Adding Some New School Playing to an Old School Bassist

Bassist by Feliciano Guimaraes

Photo by Feliciano Guimaraes

Q: I’ve been playing a certain way or style (as in thump, pop or blues) for as long as I can remember. Today’s bass players tend to play a lot – it seems way busier. What do you recommend for an old school bassist who wants to update to today’s styles so it sticks?

A: That is an interesting question and also one that could be interpreted more than a few ways. I’ll be reading in between the lines a little bit, so forgive me if I get off track from what you intended.

Not all of today’s players play “busy”, just the ones that tend to get the most love on Youtube. Most bassists who are gigging 200+ nights a year aren’t playing busy much of time, if at all. It’s likely dependent upon the gig and the music being played. Most truly busy bassists know how to hold back in service of the song, regardless of the pyrotechnics they are capable of playing.

While the instrument has evolved in many ways, music is still music. There is music that demands much physically and technically of the musician. There is also music which simply demands feel, time, tone and respect for the intention of it. Then there is music which demands a little bit of both (or a lot of both).

You’ll never be able to play with complete honesty in any style that doesn’t connect with you viscerally on some level. For example, if you aren’t into the style of music for what it is, I wouldn’t bother trying to learn an entirely new approach in your playing simply to “keep up with the Joneses”. I’ve never bothered with any style of bass playing that didn’t intrigue me for its own merits. I never learned to slap well, for example. I don’t enjoy playing metal bass or reggae (although I like some music in both styles). I only worry about my ability to play the music that appeals to me on some level. I just won’t take gigs that I can’t connect with in some way.

The very end of your question is what put me on the path of thinking that I wouldn’t recommend bothering with something unless it connects with you. You asked how to update your style “so it sticks”. In my estimation, it will only “stick” if you’re connected to the music in some way. You can never really internalize a style or approach without a lot of listening and understanding aurally first. You have to really know how it feels and moves to be able to play it with integrity. It is certainly possible to play a style of music in the early stages of your vocabulary development but you have to feel it well in order to get any headway, and that requires listening.

Nobody can learn to swing, shuffle or create a sense of “pocket” out of a book or from an exercise. You have to know how it sounds and then train your muscle memory to respond appropriately through practice and actual playing situations (and hopefully, more of the latter).

Long story short… it’ll stick if you truly dig it and pursue it. Physically speaking, anything that sticks does so out of repetition. Whatever it is you are trying to do physically, develop the right hand strokes, feel and pressure and the left hand positioning, stylistic nuance (slurs, etc.) and everything else through systematically developing your technique in the shed and playing the music with people.

Along the way, you should always be recording and listening back so you can evaluate how you sound and respond musically. Then, make adjustments… note what needs work and get back to the shed.

While I caution against playing fast simply because you can (working on that myself), I do strongly believe that everybody should try to attain as much or, preferably, just a little bit more technique and ability than you need to play the music you play. I believe that the instrument should be the first obstacle we hope to overcome when we are developing. I never want my instrument to be an issue when making music (or my ability to navigate it, find notes on the fretboard, get a good sound, etc.). I want that to be an extension of me and my musical impulses.

After that, I paid more and more attention to my musical impulses and that’s where the work got both interesting, esoteric and also much more difficult.

As far as how to simply develop ‘chops’? There are a million and one articles out there on the web (and many of the best, right here on No Treble).

Here is one I wrote back in 2012 on developing speed (and there are quite a few others if you do a search).

Beyond the physicality of it, I would suggest that you:

  1. Listen to a lot of music that does what it is you are looking for in your playing.
  2. Transcribe like mad and then also really study the note choices as they relate to the chord changes. Get inside the line and figure out why it is so good and how it works.
  3. Play a lot of music with a lot of different people. Each person brings their own feel, skill-set, and approach to any musical situation. You can learn a lot by playing even the same grooves with different drummers.
  4. Try and write and record grooves, lines and/or songs that are in the direction you want to go in. Record, listen and criticize (constructively).

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.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Pete

    And here I thought I was the only bassist that never learned to slap well. I too, for the same reason. I don’t like it.

  2. Mike Matthews

    Great article Damian. I like and agree with your comment on attaining just a little bit more technique and ability to play the music you play. It truly helps a player sound like they are ‘owning it’.

  3. Some of the ‘Greats’ never popped and slapped and they are just as respected by those who do, James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, Paul McCartney and believe it or not Jaco. When I play with a good drummer and we are in the pocket it doesn’t have to be busy,slappy or poppy to sound good.

  4. A dude

    I’m a -proud- bass player for a little time, around 7 years. Since I started in music with a guitar, I was always kind of in front of people. When I could change to bass, since i started music because of the bass, I feeled that I was leaved behind and most people didn’t even care to pay attention to what I was playing. So I decided to play more of a ‘melodic bass’ while sticking to basis and what a bass is for. I began learning the scales, how chords worked in guitar and little by little started to apply all of that into mi current style, which many people seems to like, actually, and that is what motivates me to keep it up and keep researching and making experiments and try to learn of every music style out there, from the ones I love to the ones I acttualy don’t like. I think is useful to learn from a lot of sources. I’m mexican, and my main “styles” are rock and pop, but I try to always put blues, jazz, latin rhythms, metal, folk and, specially, asian styles (again, from folk to rock, but mostly J-pop). So far it’s working for me, as I truly enjoy my instrument and all that had develop as well in a personal guitar style. I kind of mix both. It works, I enjoy -remark- and people that hear me enjoy as well.

    Long story short, IMO, it worth to try a lot of styles and try to take whatever likes from them into your own.

  5. Wayne Renardson

    As usual, Mr. Erskine makes a lot of sense. Thank you sir.

    Wayne R

  6. Doc.Hoc.

    I tried slapping – popping but lose control over muting with my bass strings and its not meant for me . So I don’t feel bad about it , I just move forward with what works for me.
    Mostly what I enjoy and what brings me pleasure.

    Just a note , I folded over 2 paper towels , tucked them under my bass strings by the bridge for control of noisy , vibrating bass strings. Depending on how much mute you need is the amount of paper towels you use , then press down on them under your strings for desired sound.

    Works for me and its cheap , deducing irritating things in life now seem to cause less anxiety in the future .

  7. Sound information and advice,Damian….BASS ON !!

  8. Great advice, as always, Damian! Thank you!