How to transition from classical to jazz bass?
January 20, 2012 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I am a classically trained bassist that wants to learn jazz and get over my fear of improvisation. How can I practice in my spare time to further this goal?

I have played the double bass in a classical setting for nearly a decade now, though I haven't been playing as much as I would like in recent years. I have always been a bit fearful of improvisation and have never really made the transition into jazz, but it's something I have been meaning to do for too long now.

How might you recommend I make this transition? I have heard the best way is to just dive in and play along, but I am timid in this regard and would like some practice before jamming with others.

I am currently off at college and unfortunately don't have my double bass accessible (*sad*), but I do have an electric bass that I've been fooling around with in my room. What might you recommend I practice? How should I practice? Who should I listen to?

posted by masters2010 to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Also, are there any resources in particular you recommend I read? A book you recommend I buy?
posted by masters2010 at 8:03 PM on January 20, 2012

If you're looking to dive into improvisation, then I'd check out play-a-longs. Aebersold is the gold standard, but other lines exist—Hal Leonard, Alfred, Music Minus One, etc. The selection is huge so browse a bit and see if there's anything that appeals.

I'm a guitarist so I'm sure you'll get better recommendations as far as books. But I used to play a lot of solo and accompaniment, so bass lines were important and I investigated most of the bass books available. What worked best for me—again, as a guitarist—was a book titled Walkin' by Bruce Gertz. However, I had the advantage of attending music school at the time, so I could browse the entire library and bookstore and "try out" nearly every bass book in existence. Can you find a bookstore, music store, or library around you that would have a good selection you can browse? If not, maybe browse this section (note the different categories) a bit. A book that works great for one person might not "click" with somebody else. Everybody learns differently.

Who to listen to? Here's an unwieldy list. I could tell you that you have to start with the giants, like Paul Chambers and Jimmy Blanton and Charles Mingus, but the truth is that some people relate better to music that's contemporary, if it's unfamiliar. If you'd like specific suggestions, I'd be happy to make some. I could run the gamut, from solo bass albums (both straight-ahead and more avant-garde) to bass duets (there are many; my favorite is probably Mads Vinding and Jesper Lundgaard) to something called the Sweden Bass Orchestra, and many more. But following the "teach a man to fish" principle, I'd instead offer a few guidelines: Look for recordings with sparse instrumentation, like duo or trio settings, so you can hear the bass clearly. Look for straight-ahead recordings of standards, because what jazz musicians do with standard tunes tends to be more consistent than what they do with originals, and that consistency can be helpful to somebody trying to get a foothold in the language.

If you have other questions, I'd be happy to try to help more. No doubt some actual bassists will be along shortly to weigh in as well. If you think of additional insights into how you learn, what's worked for you in the past, what aspects of jazz are attractive to you, etc., additional info might help people give you better answers. Normally thread-sitting is discouraged on MetaFilter, but this is one of those topics where the more relevant info you provide about yourself, the more people might see a detail and think, "Oh, that's how I learn too, and here's something that helped a concept 'click' for me." Just an idea. Good luck!
posted by cribcage at 9:11 PM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Cribcage's advice is very good, I completely nth it. In addition to the "diving in" and practice, a little inspiration in general helps. I'm a piano player mostly, but these ideas have helped me a lot:

1. Have you watched the "Everything is a Remix" series? Not about music per se, but I find it very insightful and inspiring regarding all creative work. The "method" behind improvisation is the same as the method behind every other art form: take something familiar, tweak it, combine it with something else, own it.

2. You mention classical training. Do you have theory training? If not, getting some basic theory (scales, modes, chords) will take you a long, long way. is a great place for basic theory exercises and learning, and this online jazz improvisation primer has a nice little section about chords and scales. And here's another jazz theory paper that's got more in-depth information.

3. As far as diving in, I can tell you what I did: I learned the blues scale, and then I just started noodling around without any other music, just to get a feel for how things sound. Then I started listening to jazz piano players I liked, and I copied them. I learned some easy licks (I still use them all the time, too). Then I played with some play-alongs, then I played with others. This process has been going on for years, and it won't likely ever end. But the breakthrough was just really becoming comfortable with the scales and with the idea of goofing off.

Try this thought experiment: Take a melody you like and know well. Play it straight. Now play it again, and change one thing. Maybe add a little syncopation. Maybe skip a note. Maybe add a grace note. Then change another thing. Keep changing stuff till you get bored. Iterate, re-iterate, iterate, re-iterate.

