What do you have to know to learn bass (quickly?)?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by vindibona1, Jul 8, 2019.

  1. I couldn't bear to add on to a 19 year old thread, but it got me wondering how I got started in playing bass as a kid and how what I know now contributes to picking it up (seriously) after scores of decades.

    My first short lived instrument at age 7 was a piano-like thing called an accordian. I took lessons long enough to learn to read the notes on the treble clef and the names of the white and black notes. Mom was a pianist so I always had a piano available (but could only use my right hand effectively :)0 ). So I always understood the linear aspects of notes. Then came guitar with songs from Peter Paul and Mary, The Beatles, Stones, the whole 60's thing. Compared to today's stuff, easy-peazy. When playing in my 60's rock band much of the stuff we played revolved around I IV V, I VI (IV) V I or II V I. You get the picture. So learning the chords, the root progressions and finally the notes within triads and 7ths provided a fundamental knowledge so when I took my first music theory class I'd see stuff up on the board and say to myself "Oh, that's what you call that". So for me, I had a very basic understanding of how music worked, how chords moved, deciphering that down to roots, 4ths, 5ths and 3rd made transition to easy bass...well... easy. And I consider myself lucky to have a whole lot of basic musical foundation before ever picking up a bass.

    But to those of you who are starting from ground zero... How do/did you learn bass? While I teach trumpet and find that a breeze, and have no issue teaching guitar, I think I'd be really challenged to teach bass to a raw beginner with no experience, not even knowing where to begin with someone picking up any instrument for the first time. Especially guys who claim to be self-taught, with no prior musical experience. How did you do it???
  2. Malcolm35

    Malcolm35 Supporting Member

    Use your guitar Fake Chord sheet music ---- and find your root notes on the first 5 frets of the bass' neck. Use these search words; chords, name of the song. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN Chords - Led Zeppelin | E-Chords

    Find the root using the A, B, C's, then once you have the root switch over to chord tones, aka the 1, 2, 3's. Yes think in A, B, C's and 1, 2, 3's. Not a step for a stepper -- if you let the major scale box pattern be the Rosetta stone.

    Roots to the beat. When roots flow add the 5. Then throw in an 8. R-5-8-5 will get you called back for years, if you can follow the beat and not step on the solo's toes.


    Major scale box showing scale degree numbers
    and the root/tonic note on the 4th string.
    G|---2---|-------|---3---|---4---| 1st string
    E|-------|---1---|-------|---2---|4th string
    Place the 1 and find your notes within the box.
    Cmaj7 chord's spelling would be R-3-5-7.
    A C Dorian mode spelling would be T-2-b3-4-5-6-b7.
    Place the root/tonic note then play the spelling for
    what you want.  This will help with all that R-3-5-7 stuff
    One last thing; you will not be strumming, we play the chord and or scale
    notes one note at a time, to the song's beat.
    That's the real difference in Guitar and Bass, IMO. 
    Then there is that rhythm thing. Let the lyrics help with rhythm - yes sing the lyrics. The beat is normally based upon the lyric syllable, i.e. a two syllable lyric word like hap-py would get two beats so would birth-day, then the words to and you would get one beat each.

    The rest will come. Call up some fake chord sheet music and see what your student can do. Follow the chords and play chord tones one note at a time. Start pounding roots. When that flows bring in the 5.... Where is the 5? From the root it's up a string and over two frets, or down a string same fret.

    Keep it simple and less is usually more.

    Good luck.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2019
  3. That there is no quick way to learn any instrument.
    Matthew_84, PillO, lfmn16 and 3 others like this.
  4. I agree. I teach trumpet primarily and part time middle school band. But in the case of brass instruments the basics of making a sound, and then notes comes before (sometimes way before) playing actual music of any level. But with bass, you can start making notes on your first day. And guitar, you start with chords, then chord progressions and to me, seems to fill in the "holes" of musical knowledge a lot faster than perhaps bass. I don't know. That's why I'm asking.

    Perhaps my question might have been, is it harder to learn to play bass well without any previous musical background?

    For me, bass (for the most part) has come (is coming) pretty naturally. But I came to it with a guitar and (basic) keyboard background, already knowing basic root progressions, the guitar fingerboard, etc. In many cases it was just adapting what I was already doing. I'm wondering if someone picks up bass as a first instrument will he be missing out, or later to catch on to more depth in the music?

    I consider myself fortunate to have the overall music education that I have and had. But wonder what the progression might look like if I were just starting on bass as my first instrument.
  5. LBS-bass


    Nov 22, 2017
    I wish I could tell you. I come from a musical family, on my mother's side. Those people were born with harmony in their heads and hearts and I could sing harmonies at family gatherings long before I was in first grade. Whatever it was that was in our genes made it easy for me to pick out songs on the piano and violin by ear, and that was the start of a lifelong struggle for me as I went back and forth on the need/value of theory and reading vs. what I was able to do on my own.

