What’s One Piece Of Advice To Become a Better Musician?


Q: What’s the one piece of advice you got that helped you to become a better musician?

A: With this week’s column, I’m hoping to get a discussion going down below. I want to know what the best advice you ever got might have been. I’m specifically thinking of those teachable moments on a gig, in a rehearsal, or during a lesson.I’ve never been shy about trying to give constructive advice when something becomes apparent to me.

We all have tendencies, many un- or semi-conscious, that may be getting in the way of our being our best when playing with other musicians. Maybe we fill all of the spaces, or maybe we’re unaware of our volume in the context of the band as a whole. Maybe the guitarist is comping louder than the vocalist is singing in the mix. Maybe we just misunderstand one chord type and continue to play major 7’s on that dominant chord. It could be anything.

A lot of players tend to bite their tongue when there’s a consensus about one player doing something that works against the music because they don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. While I applaud the sensitivity to emotion, I think that those moments, if handled well can, can be life changing for the offender. Constructive criticism, delivered in a helpful and healthy way, is crucial to development.

Here’s one example from my life. I was on a gig with Gail Muldrow and Gigi Gonaway, both monster players who had a wealth of professional experience that I couldn’t hold a candle to at the time. Gail played with Sly Stone, Gigi toured with Mariah Carey, I worked at a coffee shop and was fresh out of school. For some reason, Gail took a liking to me and we played quite a bit over the next few years.

Gigi is the real star in this story though. I’ve never known a kinder and more gentle soul (especially one who could lay it down like him. Talk about speak softly but carry a big stick. Dude could hit!)

I don’t remember where we were playing but I do remember that Gail called Prince’s, “Kiss”. While there’s no actual bass on the recording (I don’t believe), it’s pretty obvious what the right thing to do on that tune is, right? Lock into the root, find that grid and weld yourself to the drummer, and groove like hell over the 1 and &-of-2 (duh duh……duh duh groove).

Well, me being inexperienced in a band context (remember that I was a metal drummer and hadn’t really played much bass in public before, early on in my career) AND sitting in between these two monster players. I was a panic internally throughout the gig wanting to prove myself musically. I wanted to be worthy. So I did the exact wrong thing… I filled every hole with a fill, I played chords all over everything, I tried to do my best Jaco when I even came close to playing a bass line. I basically crapped all over the song in an attempt to sound like I was a ‘player’. (hey, I was young… we’ve all been there. I’m still cringing).

I thought everything was going perfectly and on the break, Gigi came up to me while I was chilling off to the side with a big smile on my face and said something to the effect of, “hey man. You’re doing a great job tonight. Do you mind a little bit of friendly advice, though?” And then proceeded to gently but effectively lay out the reasons why space, contrast, dynamics, and simplicity can be the baddest thing I do over tunes like that. He told me they already know I can play the bass but what they really want is a bassist who can play the song.

He was kind, supportive, but 100% honest in his evaluation of my playing. He told me exactly what I was doing right but exactly what I was doing wrong and let me know exactly what the experienced folk in the group wanted from me. It was exactly what I needed and, you know what, it was a definitive moment for me. Gigi and I were on another gig not too long after that and played Superstition in there somewhere. He started playing the groove and when I came in, I was determined to ignore my brain and everything that I was tempted to play and locked in like scud missile on his quarter note kick-drum patter and the root. You know what, it KILLED. I’d never felt so locked into the pocket and he was smiling a mile wide. That moment hit me in the chest like Tyson. I’d never felt anything so good as playing a quarter note with a great drummer.

My playing didn’t change overnight. It took me years to develop my internal filter and learn when to add and when to subtract, or when it was just right.

I had some very similar moments with Peter Erskine (uncle Pete) when I first played with him in 2009. He would push me to hold back. Let the folks anticipate what you might’ve played, leave them waiting for you to let go a bit, create a bit of tension, let the space breath, and then, when you do step out a bit, it has that much more of an impact.

