Pre mid-life crisis?
April 4, 2009 5:26 AM   Subscribe

I've never played any instruments in my life and at the age of 29 I'm interested in learning the electric bass guitar. Will I be able to do this? Or do you have to have been playing an instrument since you were a child? Erm, that's it. Oh, any similar experiences or useful resources would be good to hear about. Ta.
posted by mooreeasyvibe to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Your ability to learn does not diminish with age, except or learning another language. It is only people's motivation or willingness to learn that changes. I've just successfully taught my to play a musical instrument at the age of forty, you have nothing to worry about.
posted by tallus at 5:37 AM on April 4, 2009

except for learning another language.
posted by tallus at 5:38 AM on April 4, 2009

The key to success with a musical instrument is practice. If you spend the hours, you will learn the skills. And as luck would have it, IMHO, the bass is very easy to learn.

Rock on!
posted by nomisxid at 5:42 AM on April 4, 2009

I will say that watching bass covers and instructional videos on YouTube is a nice way to learn a bit more about the instrument and to get a grasp for it until you actually buy a bass, read the books, and take lessons.

I haven't made the leap into actually getting a bass yet, but I'm 31 and am on a very similar quest to you, so I myself looking forward to the responses you get. :)
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 5:42 AM on April 4, 2009

You will be able to do this.
posted by dirtdirt at 5:43 AM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Playing a simple line on an electric base is really easy and really satisfying. You will need to toughen up your fingers and your hand muscles, but really, the threshold for learning simple and fun stuff is a lot lower than on a violin or a trumpet or something.
posted by creasy boy at 5:44 AM on April 4, 2009

Response by poster: Even after these few responses I'm feeling really encouraged.

It's on. Oh yes, IT IS ON!
posted by mooreeasyvibe at 5:46 AM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

See my AskMetafiliter post from just about 5 years ago! I was 37 when I posted that, and, if I do say so myself, I'm doing OK. Last night, after watching Dan in Real Life, my wife asked me if I could learn "Let My Love Open the Door." So I did, just like that, just picked up my guitar and figured it out and learned it and played it. It's really pretty awesome to be able to do that.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:05 AM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Instruments like the bass can be easy to learn, hard to master, and fun the whole way through. Of course you can do it, and you damn well should do it.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 6:26 AM on April 4, 2009

Very doable: I started on banjo at 33, guitar at 36. I now have rather more instruments than I know what to do with. Learning fretless might be tricky, but regular bass should be fun.
posted by scruss at 6:26 AM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can. You may not go on to front your own bass-based progressive tech-metal band a couple years from now, but if you want to play well enough to goof around with friends and play the occasional local show, then absolutely. My advice would be that the fundamentals will probably come to you fairly soon if you stick with it and real assets will be a sense of taste and harmony.
posted by el_lupino at 6:47 AM on April 4, 2009

Get a teacher; avoid neck and back problems.
posted by RichardS at 6:59 AM on April 4, 2009

I'm learning the cello at 39, re-teaching myself the banjo, learning some piano pieces... it goes on. It's one of the pleasures of my life. Some keys:

- Keep your humility with you, at all times. It's your greatest tool. Some people's egos won't let them progress. They have to believe, right away, that they're competent, or that they're faster than average at picking things up. This position tends to crash easily and suddenly they can't do anything, they're no good. I accept that I'm absolutely average in skill and speed, just more persistent than most. I couldn't accept that as a kid or a teenager. This makes me more likely to pick up instruments at 39!
- When you practice, focus on what you can't do. This seems self-explanatory, but it isn't. You have a task you think you can accomplish — a riff, or a piece of a song, or a skill. Break it into its tiniest components and find the one you're having the most trouble with. Practice that into the ground — 100 times over, 1000 times over. It works.
- If there's any chance you can join a local choir or sing with anyone, do it. Singing is so good for your soul and it's the foundation of any instrument. If you're shy about singing, get over it.

Have fun!
posted by argybarg at 7:04 AM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I started late and was in a band within a year. write your own music because you always play it the way it's supposed to go! best advice? never practice your mistakes. play it note by painful note as slowly as is needed then speed it up until the right way comes out
posted by Redhush at 7:31 AM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I started ukulele at 39. I wish I'd started ten years earlier! Go for it!
posted by bink at 7:37 AM on April 4, 2009

I'm 39 and started on the bass last year, so hell yes you can do it, why not? Slap some bass mon!
posted by Dean King at 7:42 AM on April 4, 2009

I gonna say this: don't get a teacher. Seriously, just find some tabs for some songs you like and learn how to play them. This way you develop your own style, and you don't have to spend all that money :). This advice is echoed from a friend of mine who is a music teacher at a school. His exact words from my IM log: "Fuck technique, when you start worrying about that the guitar starts to suck". I bought my first guitar one and a half years ago, started checking out tabs, and now I can play some moderately wicked songs. If you like rock or metal, be sure to check out ultimate-guitar, it's the best.
posted by Mach5 at 7:54 AM on April 4, 2009

Here's some practical advice from a 26 year old bass player who's been playing since he was 13.

