Long Term Practice Routines

Q: I have a question about long-term pratice routines. There are a lot scale/arpeggio exercises out there, but I want to know: what do you is the best method to really cover all types of scales/chord in all keys all around the instrument? Is it good to do an exercise in all keys an then go on to the next exercise, or first learn everything in the of Db and then move on to the next key? What about planning ahead, say for a practice routine three months in advance?

A: I don’t think there’s a “best way” to learn. I believe it depends on the person and how they best assimilate information. But, I do have some thoughts on this subject that might help you with what you’re after.

I wouldn’t worry too much about practicing one thing to death in every key. One of the benefits us bass players have is that every scale, chord or pattern of any kind is exactly the same shape on the fretboard, regardless of key. For pianists, horn players, and others, it’s important to practice something in every key but, on bass? Once you have a pattern down in C, you should be able to play it in Bb as well (assuming that you know your fretboard well, that is!)

I try not to get overwhelmed by thinking of how much I have yet to learn. The amount you don’t know will always be exponentially larger than the amount that you do know. Take things one at a time.

More important than the scales and arpeggios is how to use them. Make sure you practice using these things in a musical context (i.e.: playing over changes). Scales won’t do any good if you can’t take that knowledge and morph it into a melodic statement.

If you prefer a rigid approach to practice, which is a wonderful thing if you’re disciplined enough, I’d recommend something like this:

Take a month or so and really focus one one scale and all of it’s inherent modes.

Then, move onto another (making sure to always go back and refresh yourself on what you’ve already worked on).

After four months, you could have mastered all major scale modes, melodic minor modes, harmonic minor modes and diminished patterns. That’s huge.

Now, the real key is learning how to turn it into music. There are a ton of rules I’ve never learned about how certain scales fit over certain types of changes. I’ve always just experimented and figured out what sounded good to me.

Quite honestly, I only really know my major scale modes. I never got around to learning the other stuff in more than a fleeting way. I’ve spent more time experimenting with chord loops and exploring what notes worked for me in a musical way. I study chord types and how to play over them (often chord by chord).

If I see a G+7#9 and get stumped on a gig on what to play, I record a voicing of that chord at home and practice making my own scale of notes that I think sound good. I explore melodic patterns that make sense to my ears.

I had started to try and learn how to use the melodic minor scale after hearing that that was the jazz sound. Honestly, I couldn’t make it sound good to my ears (and I didn’t really like it when other people played it either at the time). So I worried less about what I was “supposed to do” and got into what I thought would sound good. It was bad for my grades, but helped me develop some unique ideas.

That point is to take what you’re learning and work on it diligently. Learn it inside and out and decide what feels right to you, and explore the possibilities contained within. You actually don’t need every mode under your fingers to play well. You simply need to have facility on your instrument, an ear for what is working and what isn’t and some musical vocabulary. Scales certainly play a part, but I’m speaking more of melodic phrases, understanding of typical song endings and turnarounds, and so on.

Think of it this way. With language, you can have a pretty good vocabulary and be grammatically correct, at least most of the time, and horrible with the rules. It doesn’t mean you can’t write or speak and get your point across. You know when something sounds right (or wrong), even if you don’t know exactly why.

Music can be the same way. It is more important that you learn to hear musically and figure out how to make music on your instrument in a way that makes sense, whether you know why it makes sense or not.

I do believe that chords are immensely useful to study on the instrument. The help to open up new arenas of melodic expression as well as expanding how we visualize the fretboard.

No one can learn everything there is to know. Don’t worry about that part, just practice hard and listen with a musical ear and you’ll be fine.

And, as an old saying goes, every trek up the mountain begins with the same small step. Just take things one at a time and continue the process. With everything you’ve learned, the next comes easier and lands with more depth.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Joe L

    In theory it’s true that, “Once you have a pattern down in C, you should be able to play it in…”, any other key. But, because the fret size is not the same up and down the fret board, I think that it’s good to practice at least a few different keys. One thing I’ll do is practice a scale in, for example, F, Ab, B, and D. That gets me into a decent variety of left-hand shapes without going totally chromatically.