Organizational Skills for Bassists: A Checklist for Getting There

Piles of sheet music

I’ve just spent the past hour tearing apart my room, searching through notebooks and drawers, on top of shelves and beneath the bed, and I still can’t find what I’m looking for. Frantically, I called a friend to create a distraction (secretly hoping that what I’m looking for will magically appear right in front of me), and his response was, “It happens to the best of us.”

“Of course,” I reply, “but it doesn’t happen to me.”

Now this is no life-or-death scenario, but it does involve me committing a crime that, by my own personal standards, is unforgivable. What happened? I lost a folder containing charts for a gig. Why is this bad? I’m usually uber-organized, and I know that these charts exist somewhere. I just can’t seem to find them at this crucial moment. What am I doing now? Writing a column about it and spending my weekend re-charting over two-dozen tunes for a gig later in the week.

This unfortunate scenario reminds me of the importance of having good organizational skills, a concept that my elementary and middle school teachers desperately tried to drill into the minds of students. Musicians will forever battle the stereotype of being unmotivated, pizza-eating basement dwellers, which is far from the truth when it comes to those of us who are working professionals. Instead, many of us are hyper-organized with neatly stored and labeled cables, binders full of music, and perfectly arranged pedal boards. Ultimately, you can’t run any business without being organized, and being a professional musician certainly counts as running your own business.

Whether you’re trying to be a working player, or a serious hobbyist, you should create method for organizing your notes, practice books, music and material for gigs.

Although I pride myself in my ability to organize, everyone makes a mistake now and then. So, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. Hopefully, with these tips, you won’t have to.

  1. Make a few investments. Take a trip to your local office supply store and purchase a few things to improve your practice station or your gig bag. This may include Sharpees, folders, filing devices, binders, sheet protectors, highlighters, post-it notes, a USB device, etc. If you find yourself working on a lot of different material and gigging on a regular basis, you may want to invest in an iPad. Just think, you can have every Real Book, hundreds of charts, and song lyrics all in one place… many wedding band players consider this a “must have” tool of the trade. If you don’t like the idea of carrying an iPad around, purchase a handful of black 1” or ½” binders and plenty of sheet protectors.
  2. Clean up and put your tools away. This may seem obvious, but we all know that things can get lost. After a gig, put the folder of charts back on the shelf. If you use certain tools (such as string cutters or a screwdriver to change your battery), put them back immediately. If you use pedals and a 9V power device, put them back in the box or on the board. Ultimately, the last thing you want to say to think is, “where did that spare battery go?” or “I thought those charts were right on the desk!” I sincerely believe that the sock-stealing dryer gremlins also feed on guitar picks and pedal board cables.
  3. Save and label music for every gig. Whether you’re given charts, sheet music, a CD, or you need to write out your own, make sure you keep everything. There’s little point in having to re-write charts for a gig (trust me), especially if time is of the essence. Plus, if you’ve done a show with an artist in the past, hopefully they’ll call you again, knowing that you’re already familiar with the material. Each time I get a gig with a different artist, I create a clearly labeled folder and alphabetize the charts or put them in the order of the set. This way, they’re easily accessible, the folders all live in the same place on the shelf in my office (so I know where to find them and where to put them back), and I can transfer the charts into a binder with sheet protectors when I go to the gig or rehearsal.
  4. Create playlists. iTunes (or whatever other music library you use) provides us with a particularly useful feature: the ability to create playlists. If you have a handful of material to learn for a gig, make a specific playlist and be sure to label it with the artist or band name as well as the date of the gig. If you work with the artist on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to have this playlist handy to keep the material fresh in your mind. If you work with the artist once in a blue moon, then you’ll be happy that you saved the playlist of material from last year’s Memorial Day gig.

    The playlist feature is also a great tool for practicing… you can create a list to focus on specific aspects of your playing, such as soloing over certain changes, maintaining your slapping technique, or learning certain “standard” tunes. Come up with a labeling system, such as “Top 40 Pop tunes, “Common Jazz Standards,” “Favorite Bass Line Tunes, or “Play-with-Pick Practice.”

  5. Lessons are expensive… Keep your notes. Whenever you study with a private teacher or attend bass clinics or camps, it’s a good idea to keep all of your notes and materials. Lessons and camps can be expensive so don’t throw away your notebooks, even if you think you’ve mastered all of the concepts. One day, you may need to refer back to the notes, whether it’s to reconnect with a theory concept or rediscover a technique exercise. If you happen to teach lessons as well, you can use your old notebooks as inspiration… examine how your teacher explained the concept to you and how you can pass it on.

These are just a handful of tips that you can use to keep your workspace and music library organized. In a perfect world, no one would ever forget to buy a 9V battery, we would never spill coffee on our charts, or leave a binder behind when packing up gear. If you get a call for a gig and can find the charts while you’re on the phone with the artist, then you’ve just made your job a whole lot easier. Otherwise, you’ll be spending your evening at home, wondering why you need to rewrite two-dozen charts and devising a plan to catch those crafty gremlins.

What’s your routine for staying organized? Tell us about it in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. You’ll find the folder as soon as you finish writing out the next lot of charts!

  2. I had this column opened when it hit me inspiration for lyrics. I ran to find my note book no where to be found. So then I read your column and really and understanding this organization thing.

  3. 2 words, Evernote!

    • iPad, iclip, gigbook app, Dropbox. Be in as many bands as you like, each with different set lists. Must prioritize bands tho and be good at political persuasion. Never cancel a gig unless you get full permission and find a sub that is almost as good as you.

    • Let me know if you need a sub… I definitely fit the last criteria :)

  4. musician or nerd?

  5. Something I’ve started doing recently is recording gigs I play. I’ve a zoom H2N recorder and the quality from it is decent. I play a lot of gigs where songs are thrown at me on stage that I don’t know. I learn the song while playing it through figuring it out in my head, watching guitar necks and listening to chords being shouted at me. I then forget I played it after until the next gig. Recording the gig lets me listen back to all the songs and learn the ones I didn’t know for next time.

  6. Bass, check. Amp, check. Ready. LOL!

  7. Great stuff! Keep the good advise come.