Practicing Without Your Bass: Some Exercises to Keep the Music Going

Air bass

Q: Are there any exercises that you could recommend that can be done when away from the bass?

A: You know, I’m surprised that I’ve never written about this before as I do actually have a number of things to recommend when you’re without your bass, to keep the music going.

1. Visualization of the fretboard.

If you ever see me staring off into space, chances are that I’m not daydreaming, but instead playing through changes in my head. I know it sounds weird, but one of my favorite things to do with my idle brain is to visualize my fretboard and invent a set of changes – or just pick a tune that I know – and practice navigating those changes.

This is very useful for working on soloing (in your mind), but you can also run scaler patterns, or run different walking ideas.

Try to imagine the sound of the notes you’re playing in your mind. Don’t worry about trying to be completely accurate in your pitch and placement as much as you focus on getting your instrument out of your hands once in a while. Often times, being away from the bass can be just the trick to get some new ideas flowing.

2. Rhythm

You will also never find me with a turn signal on and not drumming to the rhythm. When you hear a set beat or rhythm, try to subdivide it in different ways. Focus on the less familiar subdivisions (say dividing the beat by 5), or have one hand beating quarter notes while you “play” 8th note triplets with the other. Then alternate different rhythms in each hand, making sure each are operating against the last rhythm of the other hand.

3. Fingering Patterns.

This can be silent (on a pant leg) or audible (tapping on a desk), but I find it interesting to try and think of unique fingering patterns that I haven’t tried yet, or are just less familiar. Practice tapping your fingers in a loop. For example; thumb, middle, ring, index, pinky. Do this over and over again.

4. Feeling music

Let’s say that you’re walking through a mall and two stores are playing two different songs, and you can hear them both.

Drives you crazy, right? Me too but, lately, I’ve found myself really trying to hear any relationships between the different tempos and various sounds and trying really hard to find common ground and hear it as one tune. That may sound completely nutty, but it’s an extension of a listening exercise wherein you listen to a song and really try to pick a new “one” and internalize it. Really try to feel it as one. It’s really quite difficult!

How we hear music has as much to do with how we perceive music as anything, so actively trying to expand your powers of perception and awareness of the possibilities can lead to some interesting realizations.

Those are just a few examples of ways in which I try to continue “the shed” while away from the instrument.

Music is all around us at all times, in one form or another. Be it the rhythmic sound of an air conditioner, a turn signal, a song in a store… Everywhere!

How about you? What weird, useful, unique or interesting things do you do away from the instrument? Please share in the comments.

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. I thought I was the only one that did that with the turn signal! I do it sometimes with the dryer too

  2. Vince

    I find the pocket on my pants to use as an imaginary string and use it to practice a face three finger technique. It really helps with muscle memory.

  3. JW

    If you cross your arms you can finger on your bicep/tricep and “pluck” on the opposite arm, I’ve found that works pretty well.