Q: I’ve been playing bass for many years, and started playing the 6-string bass only about six years ago. I’m currently stuck in a dormant sludge of un-creativity! Any thoughts on who offers a good 6-string finger exercise, scale patterns, a book or even a good video? I can’t seem to get out of the same old riffs… I’m not a beginner or novice player. I have even taught fingering and modes to new players. I’m just STUCK! Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
A: My first thought was to send you a link to an article I wrote on climbing out of ruts earlier this month.
However, you specifically mention playing a 6-string. So I thought that this might be an opportunity to ponder ways players who are just starting to add range to their instrument (5-strings and beyond) can take what they already work on and expand the concepts of an exercise.
More of the same, but beefier
One of the benefits of having a low B string (beyond having a note below open E) is being able to play things on a thicker string and further up the neck (both of which add “beef” or thickness to the note). Practice playing things you might normally play or practice on the first five frets of the E string, and move them to the middle of the neck on the B string.
Notice how the tone is different? This is one of the many reasons why it is important to get to know your fretboard well in the middle of the neck (typically, a bit of a nebulous area for many players). Moving a line down there can really add some bottom to the sound. For example, when playing Latin music, I recommend keeping the sound of a “Baby Bass” in your head. In order to try and emulate that sound, you will tend to palm mute, play with your thumb and you’ll want to also play everything in the middle of the neck. A B string can be worth it just for that ability alone.
In addition, take an exercise, scaler pattern, reading exercise (or whatever it may be), and play it in different parts of the neck. That’s much more challenging than you might anticipate. It is also phenomenal for your internalization of the fretboard.
Hyper-exploration of intervallic shapes
With more range comes the ability (especially on a 6-string or above) to play with shapes on the fretboard. I fully believe in the exploration of shapes on the fretboard. Aside from being one trick in your bag for soloing, it also – and more important – it helps you to connect the visual (shape) with the aural (sound). You get to understand how a given shape or pattern will sound, and hearing what you are going to play before you play it is a huge part of your development. When you can put the ears before the brain or the fingers, you really start making music.
Play around with repeating intervals:
What does it sound like when you play nothing but Major thirds from the lowest note to the highest note?
How are you going to pattern that in order to travel up (or down) the neck? (Because, yeah, you could just play a diagonal line and have all Major thirds, but what if you alternated between diagonal lines and a leap of four frets? Way more range available, right?)
Try this with every interval and then move on to combining more than one interval, such as 3rds and 6ths.
I use to do this very systematically. I would do two intervals, then three, then four, and so on… trying to hit all combinations. Whenever I’d stumble upon a relationship that perked my ear, I’d explore it fully and try to play it every possible way, then add chromatic approaches.
Really get inside of the exercise and explore it fully.
Get really inside of chord shapes as well. Make sure that you can play any root position chord shape that spans from between two strings, and as many strings as you have on your instrument.
Now, all inversions!
Now, add extensions when applicable.
Now, try voice leading chord shapes through changes.
The key to any rut is quite often just a matter of getting a little creative and working on something new (which becomes something new and exciting). If you can think of something new, think of something old and flip it on it’s head and turn it inside out. This is one way in which great players come up with completely new ideas and things that haven’t been thought of before (not to mention finding your own “voice”).
Readers, how do you work yourself out of musical ruts? Share your advice in the comments.
Photo by Damian Stevens