What’s the Best Way To Learn Electric Bass?

Bass player by Adam Browning

Photo by Adam Browning

Note from Damian: For this week’s “Ask” column, I’m handing the controls over to a student and good friend of mine, Sam Hallam. Sam and I often have some pretty enlightening discussions about music, the role of the electric bass, and what we work on in our institutionalized setting (Portland State University) vs. what we work on outside of the school. He’s a great player and a very bright guy with a lot of insight, and I thought his words word continue the conversation here. I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts on this as well.

Q: You can go to school and study electric bass in a jazz program, you can listen to records and learn from them, you can check out lessons on Youtube, you can subscribe to bass player’s online teaching regimens… But how do you know what is the best way to become a competent, professional level electric bassist?

A: Electric bassists are pretty low down on the totem pole when it comes to pedagogical traditions. Our instrument is only about 65 years old (younger than some professors still teaching today) and many of its truly exciting developments happened some 20 years or more after its invention. Contrast this fast development with the glacial pace of musical academics and there is often a recipe for a huge disconnect between what gets taught to us in formal education, and what we see and hear from our favorite players.

The Suzuki method, considered the Gold Standard for violin teaching, was developed in the mid-20th century, some 400 years after the instrument’s invention. Hopefully we won’t have to wait that long for high quality standardized electric bass teaching methods but until then us bass players may need to take on the initiative ourselves.


If you’ve spent any time as an electric bass player in a jazz program in high school or college, you’ll be very familiar with suddenly having to listen to, learn from, and cop lines from many upright bass players. Some of us switch entirely to upright to cope with how much this instrument is emphasized in these kinds of programs. There are, of course, an incredible amount of great upright players who you could spend an entire lifetime learning amazing things from, but we don’t play that instrument.

For upright players, there is a series of amazing records and bassists to check out, but these also exist for the electric bass and our process for assimilating information and developing as players should be exactly the same.

So instead of transcribing Paul Chambers, Ron Carter and Scott LaFaro, what about James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius and Anthony Jackson? For my money, these have as much academic gravitas as the upright players mentioned above. And instead of Kind Of Blue, Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Four and More, what about Wayne Krantz’s Your Basic Live (Tim Lefebvre), John Mclaughlin’s Heart of Things (Matt Garrison) and Steely Dan’s Gaucho (Anthony Jackson, Chuck Rainey and others)?


Electric bass may be possibly the only instrument where technical studies are often lacking, and sometimes discouraged entirely. Regardless of our artistic tendencies, it seems a true disservice to the instrument to ignore what we are capable of when it comes to articulation, speed and the inflection of our notes. Horn and string players spend a huge amount of time developing a clear and consistent sound. We would do well to study the same. (Without spending more money on gear).

Sounding like ourselves

We may be one of the only instruments who spend time trying to sound like another instrument while we’re in a place designed to teach us the instrument better. Often in high school and college programs we are trying to sound like an upright. None of my favorite electric players sound like upright players. They sound like great electric players, even those who play in more traditional ‘jazz’ ensembles (Steve Swallow, Anthony Jackson). Shouldn’t we be spending on our instrument and those who play it well? Instead of trying to cop another instrument we’ll never sound completely like.

In a generation or two, maybe the academic world will catch up to what is happening in the bass world today. Until then we may need to take everything with a grain of salt. We are fortunate that so many of the best electric bass players to ever exist are still alive today. You can go see them perform and that is incredible. Imagine being a tenor saxophonist and being able to see John Coltrane or Coleman Hawkins? We have that ability with our instrument. We should take huge advantage of this, and maybe we’ll learn more that way than any other way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please add your voice to this conversation in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Dave Marion

    I have gotten great inspiration from the late Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Randy Jo Hobbs (Johnny Winter and others), Percy Jones (Brand X), Stu Hamm (Joe Satriani) and Tim Bogert (Vanilla Fudge, Cactus) to name a few. My style is percussive when necessary and I use mostly finger style so I can appreciate the slap players but have no interest in it.

  2. Wayne Renardson

    Very thoughtful essay. Worth rereading. Thank you.

    Wayne R.

