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Looping the Bass: 7 Activities for Musical Growth

Fruit loops, drum loops, loop-the-loop roller coasters… there are all kinds of loopy things out there. Lucky for us, the looping pedal is one of them. After a recent acquisition and an afternoon of messing around I wondered “why didn’t I get one of these sooner?”

As a matter of fact, I did. I just never used it. Loopers can be tricky; some have one pedal, some have two, others have a stomp switch. Plus, the commands for each pedal will be slightly different.

My initial loop pedal purchase was good-natured but quite naïve. I went for a razzle-dazzle device that quickly tested my patience: the dreaded “barrier to entry” – developing accurate stomp time – forced me to retreat. After a few frustrating days, I fell victim to the machine and declared it unnecessary. For years, it has remained absent from my musical arsenal. After much discussion with my muso friends and the purchase of a simpler apparatus, I became re-inspired and have re-discovered the world of loops.

If you’ve ever worked with a looper, then you’ve probably experienced the frustration of coming up with a cool groove, executing it perfectly, hitting the pedal and realizing that there’s an extra thirty-second note delay every time the groove goes around. Bummer. You try it again… and again. At some point you give up and decide that the pedal serves you better as a super cool paper-weight.

If you happen to find the right pedal (or you choose to fight the battles and win the war), then it can be a useful tool. Although many of us don’t get to use it in a live playing situation (unless you’re one of the lucky few who can get work as a “solo bass” performer), there are many ways to integrate it into your practice routine. So here’s where it begins to get fun – the looper allows for a great deal of creativity by inspiring you to play new lines or groves and in discovering new ways to practice.

Here are a few of my favorite looping activities:

  1. Groove-o-tunities. Yes, I have combined groove and opportunities. If you’re trying to experiment with new groove ideas, try creating a simple groove or groove framework (two or three notes). Leave space within the groove and practice filling it in with rhythmic or tonal variations. Typically, I leave space at the end of the groove so I can improvise “fills” or ways to get back to the one.
  2. Playing through chord progressions. Take a basic chord progression, such as a blues or a standard pop progression, and loop it. I suggest playing the chords in the highest register possible or, if you play guitar, make your initial loop with that. Then, practice new ways to move through the progression and work on transitioning from chord to chord. Re-record the progression with a different feel and do it again!
  3. Soloing. In this scenario, you can practice soloing over a particular song form or progression. If you’re just getting into soloing, try starting with a one, two, or three chord vamp (such as Am7-D7). It can take a little while to warm up, but lucky for us, the looper won’t judge you or give you the stink eye when you play a dissonant note. If you feel fairly comfortable soloing over a simple progression and want to advance to a longer form, pick a song (or a section of a song) from the Real Book and go to town.
  4. Chord building. Work on developing chords by playing a basic triad and then add higher voices. Observe how it changes the chord and once you find a chord you like, build a simple vamp and practice highlighting the defining note in your bass line or solo.
  5. Songwriting. This may be my favorite use for the looper. When it comes to writing, whether you’re working on instrumental music or trying to write lyrics, take a moment to loop the progression (or the melody) and explore what you can do with it. Try playing (or singing) different melodies over the progression or play with the lyric syllables. If you’re trying to re-harmonize a melody, you can do the same thing in reverse.
  6. Learning how to layer. I know what you’re thinking… “my looper would look awful in a v-neck sweater.” Ok, maybe you’re not thinking about sweaters; you’re actually thinking about parts! Take a “production” approach and create short melodic phrases, play a cool rhythm part, add drone tones, or discover licks to enhance the song or progression.
  7. Breaking down your favorite songs. Use your looper to play your favorite bass line and work on playing the other parts to complete the song. Then, try playing the melody over it!

As you can see, there are many ways to be creative with a looper. As I mentioned before, you probably won’t use it on a gig (it usually suits acoustic guitar players much better), but it can certainly be a fun toy to mess around with.

So, those are some of my favorite ways to use it… what are some of yours? Share them in the comments.