You're 8 and want to play loud music. Your instrument (of destruction) is...
November 23, 2010 5:58 AM   Subscribe

My son (8) wants to be Les Claypool. While I can't fault his source of inspiration, I'm not sure starting on the bass is the right way to go--and if it isn't, where do we start?

The Boy has been interested in learning to play for at least a couple of years. His favorite band is Green Day, but when a Primus song came on while we were in the car one day, he said, "THAT. I want to learn to play like that." So, bass.

We put him off a bit because he's both Aspie and ADHD, and we worried that he'd get too easily frustrated and give up if he started too soon. At this point, I think his motivation will overcome some amount of frustration, but I still want to choose a starting point with the most chance of success. I've talked to a few guitarists I know, all of whom have given varied opinions on how to get him introduced to playing. Some have suggested starting him on guitar, some have said starting on bass should be fine.

I'd like to get him an instrument for Christmas, so I'm hoping that you guys can help me make the final decision: bass or guitar (and if guitar, electric or acoustic).

(The Boy and I have talked about the fact that most bassists I know started out on guitar, so he's ok with the idea of starting with guitar if that's what we decide.)
posted by elfgirl to Education (59 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, Claypool started out on bass because he thought it would be easier to learn an instrument with only four strings. At least, I think I read that in an interview like 15 years ago.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:03 AM on November 23, 2010

I always got the sense that most bassists started on guitar because people don't like to play bass, so guitarists end up having to play bass for their band and wind up becoming real bassists. I don't see how it would really help--if anything it would give you some bad habits.
posted by nasreddin at 6:07 AM on November 23, 2010

Best answer: I worked as a musician and taught both guitar and bass. There is no particular reason why an eight-year-old cannot or should not start learning on a bass guitar. And generally speaking, as a former teacher, parents who want their child to remain interested in music after buying an instrument ($$) should pay attention to what the child says he wants to play.
posted by cribcage at 6:11 AM on November 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I started on bass, simply because the band I was in at the time had trouble keeping a bass player. The one bit of advice I would give you is to make sure you're buying a 3/4th scale bass for him to start with. An 8-year-old is going to have small hands, and trying to play a full scale bass with small hands is a surefire recipe for frustration.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:11 AM on November 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

As long as you can get a scaled down bass, he should be fine.
posted by bardophile at 6:12 AM on November 23, 2010

In my experience, a kid with ADHD (or well, any kid for that matter) is more likely to stick to something if they feel passionate about it. If you want him to actually enjoy playing then get him an instrument that he actually wants.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:13 AM on November 23, 2010

Thirding a 3/4 scale bass & he should be fine. One of my best friends started bass around that age & he's flippin amazing now.
posted by oh really at 6:21 AM on November 23, 2010

Response by poster: Wow -- I don't think I've ever gotten so many answers so quickly to an ask before.

So far, you've all echoed my personal opinion on the topic, so that's heartening. I didn't really want to make him start on guitar, but we'd had advice (including from a guitar/bass teacher) that bass might be difficult for him because of his size. (see below)

The one bit of advice I would give you is to make sure you're buying a 3/4th scale bass for him to start with. An 8-year-old is going to have small hands, and trying to play a full scale bass with small hands is a surefire recipe for frustration.

This was the justification that I got for starting him on guitar first, so it's good to know there are smaller scale basses, too. I'd only seen guitars so far, so I'll have to do some more looking.
posted by elfgirl at 6:21 AM on November 23, 2010

Musically, it doesn't really matter. Seriously. However, there are, for lack of better term, social and physical differences.

Advantages of starting on guitar: (1) He'll learn to play an instrument that he can play recognizable songs on without accompaniment. While he won't be able to play many songs note-for-note, he'll be able to strum the chords and sing (or hum) along. (2) The guitar has smaller, thinner strings, which will allow him to build up the finger strength required to play bass.

