Playing Fast (and Cleanly): A Discussion for Bass Players


Q: When I hear you playing I think how amazing your technique is and the way you apply it to whatever you want to say through your bass. In the past I didn’t mind about the sound of the notes I was getting. I tried to play fast and didn’t really see or hear what the hell I was doing. So my question is this: How can I improve my left hand and right hand coordination to obtain a more cleaner and legato sound? And how can I achieve more speed avoiding the fret buzz that I think I’m getting because of my left/right hand coordination?

A: Thanks for the kind words!

The short answer: in order to play fast, you first have to learn how to play slow!

This topic comes up a lot with students. More often than not, clarity, articulation and motivic development are left brutalized on the side of the road in the quest for speed. And often, that speed is really inarticulate slop that doesn’t relate to anything happening in the moment musically.

I do quite a few things with regard to working on speed and articulation. First, let’s review a few ground rules:

Rule #1: Never (ever) play anything faster than you can play it cleanly and articulately Make sure that every note “speaks” like you want it to. Get the tone, feel and shape of note that you intend. If you can’t get it to sound right, slow down. Try playing just one note until you can play that one note correctly.

Rule #2: Be patient! Impatience is the enemy of mastery. Build things up slowly over time.

Here are several ideas to help you get where you want to go:

Take any rhythmic grouping and apply it to an harmonic exercise.

I’ve covered this one quite a bit so I won’t get into too much detail here but here is an example or two.

Experiment with Scaler Patterns and Rhythmic Groupings

Play a regular scale (then expand to broken 3rds and different scaler patterns), but instead of hitting each note just once, hit it 2, 3, 4 or any number of times and using 8th, 16th, triplets, or any other type of rhythmic grouping.

For example, you could play a C major scale, hit each note twice but play 8th note triplets. It’s harder than it sounds because it forces you to change notes at odd places within the beat. This enforces your inner clock as well as getting your fingers to do something new.

Also try practicing arpeggios through chord changes out of the Real Book, but play each note twice using 8th notes. That’s great for right hand dexterity.

Again, practice these things only as quickly as you can play it correctly. Build it up over time!

Build Muscle Memory with Difficult Lines

Pick a difficult melody or bass line and learn it note for note, but develop the muscle memory slowly and over time. Get a slow-downer app and practice playing the line at 25% speed for a full day or two before notching it up to 28% or 30% speed.

Again, make sure every note sounds good and is perfectly articulate before you allow yourself to speed up.

This takes determination but I guarantee you that, within a few weeks or so you will be playing that line with much, much more dexterity and with a much better tone than you would’ve any other way.

Practice Snare Drum Rudiments

Get a snare drum rudiment or percussion book of some kind and practice playing nothing but rhythm on the bass with a metronome. This will really lock up the two hands and you will likely learn much in the process.

Invent exercises and push yourself

As you go, figure out the things that are working best for you (and what you need to work on most) and create your own exercises that match your learning method and the things you need to work on.

Practice rhythm as much as you practice what notes to play

Dedicate a chunk of time in your practice session to each exclusively. The shift in focus can bring about new ideas and really inspire you to keep working.

Have fun!

Remember: this is supposed to be fun. Keep it that way.

Record you practice and listen back.

Critique honestly and adjust your approach as necessary.

Don’t forget to have fun!

Readers: What is your approach to building speed and dexterity? Add to this list! Tell us about your routine in the comments.

Photo by craitza

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. Slowing down and building up muscle memory. I count how many times I have done the thing at a set speed in groups of 10. IE 10, 9,8… 20, 9 8, 7… 30… 100. I do this til about about 200 or so if it’s especially hard and then speed it up. You probably wouldn’t even need to do that many repeats to get most phrases down.

  2. Singing what you practice and taking it out of the 4/4 feel.
    Let’s say you have a line build on sixteenth notes at a tempo of 70.

    Set your metronome on 70, now play the line really slow, one note / click. A sixteenth note becomes a fourth. This is the time to zoom in on your technique and sound. make sure everything sounds and feels pristine while you still have the time to think about it. Once you have figured out which things pose problems and of which you should be aware of, take this awareness with you through every step I will mention.
    If this feels comfy after a couple of times, move up.

    Play the same line in triplets of fourths. A sixteenth note becomes three eights, that’s 3/4 of a fourth. Now this might feel tricky if your not used to it, it takes the same line out of the 4/4 feel to make sure you can play that line in any way. Especially if the line is build on a ‘number divisible by four’ amount of notes: the meronome clicks will shift around.
    if this feels comfy after a couple times, move on.

