Ask Damian Erskine: Learning to Feel
Q: I was wondering how you work on improving your ‘feel’ as a bassist? I really want to improve my groove and try and keep my approach as part of the rhythm section as fresh as possible.
I’m finding it really difficult to come up with a concise way of practicing this and would really appreciate any insight you can give on this topic.
A: Good one man! And, might I add, a refreshing question to hear! Groove and FEEL are two of the most under thought about, yet most important components of what makes a good bass player.
And you’re right, feel is not as straight forward a concept to practice as, say… slap licks. ;)
When it comes to what makes a line feel good, I tend to think it’s mostly about the phrasing of the note and also very much HOW the note is played. I try and really make notes sing when I play and give each a life and character of their own.
Things to think about when developing this are:
- Each note has a beginning and an end. How are you attacking each note? How long does it ring?
- Vibrato can add a lot of character to a note, but it must be used tastefully and with intention
- Slurs and trills can also add an emotive quality to a line.
- The sound of one note struck Hammer on sounds different than hard, med and soft plucks where on the bass is your right hand when you strike a note (different sound is obtained from everywhere on the bass) which finger are you using? (thumbs are fatter sounding, for example)
Like I said, there are a million ways to change the sound and feel of a note, but how to practice it??
I’d say, take a break from listening to bass players and search out emotive players (especially VOCALISTS!!) and really try and cop what they’re doing!
- Learn your favorite Stevie Wonder VOCAL part and try and phrase and emote in the same way he does, for example. Really try and make the words come through the instrument. Play his part, not just his notes!
- Learn Miles’ solo on “So What” (or any number of other tunes) and really try and play it exactly like Miles did. Try and cop the muted sound, slop any notes he does, lay it back like he does, etc…
- Pick any performance that really connects with you or emotes in a way that strikes you and really try and tune in to every aspect of it.
- Sing along with yourself.
- I’ll often try and really hear the original performance while playing along with it (not just listen to myself) and sing along with it.
- Spend time trying to cop the sound and phrasing of different instruments!
- Grab your bass and play along with tracks thinking, “I’m going to sing like Stevie on this one, phrase like Miles on that one, attack the tune like that one, slide and gliss like Stephan Grappelli on that one,” etc.
Pay very close attention to tone and phrasing when you do it. Don’t just play the same notes as those guys, but try and sound like them! It’ll add a wider palette of sound and phrasing to your vocabulary.
Here is more abstract exercise I got from Randy Porter (one of the baddest piano players I’ve ever heard).
Pick up a newspaper article or anything you might want to read.
Read it aloud and try and play the words! Play the story and pay attention to the phrasing, flow and shape of the paragraphs, sentences, words…
Play over a tune but put up a transcription to a different solo in front of you. Try and play the shape of solo #2 while playing over the changes to tune #1
All of these ideas get you experimenting with shape, phrasing and concept.. all of which will make you explore the feel of music!
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