Advantages of starting on bass: (1) He'll be able to play the actual bass parts from some actual songs he knows more quickly than he'd be able to learn the actual guitar parts. That's because some/many bass parts are relatively easy. However, a lot of times the bass parts don't sound like the actual song, and he'll be years away from playing anything resembling most Les Claypool stuff. (2) He'll start to develop the finger strength required to play the bass immediately. (3) He'll learn good right hand technique from the beginning, since he likely won't be using a pick.

My opinion: If he's sure he wants to be a bass player, then learn to play the bass. However, the guitar is more versatile, so if he's likely to waffle, that's a good place to start.
posted by griseus at 6:23 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First off, I think an eight year old wanting to be Les Claypool is just about the most awesome thing ever. I don't think any kid could hear Tommy The Cat and not want to immediately play bass. You should get him their live DVD. Great playing.

If you get him a guitar, after he learns a few chords he'll want to start a band with his friends. He'll have five friends all show up with guitars, all of them playing Smoke on the Water, all claiming that they should be the lead guitarist because they can play half the solo from Smells Like Teen Spirit and, besides, they have the best guitar. If you get him a bass he'll always be in demand and he can sit back and let the guitarists fight it out.

Every bass player I know is awesome. I don't know what it is about that instrument, but there's just something cool that happens when it is plugged in and you hear that BOOM BUDDA BOOM.

As for frustration, I don't play bass and I'm a hack guitarists, so take this for what it's worth. I think learning to just play a string cleanly on guitar is one of the worst parts about starting out. You manage to hold one string down on the fret and you're hitting another string and deadening it. There's more space on a bass and it's not as easy to trip over the strings. The strings are a bit harder to hold down, being thicker, but there's more room to move.

It's probably a lot easier to fake your way through a song with a bass. A lot of rock songs the bass player is playing the same note eight times and then switching to another note while the guitarist is switching chords. I don't know that it's any "easier" because it only has four strings, it plays a different role, but I think it might be easier to get to the point where you can play a basic song. Chords are tough.

Les is something to strive for, but it'll be a while before he can get there. Find some other good bass players (play him some old Joe Jackson stuff, great bass!) for him as well. Red Hot Chili Peppers as well, though some of their lyrics might not be right for an eight year old, if that matters.

I kind of want to tell you to keep him away from Rush, because the last thing the world needs more of is obsessive pre-teen Rush fans going on and on about sci-fi lyrics and 21/43 time signatures, but it's only a matter of time before he discovers them (if he hasn't already) and I suppose for an aspiring bass player they're pretty much the band to obsess over.


I wish someone had encouraged me to play bass, or anything, when I was eight.
posted by bondcliff at 6:24 AM on November 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

Aspie and ADHD

Gross and likely useless anecdata time: without question, all the best bass players I know are people who could arguably be lumped into that spectrum. Moreso than guitarists, drummers, or other players. Linearity? I don't know. But as has been said by lots of other people, if it's bass he is hearing and thinking he wants to play, you should get him a bass.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:27 AM on November 23, 2010

Get him rock band 3.
posted by empath at 6:28 AM on November 23, 2010

If you don't want your kid to go down the prog-rock tunnel of doom, introduce him to Pete Hook. Now there's an apt name if I've ever seen one.
posted by nasreddin at 6:28 AM on November 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also: early Gang of Four, early New Model Army, you know the rest.
posted by nasreddin at 6:29 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

My son who is now 14 wanted to play the bass. He refused to play the guitar. He started on a stand-up base at his school and now plays electric. He loves it and looks forward to his weekly lesson. He does not practice much, but he is real good. His teacher is trying to get him into a band, but he just wants to play for the sake of playing.