  3. try it all… that’s all i can say. learn to cop the upright, learn to use a pick, use your fingers, slap it, pop it, learn songs, learn scales, learn chords (yes, you can play chords on a bass) experiment with effects, learn the differences between the sounds of a p bass, a jazz bass, ones with humbuckers and even piezo’s. learn ways of doing as much as you can. all too often bass players are stereotyped as “in the pocket” or “g-c-d” players, with other band members thoughts being “if you can hear it, then its wrong”. this mentally holds us & our instrument back in so many ways. of course, play to the song. what may sound good when you play it by yourself, may not work when you play it with the band. if been playing 15 years, been in 6 or more bands, played countless shows and thoroughly enjoy almost every minute of it (singers tend to f’ things up, but i digress). don’t have the mindset of this or that is wrong or right. innovation comes from doing things different than the guy before you. from the beginning, just get comfortable with it and then play with it. don’t just “play” it…. but play with it. feel free to experiment… cause that’s where good music comes from. bottom line… have fun. if your not, then whats the point.

  4. bob

    I hear this for any instrument, and I think it applies especially to electric bass: the best way to improve is to play with others. The reason I think it applies especially to electric bass is because it is used in so many different genres and musical styles. You have your jazz and your rock, but the electric bass plays in hip hop, r&b, even electronic. I think by playing with others you get a better idea of what the electric bass is capable of, and not only develop your playing skills but also your voice on the bass.

  5. Bob Gross

    I would say don’t limit yourself by only learning one genre of music. Even if it’s a style that’s not your favorite, it will teach you more possibilities of approaching the bass. I’ve played everything from Bluegrass to Arminian Oud music and every style opened up new territory for me. Plus it keeps things from getting boring. It makes it more fun.

    • that bass guy

      I think this is the biggest challenge for a lot of musicians – playing outside your comfort range. Maybe not such a problem if your comfort range is a particular style and that’s all you want to play, but from my own experience the more you box yourself in, the less your playing will progress. Again, in my own experience, I’ve benefited a lot from playing musicals, both on string and electric bass. Any decent show book will encompass a variety of styles, tempos, and keys (especially those pesky black note keys that brass and singers insist on performing in ;) ). Doing those shows and other styles of music did wonders for my playing, both for exposing me to various styles of writing as well as forcing me to fit into music outside my comfort level.

  6. Joe Wright

    Great piece. Bass players get a bad rep. ‘Give the bass to the guy who cant play’ is usually the attitude. Its a shame because the instrument is capeable of so much yet we are disgorged from chasing its potential, as that isnt generally socially acceptable yet. My approach is learn what you love, chase what you want, include what you can when it will work, plus if you never try it, you’ll never know. Dont be afraid. Take your inspiration from as many places as you can and most of all enjoy it! Rock on!

  7. “Regardless of our artistic tendencies, it seems a true disservice to the instrument to ignore what we are capable of when it comes to articulation, speed and the inflection of our notes. Horn and string players spend a huge amount of time developing a clear and consistent sound. We would do well to study the same. (Without spending more money on gear).” THIS, all I learn as a musician and teach to my students is based upon this concept, thanks to you Pablo Elorza (you know what I’m talking about Pablo… dynamics)

  8. Kirk Bolas

    I started my musical journey 35 years ago on the guitar. I originally picked up electric bass about 25 years ago and applied all the music theory that I had learned from my guitar lessons to the bass. While I’ve never taken any formal bass lessons, I consider myself a competent bassist. The first bit of advice that I got when I picked up the bass was to not treat it as a four-stringed guitar with fat strings. I would watch the bassist at live shows and on concert videos ( this was in pre-You Tube days), read every issue of Bass Player that I could find and talk with any bassists that would give my five minutes. In short, I was able to teach myself technique by taking what I was told and what I observed by practicing, on average, about 20-30 minutes a day. Since u learned cover songs on guitar by listening and figuring out the guitar parts, I just did the same with the bass parts. Eventually, I started writing my own material and recording on a four track with the help of a drum machine. Fast forwards several years and with You Tube and Tabs from UltimateGuitar.com, I started incorporating new technique and other musical styles besides rock and blues and contemporary Christian music (I started playing bass at church before getting gigs as a bassist). I play a Fender, Peavey and a no-name fretless through a GK head with a 4×10 GK cab or an SWR Workingman 15 combo. I have a Roland MB50 (I think that’s the model) multi-effector and I record on a Pro Tools rig. I can sight read, self taught, but not very well…but enough to get by. In retrospect, I could have taken lessons or gotten involve in a formal program, and I’m sure it would have been to my benefit. Just the same, it has been a rewarding journey, and I don’t think that I’d trade it for anything. As a result, I have been able to pick up mandolin, banjo, keys and harmonica on my own. I play drums too, but I did take lessons for that side trip.

