Playing Bass without Sheet Music: Time, Feel & Harmony
Q: I’ve been playing bass for about 7 years. Before bass I was a very good tuba player and a halfway decent cellist. My problem is I never learned to play without music notation. I can’t even play tabs. I either need the notation or the chord progression. What’s the best way for me to get to a point where whoever is playing lead shouts out a key, and I can play it without music? I know key signatures and scales but I feel like there’s a step I’m missing here.
A: I feel uniquely qualified to answer this because I was in the same boat as you. I grew up playing drums as my passion, and playing bass because I was made to practice it as a kid. It wasn’t until college that I actually fell in love with the instrument (and switched my major to bass performance). I could read very well, I could articulate well, but I had zero experience being a bass player. I had never improvised a thing in my life harmonically. I actually spent many of my developmental years thinking that there were people who notated the music and then there were other people who read or memorized it. It never even occurred to me that anyone could just make stuff up and have it sound like music.
So, I’ll tell you what I focused on and practiced, and I’m also sure that many other readers here will have some insight as they often do.
Focus on Chord Tones
The chord tones are the notes that best express the tonality and they seemed to exemplify what a bass players job should revolve around.
Step 1: Arpeggios and Inversions
Practice arpeggios and all inversions over every chord type (I used tunes out of the Real Book as my guide). Drill every inversion of every chord type you can find until it becomes embedded in your mind (mental muscle memory).
You can also do this with chord shapes on the bass to get yourselfthinking of more than one note at a time.
Step 2: Extensions
Once you’re solid with you chord tones, move on to the extensions (the upper structure): 9 11 & 13 (the 2nd, 4th and 6th of the scale).
Essentially, get to know the chord tones and then fill in the blanks. This introduced me to “chord scales,” although I didn’t think about alternative scale options or substitutions until later. Initially, I simply made a list of available tensions for each chord type and practiced working those into my arpeggio practice.
For example, move beyond 1st inversion (3 5 7 1) by continuing the pattern of 3rds (3 5 7 9). This will force you to consider what kind of “9” any given chord tone should have.
So, my arpeggio practice looked more like this (1 3 5 7 | 3 5 7 9 | 5 7 9 11 | 7 9 11 13). I also began to get into scaler sequencing through changes (1 2 3 5, for example).
Now, this is the nuts and bolts stuff of harmony. You may already know this stuff. I didn’t, and so I had to spend quite some time here.
Study How Other People Play
Step 3: Transcribe
This is a biggie. My recommendation is to transcribe anything that you like. When I did this back then, that meant a lot of Victor Wooten, who had just broke onto the scene. I also was very into Oteil Burbridge and Jaco.
However, bass lines by Vic, Oteil and Jaco weren’t always helpful for me to figure out some of the more meat and potatoes approaches, so I also worked on lots of classic funk, soul and blues (Motown, Chaka Khan, Stevie Ray Vaughn… anything that felt like some great BASS playing).
The combination of studies should steer you towards bass player nirvana (it did for me). But there’s nothing like the real thing, which brings me to the most important step.
Step 4: Play music with other people, constantly!
Learning all of the above is one thing – and an important thing. But the rubber won’t hit the road until you’re pitching yourself as a bassist and jamming, sitting in, taking gigs, looking for gigs, auditioning and all the rest. That’s when you’ll find out what you don’t know. Every time you get lost in a song, don’t know how to quite play over a tune or anything else is a chance to learn something new and add it to the bag of tricks. Be sure to make notes of those times, and also be sure to make notes of what people call out. You’ll quickly find out which tunes are the ones called most often, and those should be part of your practice and learning.
If you have a question and can’t figure out the answer, write that down too and ask a teacher or someone you respect. Taking lessons, at least semi-regularly – is always good to kick you in the butt when you need it, and lead you in the right direction.
If nothing else, I would encourage you to make a list of tunes you’d like to be able to play and start playing along. Transcribe and notate if you like, or just play along until you’ve got it. Pay attention to the sound of certain shapes on your neck and try to make associations in any way that makes sense to you (shapes, scale degrees, whatever works for you).
For a bigger challenge, try picking a chord progression (or even just one chord) and making a list of styles and/or tempos to match. Then try and write a good bass line that fit each style/tempo well. This will help you think about feel and approach.
Above all, allow yourself to keep your lines simple. Playing with confidence and accuracy is the goal. Once you’ve attained that, reach for the next level. Of course, avoid the tendency to try to do too much with a line because you think that’s the goal, or cool, or more hip. There’s nothing wrong with a rock solid pulse using the root and 5th (or even just the root!) Focus on time and feel. That’s what is most important. The notes are only a small part of it, especially in blues, rock and funk. It’s all about the feel. Ultimately, you want to have a good handle on time, feel and harmony though, and I think the above suggestions will certainly get you on the path.
How about the rest of you? Let’s get some ideas rolling in the comments below.