Bass is good. Bass works for younger kids. It has kept my easily distracted son focused and engaged.
posted by AugustWest at 6:30 AM on November 23, 2010

I was a bass player, as in I pointed and said "I want to play THAT" and so that's what I did. I was not a guitar player, though I tried to learn because I felt obligated to be well-rounded. That sucked and I didn't like it and still don't every time I think I'm going to learn to try again. It's the same shape and it's got strings on, but the method and the hand and the ear for bass is completely different. Definitely find the 3/4 scale bass and let him do that.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:37 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Playing bass is awesome and fun, and THE BEST way to learn how rock songs are constructed and how bands work. I'd definitely find a short scale bass for a kiddo that young (avoid the Squier stuff - they may look like small Fender basses & guitars but they do not stay in tune, ever).

Les Claypool is a huge fan of the three records King Crimson made in the '80s. The Boy might really like them/be interested in what gets Les excited, too. Also: they are completely amazing.
posted by mintcake! at 6:40 AM on November 23, 2010

This isn't exactly an answer to what you asked, but it may help with the question of where to find a smaller bass: Daisy makes smaller guitars and basses that are awesome. They're technically designed for girls, but I see no reason why a boy couldn't use them.
posted by dizziest at 6:42 AM on November 23, 2010

Although guitarists can translate their skills to bass more readily than bassists can translate their skills to guitar, there's still an advantage to being a true bassist. Most bands need a bassist, and most of them would rather have someone who (a) has a passion for playing bass and (b) developed their technique around the unique role of the bass ... than a "frustrated guitarist." By the time he's in high school, he could be one of the most sought-after musicians in the school.

Look, he probably won't sound anything like Les Claypool, at least not for years. But if he can just start sounding like Mike Dirnt, that'll be great.
posted by John Cohen at 7:02 AM on November 23, 2010

As an Aspie with ADHD, he may find the rhythms and patterns of bass-playing very soothing, almost like socially-acceptable stimming.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:07 AM on November 23, 2010

I think you should listen to what your kid says he wants to play. When I was 8 I wanted to learn how to play the violin in the Western classical style. Instead, my mom got me lessons in Indian classical violin because those were easier to find back home. I could never get quite enthusiastic about it because it just wasn't my type of music. And she wonders why I never wanted to practice. Musical taste is personal.
posted by peacheater at 7:14 AM on November 23, 2010

Don't discount his ability to do string bass in his school's orchestra (if you have one -- I think they generally start in 4th grade). If he's got a bit of a head start, that would be a wonderful activity where he can feel talented and excited while he does something with his peers.
posted by Madamina at 7:14 AM on November 23, 2010

I learned bass without having learned guitar and the only real downside (assuming you can find a good 3/4 scale bass) is that the songs you learn aren't always recognizable from the bass part alone.

Fortunately, there was another really good AskMe on basically that exact topic.
posted by 256 at 7:14 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing small-scale bass. My 8-year-old Aspie picked up bass last year and he really enjoys it. (Here he is rocking out on "Baba O'Riley").
posted by Daily Alice at 7:22 AM on November 23, 2010

I started on VIOLIN. Moved to upright bass when the junior high orchestra had no bass players and I was bored of violin. Thence got sucked into the jazz band and began on electric. I've played both upright and electric for 20 years now.

If your school has an orchestra program, it is ABSOLUTELY worth his time to learn classical, upright bass. The physical skills translate well (if not exactly) from upright to electric, but the technique and musicality I learned being trained as a classical bassist absolutely set me apart when I played as a rock bassist.

Also by high school I could make $50 a gig as a sub sitting in with local university orchestras that were low on bassists for their concerts. Everyone ALWAYS needs bassists, and playing upright opens up so many opportunities! (I did pit orchestras, I accompanied show choirs, I sat in with jazz ensembles, I played with chamber orchestras and got paid at wedding-type events -- and they always pay for your travel if it's "away," and they usually schedule rehearsals at your convenience. That's how bad people need bassists who can read music and play diverse styles!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:33 AM on November 23, 2010

In most cases, like many have pointed out, the bass part is not the flashiest voice in the song, Primus notwithstanding. There is an advantage to that, however, as he will get to notice how the song is put together while working on its foundation. Granted, there are many songs in which the bass and guitar just ape each other, but he doesn't have to play those all of the time.

