Like many other bass players, I’ve traveled a long and winding road before discovering my passion for the instrument. A few years of piano lessons, three months of playing the flute, and a handful of years in the school band’s percussion section were just a few of my “trial and error” experiences before making the right connection with the bass. I didn’t know it at the time, but my switch to from drums to bass make a lot of sense musically… I had already established a strong rhythmic foundation and knew what to listen for when developing a groove. Then, as I got older, I also developed a desire to play guitar. Needless to say, my $300 Mexican Stratocaster turned out to be a great investment.
While I certainly wouldn’t call myself proficient at any of the instruments listed above, familiarization with drums, guitar, and piano has proven to be invaluable. Having an understanding of these instruments can come in handy when writing music, teaching, and most importantly, improving your ability to play bass. So, although it’s always important to make time for “number one,” there are many reasons to dabble in other musical mediums.
So let’s start with piano. As many people’s first instrument, piano is a great place to begin learning notes, scales, chords, and how to read music. Here are some great reasons why you should spend some time tickling the ivories.
You can make noise on the instrument simply by pressing a key, so technique isn’t as much of a “barrier to entry” as it is with bass. Instead of worrying about placing your finger just behind the proper fret, holding the string down hard enough, and plucking the same string with the other hand, it’s much easier to begin making music with one finger on one key.
Your hands are working independently, so you’re forcing two parts of your brain to do different things at the same time… kind of like singing and playing bass.
The notes on piano progress in a constantly ascending manner so it’s easy to figure out major scales, identify the sharps and flats, and build chords.
Reading music for piano involves both bass and treble clef, so learning FACE in addition to “All Cows Eat Grass” can certainly come in handy if you’re trying to read a melody in a non-bass real book.
You have more options in terms of musical “function” by playing chords, melodies, bass lines, and solos. Playing bass, it’s easy to get locked into learning a bass line and focusing on one thing in particular. With piano, you can develop your ear and the ability to hear how chords and melody interact with one another.
Lastly, it’s always fun to walk up to a random piano (whether it’s in someone’s living room, in a school auditorium, or at Guitar Center) and be able to play a song or two.
So, how can this help your bass playing?
First, it can enhance your overall musical knowledge if you learn notes as well as patterns. On bass, it’s easy to create a mental map of fingering patterns for scales and chords. While it’s important to understand and fluidly play through these patterns, we need to make sure that we’re not bypassing the actual musical knowledge as we’re developing our muscle memory. Knowing that an A Major chord has a C# in it is basic knowledge for keyboard players and it’s important for understanding theory, reading, and communicating with other musicians.
Second, it’s a great way to develop musical and physical independence. Musically, you can have one hand play chords while the other plays melody, or, one hand play a bass line while the other plays chords. You learn how to make two musical components work together, which is something we’re not used to doing when we’re just playing bass lines. While we listen to the music around us and learn how to fit in and enhance it with our bass line, it takes a different kind of concentration to do that on one instrument. Physically, our hands are rhythmically in synch with one another as we play the bass; as one hand frets a note, the other plucks the string. It’s important to have this working relationship between your hands, but it’s also good to develop independence in order to explore new rhythmic patterns. If you’re working on new percussive grooves, slapping, or two-hand tapping, having right and left hand autonomy can give you greater creative freedom.
And finally, from more of a musical standpoint, the diverse harmonic possibilities on piano can be a useful tool for composing and for developing your ear. The range of the instrument (and the fact that you can play more than 4 notes at a time) can be a huge advantage when coming up with chords and melodies when writing songs. You can take a new approach to voicing the chords by playing different inversions, experimenting with voice leading opportunities, and exploring the range of the instrument. When you transfer this knowledge to the bass, you may find yourself more willing to play other chordal tones (such as the 3rd or 5th) instead of the root, especially in jazzier styles of music. Also, since you can play both chords and melody at the same time on piano, you can get a better perspective of how they work together, when to apply more motion in the bass, and how to use melodic fills when you move from one chord to another.
There are many great bass players out there who either began on piano, or have a deep knowledge of the instrument, and it certainly shows. Think about Paul McCartney’s unique approach… his writing and strong sense of melody are evident in some classic bass lines including “Something” or “Lady Madonna.” You don’t need to be an amazing piano player like Paul, (I certainly am not), but a little bit of familiarization with the instrument can go a long way.
Readers, what is your experience? As always, I welcome your stories and views. Please share in the comments.
Photo by Joe Young