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Learning New Tunes: Go Beyond the Bass

Learning New Tunes: Go Beyond the Bass

Photo by AKZOphoto

Let’s face it, we’re not all singers. Some of us opted to join band in school instead of choir, and in doing so, we missed out on the vocal warm-ups and breathing lessons. We never took the bull by the horns and sang lead, be it on stage or around a campfire, and maybe a few of us have been labeled moderately tone deaf when it comes to harmonizing.

Chances are, with a little bit of practice and technical know-how, we’d be able to sing something. At least that’s what my friends tell me.

For the sake of this column, learning how to “sing the song” doesn’t require you to memorize the lyrics and step up to the microphone. After all, some of us just don’t want to sing.

What it does mean is that you’re responsible for knowing the melody and vocal phrasing. It’s easy to work through new material and focus only on the bass part, but your ability to recall the melody and structure will make the difference between playing the song and really knowing the song.

As with most I Wish I Knew That columns, I found myself in quite the inspirational scenario… a rehearsal for a country gig, without the singer. Prior to rehearsal, I spent a few days learning the material – I worked out the bass parts, played through the songs multiple times, focused on my trouble spots and was fairly confident in my ability to play the tunes without charts. When it came to rehearsal, I realized exactly how much I relied on the vocals. This particular music was expertly arranged with hits, shortened bars, specific solo sections and variations from one chorus to another.

In other words, it was fairly easy to get tripped up without having a vocalist or melody player to rely on for cues.

Thankfully, I spent most of the week listening and singing along to the music in the car. This came in handy once the rehearsal started for I was able to pseudo-sing and guide myself (and some of the other band members) through a few of the tunes. The rehearsal certainly wasn’t without flaws (my memory did fail at times), and it served as a great reminder for why I dedicate sufficient time to learning the material.

While I wasn’t attempting to solo over “Giant Steps,” playing through these songs was certainly a challenge. The musical know-how of playing a pop song is nothing to scoff at; remembering arrangements takes just as much practice as studying theory and developing solos, if not more. Stops, breakdowns, and different verse endings happen all the time (especially in pop, rock, and country) and the vocal phrasing is often the key to remembering where they fall.

When it comes to learning a tune, do your best to get the whole picture and not just the bass line. Work out your part, identify the different chord progressions and then put your instrument down. Now, listen to the vocalist or to the “main melodic instrument.” This may be the guitar, keys, sax, or anything that plays a melody line or lick to give structure to the song. Air-guitar your way through the solo sections, because solos can typically have a different form than a regular verse or chorus, and pay attention to how the solos end. Next, listen to how the drummer cues transitions from one part to the next. Lastly, pay close attention to the final choruses and be ready for a few new chords or extended bars. Sing along, let the melody guide you, and then pick up your bass again.

Developing the ability to follow the form can be a huge asset, especially in instrumental music, jazz, or groove tunes with extended solos. As the bass player, you don’t have the luxury of holding back for a beat and waiting for someone else to signal the chord changes, especially if you’re playing in a duo or trio. It’s your job to hit beat one, dictate the form, and keep the tune grooving. Although I’m sure we all love counting bars (not), singing the song in your head is a nice alternative to guide you through the solo.

A great way to practice this is to take a fairly simple song, such as Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” and think about how you would play through a solo section. On the record, the band hangs on one, but many players will follow a form when performing live. Practice playing the form of the chorus while singing it in your head, and then repeat it. Then do the same with the verse or try playing through a verse and chorus. If you’re trying to learn a handful of tunes, always make a note of the solo form and how it would repeat for multiple soloists.

So there you have it. As you’re working through tunes, assign some time to the melody and your brain will improve at filling in the gaps. It’s easy to get caught up in playing a bass line note for note, especially if we’re trying to emulate one of the greats, but that may not be the best way to approach the music if you’re playing live. It’s important to have integrity for the genre and to hold yourself accountable for the bass part, but at the end of the day, you need to hit the correct root when the melody moves. Don’t sacrifice the groove of the band for playing your favorite lick. Do embrace your inner Steven Tyler. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn the lyrics one day and decide to work on diction. Until then, just sing the song.

What’s your take? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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