A Guide for the Self-Taught Bassist

Q: I’m in the middle of high-school, and I’m really thinking of pursuing bass as a career. However, with a lack of decent teachers around, I’ve turned to teaching myself. But there’s so much to cover… where do I start?

A: I would first suggest that you continue to keep your eyes and ears open for a good teacher. It’s always helpful do have some sort of guidance, if only to help give you a broader perspective.

That said, there are plenty of phenomenal players who are entirely self-taught (many of my favorites, in fact). The common thread with these self-taught maestros seems to be a real passion for playing music and a solid work ethic.

One of the benefits many of my self-taught musician friends have is “big ears”, or the ability to simply hear what they want to play, and play it. This happens whether they know why it would work or not.

Many self-taught musicians play music with their ears, whereas many schooled musicians learn to play with their brains first. For example: learning which notes are technically “correct” before hearing why they “correct”.

Many of the hippest lines come from self-taught musicians because they come from a place of listening. They also know how to make the “wrong” notes sound right!

This may sound like I’m endorsing not learning theory or learning to read, which is absolutely not the case. Many self-taught players do hit a wall at a certain point in their development because they have a hard time taking certain types of gigs, which can inhibit growth.

So, first and foremost, develop your ears, learn to read (well), learn to navigate through different styles and techniques. In other words, foster versatility, which means foster a solid foundation. In order to really have your playing together, you need to blend the self-taught characteristics (“big ears”), with the formally taught ones (analytical mind). The strongest path, of course, is the middle.

If you are still in high-school, your brain is still developing and neurological connections are a little easier. I would encourage you to work hard and develop a strong foundation while also challenging your ability to translate what you want to hear to your instrument. In other words, start at the beginning.

Again, find a teacher if you can, and in the meantime, here’s a great checklist to start:

  1. Get some books that start at the beginning and cover reading and basic harmony (Rufus Reid has some great books).
  2. Work on your scales and arpeggios
  3. Get a “Real Book” and start exploring changes and playing jazz tunes
  4. Make a playlist of every tune you love and wish you could play, and learn them all by ear
  5. Scour Youtube videos and spend hours watching and studying your favorite players
  6. Scour Youtube for instructional clips (don’t take Youtube for granted… you have a world of music performance and instruction sitting on your computer. Make good use of it.)
  7. Learn to read music notation (No recording session ever starts with someone handing you tab)
  8. Learn to transcribe music by ear
  9. Practice jazz changes a lot
  10. Make sure you are developing good time and tone. Pay attention to what you’re playing and how it sounds. Record yourself practicing and critique yourself. Be honest! If you want other people to think you sound good, you can’t deceive yourself when you practice.
  11. Only practice what you can’t do. Keep it difficult and you will progress.
  12. Have fun! Music is fun, learning is fun. It doesn’t have to be work. You should try and remain excited to learn and, if you do, you will never stop developing!

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. kenstee

    A very good on-line program is taught by Paul Wolfe in England. Check out his site and program ” how-to-pay-bass” at http://www.how-to-play-bass.com/. His philosophy is to learn while playing actual songs rather than more traditional (and boring) scales,etc. Let’s face it despite your best intentions, if you’re enjoying something you’re much more likely to make a regular habit of it.

    Definitely worth checking out. It is all NET driven so where you live is irrelevent. His method keeps you very motivated and interested as you see (and hear) the results of your efforts every week. The yearly subscription is an incredible value given all the material he supplies very week. He is also super available and responsive to answer questions, provide guidance, etc. No method is for everyone. But, this just might work for you. I really look forward to receiving my weekly lessons on Friday!

  2. Mark Butler

    check out thomas risell (aka MarloweDK) at playbassnow.com. There’s a wealth of teaching videos showing just about every style of bass.

  3. I wouldn’t say to ONLY practice what you don’t know… otherwise you lose almost all, if not all, of the “fun” factor. But, definitely, make what you don’t know the focus of your practice.

    Also, I agree that learning to hear is a very important part of playing. I was self taught for a couple of years before I went to school. Those couple of years helped me develop my own sensibilities. You don’t get that going to school right out of the chute.

    One more thing. Get Music Theory for Dummies. Horrible title, but a really well laid out book.

  4. forget the 3, and find the chords with your ears not your eyes.

  5. Don’t become a scale player. They are only good for training your fingers but don’t ever play them at a gig!

  6. Don’t play the scale unless the music calls for it. If you play double bass in an orchestra, you will play plenty of scales.

    Getting a good teacher is key. You need to learn good technique and a teacher can help keep you from hurting yourself and , in the long run, play better and faster in more styles. In the end, a good teacher will eventually help you learn to teach yourself.

    As Lee Konitz said in a master class I took from him once, and I paraphrase, “first you play with your ears, then you get schooled and learn a bunch of stuff, then you ‘forget it’ and play by ear.

    In the long run, the more you know and can play, the more gigs you can get.

  7. I play at lots of Open Jams, and I found that it forces you to listen and think at the same time. I never know what song I’m going to play next so I cant practice a particular song and be ready for it. learn the Blues, and you’ll feel the music. Learn Jaz and you’ll appreciate the difficult stuff.

  8. Invaluable stuff, and not just for the freshly initiated.