1.) Purchase an instrument that feels comfortable.

Too many people decide to take up the bass or the guitar and purchase the cheapest instrument available. I highly advise against this. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars or even spend more than three hundred or four hundred. Look around on the used market. Visit instrument shops. But most importantly, pick up and play the basses.

Do you want a wide neck because you have big hands? a shorter scale because you have shorter arms? Do you want a bass made of luthite or some other light weight material because you have back problems? These are questions that you can answer by trying a bunch of different basses and playing them.

2.) You will have blisters.

Electric guitar and bass strings are essentially really thing wires wrapped sideways around other wires running long ways. This means that there thousands of little rides along the length of the string. When you move your fingers over these ridges they are going to act like sandpaper in a way, and your fingertips will blister all too hell as a result.

I don't know how you prefer to handle blisters, but whatever method you use, have it ready. But you'll only get the blisters once. After they go away the first time you should have some awesome calluses built up.

3.) Learn by playing songs.

Alot of people give up because they feel like they have to practice scales and modes and yada yada yada. You don't. If you don't enjoy playing scales, then don't play scales. The quickest way to kill your desire to learn an instrument is to make it not fun. The quickest way to do that is by forcing yourself to play things that aren't fun.

If you're picking up the bass because you want to learn the lines to some of your favorite songs, then practice those lines. You'll be having more fun, it'll be more rewarding, and your technique will develop just as well as if you were playing those scales.

4.) Your fretting hand will be stretched all to hell.

One of the consequences of bass as opposed to guitar is that the necks are a little longer and so the frets are a little further spaced apart near the low end of the neck. This means that you'll have to really stretch out your pinky finger away from your ring finger. If you can't do this right away, don't sweat it. It'll happen over time.

An example of what I'm talking about is in the song Peter Gunn. The spy song that goes dun dun dah dun dah dun dah dun. That main riff, if played on the bass, goes F F G F Ab F Bb Ab. Play that riff a few times and watch what happens to your pinky finger.

5.) Learn to read tablature

TAB is really easy and it's how you'll lean the majority of songs. For tabs check out

I would also advise not purchasing an amp, even a dinky practice amp, for a while. Amps are a whole other thing and they can affect your desire to play.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 7:57 AM on April 4, 2009

Best piece of advice I can add to this thread is that once you buy your bass videotape yourself with a webcam once a week and store those videos. It's probably better not to look at them and then after a year take a look at your progress.

Believe me when I say this, it's all the motivation you'll need to realise just how much progress you're making (you can watch them week to week but the effect isn't quite as profound).

Best of luck, you'll be rocking by the time your 32!

PS - I second the not purchasing an amp for the meantime. It's just another variable that'll confuse things.
posted by fantasticninety at 8:10 AM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Let me add the one piece of advice I can offer anyone learning any instrument ever: buy a metronome and use it, as much as humanly possible. It will seem like a pain, a restriction, but as soon as you play with another person or a group, it will make the difference in making things work.
posted by tmcw at 8:17 AM on April 4, 2009

What's all this "don't buy an amp" garbage? How do you expect him to hear his electric bass without an amp, particularly if he wants to, you know, play along with something? You don't need to buy the nicest amp out there (nor the nicest bass). Just get something small and inexpensive for now; you won't know what kind of sound you want and how to get it until you're more proficient anyway, so no sense spending a lot up front.

As far as learning, set goals for yourself. Find a song you like and try to learn to play it. Then find a harder song, and another, and another. This is how I taught myself the guitar, and a few years in, I could do some passable Satriani. The sense of accomplishment you get when you finally nail a song that you've been trying to learn for a while is incredible.
posted by sinfony at 9:10 AM on April 4, 2009

What's all this "don't buy an amp" garbage?

you can hear a bass just fine without it being amplified.

But secondly, it's more money, and an awful amp could be bought which would just make playing more frustrating. For the OP's purposes, which is just learning the instrument and getting comfortable with the idea that he can, in fact, be a bass player, an amp is unnecessary.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 9:18 AM on April 4, 2009

Again: how could one possibly play along to anything without an amp? Also, I fail to see how buying a mediocre amp would make playing more frustrating, unless the amp was so mediocre that it didn't work at all, which seems unlikely. I bought a $70 practice amp twelve years ago that works the same today as it did the day I got it. It doesn't sound very good, but it certainly sounds better than my unamplified guitar/bass.
posted by sinfony at 10:06 AM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Again: how could one possibly play along to anything without an amp?