Like Madamina said, string orchestra is a great place for a kid that already plays bass guitar to feel like he has a leg up. And the string bass perspective in a string or full orchestra is an excellent vantage point for seeing how western music comes together. It'll help him if he decides to compose someday, but more importantly, he'll develop a better appreciation and awareness for music. He won't just listen for the most prominent voice (instrument) in a song.
posted by ignignokt at 7:34 AM on November 23, 2010

when i was a kid i really wanted to play the saxophone and was told i was too small/ hands were too small. i wish that someone would have let me try it anyway. i ended up not doing any music at all and now 20 years later i still wish i would have learned an instrument. but i didn't, because i was disappointed at being denied the one i wanted, so the whole thing got scrapped by my parents.

you're not in the exact same boat, since he said he is ok with guitar. but i think having an idol can really drive a kid. so if les claypool is his idol, then really, he ought to be playing the bass so when he gets frustrated it will be easier for him to remember why he started in the first place. (oh and i agree with the others who say that's awesome that your kid is so into him. i love me some primus.)
posted by lblair at 7:35 AM on November 23, 2010

Oh, my point was, start him on bass. And make sure he learns to read music, not just tablature. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:35 AM on November 23, 2010

griseus pretty much said exactly everything I was going to say.
posted by desuetude at 7:35 AM on November 23, 2010

get him the bass!! (when i was that age, my parents asked me what instrument i wanted to learn and i said "drums!" - they responded with... "piano it is!" -- big frustrating mistake that "we decided") ---plus, its an instrument he can practice "quietly" or w/ headphones if he so chooses etc.

show him Entwistle's "Won't Get Fooled Again"
posted by mrmarley at 7:54 AM on November 23, 2010

Yep, everyone has said pretty much what I came in here to say - if he wants to play bass, get him a bass and find him a teacher who's not one of those "why don't you start with guitar" or "your hands are too small" types. I really wanted to learn guitar in 5th grade, but the outfit that did after-school music lessons through my school gave me the "Your hands are too small, kid!" brush-off, and I wound up playing stupid lame trumpet* for a year. The only good thing about getting braces was that it meant I didn't have to take trumpet lessons any more.

*Trumpet is a fine instrument and I admire talented trumpet players, so no offense intended there. But it's stupid and lame when you want to be the next Ace Frehley and instead find yourself playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on trumpet.
posted by usonian at 8:04 AM on November 23, 2010

What about a kala ukelele bass?
posted by umbú at 8:13 AM on November 23, 2010

Get him rock band 3.

Do not get them rock band 3 or anything like it if you want them to be an actual musician.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 8:14 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: He has chosen bass and it is a GIFT to know what you want/like early on. Please support it. Gently make sure he also hears Jaco Pastorious, Marcus Miller and James Jamerson play bass. Jaco solo albums and his work with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell. Marcus solo albums and work with Miles Davis. It may open up some new genres to him with bass as a melodic focus.
Than let him hear James Jamerson KILL all those legendary Motown Bass Lines (like Whats going on by Marvin Gaye).

Good Luck,
I truly hope he stays in love
posted by Studiogeek at 8:14 AM on November 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

Ultimately, playing bass more like Jamerson is what BASS is about fundamentally. Supporting the song. Les is amazing, but gigs where you can do that are few and far between. If you can learn to love the fundamentals, you will work like crazy.
posted by Studiogeek at 8:19 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Music teacher here - just chiming in to say, yes, have him play bass now, and highly reccomend that he pick play bass in the school orchestra when/if he gets the opportunity in 4th or 5th grade. Beginning (classical, "upright") bass technique is a little weird and goofy because the thing is so damn big, and it can sometimes be frustrating for beginners in orchestra. It would be a great chance for him to have a leg up while also expanding his skillset.

