From Groove to Changes to Soloing: Damian Erskine’s Practice Routine

Q: You answer a lot of questions to help bassists out. But I’d like to know, what are you personally working on to improve your playing?

A: I am in a constant state of flux with my practice habits. Different things bug me about my playing depending on the gigs I have one week versus the next.

Lately, it has been a few areas of focus:

  1. Grooving both harder and with a better use of space
  2. Playing through changes
  3. Soloing more melodically

My practice routine always starts with me assessing a need and then trying to attack it in the smartest, most methodical way possible.

Focusing on the Groove

I went a bit crazy listening to an older recording of a gig I came across, with me on bass. It was a funk/jam-type band and while it grooved hard and the band loved the stuff, I felt like I was overplaying like crazy.

What do I do about that? I dug through my music collection and started both:

  1. Filling my iPod with the types of groove players I wanted to emulate (The Meters, Stevie Wonder, Lettuce, D’Angelo…) I listened to these tracks a lot in an attempt to internalize the mindset and sound. I realize that I get “notey” when I listen to too much fusion, modern/aggressive NYC-style jazz, and the like, so it is good to go back to the basics.
  2. Learning those grooves that perk my ear when I hear them. I’ve been sitting down with old-school funk and groove stuff and learning that stuff note for note!

Focusing on Changes

This is a life-long thing for me, and my work never changes when thinking about playing through chord changes. I just keep working on them! My practice routine for changes typically looks like this:

  1. Voice leading chords through changes
  2. Walking scales through changes (changing my scale with every chord change, but always walking in half or whole steps)
  3. Exploring different scales to play over any given chord

Focusing on Melodic Solos

I’ve always wished my soloing would be more organic and more like a soul singer might sing over any given set of changes. In other words, I’ve always wanted to solo like a Stevie Wonder melody.

I’ve just started a new practice routine to try to achieve this goal, by learning the melodies for the tunes I like, on bass. If I hear a beautiful melody, I’ll figure it out and then examine how they are moving through the changes. I’ve also been just really listening to the shapes of the sounds and have been practicing playing 100% by ear over tunes I don’t know.

I’m trying to both develop my ears as well as get a real feel for a more blues-rooted vocal style in my note choices.

I’ve also been singing licks over tunes and then trying to play them on my bass. Anything I can think of to better connect my hands and my ears (with a detour around the brain, if you know what I mean).

I hope that gives you some insight both into what I use to develop my voice as well as what you might do to better develop your voice!

As always, I love hearing from you. If you’re looking for help and want to submit a question, please send it my way ([email protected]).

If you’d like to share what you’re working on musically, we’d all love to hear it. Post your story in the comments.

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. Great stuff! Your third area is what I have been really working on. I go back to The beatles and ask why did I alwaYs remember a George harrison solo? Then when I recoRd with the band I will work out a solo from singing ideas always trying to make sure it does not get too technical, flashy or outside, just trying to make it memorable and “sing”. That initial solo will be the basis from where I get my ideas in subsequent solos on that tune.
    When I transcribe either guitar/sax solos I like (like check out how simple Jimmy Page’s solo is in What Is and What SHould Never Be)they are incredibly simple but fit the song so well. I figure out note wise and timing wise and strength wise why they work. Fascinating stuff.