    Now in eight notes, so that’s half the speed your aiming at.
    Again, if this rings clear, move up.

    Triplets of eight notes, same thing as the triplets of forths, twice the speed.
    This one is important, get that swing feel in there ’cause that’s what it is!

    And finally, sixteenth notes, hooray!

    now I can not stress enough, just like Damian mentioned, do NOT move on before your are 100% assured you can do and say it fluently.

    Now to put this on daily schedule, I’d suggest putting yourself just above your comfort zone into the messy zone at the end of each session while telling your brains you want this to feel comfortable too the next day, so that your body knows you really WANT to grow. =)

  3. Here’s an “exercise” by accident. I was learning “Teen Town” and “Donna Lee.” I play a 5-string fretless and in the course of learning the tunes I probably developed 5 different fingerings for the same tunes. It was a great help/eye opener because 1) I was developing my string-crossing proficiency and 2) forced to make musical decisions based on sound. Often the easiest fingering is not the best sounding. You need to experiment and audition yourself honestly to progress in this regard.

  4. One other thing that is an extension of the afore-mentioned slow practice is that you should be able to stop randomly in the middle of a tune and know which finger you’re using on your left hand. Your sound/speed depends on solid fingering choices and you should be able to justify what you’re doing with your fingers at any moment – otherwise you’re just leaving the quality of your sound up to chance.

  5. I love this discussion. It’s not that we need to play fast, but having the ability in your arsenal is def. better than not. Here’s a line I’ve always wanted to learn but never did- until now. You’ll notice it’s almost all in one positions, but the notes are flyin! I did it on my lighter strung bass (tenor) at first, then decided to get masochistic and try it on the fretless (which I’m very new to). It’s not perfect, but transcribing stuff like this has been super helpful over the years, not to mention a fun workout, both mentally and physically.

    • Playing fast is like owning a Ferrari. You may have the ability to go fast but it doesn’t mean you have to all the time. You do it when you need to. Playing fast for the sake of playing fast is like skipping through all the channels on your tv just because you can.

    • and to think people used to get mad at me for playing really fast….tho i do prefer the THUD method.

    • Bill Lonero Haha that’s a nice analogy you got there =D

  6. I like Bill Lonero’s analogy. Like a Ferrari, if you drive it beyond your ability to control it, a sad ending is inevitable. Speed comes as coordination improves, and coordination improves with dedicated practice, not just ripping up the fretboard but actually placing the notes properly and cleanly. When racing, the driver picks a line that puts him where he wants to be, when he wants to be there…we need to find our line and drive it, too.

  7. All of Damian’s suggestions are very good. I often take a piece slower and slower to identify where there are parts that aren’t quite up to snuff. Another thing I would add to this is staccato playing for the fast notes. Staccato playing shortens the value of the note just a hair, enough to give it a space between each note. This makes it easier for non-bass players to hear fast passages. Jaco was a master of this as well as Rocco Prestia.

  8. I usually take a fast lick and learn it in stages: first, really slow. When I am comfortable at that speed, then I try it faster. I repeat this until I am actually playing the lick much faster than it goes. Then when I bring it back down to tempo, it’s a piece of cake.

  9. In the beginning, I was a ‘One Finger WhizKid’ in that I only played with one finger on the plucking hand. When I practiced slow, I could get both fingers into it, but when playing up to tempo, I was back with my one finger again. I cured all that by doing my scales and intervals with a metronome at 60 first forcing myself to use both fingers and then kicked it up 5 BPM each time including warmup exercises. I can now at this point do the scales and intervals using 1/16th notes at 140 BPM cleanly. It’s been many many hours and repititions and Lord only knows how many batteries for my little Korg metronome. What Damian tells us is the gospel straightup truth. Make each note count. It don’t mean nuthin’ if it don’t say nuthin’.

  10. Excellent advice. Also, the comments are well said as well. But truth be told, I MUST be screwed up. In the beginning I was all about speed. That came from initially being a guitarist in the era of shredding. Which sets me up for NOW.The band I play in doesn’t do ANYTHING near the speed I am able to play at. That’s not a dig at them by any means either, they are all excellent musicians, and for that I am truly grateful. The music we perform doesn’t call for that kind of velocity either. BUT… personally I find it easier to get a particular run clear in my head and then I try to play it at double, triple or higher tempo. For some strange reason it helps me remember the runs better. Like I said, I must be messed up.

  11. Mike

    Hi please I have serious problem. When am playing without amplification my speed is fast and fluent. But with application the speed is slow and the string is heard to play. Please help me out.