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Playing Bass… Fast

Fast Bass
Photo by Ellen (Jurischk)

At some point most bassists want be able to play “fast.” The question that usually arises is obvious: “How?”

The most common barriers to being able play quickly on upright bass are:

  1. Poor bass setup
  2. Inefficient technique. (Too much tension, etc.)
  3. Lack of stamina
  4. Lack of familiarity with the passage, tune, line, etc. (Trying to play a passage too fast too soon)

The good news is that the remedies for these ills are simple. The drawback is that it takes time and persistence, and sometimes money, to overcome them. With strategy, guidance and patience, however, they can be overcome rather simply.

Poor Bass Setup

You may not even know whether or not your bass is poorly setup for virtuosic playing. The best way to see if this is an issue is to have your setup checked out by both an accomplished player/teacher and a luthier who is a bass specialist. The former can direct you to the latter. Between the two of them you will get expert opinions on what can be improved and what can’t, as well as any potential effect on sound that might occur from the changes.

Inefficient Technique

The best way to improve your technique is to study regularly under the guidance of a respected pedagogue. In-person, as opposed to video, instruction works best for this sort of detailed technical work. The teacher will be able to spot any issues in your own technique (many of which may be individual to you) and provide prescriptions for improvement. In conjunction with this instruction you will need to practice consistently and with great attention to detail.

Lack of Stamina

Sometimes people can play fast for a while, but they start to drag after a few choruses of “Mr. PC.” Often this is related to their technique (see above), but it may also be that they simply don’t have the physical stamina to keep going. If this describes you, then make sure you are playing fast every day, and increase the time slowly over the course of several weeks. For more on this see my past column, Exercises and Schedules for Building Stamina on Bass.

Lack of Passage Familiarity

Once we can play a passage well at one tempo, it is very tempting to immediately start playing it faster. If this isn’t a prescription for failure, it certainly is one for inconsistency. In general, people try to play a passage, or tune, too fast too early. Effective fast playing feels easy. If it feels like you are working, either physically or mentally, you need to slow it down and get another hundred repetitions in.

If you can play a passage ten times easily at 60 bpm, then you are ready to speed it up all the way to 65 bpm. After ten times at 65, then move up to 70…and so on. Do this each day for 30 minutes and over the course of a month I think you will find you can play that passage quite fast, quite easily.

If on Monday you start at 60 bpm and end at 80 bpm, then on Tuesday do the same. On Wednesday you can bump it up and start at 65 bpm. Whatever you do don’t end one session at 80 and try and start the next session at 80 as well. This will give you limited results, if any at all.

The strategies above are neither new, nor glamorous but they work.