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How Can I Play In Any Setting?

Guitarist and bassist

Q: I’ve been checking out this site for a while. Love it all. However, I have a problem: I don’t know where to start. Let me tell you a little about me. I’ve played bass for quite some time and even taken lessons by some famous players. I’m the student that everyone dreams of. I practice incessantly. With all that said, all the stuff I learned, I was never taught how to put it all together. I used to go to a lot of blues jams but became very bored of that. Yeah, yeah, everyone loved my playing but what they didn’t know is I was playing the same crap, a few patterns over and over again, just accenting the notes differently or playing them in a syncopated way. I was bored to tears and put the bass down for seven years. The best way for me to learn is to know where everything is going, a system, and for someone to teach me how all this stuff works together. Hell, I can’t even solo or play what I love: contemporary jazz, funk, pop and some good old school classic rock. Man, can you help me? Can you get me to the point where I can play in any setting? I’m so sick of big name players giving lessons and really don’t teach you ****! I’m sick of hearing, “Play this scale and that scale,” as though just doing that will get me to bass heaven. Hell, I haven’t experienced it yet. Tell me where to start and the proper course to take and I promise you, I’ll sign up today.

A: I think the primary question posed here is, “Can you get me to the point where I can play in any setting?” And the answer is pretty much: not really.

Nothing that you can do in the shed will, in actuality, prepare you to play authoritatively in every musical setting. I could get you to a place where we’re ready to jump in the pool and swim but it takes real world experience to get you to a place of swimming well (so to speak).

You can:

  • Listen and transcribe music of any genre; getting the sound and energy of the music in your mind and body
  • Shed scales, modes and turnarounds until you know every harmonic trick in the book
  • Practice 10 hours a day

But the reality is, you don’t really get your “thing” together until you get on stage and spend some real accumulative time playing music with people. It sounds like you’ve gigged a bit but got frustrated by only playing the blues. However, you will never be able to musically move beyond the blues until you get with some players and explore other genres.

And, not to discredit any abilities you have but my spidey senses tingle when I hear anybody say things like, “I used to go to a lot of blues jams but became very bored of that. Yeah, yeah, everyone loved my playing but what they didn’t know is I was playing the same crap, a few patterns over and over again, just accenting the notes differently or playing them in a syncopated way. I was bored to tears and put the bass down for seven years.”

There is every chance that they did know that you were playing the same thing over and over again. But it’s a blues jam! Blues bass lines are often repetitive and expectations aren’t typically through the roof in a jam session setting. They were probably just stoked that you were playing in time and hitting the changes.

I think that it would be YOUR responsibility to foster new opportunities for yourself and seek out musical situations that better related to what you actually wanted to play. You can’t get mad at the blues jam guys for not playing fusion stuff, for example. Artistic opportunities (and artistic integrity) take time, drive and patience.

Famous or not, there is nothing that any teacher could say to you in a lesson that will make you able to take any gig available and survive. There is no series of exercises that will make you ready to play through changes, walk and solo on a jazz gig. There are, however, a million exercises that will help you learn stylistic vocabulary, learn your fretboard, develop your ears, develop harmonic awareness and get you moving well on the instrument but none of that will make you an incredible bassist or soloist (many of which, I’ve written extensively about here at No Treble). Only taking that information and then applying it in real time with other musicians will help you turn that knowledge into real music.

Most every online educational site, university course, or private lesson you may check out is really geared towards giving you the tools necessary to explore music from a place of understanding and awareness. The art of making music is much more than the sum of its parts, though. I can play all of the ‘right’ notes in all of the right spots and make it sound lifeless, while the inverse is also true. There is much more happening than can be taught or read, and that comes through experience (especially if coupled with humility).

When you say, “I was never taught how to put it all together”, that’s because that’s really only something that can be discovered (primarily through trial and error). Hit craigslist or bill-boards and audition or jam with some different bands. You may discover areas that need improvement, further helping to guide you in the shed. You may discover a new opportunity that allows you to explore a new side of your playing. You may hook up with a killer band and get some more stage experience. Or none of that may happen, but you need to have a goal in mind and then, most importantly, continue marching forth towards that goal with intention and intensity.

Think about the player you want to be and surge after it. Make your own opportunities, find your own groups, start your own groups. Think about what you want to be playing and then work on it in the shed while trying to foster opportunities around that goal.

I hope that helps a little bit. I got the impression that you were looking for someone to give you the golden ticket somehow and that just doesn’t exist. Forgive me if I misinterpreted your intent with the question and thanks for writing in! Please respond and let’s keep the conversation going.

Have a question for Damian? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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