Developing Speed on the Bass: Take Your Time

Developing Speed on Bass

Q: I have been playing upright for about a year and wanted to know what I can do about developing speed. I mostly play jazz and at the college I go to it seems like everyone wants to play uptempo tunes (Charlie Parker, Rhythm Changes, etc.) I feel as though I’m falling behind trying to stay with the tempo and that the notes I’m playing are not flowing because I’m not used to the tempo. I’m wondering if there is anything I can be doing in the shed other than speeding up the metronome. What do you recommend?

A: I don’t actually play upright (yet!) but I’d imagine that, conceptually, my advice would relate to any instrument. However, an upright will require much more strength than an electric bass. Be aware of your body and its limitations. Not everyone is built for speed. Don’t hurt yourself!

I see two ways to go here:

1. Really focus on technique and dexterity drills to develop your abilities with regard to speed and accuracy

2. Take a contrasting role and find a way to avoid blistering lines in a musical way. It could be a whole new thing that leads to your unique style of playing at faster tempos. Necessity really is the mother of invention and, if you’ve approached your practice properly and still just can’t build that speed (because everyone’s physiology is different), you just need to find your own way to play at faster tempos.

My inclination is that, with focused practice and the proper amount of time spent, you can probably develop enough speed to at least walk quarter notes at 275 BPM. And, at that tempo (on an upright), walking solos are totally acceptable, and likely preferred unless you can really play at those tempos in the upper register.

I have written quite a bit here about developing technique, practice habits, and even developing speed. So I won’t beat a dead horse but, here are a few suggestions.

Take your time and be methodical

Map out a lesson plan for yourself over time, use a metronome and:

  1. Spend 15 minutes/day working on dexterity exercises (challenging finger patterns and will build independence).
  2. Spend 15 minutes/day practicing scales, arpeggios & scaler patterns both vertically and horizontally (running up the neck and then in one position)
  3. Spend 15 minutes/day playing various sub-devisions ranging from quarter notes to 16th note triplets. Start at a tempo that is challenging, but do-able. over time, increase the tempo as your fingers develop.
  4. Spend 15 minutes (or more)/day learning a challenging melody (be-bop head? Chick Corea tune you love? Classical piece?)

There’s an hour of focused technique oriented study that will inevitably develop both your right and left hands. I guarantee you that, if you do that everyday, your ability to walk at faster tempos with authority will increase dramatically.

Now, of course, your ability to walk well through changes depends upon a whole other course of focused study (i.e.: playing through changes and getting comfortable with changes and your fretboard). But we’re only looking at technique here.

Muscles need time to both develop properly with regard to strength and flexibility. They also need time top “learn” (muscle memory) where to go and how to move while achieving the tone and intonation you want.

This brings me to my last thought…

Always make sure that you are happy with the way your notes sound when practicing this stuff. Practicing sloppy time or sound results in performing with sloppy time or sound. Don’t start to go so fast that you can’t articulate the notes the way you’d like. We want to train ourselves to play things properly and with whatever amount of quality we prefer. I know guys that can wiggle their fingers very fast but can’t actually play melodic lines or make any kind of clear musical statement. It’s not about the speed but the quality of what you are playing.

If you don’t have anything to say, saying it faster won’t help and if you have something to say, nobody cares how fast you said it. Just make your lines clear and your rhythms strong while working through anything in your practice routine.

Photo by Vangelis Thomaidis

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. All very good advice indeed. But speed (especially on the double bass) isn’t everything. In fact, you can use a lack of it to your advantage. While everyone else in the band is intent on cramming as many notes into a bar as possible, play two to the bar (minims), at least for the first couple of times round. Change to fours when you’re comfortable. The band won’t disrespect you for this; they’ll actually enjoy it, because you’re adding to the dynamics (something many people intent on tempo and speed forget about). They’ll only remember it when YOU change the dynamic, and hopefully the drummer’s listening to you too, and he’ll give you a big smile probably. (If he doesn’t listen to what you’re playing he’s not a good drummer.) As far as solos on the upright are concerned, don’t rush. Bear in mind the melody; and maybe base (no pun intended) your solo on that instead. Take your time; play what you feel, and if you’re confident, play what you hear in your head.
    If you’re frightened of losing your place, there’s nothing wrong with humming the melody to yourself is there? And if you’re worried about your intonation, don’t be. Audiences expect to hear a bass soloist “slide” up to notes. We know it’s our way of making sure we hit the right note, but all that matters is that you get there eventually. The audience, however, hears it as you expressing yourself, which, of course, you are. Yes, do those scales and arpeggios, do the stuff you have to do to keep up your technique, but, at the end of the day, it’s music. Play from the heart and you won’t go far wrong. End of essay; I have to go and rehearse for my hour of the day… Oh, don’t forget those dominant pedals, or 3,6,2,5 turnarounds either. If you don’t know what they are, ask Damien!

    • Great advice @[100001947055997:2048:Chris Ellis], and if you think a simple bass line isn’t doing much just stop playing in the middle of a song and hear how empty it is. Classic example is “Dire Straits”, the bass is mostly quite simple, full, legato and helps to carry the song along, as it should. Another great way to see if you are important is to not start when the rest of the band does. It falls to bits. I wouldn’t do that one more than once though. Definitely only at practice. Love your work Chris

    • Advice to last a lifetime .

    • Holy shit, I didn’t realise you lot would see this!

  2. Utilize half-notes, quarter notes, hammer-ons…dazzle them with your knowledge of music theory and harmony: voice lead with thirds, sevenths…throw in a double-stop, chords, pedal tones etc. Bass is not an instrument made to be played fast – it’s meant to be played smart!

  3. I am a long time string bassist (it’s only an upright bass if you pay taxes and/or stand up when you play ;P). At any rate, the best advice I can give is 1) practice as softly and evenly as you can. This may seem counter intuitive if you want to play loud and fast, but you need muscles and control to do that, and the best way to develop them is playing softly and evenly. You’ll have to press the strings a little harder to keep the resonance at low volume, but that is how you develop strength. Strive for evenness in your volume and attack, as these qualities will develop the coordination in your right hand that you will need to play fast. 2) Pick a moderately hard tune – something just beyond your reach – and develop various fingerings for it so that you are learning the fingerboard and develop skill crossing strings in various positions. A good jazz tune might be the head to Charlie Parker’s Groovin’ High. From classical music, pretty much any bass part by Bach will work, Handel too. Hope this helps.

  4. Everyone knows speed is everything; Lets play as many notes with as little space as possible! meh

  5. As someone who has played and taught upright bass for several decades, the only thing you have going against you is that you’ve only been playing for a year. This is an instrument that takes some time to master. All the advice I’m seeing here is fine, just remember to keep your body as relaxed as possible when you practice, because everything you repeat (including all the wrong things) will become habitual. Above all, give yourself some time to develop the strength, dexterity and finesse you will need to play those uptempo tunes. Best of luck and have fun with it!

    • Geir Oslin

      Bill, I’ve seen your educational videos on YouTube. great lessons, thanks for sharing.