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Playing Fast (and Cleanly): A Discussion for Bass Players

Speed!

Q: When I hear you playing I think how amazing your technique is and the way you apply it to whatever you want to say through your bass. In the past I didn’t mind about the sound of the notes I was getting. I tried to play fast and didn’t really see or hear what the hell I was doing. So my question is this: How can I improve my left hand and right hand coordination to obtain a more cleaner and legato sound? And how can I achieve more speed avoiding the fret buzz that I think I’m getting because of my left/right hand coordination?

A: Thanks for the kind words!

The short answer: in order to play fast, you first have to learn how to play slow!

This topic comes up a lot with students. More often than not, clarity, articulation and motivic development are left brutalized on the side of the road in the quest for speed. And often, that speed is really inarticulate slop that doesn’t relate to anything happening in the moment musically.

I do quite a few things with regard to working on speed and articulation. First, let’s review a few ground rules:

Rule #1: Never (ever) play anything faster than you can play it cleanly and articulately Make sure that every note “speaks” like you want it to. Get the tone, feel and shape of note that you intend. If you can’t get it to sound right, slow down. Try playing just one note until you can play that one note correctly.

Rule #2: Be patient! Impatience is the enemy of mastery. Build things up slowly over time.

Here are several ideas to help you get where you want to go:

Take any rhythmic grouping and apply it to an harmonic exercise.

I’ve covered this one quite a bit so I won’t get into too much detail here but here is an example or two.

Experiment with Scaler Patterns and Rhythmic Groupings

Play a regular scale (then expand to broken 3rds and different scaler patterns), but instead of hitting each note just once, hit it 2, 3, 4 or any number of times and using 8th, 16th, triplets, or any other type of rhythmic grouping.

For example, you could play a C major scale, hit each note twice but play 8th note triplets. It’s harder than it sounds because it forces you to change notes at odd places within the beat. This enforces your inner clock as well as getting your fingers to do something new.

Also try practicing arpeggios through chord changes out of the Real Book, but play each note twice using 8th notes. That’s great for right hand dexterity.

Again, practice these things only as quickly as you can play it correctly. Build it up over time!

Build Muscle Memory with Difficult Lines

Pick a difficult melody or bass line and learn it note for note, but develop the muscle memory slowly and over time. Get a slow-downer app and practice playing the line at 25% speed for a full day or two before notching it up to 28% or 30% speed.

Again, make sure every note sounds good and is perfectly articulate before you allow yourself to speed up.

This takes determination but I guarantee you that, within a few weeks or so you will be playing that line with much, much more dexterity and with a much better tone than you would’ve any other way.

Practice Snare Drum Rudiments

Get a snare drum rudiment or percussion book of some kind and practice playing nothing but rhythm on the bass with a metronome. This will really lock up the two hands and you will likely learn much in the process.

Invent exercises and push yourself

As you go, figure out the things that are working best for you (and what you need to work on most) and create your own exercises that match your learning method and the things you need to work on.

Practice rhythm as much as you practice what notes to play

Dedicate a chunk of time in your practice session to each exclusively. The shift in focus can bring about new ideas and really inspire you to keep working.

Have fun!

Remember: this is supposed to be fun. Keep it that way.

Record you practice and listen back.

Critique honestly and adjust your approach as necessary.

Don’t forget to have fun!

Readers: What is your approach to building speed and dexterity? Add to this list! Tell us about your routine in the comments.

Photo by craitza

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