The Lightbulb Moment: Low and Slow

Bassist

The trick to good barbeque is low and slow—rather than cooking the meat quickly with high heat, we reduce the temperature to slowly steam, smoke, or braise. This process allows the texture and flavor to develop over time, chemically changing the proteins and fats. The result is meat that is perfectly juicy, tender, and downright delicious. I’d like to think the same thing goes for bass playing.

Sure, it can be fun to play fast, especially if we aspire to rock some Metallica or tackle the technically challenging “Teen Town” (or these days, “Dean Town”), but we need to be realistic about what and how we play. Perhaps it’s better to play something cleaner, clearer, and more musically, rather than something quick and dirty. Take your time, escape from distraction, and worry less about instant gratification. The process may take a bit longer, but you’ll probably find that the slow and steady tortoise wins the race. So, whether we’re grooving or practicing, let’s discuss how slower tempos allow for a steady evolution of our bass playing.

To begin, let’s admit that most of us pick up our instrument, and right off the bat, we immediately try to play faster than we should. There are reasons for this! First, it’s that we try to match the music we hear in our head. We typically process how something sounds in relation to how we’ve heard it—we watch a video of someone briskly playing a scale or envision our favorite bands performing on stage. We immediately compare ourselves to these performances and attempt to play that way. All of the sudden, we experience failure. We play the wrong fret, pluck the wrong string, and sound absolutely sloppy. Then, we try again, making the same mistakes, and get frustrated—again.

A great way to remedy this is to just SLOW DOWN. It’s that simple. Your brain, your fingers, and your ears all have to line up in order to play something correctly. Muscle memory involves all three components. We need to correctly think about what we’re playing—knowing the notes, frets, and strings with certainty. We have to physically play the instrument enough so that it becomes more natural for our fingers to be in the right place. And, we need to hear what we’re playing in our head so that we can correctly match those sounds or recognize when we’ve made a mistake. The best way to develop these three muscles is, you guessed it, to slow down.

That said, whenever you start working on an exercise, set yourself up for success by intentionally playing slowly. Find a tempo that will keep you accountable for playing relaxed. Focus on tone, technique, and musicality. After all, this notion of success should involve playing cleanly and without mistakes. It shouldn’t be about speed. Once you’re able to play the exercise, increase the tempo slowly, by 2-4 bpm. Play the exercise in a low-impact way, allowing yourself to succeed without over-straining your muscles. Sure, it may seem like a long process, but the point is to build repetition into your practice, gain muscle memory, and prepare yourself for faster playing in the future.

As you step out of exercises and move toward song-learning, make low-and-slow choices here too. Work on slower grooves, choose ballads over rockers, and focus on the musical elements: get to the chords in time, play the correct notes, and serve the song as the “in the pocket” bass player. If you love a particular band and really want to play along to their music, take time to listen to their catalog and choose a song that seems realistic for you to play. For instance, if you’re an Aerosmith fan, try tackling “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” or “Crazy” before “Sweet Emotion” or “Walk This Way”.

If you need even more convincing, know that low and slow playing is a great way to work on your internal time as well as your ability to subdivide rhythms. Chances are, you’ll get your body involved more and will begin to feel time by either swaying side to side, tapping your foot, or bopping your head. These physical responses mean that you’re internalizing the time. Not only that, you may bounce your foot with eighth notes because it feels like the right thing to do—you’re subdividing the time without even knowing it.

So this weekend, do yourself a favor and prepare a brisket. While it’s cooking for a few hours, pick up your bass, and practice low-and-slow. By dinner time, you’ll be able to reward yourself with a home-cooked meal and a side of tasty bass playing.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. Bill/zeprin Johnson

    This is why my #1 Favorite (out of many, MANY Favorite) Bass Player is BILL WYMAN. Yeah I know many today are going Bill WHO? But no, not WHO but Rolling Stones! I like to think of his playing not necessarily ‘SLOW’ but as ‘Minimalist’. And always, always, ALWAYS “PLAYING FOR THE SONG”. There are a few isolation tracks on YouTube, give him a listen sometime and appreciate the Slow/Minimalist approach.

  2. Todd in San Diego

    Thanks for another great Lightbulb Moment Ryan. I have definitely been guilty of starting with “Sweet Emotion” at full speed and ending with frustration at my perceived failure. Your advice is, as always, spot on and immediately actionable.

  3. Benjy

    When working on a new piece (using sheet music), it is better to begin by NOT listening to a recording or YouTube clip of what the work should sound like. The audio can subconsciously influence your mind and make you speed things up.

    Once you feel that you have mastered the music to your personal limits, go and check out other interpretations of what others have done with the notes.

    This is a great way of rewarding all of those hours of efforts you put in, with your own “personal touch”.

  4. Michael Hamer

    I have been playing bass guitar for 50 years! I my opinion the bass line that is the classic illustration of the value of this article, is in the song “Disco Lady” by Johnnie Taylor. If you can play that song with the discipline that the bassist on that session did, (rumor on the street is that the bassist was “Bootsy” Collins) In my opinion, it is one one the great bass lines, when it comes to feel, groove and pocket. if you can find it give it a listen.

  5. Great advice, the desire for instant gratification can lead to “negative muscle memory” where you learn to repeat mistakes.

    What’s helping me work slowly is studying songs that are slow to begin with such as Never Been to Spain by Three Dog Night and the slow version of Times Like These by Foo Fighters. I’ll navigate chord changes on those and then apply that knowledge to help with faster songs like American Girl, etc.

  6. Joseph Davis

    Jamie Andreas, a classical guitar teacher of renown, drills this OVER and OVER in her excellent learning materials. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bass player FIRST, but applying the above article and even purchasing some of Jamie Andreas’ books and instructional materials can help a bass player. Thank you for a great article. I live in Kansas City, barbecue capital of the COSMOS, so I’m loving the analogy! Thank you for a great article.

  7. Colin Bragg

    Another trick to building and tweaking your muscle memory: after you’ve worked up a piece to speed (and beyond!), go back and play it at wildly different tempos to discover any trouble spots you may have developed.