  9. Joe

    Copy recordings. Either aurally or on paper. Do it enough and it’s impossible not to become a competent bassist, at the very least.

  10. Tbird

    I think don’t a person should get caught up in thinking you have to be the fastest player in the world that’s not were its at steady bass playing is much better to me when it tastefull to the song not over kill. Not like fast food not everything has to burn your guts out to be good hit songs from the 70 80 90 are catchy riffs that work with the song ,you can wear yourself out trying to be the lead bass player
    but that probably won’t make a hit song when you could have learned 15 good standard songs in that time now if you want a challenge learn to sing and play bass, the hits are coming from Nashville the only place real music is being made now. I did not say that Don Henly of the Eagles said so years ago OK now the learning to play thing old school style train your ear tune up to a song you like check some tab u tube it compare licks now days their are so many ways to learn to play fall asleep with it in your hands put your headphones on listen real close cause bass is really hard to hear the movements can be so suttle play with people better than you another way to learn

    • Lachlan

      If Don Henly thinks that the only real music being made tight now is coming out of Nashville and you agree with him, you are both ignorant as hell. Don’t say shit like that.

  11. Tbird

    I think don’t a person should get caught up in thinking you have to be the fastest player in the world that’s not were its at steady bass playing is much better to me when it tastefull to the song not over kill. Not like fast food , not everything has to burn your guts out to be good , hit songs from the 70 80 90 are catchy riffs that work with the song ,you can wear yourself out trying to be the lead bass player,
    but that probably won’t make a hit song when you could have learned 15 good standard songs in that time, now if you want a challenge learn to sing and play bass, the hits are coming from Nashville , the only place real music is being made now., I did not say that Don Henly of the Eagles said so years ago , OK now the learning to play thing old school style ,train your ear tune up to a song you like check some tab u tube it compare licks, now days their are so many ways to learn to play ,fall asleep with it in your hands , put your headphones on listen real close , cause bass is really hard to hear the movements can be so suttle , play with people who are better than you another way to learn , like I tell them in the band its all about the bass , learn the kinda music you like at first it will interest you more but investigate other styles also

  12. Don Hall

    Do not limit yourself to playing like a bassist? Play like a musician. In classical studies there are no set “roles” for any instrument that spans across the history of the genre. So, why create it. Give us something more. Learn to read music and play as much repertoire as you can from whatever collection you can find, whether it be jazz, blues, classical, ethnic transcriptions, etc. And transcribe from as many instruments as you can including voice. You’ll understand the potential role you COULD play and not one someone says you should much better. And who knows, you may be the new direction we’ve been looking for. Remember, most of the musicians we idolize came without a mold. There is no reason to fall into one.

    • bvdon

      That’s the correct answer. Music is music. Read.

    • that bass guy

      I heartily second every thing you’ve said. I played bass for about a year, after playing guitar for several years and although I could read music, it was never an integral part of my learning routine. It wasn’t until I made it so my progress jumped forward. I know most players will read this and dismiss it thinking that they don’t need to read music to play. Obviously, you don’t. You don’t need a vocabulary to speak eloquently but wouldn’t a vocabulary of a million words allow more expression than one of a hundred?

      • david

        I agree; learning to read music is never a waste of time. The thing about playing by ear is, you always miss something when playing the song. But if you can see the notes, you know what to do. And when you can read, you open opportunities to play that are only available if you know how to read.

        • I’d only disagree with your statement on the premises that the same piece should be interpreted differently each time and usually is by the original artist with fills or different rythmic feels in which the only way to learn a specific version is by listening to that live recording.

