Practicing vs. Performing for Musical Growth

Bassist performing live

Photo by kmlz

Q: I’ve been playing the bass in a blues band for two years. Then we started playing rock and funk songs, and my practicing has always been based on what I hear and what I feel. I don’t really count in my head, and I’ve hardly worked my scales but my band keeps telling me that what I play is ok, and I’ve even been told after some small venues that I’ve developed a kind of style of my own. The point is that, in spite of my lines and groove, I can’t do great solos. I spend few bars soloing sometimes but it’s never incredible. My question is simple: is that possible that a bassist would become a good player (in a couple of music styles) without “hard work”, but with lots of passion and rehearsal. Or, is there a compulsory “study” time?

A: The answer I want to give is that there are no rules, no guarantees and no promises of anything in art. Hard work doesn’t make everyone great and not all greats worked hard. The general truth is that it takes a lifetime to master anything and at the very least, quite a bit of hard work to become very good or better.

Often what is equally (or even more) important is that you have passion and love for your art or craft and dedicate to it in some way.

That “some way” could be in the shed or with a band. The important thing is that you are playing the instrument and trying to make your music better every time you pick up the instrument.

The impression I get from reading your question is that you are hoping it will continue to come through osmosis. Be aware that even though you may “play great for only playing bass for X amount of time”, there will come a time when expectations may be higher as you’ve been playing longer. You also mentioned being proficient in multiple genres. My experience says that this takes a lot of listening, love of music and experience playing in those styles. Experience playing the music is the real key, I think.

There are plenty of places in the world where the masters don’t grow up practicing in the bedroom, going to music school and then start trying to play music “for real”. Instead, they start making music with their elders as children and never stop. They simply make music and spend a lifetime improving their craft.

Specific to your question, the common thread most everyone shares is the “work” part. “Hard work” is subjective. If you mean hard as in school, books, studying jazz simply because it challenges you, and so on then, no, not everyone needs to work hard. Everyone does, however, need to spend hundreds and thousands of hours playing music and striving to become better in order to really own it.

It doesn’t have to be scales, notation, Real Books and ear training classes that get you there but it will be something. It might be playing in church and with various musicians every chance you get. It might be playing with your siblings every afternoon. The point is that you have to love it, do it often and actively try and improve yourself. It’s time plus intention, everything else is flexible, in my estimation.

I have a feeling this one will get quite the conversation started. What do you think? Please share your thoughts 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. Raphael

    I think that the question is more “How can I get better AT SOLOING?” than “How can I become better at the bass”. The guy who asked the question looks like he thinks that it is the same answer for both, which is absolutely false. What you said is logic and I think that your answers are a good way to see things. Still, I think that you should precise that for every aspect in music, we all work the same thing. We all make scale without even knowing that we do. We all make ear training without knowing that we do the same thing than in University. But schools are just there to make you realise what you’re doing and to help you organize your time for the better. For the soloing part, I think that this guy should begin practising alone. It is impossible to become better at soloing with people, especially in our time where everything go so fast. He should sit down and learn his scale, learn some cool lick, develop HIS own lick without being disturbed. For me, I need concentration and calm to really focus on what i’m doing and I don’t see how you can improve it in an other way.

  2. Mike Matthews

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. With all my heart, I believe it boils down to your drive, passion, inspiration, and love for not only the bass itself; but music. There are so many different styles to inspire a bassist. (Speaking of which, I was listening to BassOnTheBroadband this morning and was VERY inspired by your tune Kaluanui. Great stuff Damian, not just blowing smoke either.) Back to point, using a loop pedal to practice over chord changes has been a big help for me. Not just for soloing; but for constructing bass lines as well.

  3. Just keep playing, in whatever form that takes. I rarely practice, but I have made several hundred appearances on stage over a number of years and in the last 6 or so years in particular. Additionally, I have spent hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours rehearsing with the different bands I have performed with. It has all made me a fairly proficient bassist, even if I am not the most well-versed in music theory. I use rehearsals to try things and would advise anyone else to do the same (so long as the rehearsal environment allows it). This is a way to learn what works and what doesn’t.

  4. I played finger-style electric guitar for decades, played in loads of bands, led church groups, and formally studied theory. Making music has been my top priority for over 50 years. I now play bass exclusively and have for 3 years, because it is an awesome challenge (7 string bass- my right hand still hasn’t forgiven me). So, interestingly, i already knew theory, notation, and all the fretboard stuff from the first day i started playing bass. I will tell you that practicing soloing will help your soloing. If you can play by ear, listen to loads of solos. If you learn notation, you can learn from sheets, too. If you study theory, you can write technically correct lines and if you have passion, they will have soul. I guess what i am saying is that, if you really love making music, you should study and practice every aspect… everything you can. If you don’t want to give a 100% effort, you can still make great music, but it’s harder and i would question my degree of passion if i faced a musical challenge and passed on it because it was “too much work”.

  5. Blues – and soloing? Listen to the really great blues records over the last 40, 50 60 years and more, how many solos do you hear? Very few, soloing is something we borrow from jazz, if you don’t feel comfortable taking a solo then don’t take one until you feel ready. Your job is make the other members of the band sound good and if you can do this without soloing then just make sure they don’t ask you to solo. If you make them sound good then that is a job well done. Willie Dixon did take some great solos but on records – never, not even on his own records. The trouble is that the leader of the band will call you to do a solo on a song that isn’t really suited to a solo in your mind, you are concentrating so hard on providing a bedrock for him to sound good and then the lazy sod want’s you to take a solo when you are not prepared for it on a song with a tempo that just doesn’t work for you and…All of his solos are planned out, he knows what he is going to play and most of the time that is what he will play, so why put you on the spot when you’re not ready? If you must take a solo, hope it is only one per gig NOT every number, this is not a jazz band, then decide which song in your bands repertoire you would like to take a solo on, then work out a solo for that song and make it clear that that is the only solo they are going to get. Bass is essentially a part of the rhythm section, there are some bass players who will take as many solos as they are offered and most go off into riffs which bear no resemblance to the key, the tempo, the groove, everyone claps (because they hope it’s over), don’t do it is my simple advice, unless you want to when you are ready and happy to do it….