Plus, this would give him the ability to play jazz, which is a real eye opener for lots of people. I know plenty of jazz and classical bassists who started out as rock bass players.
posted by rossination at 8:25 AM on November 23, 2010

When I played in a band in high school, our bass player started on bass although he had some very basic training on piano. Maybe a year or two of piano lessons his mom had made him take when he was eight or nine. That bit of training gave him a huge window into scales, music theory and chord variations that the rest of us self-taught guitarists lacked.

But bass is probably awesome to start out on because it is so easy. The downside i can see is that on its own, it's not exactly an instrument to sing along with. If you can get him a guitarist to jam with, I think it would be much more rewarding. If you can find old timers who get together for three-chord country jams, it would be ideal for starting out. This is how another bass-playing friend of mine got started.
posted by Brodiggitty at 8:34 AM on November 23, 2010

Do not get them rock band 3 or anything like it if you want them to be an actual musician.

Not to derail, but the new version uses a real guitar, not a plastic one.
posted by empath at 8:35 AM on November 23, 2010

As a guitarist who ended up turning into a professional bassist...... by all means by him a bass.

Also, get him the first three ramome's album, as his fave band is Green Day.....
posted by peewinkle at 8:39 AM on November 23, 2010

Best answer: Bass? Yes! I'll even go so far as to suggest that it's better to start on bass and progress to guitar than the other way around, since learning bass requires learning the notes on the fretboard, whereas beginner guitar is generally more about put your fingers like this than the notes they're playing.

Electric or acoustic? Electric. Why? Headphones.

Nthing Mike Dirnt. Terribly underrated musician. What's great about him is that he's the bassist for f'ing Green Day, which means that a) everyone (your son included) already knows a bunch of their songs*; b) the songs are simple, but the bass parts are full of tricky filigree (at least on the first couple albums), so a beginner can start simply thumping the root note, and then progress to the tricky bits as his/her skills develop; c) all those eighth notes whip that pick hand into shape right quick.

(See also: Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes.)

Like some folks have said, you can't really play recognizable songs on a bass, which means that, most unfortunately, your son won't be the douche who plays a guitar at parties, alas. Instead, his skills would be best applied in the context of a band, which is great for developing social skills. (Especially conflict resolution.)

*Songs everyone knows are the pixie dust that magically transforms a bunch of soloists into a band.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:45 AM on November 23, 2010

How about ukulele? The U-bass suggestion above is a good one, but there's also the Eleuke - a solid-body electric ukulele that you can plug headphones into and shred without disturbing anybody!

The uke is great for so many reasons. While it is a real instrument and is not, as if often and erroneously stated, easy to master, it is easy to learn a few chords in a couple hours and play recognizable songs fairly quickly. The beauty of it is that this can be built on infinitely - you can stop at just strumming chords, or you can delve more into theory and such and use it as a solo instrument.

And, the uke is starting to develop a "cool factor" of its own. Take a look on YouTube and you'll see players doing everything from punk rock to Beatles covers to jazz.
posted by chez shoes at 9:14 AM on November 23, 2010

Response by poster: First off, I think an eight year old wanting to be Les Claypool is just about the most awesome thing ever. I don't think any kid could hear Tommy The Cat and not want to immediately play bass.

That is, in fact, the song he heard. He'd been trying to explain what "kind" of guitar he wanted to play for a while before that, but that song was the first one that he could easily point to and say, THAT'S what I want to sound like.

As an Aspie with ADHD, he may find the rhythms and patterns of bass-playing very soothing, almost like socially-acceptable stimming.

I do think the vibration is part of what he likes--the kind of deep body vibrations you get from heavy bass. The rhythmic nature of bass lines appeal to him, too.

Music teacher here - just chiming in to say, yes, have him play bass now, and highly recommend that he pick play bass in the school orchestra when/if he gets the opportunity in 4th or 5th grade.