          • that bass guy

            I agree with this as well, but I would add one thing. For a developing musician, ear training is essential. If you’re trying to learn a piece from a live or recorded version AND you have the transcription, then you’ve got the best of both worlds. You can challenge your dexterity with what was played and you can analyze the written transcription to see how it was put together. There are so many transcriptions available online and in print that it would be a shame to deprive oneself of this resource because you can’t read music.

            One other thing about reading music is that if you hope to make money playing bass, then you need to be able to read at some point unless you want to limit yourself to “non-reading” kind of gigs. Time is money and when you have to get a gig going quickly being able to read music will make it happen. I’ve never lost money because I could read music.

      • Tim West

        I am with you man. I have played the bass now for over 5 years. I taught myself to read music, play tab, and listen. I am glad I can read music it helps me. I play mostly in church but love getting together with other musicians.

  13. Gregg

    I picked my bass guitar back up about 3 years ago. I spent the first year learning bass scales and modes from musicopedia.com (http://www.musicopedia.com/scales/4-bass.php). The Beatles are my absolute favorite band so, the next year, up to about a month ago I learned Beatles songs. Learning modes and scales really came in handy while learning Paul McCartney’s bass lines. It eventually became apparent that the Beatles used similar structures in a lot of their songs, which was also helpful to know. Also, the Beatles might change key signatures within the same song (A Day in the Life). Another favorite group of mine is Diana Ross and the Supremes so I began learning some of their songs not realizing I was studying Mr. James Jamerson whom was another melodic bass player.

    I have a Fender P bass and have always played with my fingers. Last week I was able to purchase a Fender Jazz bass and for some strange reason, out of the blue I decided to use a pick (probably because I was listening to a lot of Yes and Rush, although I just watched a youtube Geddy Lee interview and he said he doesn’t use a pick, which shocked me). Never though I’d ever play bass guitar with a pick, but I really dig the sound of the 1mm Dunlop (black) pick on the Fender Jazz. Now I’m practicing Rush songs. I have the basic structure of New World Man down and plan to work on 2112 next, while working on songs from Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix, which, I’ve heard rumors he may have played bass on some of his recordings. Purple Haze and Manic Depression are fun songs to play.

    I tend to stick with songs that I like and that are not too complicated and I get as close as I can to the original bass line but it doesn’t bother me to deviate in order to make it work. I’m not in a band I just love the bass guitar and play for my own entertainment and fun… it’s a hobby. At a talk at the Nashville symphony Giancarlo Guerrero said what is the point of learning a song note for note? One should inject his/her own spirit into the music (not a direct quote but that’s basically what he was trying to get across to the attendees).

    Anyway, thanks for keeping No Treble updated with tons of useful information.

    • Sam & Damian,Thanks for keeping us bottom dwellers in the mix with all the other instruments that attract a lot of attention.In addition to what has already been nicely stated; Rhythm,Feel,Phrasing,Articulation,Technique,Tone ,Dynamics, Space & Listening are essential when building life long learning for any instrument . Study in a way that suits you , as long as it is moving you forward and the results are positive . Bass On & Cheers !

  14. Bernie

    Very interesting piece, Thanks.

    Being such a new instrument, rather than lament the lack of methods/pedagogy(? Not sure I’ve used that correctly), we have the opportunity to play and learn with very little boundary or consideration of what ‘correct learning/playing’ is.

    In my opinion, we should be revelling in this freedom and exploring it, not attempting to create boundaries.

    • C-Note

      Bernie I agree with you completely. Music is a language. Bass just happens to be our voice. The more we can immerse ourselves in that language, from any perspective, the more our voice will develop. No different from a child learning to speak, his/her vocabulary and mastery grow as they learn to clarify their intent. It’s what you say not just how you say it and you don’t always need a lot of big words to get your point across.

  15. martin

    I love and admire Peter Hook’s style, he’s one of the best of the world and actually on tour!

  16. basser

    We need more of a written repertoire that is outside of pop and jazz contexts. Nothing wrong with those genres, but we should take it upon ourselves to write (and/or commission others to write) chamber music incorporating the instrument. I don’t know if there is a single extended piece out there for, say, electric bass and piano. A problem exists in the non-standardized configuration of strings, etc… this will never be resolved, though I would hope that the 6 string, both fretted and fretless, becomes the go-to choice for composers. Some inspiration might be taken from Andres Segovia, who did so much to expand the repertoire and reputation of the guitar.

