Different Strokes

It’s interesting how, as musicians, we are all so different personality-wise, yet we are grouped together by instrument… somewhat. Out of all the instrument groups, bass players are usually the most passive and laid back, yet somewhat “police like” in their authority in a band setting. Occasionally I feel the need to expose some of the bass player “mind” to my students simply for reflection purposes, or to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. This is not only for self-awareness sake, but also for making ourselves more cognizant of areas that need improvement and need to be acknowledged.

Recently, I was texting with a student of mine and I feel that we made some interesting discoveries regarding our similarities as bassists, as well as in other music-related areas. This young man has recently begun taking piano lessons as an aid to help him understand more about what he is playing on the bass. (an excellent idea!) He asked me how I interpret the fretboard of a bass compared to guitar or a keyboard. Suddenly I felt the need to rant in sort of a stream-of-consciousness style, so here’s part of the conversation that followed.

I began, “It all depends on the way your brain is wired. Keyboards are the most unnatural thing for me as far as just sitting down and playing a song. I understand the basics, theory, etc., but there are so many more things to do at once on piano than on guitar or bass. Simply put, if you take one ridiculously difficult keyboard run, scale, or riff and learn it in one key, you’ll have to learn at least eleven other ways (fingerings) to play it, just key wise! Not to mention the fact that it’s probably going to take ten fingers to do it. That’s enough to make me quit before I’ve even started (since I am missing a fingertip, which he knew). Even after all the hours I’ve spent playing and programming keyboard parts, I still can’t sit down and play one song without playing a wrong chord and having to pause and restart. I just fumble around all over the place.”

“Bass is so natural to me. I look at the neck and I see shapes and patterns. Trapezoids, rectangles, squares, and triangles, all from point to point in many different directions. I see different first-note fingers to start from (in the left hand). I can pluck a note soft or hard, use a pick, or my thumb. It’s so much easier for me.”

The thing I love the best (about playing the bass) is that I don’t have to think when I play. It’s almost like breathing. It’s like moving by walking, running, skating, etc.

“The thing I love the best (about playing the bass) is that I don’t have to think when I play. It’s almost like breathing. It’s like moving by walking, running, skating, etc.”

“I can just think about something pleasant or beautiful while I play – from intense to violent, and totally change the way a whole song turns out. What’s most incredible is that you’re (the bass) the most important part of the song! It’s the most fundamental part of the music in a non-harmonic sense. It’s the platform. It’s the base of the music.”

“I’m ranting but I’m trying to share with you stuff that I know you will understand… because I know that you are wired for it. So please, try to stop thinking about it and analyzing it. You don’t have to have it all figured out to play. Just play. Figure out what the notes are and then just play them. Don’t worry about what finger you start with in your right hand. Just use one to make the note sound and then see what happens.”

“Something very simple that took me years of playing before I realized is this: It takes time to learn the rules, to practice them, to improvise with them, and then to blur the lines between them.”


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