Should Hobby Bassists Learn Arpeggios and Scales?

Q: As a “hobby” bassist who doesn’t really want to study as much music as a professional might, is it most important to learn arpeggios or scales? I am not a chord player nor do I want to be as far as I know. (I have difficulty chording due to neuro-muscular problems in my hands. If I could do that, I’d play a guitar.)

A: I’ve likely said this in one way or another in previous columns, but I firmly believe that in both art and life, nobody needs to feel pressured into being or doing any more with it than they want.

If you want to paint only abstract shapes, but someone pressures you to work on figure drawing or realism for some perceived reason, you have every right to say no (in as many or few words as you like).

If you only want to play rock, but your teacher tries to force jazz on you because it’s “the only way to get better at your instrument”, find a new teacher.

The key is being honest with yourself with regard to what you truly do want out of your musical life. If you want to be a professional, freelance bassist then yes, you will truly need to learn to read, learn your scales, arpeggios, walking, soloing, and so on.

If you are playing music because it brings you joy and you don’t feel the need to have monster chops and blistering solos, then why would you push yourself that hard to internalize something that has nothing to do with the music you intend to make or hope to make in the future?

Just know that if you actively decide not to work on scales, theory or any of the rest of it, you will surely be limited in the scope of what you can expect to play down the road. The only “mistake” I see students and friends make with consistency is to avoid working on things out of laziness and then feel disappointed that they aren’t developing as quickly as they would like.

You also mentioned having neural-muscular issues with your hands. This surely limits what you might do physically on the instrument (although necessity truly is the mother of invention, and you very well may discover new and interesting ways to do things on the instrument). If you’re goal is to have fun and just play around within the physical limits you have on the instrument, I say to just keep it fun and do your thing!

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. Ignacio Rivera

    Well said! The best part of it was ” have fun”

  2. that bass guy

    The only “penalty” any pays by not learning technique is the loss of ability to express yourself. Technique is not about mindless repetition but about broadening your ability to say what you want to say. Advanced technique not only allows more advanced self-expression but at a certain point the player ceases to burden himself and his audience by his lack of skill.

    But, yeah, if it’s not fun don’t do it. Part of the fun of improving on an instrument implies a temperament that enjoys the incremental victories resulting from regular practice.

  3. John S.

    The problem is that these guys then buy a stack of method books, and tab songbooks, and videos and online lesson subscriptions that all basically show them chords and scales, but couched in all sorts of euphemisms to make it seem like they aren’t learning chords and scales. Then when they are thoroughly confused, they come to a teacher like me… and the first thing I do is show them how to play chords and scales. Every song you want to play is a cord or scale. There aren’t that many to learn, and with the exception of open positions, they are all the same fingering. To me it’s like learning to drive without knowing what a traffic signal is for.

  4. vince

    Uhmm, i think, it does not answer the question. I agree that no one should force you to learn different genre. However, the question ask whether he should learn a technique.

    To me, playing an instrument is like learning a new language. It’s true that you can learn language on your own. However, other people (especially those who knew how to speak it well) will often correct you (accent, grammar, etc…). The will give you advice in order for you to come up with a better structured sentence. You may choose to ignore them. But you will most likely end up doing the same mistake over and over again. You may feel that you are speaking fluently without the help of others, but to others, you might sound like a cave man.

    You may choose to stick with playing rock. But it does not hurt to add scales and arpeggio in your arsenal.

  5. Sean Carey

    Great answer from Damien as always! The only thing is I would say if he does get a teacher, he might as well be learning some jazz for it’s pure musical content. He doesn’t have to be a jazzer if that’s not what he’s interested in. I would say if he’s more interested in rock, he should learn lots of rock music by ear like most famous rock musicians did.

  6. Doc.Hoc.

    I play bass by ear cause I have a natural ability to pick up bass lines. This past year I’ve had problems with the fingers on my right hand loosing strength getting crossed or simply don’t work , using my thumb is a alternative, its very frustrating. This past year I’ve become a lot better and know my arpeggios and scales. This may be hard to understand but reason I learn something new each day it takes my mind off the chronic pain in my cervical spine.

  7. I would say yes, to explore new aspects of your hobby. If you learn arpeggios and scales, you’ll be able to just sit down, put on a backing track, and see where the music takes you, which is a very fun hobby in my opinion. It really depends on what direction you want to take your hobby. If you’re content playing tabs, then it’s not really necessary to learn arpeggios and scales.

  8. Remon

    Yes, yes, yes….I struggled for years without that foundation. Between chords, arpeggios, II-V-I progressions, scales, etc., now I can play almost anything. But don’t do it alone…you must find a good teacher. Your best teacher wont’ be your first teacher, but you will learn something with each. In the end it is about what you want to do with your “hobby.” I don’t want to die being a good corporate citizen, but instead being an awesome bassist.

  9. Anthony

    The key is not avoiding learning out of laziness.

  10. C. Astier

    Do hobbyist carpenters willfully ignore the use of common hand tools, techniques, etc? While a hobbyist, amateur, weekend warrior do not *need* to learn as much as a professional musician it can’t hurt to learn, particularly if one bothers to study a little.

    Are the mechanics of a good tennis serve somehow different for a person who plays tennis once a year, a competitive club player or a professional? Nope! Can everyone actually learn more, get better and utilize information which is generally accepted as assisting you in being a better player? Yup! And you might even have more fun by learning something new even though you don’t have to.

  11. Sindig0

    The more you learn, the more you’ll get out of your ‘hobby’ and time spent learning is never wasted time.