We start in 6th around here, but I'd thought of this, too. It'll be up to him whether he wants to move that way. He shares my fondness for string instruments of all types and he's really liked the Zoe Keating I have on my ipod. The upright bass may not be all that hard of a sell.

Also, get him the first three ramone's album, as his fave band is Green Day.....

He loves the Ramones, too. He was very clear in his dissatisfaction with Rob Zombie's version of "Blitzkrieg Bop" in comparison to the original. His exact words, if I remember correctly, were, "But the first one is SO MUCH BETTER! I like how he (Joey) sings it more."

Thank you to everyone who's provided brand suggestions (and warnings). I wholeheartedly agree with the benefit of headphones.
posted by elfgirl at 9:49 AM on November 23, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and the band/musician suggestions are also highly appreciated.

He's surprisingly open to new music for an 8-year-old (see the comment about liking Zoe Keating above), so I think he'd love some new stuff to listen to, no matter the genre. His bass may come accompanied with a "new stuff" playlist for his ipod.
posted by elfgirl at 9:53 AM on November 23, 2010

Best answer: If he likes vibrations, he will LOVE the chance to play an upright. I still like hanging over my upright and feeling it vibrate. :)

Also, regarding size -- I'm only 5'2" full-grown and I have small hands. I started on 3/4 size upright when I was 13 (and even smaller!) and on a full-size electric later that year. (Most upright bassists play 3/4 size.) They actually told me I was too small to play, which pissed me off and made me determined, so they told me I could only play it if I carried it around the entire school without putting it down. So I did. So they gave in.

My upright is still taller than me. I met Charnett Moffett one time at a jazz festival, and his hands are LITERALLY twice the size of mine, and he totally didn't believe I could play until he saw me do it. Size is not as much of a handicap as people think! Also, I used to bet people I could beat them arm wrestling and I'd say, "I'll tell you what, I'll even wrestle lefty and go easy on you." And people would laugh at the tiny girl daring them to arm wrestle and then I'd kick their asses because my left arm was SO SUPER STRONG from bass playing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:00 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: He's surprisingly open to new music for an 8-year-old

Well then, if he liked Tommy The Cat you can use it as a Teaching Moment™ to expose him to Tom Waits.

Believe it or not, Tommy The Cat is one of Primus' most accessible songs. You listen to the guitar and bass and think "that's some funky playing!" but a lot of Primus' stuff is much more... out there. Not in a bad way, but it's very different.

If you want to find more Primus for them, I suggest the first album, Frizzle Fry. I think it's a bit more listenable than Sailing the Seas of Cheese, which is what Tommy is from. I love most of their stuff, but if he's taken a liking to the funky-ass bass from Tommy, there's more of that on Frizzle. See if you can find a studio recording of Groundhog's Day on Youtube. That's one of my favorite Primus songs.

Other good bass stuff:

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Victor Wooten FTW.

Paul Simon's Graceland album

Joe Jackson (Got The Time, Friday)

Rush (if you can stand it)

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Mike Gordon (from Phish) solo album The Green Sparrow. Lots of good bass playing for Phish too, but I don't want to be the guy to send your kid down that path.

Bluegrass music can be a lot of fun and can really show how, even when it's not doing much, the bass is a really important part of the sound.

The Who. Someone up thread linked to an isolated track of John Entwhistle playing bass. There's a few more of those out there and they are AWESOME. Listen to the bass on The Real Me.
posted by bondcliff at 10:10 AM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, also, if Trout Fishing In America ever plays near you, the bass player plays an electric upright and it's real fun to watch him play it.
posted by bondcliff at 10:12 AM on November 23, 2010

Best answer: I learned bass when I was 12 - I would recommend starting with an electric fretted bass because it'll be much easier to play in tune, and maybe a bit more fun for him. They do make small basses - search for a "short scale" or 3/4 size bass. I would focus on learning one or two songs at a time - if he has a short attention span he might be bored by scales etc.
posted by beyond_pink at 10:15 AM on November 23, 2010

