Photo by Adam Browning
Q: You can go to school and study electric bass in a jazz program, you can listen to records and learn from them, you can check out lessons on Youtube, you can subscribe to bass player’s online teaching regimens… But how do you know what is the best way to become a competent, professional level electric bassist?
A: Electric bassists are pretty low down on the totem pole when it comes to pedagogical traditions. Our instrument is only about 65 years old (younger than some professors still teaching today) and many of its truly exciting developments happened some 20 years or more after its invention. Contrast this fast development with the glacial pace of musical academics and there is often a recipe for a huge disconnect between what gets taught to us in formal education, and what we see and hear from our favorite players.
The Suzuki method, considered the Gold Standard for violin teaching, was developed in the mid-20th century, some 400 years after the instrument’s invention. Hopefully we won’t have to wait that long for high quality standardized electric bass teaching methods but until then us bass players may need to take on the initiative ourselves.
If you’ve spent any time as an electric bass player in a jazz program in high school or college, you’ll be very familiar with suddenly having to listen to, learn from, and cop lines from many upright bass players. Some of us switch entirely to upright to cope with how much this instrument is emphasized in these kinds of programs. There are, of course, an incredible amount of great upright players who you could spend an entire lifetime learning amazing things from, but we don’t play that instrument.
For upright players, there is a series of amazing records and bassists to check out, but these also exist for the electric bass and our process for assimilating information and developing as players should be exactly the same.
So instead of transcribing Paul Chambers, Ron Carter and Scott LaFaro, what about James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius and Anthony Jackson? For my money, these have as much academic gravitas as the upright players mentioned above. And instead of Kind Of Blue, Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Four and More, what about Wayne Krantz’s Your Basic Live (Tim Lefebvre), John Mclaughlin’s Heart of Things (Matt Garrison) and Steely Dan’s Gaucho (Anthony Jackson, Chuck Rainey and others)?
Electric bass may be possibly the only instrument where technical studies are often lacking, and sometimes discouraged entirely. Regardless of our artistic tendencies, it seems a true disservice to the instrument to ignore what we are capable of when it comes to articulation, speed and the inflection of our notes. Horn and string players spend a huge amount of time developing a clear and consistent sound. We would do well to study the same. (Without spending more money on gear).
Sounding like ourselves
We may be one of the only instruments who spend time trying to sound like another instrument while we’re in a place designed to teach us the instrument better. Often in high school and college programs we are trying to sound like an upright. None of my favorite electric players sound like upright players. They sound like great electric players, even those who play in more traditional ‘jazz’ ensembles (Steve Swallow, Anthony Jackson). Shouldn’t we be spending on our instrument and those who play it well? Instead of trying to cop another instrument we’ll never sound completely like.
In a generation or two, maybe the academic world will catch up to what is happening in the bass world today. Until then we may need to take everything with a grain of salt. We are fortunate that so many of the best electric bass players to ever exist are still alive today. You can go see them perform and that is incredible. Imagine being a tenor saxophonist and being able to see John Coltrane or Coleman Hawkins? We have that ability with our instrument. We should take huge advantage of this, and maybe we’ll learn more that way than any other way.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please add your voice to this conversation in the comments.