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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

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