People do it all the time.

And understand, we're not telling the guy to never buy an amp, only to delay the purchase for a month or so after the bass.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 10:27 AM on April 4, 2009

I am a guitar and bass teacher. You can become proficient in a few months if you practice consistently. Finding a good teacher will help. You should buy an amp.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:19 AM on April 4, 2009

An amazingly fast way to learn is to actually join a band.

I used to spend hours in my room practicing scales, "walking the neck", making up riffs, but I still didn't "get it". Eventually I built up the courage to join a band, and fortunately the other players were far more proficient than I, but extremely patient. The first practice where we actually got through a song- was an amazing rush.
posted by mattoxic at 12:06 PM on April 4, 2009

My mom started playing banjo at age 57, and now she both plays clawhammer and bach inventions.
posted by umbú at 12:07 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Absolutely get the very best genius teacher you can find.

Bass is an excellent adult beginner instrument.

A good Fender Precision bass is an instrument that's adaptable to almost every kind of music, easy to find and generally good quality.

If you are serious, buy a decent instrument. If you are just goofing around, there are better ways to goof around. Buy a decent, if small, amp. One that sounds good and won't break your back to move. Crappy instruments will depress you. Basses are not that expensive (try violins...they are expensive). For $400 you could probably buy something decent, for $1000 you should be able to get something great for $2000 you could buy your life instrument.

Watch the video "Standing In the Shadows of Motown"

Listen to Jaco Pastorious, James Jamerson, The Miseducation of Lauren Hill.

Realize that music is about dilligent practice. It took me a while to realize that. More so if you are starting late. But that practice can be fun, or at least, interesting, like meditating.
posted by sully75 at 12:39 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can do it. I started playing guitar at age 38, and a year later I can play about 50 songs pretty well.

I don't know why this thread is turning weirdly controversial, but:

* For God's sake, buy an amp, it's more fun and you'll be able to hear your mistakes. You can play unplugged (I practice electric guitar with no amp 90% of the time) but you'll hit extra strings and never know the horrible noises you're going to hear when you plug in.

Don't waste money on a huge amp, buy a Roland Micro Cube ($99) or something. Spend most of your money on a good bass.

* For God's sake, get a teacher. If you want to quit after a few lessons and go off to "develop your own style", that's fine, but even a few lessons will save you a world of hurt.

My teacher's main purpose is to give me accountability - if I don't practice, I'll have to answer to him once a week. He certainly doesn't stop me from developing my own style - in fact he encourages it.

I self-taught myself for 3 months, but I couldn't play a single song well until I started taking lessons.
posted by mmoncur at 12:48 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can definitely do this! Do make sure, however, that you take breaks when you're playing. There will come a moment when you find that you can play along with a song you really love and you will want to play it again and again and again without stopping. Yeah, don't do that. Shake your hands out periodically, do some wrist circles, take a rest, and then go back to it. And make sure you've got your thumb in the right position on the neck. (I get a twinge in my arm every time I hear the Cure song 'Fascination Street' for a reason.)

Enjoy, playing is a blast.
posted by corey flood at 1:47 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing that age is not an issue. A few more points, though...

Buying an amp will make the experience of playing an electric bass a a lot more fun for a beginner. As a general rule, good bass amplification is large. You need a large cabinet with large speakers to create the big, long sound waves that make up a bass guitar's frequency range, and you need a big amp to drive the large speakers in the big cabinet. I only mention this so that you can feel free to avoid thinking about what kind of large, expensive, good bass amp to get. Just buy something so that you can hear yourself play over the music on your stereo (maybe a combo with one 8 or ten inch speaker).

The actual guitar is a different story. Even if you just want "a cheap bass" to start out, follow tylerfulltilt's advice and try a bunch of different "cheap" basses until you get one that feels, sounds, and looks right (in that order). Because you've never played the bass, you might not know what it means for the instrument to "feel" right, but in trying lots of different instruments, you'll at least understand what feels different between different bases, which then helps to make an informed opinion.

I would only agree to not getting a teacher if you have either A) previous musical experience, or B) musical friends who can offer you advice, show you things, and basically act as your teacher informally.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 8:39 PM on April 4, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you very much to everyone who's posted and offered advice and tips. I'm feeling good about this and it's going to be fun.

I'm gonna get an amp.
posted by mooreeasyvibe at 3:50 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

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