I'm married to a long-time bass player, and when he's just playing for fun in the back of the house, it's a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Parliament Funkadelic/Bootsy Collins, and even occasionally Jackson 5.

and, just because, the kids in the hall take on bass players. Bass players get a little friendly teasing about their place in the band, but if the bass player is good, it can really pull the overall sound together.
posted by bizzyb at 10:31 AM on November 23, 2010

Oh my god, I struggled with clarinet because it was the instrument my mom wanted me to play -- for four years. I sucked at it. I started on bass and within a year (of lots of hard work) I was in orchestra.

Rent a 3/4th plywood bass for him to learn on.

- Every orchestra, jazz band and some quartets needs bass players -- he won't be competing for sixth chair with 100 violin players
- It forces him to listen to music in a different way (most people listen to the lead melody, rather than the bass line
- As Eyebrows McGee said above, shoulder strength and a killer left
- Coolness factor -- seriously, no matter the genre, upright bass is far cooler than anything else

I haven't played in years, but of anything I learned in school, it's one of the few things I treasure. I was classical, so I still listen to Hector Berlioz doing air colegno (and Symphony Fantastique is pretty rockstar since it's about witches and hell and all).
posted by Gucky at 10:51 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

And generally speaking, as a former teacher, parents who want their child to remain interested in music after buying an instrument ($$) should pay attention to what the child says he wants to play.

This, this, this.

Plus its way easier to get in a band if you can play bass. Way easier.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:55 AM on November 23, 2010

When he gets to orchestra time, he might also consider the cello. (I'm biased, because that's what I did.) It's a little less unwieldy than a ginormous upright, both finger-wise and carrying-wise, and it gets both the stirring bass lines and the gorgeous melodies. You mentioned that he likes the vibration and hearing the bass foundation of the music, and I loved that part at all levels. The cello sings a little more, although I wouldn't say that in front of someone like Edgar Meyer* :)

The only thing about a cello (or any of the other string instruments) in relation to a bass is that the bass is tuned in fourths instead of fifths. But whatevs. He's probably smart enough to figure that out.

No matter how long he does orchestra, it'll give him a great foundation for anything else he wants to play. I am SUCH a better singer because of the things I learned by being a cellist. That goes for my friend Nick the professional bass player, too, who was gigging in Europe before he graduated high school.

*Edgar Meyer is incredible. He's best known for classical and bluegrass. If you ever get a chance to see him nearby, take the kid.

Also nthing Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are also a great live show for a kid -- Victor always does ridiculous showoff bits, and it's a pretty light atmosphere that would probably suit someone fidgety) and Flea. Flea, Flea, Flea. Remember that Flea was also a trumpeter! Crosstraining will always benefit your musicianship.
posted by Madamina at 11:08 AM on November 23, 2010

Recommendation wise, get him pretty much anything by Medeski Martin & Wood. Chris Wood is amazing.

Returning is a somewhat obscure album by David Friesen and Glen Moore consisting mostly of double-bass duets... it's an interesting mix of jazz standards, originals, and experimental/atmospheric stuff, bowed and plucked.
posted by usonian at 11:30 AM on November 23, 2010

Rent a 3/4th plywood bass for him to learn on.

A 3/4 upright bass is a standard full-size bass. A full size, 4/4 is a relatively rare giant monster. Rent him a 1/2 if you are going to rent him an upright.

With an electric bass A 3/4 scale electric bass is smaller than the standard, and would probably be a better fit for an 8 year old.
posted by dirtdirt at 11:39 AM on November 23, 2010

The one person I know who's been diagnosed with ADHD decided, when he was 12 or so, that computers would be his life and focused laser-like attention on learning everything he could about them. Ten years later, computers are his life, and his focus has not diminished. This may or may not apply to your son, but if he's giving you insight, you might as well take it.

