Playing Bass without Sheet Music: Time, Feel & Harmony

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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.

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. Great article. I also came mostly the same way. Fortunately, even in high school, I was able to work with very good players and picked up a lot of stuff just by ear – no charts at all. I do wish I had had some real theory at the time. I didn’t get any thing in music theory until I realized my first college class was called Music Theory 101 at 7am five days a week! Jazz theory was regarded as somewhat of an aberration until my final year when the university instituted a jazz studies program. The bottom line is though the best learning is through playing with others live.

  2. Father Gino

    I also was very frustrated in my formative musical years playing woodwinds in school bands. It seemed magical to me that the band leader of my high school “jazz” band could tell one of our sax players to “take a solo here” and the kid would do just that. I taught myself to play bass (with a little help from Mel Bay) starting at age 19 or so with the express idea of learning to play without music. Mostly I played along with lots of records and tried to figure out what the bass player was doing. I never really studied scales exactly and I didn’t know squat about them except the major scale which won’t get you very far with most popular music.

    I know a lot more about such things now and I wish I had known them a lot earlier. If I had, I might be playing a saxophone today. I’m probably what you would call a “position” player. I know the one, the four, the five the third, etc. I’m aware of its limitations but you can play a lot of music armed with just this knowledge. Helps to have an ear too and listen to all of the other instruments in the song. I always try to serve the song more than my ego. If it sounds good in the song, that’s what I try to play. Mind you I’ve never attempted to be Jaco. More like Duck or Larry Taylor for me.

    One thing I’d stress is that perhaps even more important than what notes you play is the rhythmic component of bass playing. All the scales, arpeggios, inversions and extensions will be worthless if you can’t lock in with the rest of the band. Especially the drummer!! If you and the the drummer can’t sound like a cohesive, musical unit, the song will suck.

    My suggestion is to pick some songs you like that are fairly simple, figure out the chords and just try to play along with the simplest of bass lines. Even if you’re just playing the root notes, you’ve still got to try and make that song groove along. You’re still deciding the length of those notes, the attack, before/after/on the beat etc. Once you are comfortable with that you can start embellishing. Now you can start playing roots & fives :)

    Of course when playing along with a recording it will always sound good. Now try and recreate that feel with other players. Sometimes you can’t quite recreate the “feel” with other real players because they’re not quite re-creating their component. So now this song is a little different. There are those who would stick to their guns and play their part “like the record”. I prefer to listen to the song that’s being created at that moment and trying to make it work. To me that’s the beauty of live music; it’s always a little different.

  3. 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).
    Studying this now¡¡

  4. As a 30+ year playing and teaching veteran, I have a couple of thoughts. I completely agree with 1, 2, and 4. I’d stay away from chord extensions or “scale chords” until you’re really able to hear and access the basic 7th chord tones. You don’t want to make the task at hand too daunting so that it seems like a mountain you’ll never be able to climb. Keep it simple. Play what you can hear. Finally – and I say this not just because I sell them – get some good backing tracks to play with. You need the experience of playing with others as much as possible, but you’re not always going to have a rhythm section at your service when you feel like practicing. Play-along tracks, IMO, are the next-best-thing. And find yourself a teacher who can help guide through this process. Oh…and have fun while you’re doing it.

  5. Gary Sloan

    Sing every exercise before you play it, especially when it comes to actually improvising melodies and basslines. Sing the things you would like to play then find the notes on the bass. If playing arpeggio exercises doesn’t seem to help, work with a simple diatonic progression such as I-vi-IV-V and notate, sing, then improvise melodies that fit the changes. Solos in many styles of music “streamline” a progression such as this by simple playing out of the tonic major scale or a pentatonic but really getting the control to target the various chord tones adds clarity and confidence- when you get this under control you will have the freedom and comfort to seamlessly shift between this, arpeggiating, or streamlining. Make a conscious decision like “I will target the 3rd of every cord change” and figure out how to do it in a way that is singable or authentic to your own aesthetic preference.

  6. Mathias Roberts

    Simple, understandable, and useful advice leaving the playing perspective open to the player! I really appreciate the non-pedantic vibe. Thanks, man. I would like to add that I have always had a hard time playing from a structured perspective and learned to work on scales by playing Christmas tunes and church hymns that I know from childhood. My familiarity with the tunes allowed me to hear if my pitch was on (upright bass).