Building your bass-craft a beat at a time
Posted: 26 March 2019
The bass guitar is an essential part of modern music. Weaving together rhythms, harmonies and melody, the bass underpins pretty much every song from the last 50+ years. It adds the groove to get your audience moving, but despite its undeniable importance it’s a tricky instrument to master. So, how do you go from dropping the ball to dropping the bass?
An excellent starting point to improve your playing is to transcribe a track by ear. Instead of finding a tab and teaching yourself a song, listen and attempt to play along. This means you’ll be paying attention to subtleties that you may not have spotted before and may even question why the bassline is like it is. Do this repeatedly and you’ll spot techniques favoured by certain bassists or playing styles that fit a particular type of music.
A bassist’s best weapon is a flawless sense of timing. You could be the most advanced player in the world but if you aren’t in time then you’re not going to get very far. So, practising with a metronome can help you naturally pick up the timing and mean you never miss a beat. Practising different time signatures can also make you more adaptable and able to quickly pick up the flow of any song, no matter how complex.
100% accuracy isn’t always what you’re after though. In some situations, it’s perfectly okay to be a little behind the beat providing it fits the vibe of the song and adds to the groove. By familiarising yourself with a whole host of players and styles you’ll learn when and when not to play loose with the beat.
It’s no use playing the same things over and over again. You’ll only push yourself by playing things that you find difficult. It’ll be a struggle at first but if you keep at it then you’ll not only progress as a player but also feel a real sense of achievement when you do master a tricky riff. Plugging away like this will improve your discipline and boost your confidence too.
One of the most difficult elements of playing bass is improving your finger strength. Stronger fingers will improve your accuracy and help you to avoid hitting any bum notes, particularly with your little finger. Naturally it is used a lot less than your other fingers so the pinky needs a proper workout to get and stay in tip top shape.
For bassists, tone is literally in your hands. You can go from a dull thud to a sharp, funky punch simply by choosing where along the string you pick it and how aggressively you hit it. Your best weapons are your hands, so take good care of them!
When you’re playing in a group you're connecting with other musicians, each with their own experiences and skill sets. Who knows what tips and tricks you might pick up? By playing with a range of players you’ll improve your own abilities. A great bassist can play everything, but the perfect bassist knows the appropriate time to play everything, and that only comes with experience.
Bass is easy to learn but difficult to master. Like any instrument it requires dedication and determination. However, what makes a successful bassist stand out is control, which boils down to proper physical and mental preparation. Bass is first and foremost the foundation of a song, but the foundations of a good player need to be rock solid if you’re going to have any hope.