Also: as for playing with others, you might try putting something on your local craigslist, just mention you want to learn how to jam and that you are classically trained. You have a good chance of finding a sympathetic group (I did this and it worked out really well).

Also also: Do you need some listening recommendations of jazz bassists? Cribcage's wiki link is a fine start, these are my faves:

Jaco Pastorius
Charles Mingus
Paul Chambers
Ron Carter
Gary Peacock
Edgar Meyer

I love this topic. I'm totally coming back with more ideas in a little while (I hope that's okay!)
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:00 PM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding cribcage's entire reply, although his Abersold link is borked - you want

I'd also suggest a copy of the Real Book. Find versions of the tunes in it (many of which have been recorded dozens of times) and play along.

I totally get your reluctance to get out and play without developing some skills first, but I really would encourage you to do that soon, as, well, that's kind of the point and the joy of jazz.

Look for help from your college's music department (it's not limited to music majors) - lessons, joining the Jazz ensemble(s), connecting you with other players close to your skill level. I know an awful lot of college music profs who are jazz-heads.

In a lot of ways, before you get too deep into improv, I would practice essential jazz bass playing, as in the "Walkin'" link above. The key to jazz is that it's actually the bass & the hi-hat and/or the ride cymbal that provide the basic rhythm and propulsion of the song.

Good luck & have fun.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:04 PM on January 20, 2012

Pro. jazz bass player here:

Ron Carter, Ray Brown, and Rufus Reid all have jazz bass technique books. Any of the three is great, but if I remember correctly the Rufus Reid assumes less about what you know and has a little more theory (it's been a few years since I've looked at it), it's also pretty famous for the pictures of him (complete with Afro) demonstrating how to get your bass in airplane seats. I love the Ray Brown as an Etude book.

Listening wise, I'd start with Ray Brown and Ron Carter on bass. Although, coming from a Classical background, you might like the Modern Jazz Quartet, which had Percy Heath on bass. I love Mingus, but starting with Carter and Brown will cover much more territory style wise. In fact, Ray Brown's "Some of My Best Friends Are: The _____ Players" series of albums is a great primer in how to play straight ahead jazz in a combo and what songs to learn. Also, just listen to jazz, don't limit yourself to recordings that have a famous bass player (Because, let's be honest I've already named 4 of the 7 that are out there). Oh. and go out and listen to live stuff.

Personally, I think the best way to learn jazz is to listen to a whole bunch of jazz and transcribe bass lines and solos from recordings. This is also nice if you've got a fake book (you should me-mail about that...) to check the chords against. It's also a great way to figure out how you play WITH other people. You'll find that a large chunk of jazz bass is making sure the root or the fifth is on beat one or three. The rest seems to be keeping a steady beat (in fact, the beat's more important).

Which leads me to this: Practice everything that swings with a metronome clicking on 2 and 4 and straight stuff (ballads, bossas, etc.) on 1 and 3. I don't care what anyone tells you, Drummers set the style of the tune, Bass players set the tempo. Memorize tunes when you learn them (I can give you a list of tunes I'd start with if you like, but start simple and with tunes you like). Learn to sing and play the melodies as well as learning the changes. I start each day with a few of the early exercise in Simandle (plucked and bowed) and a scale. Then I review 3 or 4 tunes (I've got a database of all the ones I have memorized), and work on learning another few (I learn between 1-4 a week, but that's a big part of what I do with my time). Then I work stuff for gigs I may have coming up.

Play along CDs are great, but there's a temptation to just play without listening to what you're doing. Which is fine, even good, in small doses. Just make sure that you're paying attention to what you play. If your college has a music program, see if they've got a beginning jazz big-band. Many of those have bass lines that are written out, it'll help you get a feel for different styles, and how to actually construct a bass line.

Theory wise, it's different enough from Classical theory, that even if you know that (which'll be a big help) you should work on expanding your jazz theory knowledge. I like Mark Levine's book. That's sort of secondary though. To get the sound in your fingers, it's much more important to get it in your ears than it is to get it in your head.

Oh and to get over your fear of improvising: There's no wrong notes in jazz, only notes that don't sound like you quite like you wanted them too. Have fun, unless you're recording, in a week nobody will be able to tell you which notes you played that sounded bad.

Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:21 PM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

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