I’ve come to call it the art of reduction. Not everybody has the same issues though. I don’t mean this to become a thread on the virtues of simplicity. Not all music calls for it, but that was my particular monkey on my shoulder. I always had more chops than sense until a few people took the time and helped to gently steer my ship towards musicality over ego (or how, ultimately, musicality serves you professionally in the long run).

I’m always quick to compliment and also quick to give an opinion about how something could’ve been better with the musicians around me. I know that I still have plenty of work to do and still welcome those helpful impressions when they come my way as well (and they still do).

So what are some of the things that people have told you about your playing that really helped you to grow? What piece of advice did you get that got you over that next hurdle in the road to developmental nirvana? Please share your thoughts and stories 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.

Get daily bass updates.

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

Share your thoughts

  1. Matt

    This resonates with me, pun maybe intended. Playing one note, hitting it right on the money, and having it hold for 8 bars was paramount to what I was trying to accomplish. It was an exercise in discipline. Sure, I can wank all over the neck but how did it fit with what we were doing? Does it add or detract from what comes out? That was a long lesson to learn for me as well.

  2. Kurt

    Great story man! My biggest aha was when I was able to take all the theory I was pouring over and put it together with my playing style and chops. Actually slowed me down a bit. Instead of trying to be flashy and put in all these runs and fills I learned that choice of notes was much more sonically pleasing. Actually understanding what I was playing and what fit with what chord. Also learning muted notes or no notes can be just as important :) .Thanks for sharing your talents of music and writing.

  3. This is pretty basic but early in my learning, I was working with a very good guitarist who showed me an easier way to play – use my little finger! I was playing with just 3 fingers on my left hand (as you know, many very accomplished bass and guitar players still do this). It allowed me to play much more efficiently and smoother… much less hand movement.

  4. phil chrn

    practis play from d heart n if u don’t feel it don’t play de rass klatt ting rasta end of story bumbo klatt iyah.

  5. Sté

    As a former guitarist, i ran through the same thing: too much notes; not enough space. And another one: I was much listening the guitarist than the drummer. I’ve played with this very good drummer, named Bruno, who made the same explanations and learned me to listen drums. That came pretty well for the drum thing, and finding space is still an everyday’s work.

  6. Kim Stevens

    Practice things that are difficult for you (especially conceptual rather than digital).

  7. Makram Aboul Hosn

    As a double bass player in the Lebanese Philharmonic, the best advice I got so far was the principal Cellist saying to me during a conversation: “You must keep your head up and play outside of yourself.” That really helped me glue my parts to other parts and made me realize that I had to do less effort this way, rather than being so focused in a way that I shut everything out and nail my part as a solo passage. Reminds me of something Hal Galper said to me as well: “You should hear yourself last”.

  8. Brad

    My big moment came as a result of nerves. Me and my bass teacher were sharing the bass chair in a college faculty band (all music teachers, except me) and I was nervous as all hell at rehearsals. BL pulled a chart that called for an all out stanky two-feel. I timidly played a rather weak sounding attempt and the piano player waved everyone off and proceed to call me out in the middle of the rehearsal. Mortified. Teacher finished the rehearsal and said nothing. At the next lesson he talked about the piano players conduct, but advised me not to be such a pushover. He complemented my voice on the instrument and said he knew what I sounded like when the nerves were not taking over. He told me to dig in, grit my teeth, groove my ass of, and don’t give a F**k about the negative vibes being dished out. Next rehearsal, same tune. I dug in, played it the way I wanted it and had a blast. Everyone in the band complimented me after that (and the piano player apologized and said I sounded great). The moral was never let nerves or a feeling of inadequacy get in the way of the music.

  9. Pavel

    So many things to mention…
    – practice arpeggios all over the neck in all keys (this was my key to “unlocking” the fretboard)
    – learn to read musical notation (this has opened up a whole new world for me)
    – practice challenging stuff (it will be frustrating but also much more rewarding)
    – join a jazz band (after years of frustration with walking bass books and playalongs I am finally feeling like I’m really starting to learn jazz standards)
    – most important for me: keep a musical diary (this has really changed the way I practice)