Learning Songs Note for Note vs. Doing Your Own Thing
Q: I have been playing bass for a while now and when I play covers, I usually create my own lines for the song (unless it is an integral part of the song, like “Another One Bites The Dust”). I tend not to worry about learning the original bass line. Lately, I have been thinking that my approach may be limiting me as a bass player. What are the advantages of learning recorded bass lines note for note?
A: I took the very same approach for much of my life when learning songs for a gig. Like you, I would only worry about being overly specific when the bass line was a part of the hook or seemed particularly built into the structure of the song. Otherwise, I would just cop the same feel and do my thing.
A drummer I play with regularly (who has an incredible work ethic and learns every little part of every song he plays with any band) would frequently point out to me different things that he missed in the line that worked well with the groove, or even just little licks and variations that he thought were cool. I would be forced to admit that I didn’t really learn the bass line, just got the changes and feel together.
As an experiment, I decided to really put in the time while shedding for a one-off gig and learned every bass line note-for-note as well as copping certain licks or variations. Basically, playing a transcription of the tune.
While I still maintain that unless the gig calls for exact duplication, it isn’t always necessary to learn every song note for note as played on the record. Sometimes, even the original band might not even play that song in exactly the same way every time, anyway.
But I did notice that I learned a lot more in the process.
Learning another player’s line with precision and attention gives us insight into the approach of another player. You will probably find you frequently come away with cool lines, shapes, inflections or approaches that you might not have ever thought of on your own. This is where you discover what transcription is really about when applied as a learning tool. It is about gaining insight into the creation of music from someone else’s perspective.
If we only ever do things our way and ignore what others have done before us, we very well may have an individualistic style, but it would likely not be a well rounded approach. As a freelance musician, it is practically in our job descriptions that we need to be well versed in style, tone genres, and so on.
Learning other player’s exact lines gives you a broader palette to draw from when coming up with your own lines.
On the gig, if it’s not intended to be a tribute or exact duplication type of cover gig, you may very well take liberties or change your approach and lines altogether. I think music is a living thing and is meant to be interpreted (when it is appropriate to do so). If someone calls a James Brown tune or a Chaka Khan tune, I will likely start with the exact bass line or a close approximation of it. But if we’re just having fun and making music (not trying to pretend to be James Brown’s or Chaka’s band), I will likely start to interact musically in my own way as the tune evolves – without changing the overall feel or vibe unless we decide to go there collectively.
So, in short, if you want to consider yourself a student of music, you should study what others did before you with an eye for detail. Try and emulate every articulation, note, dynamics, tone…
Whether or not you take that approach in a live setting is very much dependent upon the band and type of gig it is.