  17. I started electric bass just a few months ago, after more than 2 years learning electric guitar. But I’m a late starter too, in my 40s. It’s odd how these two instruments can be so similar in construction, but their community outlook so different.

    As a late starter I had a massive musical library in my head but I was completely naive to the actual use of the instrument before I started to learn it. For example, guitar teaching starts out chord based, and I am still surprised how hard it is on guitar to get away from chords. As it so happens chords still seem alien to me as a concept, I think more in melody and groove. On bass there are few chords, and in the beginning it seems the groove and the note values are much more emphasized in the teaching (I was/am taking lessons for both). But melody, not so much .

    I am still surprised at this bass community idea that bass has “a role”. This kind of thinking doesn’t come up in the guitar community at all. And to me, bass never had a role. I have heard bass in funk, afrobeat, rock, jazz, and everything in between, and the “role” is so different each time, that I never felt that bass was boxed in in any way.

    But, I am slowly starting to scratch my head why bass is not used more often as main backing instrument for vocalists (it is a bit in jazz, or say, songs by French singer Serge Gainsbourg), or as main instrument in a band or neo-classical concert pieces, duos/trios/quartets. Also, the sound of fretless bass to me is the obvious modern equivalent of what used to be called the “human voices”, cello and viola da gamba, instruments that were always considered closest to human vocal expression.

    So in other words, once I started “noticing” bass at all, in my naive world view, I never saw it as limited as the bass community seems to see itself. Yes, it seems it’s capable of massively more than it is typically used for, but I don’t think anyone is pushing bass back into “its place”. I think it is already quite free to expand into anything it wants to. Sure there are areas that I think bass isn’t so great.for. I don’t connect well with slap bass because to me it underutilizes the best part of electric bass, the unique and very versatile timbre. Two is that complete solos in the upper registers for six string bass to me often sound like it’s trying too hard to be a guitar. But that’s just my personal taste. For everything else I now think bass has a lot more potenttial than I originally thought.

    Now, how to learn it best, I wish I knew. I take classes and hpe for the best. I wish I had people to play with, those are hard to find. What helped me most in the beginning was that I didn’t try too hard.I concentrate on note values and on how the finger position changes the sound. Playing clean is still a huge problem. Basically I am for now trying to keep to the basics, getting the sound of every note right. This means playing clean and controlled in dynamics, consistency, and learning to change timbre by finger position and by how and where you play the string. And I learn songs for class. Since I already have much theory from guitar background, I am for now not worrying too much about scales or arpeggios. Just how to control every note.

    • basser

      The “role” way of thinking is pervasive in perhaps non-obvious ways (or rather so obvious that it is almost never questioned): put a group of players in a room, say piano, bass, drums, guitar, trombone, and tenor sax, and the bassist will be expected to 1) not play the head of a tune, at least not often or without suggestion by other players to do so 2) be expected to play bass lines for every tune, even though all of the other pitched instruments in that group could do so. I would like to see things progress in a socio-muscal way so that a player of the bass guitar is not compelled or expected to play any differently (in terms of “role), ever, than the other players. And drummers, too: they too should not be expected to be timekeepers, or have to play throughout a tune without stopping.

      • Good point about the drummers. I always wondered why time in most modern pop/rock is so uniform and tied solely to the drummer.

    • Funny, I play guitar as well and the two most common roles are lead and rhythm. I see guitarists define (and often limit) themselves by those to definitions all the time. It’s a universal problem.

  18. Barbara Wiesenberg

    Carol Kaye immediately sprang to mind. Her vast body of work and ingenuity with electric bass is most notable, but in addition to that, her methods, techniques and fine educational materials have been used by most of the greats mentioned in this article. Her name belongs here as does credit where credit is due for contributions to the advancement of electric bass evolution and education.

  19. Steve

    Study with a good teacher, YouTube is a great resource. But a teacher will give you feed back on your playing that you don’t see, recognize or your ego won’t allow you to see on your own.
    Music is a craft and craft are handed down from master to apprentice. We all need to work on our craft always.