    I don't know that there's any one answer that's going to fit everyone. I picked up a guitar and plunked out a bassline and played it on a stage later that night. Then I bought a bass and figured out how to get my fingers to do the things that would translate into something that sounded the way I thought a bass should sound. But I don't think that's how most people learn, and when I've been asked to teach others I have not been able to figure out how I would do it. Sight reading is still hard for me and although I can do it with great difficulty, I think it's an important skill and one that I wish I were better at. So, for me, I'd probably start there, along with teaching scales and forms and intervals. But I'm not sure that's the best way to teach everyone.
  6. I'm trying to figure out for myself how I might at some point teach bass. And I'm thinking it might depend on what type of music someone wants to play. I'm constantly reminded in my head by something I strongly believe: "You have to go (learn) far enough, fast enough to get somewhere before the enthusiasm fades". If I were teaching someone bass in middle school band it would be easy enough to plop tuba music in front of them and start there. But I think when you start thinking about adults who been "electronified" to the point of having patience and attention spans of Cocker Spaniels, I don't know. I suppose compromises would have to be made, plunking out roots of songs like Stairway to Heaven. I guess the Suzuki Method for bass wouldn't be a bad thing; teaching the song to learn by rote first, then learning what you're actually playing?

    Sight reading... I think harder on guitar and bass than almost any other instrument. I can take my trumpet and, given moderate difficulty, play a concert sight read- cold. But with trumpet I don't have to take my eyes off my music to see where my hands are. But bass requires strategy and positioning and has three ways of doing most everything. And once I look away from music to momentarily check my hand position and look back- I often find myself lost.
  7. tb4sbp


    May 9, 2017
    North East
    To start some one off cold/first time on a Bass without any other experience on another instrument is a daunting task. Kudos to you! If you can get through to the student the intervals that would be the trick. I would use a piano and/or guitar to show the chords and how the scales relate to them. And use basic songs, twinkle little star or happy birthday and relate those songs to the scales/chords and to songs that the student currently listens to.

    This would be my take on how to keep them interested and still learn.

    Best of luck to you
  8. LBS-bass


    Nov 22, 2017
    My ex and I used to have a little music store where we sold instruments and he taught guitar. We solved the problem of students losing interest by offering an introductory rate for new students. We'd sell a six-lesson package at a nice discount to get people started. What we found was that, without the initial investment, they'd take one or two lessons then drop out when the fingers started to hurt. This way we'd get them to invest in their desire so they'd stick around long enough that we could advise them on how to handle that, how to build calluses, and get them past that point so they could start making some actual music.

    That worked very, very well and we were able to retain quite a few students who might otherwise have given up in the early stages.

    I agree with you that reading on bass is difficult. I could sight read fairly well as a singer and also when I played violin. I say fairly well, because what I was really doing was playing the intervals, but that was good enough for what I needed to do at the time.

    I also have issues with straight chord charts. My favored go-to positions for Bb, for example, might not include that Bb that's most convenient to where my hands currently are positioned and so I often have to take some time to think a chart through in order to really give my best to the song. But I think practice is key here. I used to play a lot of music that was familiar to me, so I could play it by ear, but I'm more and more digging into standards and other things where charts are super helpful.
  9. Nev375


    Nov 2, 2010
    I'd pick up the bass and started making noises with it. If I made noises I liked or sounded familiar to something else I kept making them.

    I'd listen to cassettes and play along until I figured out what made those sounds.

    I'd read guitar magazines and pick up what little I could understand from them.

    Mostly I'd invent my own lessons and practice whatever the big idea was. I'd be honest with myself if I had achieved what I set out to do before I moved on to a new idea. Several months later I came to realize that I had become a bass player and I was often told that I was really good.

    It's like learning anything else in the world. The more time you spend doing it the better you are going to get. A teacher can help get you there faster than what I did, but that was never an option for me. My parents were not only unsupportive, but downright set to sabotage me. I'm extremely tenacious and obsessive though. If I set my mind on anything I WILL accomplish it.
    onestring and LBS-bass like this.
  10. In my experience, some instruments are easier to start—but all instruments take a decade or more to master. For instance, almost anyone can immediately have success producing notes on a drum, but flute or oboe sometimes require days or weeks to get the first sound out.

