more notes than some full demos I've done. How do you cram that much information into your head without forgetting your name or how to breathe?

    It seems impossible, but obviously isn't. That's why I was wondering if there is some kind of system or technique for navigating such things.
  20. famousbirds


    Aug 3, 2009
    Learning a piece backwards - starting with the end and working your way back a bar at a time - is a great way to learn longer pieces. Helps you to frame the melody in terms of bars and in turn, chords.

    Also, it's easier to start from any point in the piece, since you've practiced picking up the melody at every bar.