  20. that bass guy

    As this is a bassists forum, can we please stop calling that big wooden hollow thing with 4 or 5 strings that you play standing up (sometimes) an upright bass? The proper name for it is either (in english, anyway) a string bass, double bass (yeah, I know), or contrabass. Nobody refers to a sit-down bass, or lying-down bass, so wth do we put up with the term upright? Who or what is upright in this reference – the instrument or the player? if the instrument is lying on the ground, is it still an “upright” bass. You begin to understand how absurd a name it is for the instrument or player.

    As for how to get better on bass, hopefully you have talent, desire, commitment, and in lieu of proper instruction, a keen sense of observation. You should have a concept of what you want to sound like and realize that concept will change hopefully as you improve. The same “sound” I wanted when I first started is not the sound I strive for today. Challenge your ears every time you play.

    • Why does it matter? If it is a bass forum then everyone knows what you are referring to. You don’t have to point out imperfections in others coinage of commonly used terms.

      • that bass guy

        My point was that for a bassist or bass player forum, I would expect proper terminology from the writer for the name of the instrument. I’ve been playing string bass for 30 years and electric even longer and I’ve yet to meet someone who called their instrument an “upright.” Upright, in reference to certain piano design, does make sense and adds clarity. Cellos are played in the same orientation as a string bass, but nobody goes around calling them upright cellos. And for these reasons, it does matter.

        • Again since you may have misunderstood what I attempted to portray. Yes we are all bass players that know proper names however the term upright bass is so commonly used because of it’s position that it comes to mind often before the terms string bass and double bass because it is what pictured in ones mind as they speak or type in this case. I am not defending its use but its commonality and ease of use especially for beginners.

          • kate

            Just gotta smile. Perhaps it’s a location thing. I’ve never heard it called a string bass. Why string? It’s not made of string?

    • How about bass fiddle, dog house bass, bull fiddle? Are bluegrass players wrong? There is no “proper name” for anything. People will always have valid reasons for new names for old things. String bass is often cited as a way to distinguish the bass from brass bass instruments in a concert band. Double bass from when the instrument often doubled the cello. Contrabass refers to the pitch range the instrument covers. Upright bass as well as acoustic bass came from jazz when the electric appeared on the scene. Try saying acoustic bass nowadays, most other bassists will think you mean an acoustic bass guitar (like and acoustic guitar). I think the simplest way to distinguish the two main types of stringed bass instruments played today would be bass and bass guitar, but good luck making that stick and really, why do that? I for one, love all the colorful names for my favorite instrument. As long as people understand what you’re talking about you can communicate. Isn’t that the most important thing? Isn’t that what we do as musicians, communicate through the universal language of music?

      • I agree with you completely, I had trouble conveying this with fewer words in my previous comment , but yes everything has multiple usable names that are appropriate to use.

  21. One fun and modern way bass is through teaching software. I bought Rocksmith and Rocksmith 2014 a while back and the are great learning tools

  22. that bass guy

    If you can only afford one book to improve your bass playing, I recommend Rufus Reid’s “Evolving Bassist.” This is an old book which he periodically updates, but it is full of stuff for electric and string bass. It even has a section on how to carry a bass on an airplane. There’s a lot of good stuff in there from beginner to advanced.

  23. There is no “best way.” There are many excellent ways to learn. The key is finding what way works “best for you.” And that most likely won’t be limited to just one way. Many have offered great advice in the comments, but I think Don Hall provided the most important guidance. I’d only add that the aid of a good teacher is invaluable as well as playing with other musicians (especially ones who are further along than you) as often as you possibly can.

  24. Rocco Benevento

    I like the Andrew Pauska approach. Become a bass playing musician; not just a bass player. http://www.studybass.com works for me.

    • jayk

      Play what moves you. Play like those that move you. Play like the ones who command presence and can own the stage on their own. Rob Wright of Nomeansno, David Wm Sims of the Jesus Lizard, Flea from RHCP, and of course Lemme Kilmister of Motorhead. If you don’t know, go find out and leave the banal behind.

  25. Sean Rose

    Play the music you love and surround yourself with your favorite musicians. When you’re inspired by great music and surrounded by great players everyday you can’t go wrong. Be disciplined and respect the music. Learn to read music, you won’t regret it. Always live and play from your heart. Follow your bliss!