    Are you asking about prerequisites to bass instruction? Or an ordered curriculum?
    JRA likes this.
  11. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Gold Supporting Member

    if you learn music you can apply what you know to any instrument. fretted bass is one of the easier instruments, IME. the 'grid' is easy to conceptualize if you already are familiar with how music (western music) works.
  12. I agree. Fretted bass is probably one of the easier instruments to learn the basics on. I don't see limitations on any system of learning, but wondering which method produces the broadest range of growth over the shortest period of time.
  13. Mushroo

    Mushroo Guest

    Apr 2, 2007
    Learn your favorite songs by ear and play them with your friends.

    Everything else is optional. ;)
  14. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Gold Supporting Member

    wouldn't that be dependent on the 'student variable'?
  15. socialleper

    socialleper Bringer of doom and top shelf beer Supporting Member

    May 31, 2009
    Canyon Country, CA
    There are two aspects to learning an instrument. The first is the one we all seem to get stuck on, and that is music theory. However, music theory is more or less universal and there really isn't a specific "theory" for learning to play bass. Start with the root, done.
    We tend to ignore technique when it comes to bass. It is actually a very physically demanding instrument that takes a lot of tweaking to play efficiently. So if you were going to be a teacher, I wouldn't ignore this aspect of it.
    I could also say that you never actually stop learning when it comes to music.
    The most effective way to teach your students would be to listen to them. You can't shoe horn a single lesson plan on everyone that is going to be a homerun every time. Build a report with them so you can get an idea of what they want from the bass. If you are teaching them something they care about they won't be diligent in their practice, which is really the key to learning any instrument quickly. You have to want to do it.
    I am mostly self taught because I know I am in a musical minority and have interests well outside what most schools or teachers cover. When I was growing up Steve Harris and Geezer Bulter were the be all end all for me. Joe Average Bass Teacher doesn't know who they are or could teach me how to play like them. So what was the point?
  16. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv

    There are not tricks, secrets, or shortcuts. If you want to learn to play the bass in the shortest possible time, get a good teacher and start putting in 3 hours a day of actual practice.
    IamGroot likes this.
  17. onestring


    Aug 25, 2009
    Richmond, CA
    If the question is about learning "quickly" I would have told my young self some things that have little or nothing to do with theory. Could have saved quite a few months/years of "learning in the wrong direction", getting lost & developing bad habits:
    1. Listening is more important than playing, starting Day 1 and ending never. Think about the sound your fingers make. Hear the fret buzz. Learn to hear spaces. Make sure you are physically aware of how to make the tone you want.
    2. Don't practice too much unplugged--the amp is part of the instrument.
    3. Don't play slouching on the couch or the bed, slacker. Stand up and pay attention.
    4. Learn a chordal instrument like piano or guitar at the same time. It won't slow down your bass learning, it will make it richer.
    5. Play with other people early and often, and most importantly, try to only play with people who are as good or better than you (everyone will be when you start out). Also develop a zero tolerance for idiots as soon as possible.
    6. If you want to play original music, learn what makes a song good (whatever that means to you). Then use that filter--don't play in bands/situations where you don't dig the songs. Also: write songs.
    40 years later, my process is still being slowed down by 2 & 3...
  18. Dan_reeves


    Jun 14, 2013


    This is exactly how I learned, in a nutshell. I went from never playing an instrument in my life to playing live at church (modern praise and worship music) in about 6 months. It helped to take this knowledge and apply it to actual songs. With that being said, 99% of modern church music is 1-4-6-5 or some variation of that, so once I learned how to do it in multiple keys I could play pretty much anything my church threw at me. :)

    That got me hooked and my skills and interest progressed from there. 10 years later here I am.
    LBS-bass likes this.
  19. Radio60


    Nov 11, 2017
    I agree with this paragraph. I can see how brass and woodwind instruments enable constant eye contact with sheet music, making that an advantage for those who play them.

    I took guitar lessons in high school, played nothing for almost 38 years, then picked up the bass about two years ago. The challenges of reading music for both are the same, especially because of the need for “strategy and positioning.” Fretboards are two-dimensional. So, when faced with a new piece of sheet music (for bass), the first thing I do is study it to determine workable fingerings/positions before I attempt to play it. I imagine this is probably something most wind players don't need to do.
  20. IamGroot


    Jan 18, 2018
    There is a shortcut method to getting good fast on bass.

    1) Get a good teacher so you dont waste time fumbling around.
    2) Understand what you are doing in musical terms. Elementary music rudiments and some ear training will help out here. If you are thinking about playing bass only by how you wiggle your fingers, you are missing out
    3) Learn to practice effectively and develop correct muscle memory quickly. Like a friend in the symphony told me, its all about the muscle memory.
    vindibona1 likes this.