Playing by Ear (and Self-Evaluation)

Q: I have been playing bass for about 12 years now, and over the last 5 years, I have been practicing more and more. I’m definitely seeing progress in the areas of practive, but sometimes I feel there are holes in my playing. For example, I get very nervous when I´m in a situation where I need to play by ear. I freeze up and look for the right notes all over the place. I have practiced it for a couple of years now, by taking a song, finding the root, and then just transcribe without my instrument and checking later. I am getting better at it, but I still freeze when playing by ear with others. It is like I don’t trust my ears. Do you have any suggestions? Also, do you have any concepts for finding your weaknesses in your playing?

A: I’m sure a lot of people will have a lot of good ideas about this! Hopefully, this will start a conversation in the comments below.

I think what you’re mainly asking about all boils down to vocabulary.

It’s like learning a new language. Maybe one we have a bit of a grasp on it, but are not yet entirely fluent. We can hold a conversation but are often fumbling for the right words or phrases. We understand more listening than we can convey verbally.

We know what we want the music to sound like. We understand where someone may be going when they move the harmony in a way we are familiar with, but we don’t know exactly how to translate that on the instrument.

There are probably a hundred different ways to work on this but here’s what I would suggest:

1. Listen with intention.

When listening to any song, keep an ear out for common phrases, licks, turnarounds and song endings. Whenever you hear something that is familiar, but not in your bag of tricks, stop and figure it out (or at least make a mental note to figure it out when you get back to your bass).

I tend to hear the shape of something. I can hear a pentatonic lick and actually see the box shape on the fretboard in my minds eye. That is only because I figured out what it was and practiced it at some point.

Practice common blues endings, jazz turnarounds, common progressions, bluesy guitar licks you hear. Figure it all out on your fretboard and practice using them while playing music or even playing along with CDs.

As you understand them better, you’ll begin to develop the ability to closely follow anyone in the band as soon as you hear them elude to something like that. Also, in jamming situations, people typically keep things at a level that should be easy enough to follow, if you’ve studied the common phraseology.

2. Practice singing a line or lick and then trying to play it back to yourself.

This helps connect the ear training and the fretboard connection. If you can hear the lick, ideally you can play it.

3. Transcribe AND analyze

Once you’ve figured out what actual notes someone used to play that lick or line you just transcribed, look at it on paper against the chords and figure out what they were thinking, seeing and/or hearing. Look at the context of the line in order to understand how to use that device yourself.

As far as your second question…

Finding your own weaknesses is something everyone should do, and with regularity. I find the players that are constantly working on the things that they are weak in progress much faster and go much farther than those who only try and play what they can play well (which only seems to serve their ego as opposed to bringing more balance and honesty into their music).

I would primarily suggest that you record yourself as much as possible. Get a decent digital recorder and record every rehearsal, jam, gig and practice session you can. Dump it onto your computer and listen critically. Make notes about what you wish were different about your playing. Critique yourself as you would anybody else. Be objective (as much as is possible). Also, go back and listen to old recordings. Often, I find that it’s hard to listen to myself objectively right away. My tendency is actually to never like much of what I play when I listen back that night or the next day, but find that when I scour old recordings, I’m actually digging it way more.

My modus operandi is this: I try to be the bass player I want to hear and the teacher that I wish I had. I try to serve the music and not my ego on stage and best serve the student and not the school, program or parent when teaching someone.

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.

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  1. These are all great suggestions but of all of them, visualizing the pentatonic box will save your bacon 9 times out of ten and is a good starting place for your exploration. In case your not familiar with this concept. here’s a bit more info.
    because our instrument is layed out in 4ths you can play the pentatonic scale 2 ways. across the neck which is likely the most recognized or up the neck which you will soon notice, the notes line up symmetrically in overlapping box shapes. All of the notes of the scale one above the other and all with one step between them. Once you start looking at the neck this way you will find that you are transiting the neck in a more dynamic way, really getting all over the finger board. Playing inside the box can help you build confidence. As you become more sure that you can find all the right notes you can start using the other out of box notes as grace and passing tones. keep expanding from there playing different scales but moving the root around the pentatonic box. Its great fun to explore this way and you will definitely get a better ear.

  2. Steve Pierson

    I have been playing Bass for a little over 40 years. In that time I have had no formal training and still cannot tell but a few notes or scales but, I can set down or set in and play anything that I hear. As I am getting older now I wish that I knew a little something about how to actually play the instrument. Is there a good source or learning guide I could purchase without the trial and error involved in buying countless books or videos ?

    • Matthew Wyckoff

      Private lessons are your best bet. A good teacher will take you farther, faster, then any book. It did wonders for me!

  3. my method of ear training is just sing. i made many years of choir, and I can follow any voice, basses included. so, all I do is sing the line. when i cant sing cause its too low (im a tenor) i just sing it on the octave above. but i focus on the rhythm, cause the notes I follow thru the scale, chord, or pentatonic. doing like that i can take some gigs… hehehe

    but i aways hit a wall. i found myself using the bass like a melodic instrument, like a saxophonist would do. thats a terrible aproach if you want to go beyond. because you can take the roots and the grooves fast, but its hard to you to figure out the chords sometimes cause your mind is busy enough with your ear and the time keeping. so i usually stay in the comfort zone (root, 5th, 8th, 7th, some 3rds, pentatonics… etc). so i dont recomend my method to anyone. im kind of frustrated with my playing now, so i just try to enjoy the music im playing, and just ignore that im a imcopetent bastard. but i fool many people that think im a good bassist. hahaha

  4. Justin Walker

    one thing that I’ve learned over the years is to learn sing/scat what youre playing while you play it. You’ll get to the point that you can pick up whatever you hear just by singing it. The note will automatically associate with your mind when you song and you will end up being able to play whatever you hear. And if you can sing it, you can play it.

    And as the great master of the low end Victor Wooten said: “You’re never more than a half step away”

  5. John Rowland

    I asked the best bass player I’ve ever met what his secret was, and he told me this: I normally have a good idea what note is going to follow another unless it’s an odd chord progression, but even then all I do is quickly slide up or down if I guess wrong. By the second or third time through I know what the correct notes are. The best part of sliding up or down is that people think you’re doing it on purpose, not that you started on the wrong note. But the most important thing is to not be afraid to try and also to practice.