    • Hi Paul, I am 60 years young(thanks to the bass). I started in November 1969 with a new 68 Fender Jazz Bass. A bass I have held onto now for 46 years. I too am primarily a Blues and R&B player. My Role Models were the Greats, James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, Paul McCartney, Joe Osborn, Carol Kaye, Bob Babbit,, David Hood, ZigaBoo Modeleste and Willie Dixon. These fellas rarely took a solo, they sat dead solid perfect in the pocket with their equally great rhythm partner to whom they were connected at the hip and just grooved. A bass and drummer in the pocket is Bliss and it doesn’t have to be complicated. I’ve made the mistake of putting mine down for 10 years at a time but the calling to play and my passion for being in that creative process have triumphed and now I play again. My fingers have arthritis in them soloing is not and option but now I focus on the space between and letting it breath and with a good drumming partner this can work as well as some of the most intricate solo’s in the world. Play because ultimately it makes you feel good and you know that others are picking up on your groove and feeling good too. I would recommend watching a few Scott Devine bass videos and Thomas Risell, they teach on everybody’s level and they’ve manged to give this old dog some new tricks….Honestly, good luck and don’t give up..I hope my 2 cents may have help a little.

  6. Kelly

    If soloing is important to you then you have to do more than just memorizing a few scales. You have to understand how to put theory into practice and real time application but you also have to learn how to pull whatever is in your head and heart into your hands. I first learned to solo by taking the two chord vamp from Quincy Jones’s “Killer Joe” and soloing over it for hours until I could create a solo at will anytime I played it.

    Personally I could care less about soloing. I prefer to just groove. I play in a blues band myself and I often complain about the blandness of some of the bands who just want to over-emphasize the solos rather than the songs. It’s quite lazy. I like clever arrangements and creative singers who can weave a good story.

  7. Here’s my two cents, but I’ll take it from a different point of view. As a lover-at-first-sight-bass-player, I switched very quickly from “regular” electric bass to fretless. For years after that, I’ve been quite intrigued from double bass, but never dared to make the transition. Over the years, though, I’ve felt less and less “a bass player” and more and more “a musician”: I sit down below and support the others most of the time, but I need to understand and be ”insightful” of what is going on high above. When I finally realised that, transitioning to double bass was much, much easier: it was a matter of “technique” which, compared to “the music” is just a very little and not too important thing.

    Now, to the point: I see the “soloing” side of the question pretty much in the same way. There’s much more to explore in music than grooves and comping. Being able to support other musicians and provide a solid foundation for what they have to say (musically speaking) is very important, but it’s by far not the only thing in music, and you are probably starting to feel that (many fellow bassists are not even remotely interested in soloing, but you are). Also: soloing makes you realise many things about comping and about the role you have when others are soloing. Try soloing with a guitarists and a drummer who can’t agree on the one and you’ll know what I mean – you will not want to do that yourself.

    If you widen the perspective from “bass soloing” to “evolving as a musician” you can clearly get the answer to your “hard work” question, and understand why Damian is answering the way he does. Hard work has been important to many, but is neither sufficient nor necessary for inspiring performances. That, in my view, is at the same time the curse and the blessing of making music.

  8. Barry Irwin

    I read a recent interview by Wayne Shorter.I don’t think it would hit home to most as one has to identify with the man/musician going back to his days before Miles.He speaks about playing in the moment as a reference to what the true art of being a musician is. Its most abstract yet crystal clear. If you can find the article its a good read.
    This thing about wanting to be a soloist seems to be an obsession with a lot of bass players these days,or should i say guys playing a bass.Ive heard so many bass players soloing absolutely beautifully on their instruments and my thoughts were how better that solo would have sounded on a piano a harp,or numerous other instruments.
    The self satisfaction I am sure is sublime in some manner,but then again, I recently watched the most watched videos and found two females doing the most honest account of what its really all about when it comes to being a guitar player or bass player.Yes Marcus was there and no denying him once you got passed all the explanations of what and why and where he was doing things.
    But. How you play,has to do with how you feel on an emotional and spiritual level,and no amount of intellectualism will change that.The intellect lies in the practice room waiting for you after the gig to fix all those things your emotions felt bad about. Be it profound or significant it will depend on your intellectual capacity.How you fix things will be determined over a long period of time the bass player you are and your musicianship.
    You don’t need to play even one solo to be considered thee best bass player in the world.That’s my last thought on that subject,but if you want, go for it, with your utmost of passion. It might not make you the best bass player but it might make you the best soloist on the bass. Its all good.Just play and enjoy the music that’s being made.You will get the call or you wont.
    Sometimes bass players sit alone on stage playing the bass with no music being made but Its all about the experience of being there and living in the moment.

  9. DennyDread

    I would ‘t worry about it. Just keep doing what you do and it will develop over time. I personally won’t do solos. I leave that to guitar players a keyboard players. I like to play a strong pocket. Listen to the masters (Stanley Clarke. Victor Wooten) to name a few. It takes time to find your style.