Cost is a concern with any musical instrument, but they can always be resold if there ends up being absolutely no connection between the musician and the instrument. Luckily, a perfectly sufficient beginner's bass can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be.

I'm a bassist, and bass wasn't the first instrument I learned, but it was the first I chose for myself. I love playing bass, and I, too, want to play like Les Claypool. Once I learned the fundamentals of the bass, I've been able to teach myself other stringed instruments.

The reason so many bassists are ex-guitarists is because there's an overabundance of guitarists. But, IMHO, a trained bassist can out-perform a guitarist-turned-bassist. There will always be a niche for your son if he sticks with it.
posted by lekvar at 12:58 PM on November 23, 2010

Some great advice so far. A couple of opinions from me:

1) Squiers above the 'Affinity' series are actually pretty good – their new Vintage Modified range are great basses.

2) Yamaha make excellent budget basses.

3) Consider buying second-hand from Gumtree/Craigslist, if you've got a friend who knows enough about basses that they can come with you and see if the instrument in question is up to snuff. Guitars and basses look better second-hand, when they've got a couple of scratches and dings in them – looks like they're already part of the great musical conversation happening out there in gin joints and garages across the country. Also, if he decides that basss isn't for him, you'll be able to sell it for what you bought it, more or less.

4) Basses come in two types; active and passive. Active have one or two 9V batteries in them that powers an onboard preamp. Passive basses have no preamp. A passive bass is better for a beginner as there's one less thing to go wrong, to faff with, to get between his fingers and the sound.

5) The kid will need a tuner, a strap and a metronome.

6) Hooray!
posted by Cantdosleepy at 1:17 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

7) get the bass professionally set up. Having the action, intonation and bridge properly adjusted can turn a "meh" instrument into an "I love this like it was my own child" instrument.
posted by lekvar at 2:35 PM on November 23, 2010

I'd definitely get him the bass he wants. Learning guitar (I tried, I failed) is a frustrating process, especially if you'd rather be doing something else. I'm a pretty crap bassist, but I was able to go from picking up a bass to playing a couple songs with a friends band in about 6 months, with only (very) intermittent practice.

And yeah, bass players are usually scarcer than guitar players, so he'll definitely have a better chance of joining a band.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:28 PM on November 23, 2010

Im' probably repeating what's been said (sorry, late for bed and no time to read everything).

AIF he's an Aspie/ADHD kid - then the potential for getting bored with his hobby and abandoning it is always there. You'll have more success encouraging things he likes than things he dislikes, or worse, subtly altering the things he likes for some reason other than his own.

If he wants to learn to play bass - I say without a doubt let him play bass. The only reason to push him into guitar (which probably won't work - it's more frustrating to start out with, more complex, and the reason why many teachers (who are thinking from a professinal standpoint) think you should learn formal guitar before touching bass.

Also - as I see others have mentioned, I find low frequency sounds and rhythm soothing, and I really like what I hear jamming on a bass... and had I been born a decade or so later in another the country, I'd probably be diagnosed as "Aspie / ADHD".

I'd discuss with him what is acutal goal is - and at his age he proably doesn't know - in reality it's j "I want to try to learn to play the base, because I like something I'm hearing". If that's in teh family budget, support it on his terms. (nothing beads a musical advantage playing anything from 8 years old if you stick with it)

(I want to go out and buy a bass setup now - have to convince the wife)
posted by TravellingDen at 8:08 PM on November 23, 2010

Response by poster: I wanted to update before this question closes and let everyone know we did indeed go with the bass. We opted for the Gretsch G2202--maybe high-end for a kid but: a) he's the kind that will get ticky if it "sounds wrong", so a good instrument is better, even as a beginner and b) we have every belief that he'll stick with it, so a bass he can play even after he gets big enough for a "full size" one appeals.

Thanks you so much for all your advice. It was a tremendous help.
posted by elfgirl at 3:14 PM on December 22, 2010

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