What is the best approach to learn how to play bass guitar?
December 27, 2005 6:21 AM   Subscribe

What is the best approach to learn how to play bass guitar?

Salient facts: I'm in my mid 30's; lessons might be hard to schedule these days so I'm leaning towards teaching myself. (But I could be persuaded to reconsider.)

I have no formal training in music, and have never been trained to play an instrument, all my musical knowledge has been gained via osmosis through books, musician friends and playing the harmonica. So are there DVD's, Books, websites, etc that will help me?
posted by jeremias to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I can't really help with specific resources, but I would say this: bass playing is all about groove and having good time, so by all means, use a metronome ALWAYS.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 6:31 AM on December 27, 2005

You want to play a musical instrument as an adult? Fabulous!

Here's what you should do:

1. Ask yourself what you want to get out of doing this or what you want to do with your instrument. Example: "I want to be able to play along with a cover band." "I want to be able to walk a bass line to anything out of the Real Book" "I want to be able to play like Stu Hamm"
2. Evaluate the time that you will have to devote to this to make sure it is in line with (1) and with reality

Is it possible to teach yourself bass on your own with books, DVD's etc? Yes, and that might be good enough for you, but were it me, I'd find a good local teacher who will

1. Work with your schedule (and if your teacher is a working musician, s/he knows all about working with schedules)
2. Work with your goals (see 1 and 2 above)
3. Be able to mix theory and technique into your lessons

Music is fun/terrific/consuming and there's nothing like it on the planet, but it's not free for most of us. The price tag we pay is discipline. You will need to practice. As a kid, I practiced a minimum of a half hour per day and that time was broken down into
1. warm up (5 minutes)
2. scales (5 minutes)
3. fingering exercises/technique exercises (10 minutes)
4. some piece that I'm working on (10 minutes+)
5. cool down (2 minutes)

The step where most people want to be at is 4, but the 1-3 are what enable you to really stretch yourself. A good teacher will see where you are and direct you to where you need to be to get the most out of 4.

Why am I pushing for a (good) teacher? Because a good teacher provides a dynamic feedback mechanism to you that you probably don't have. Heck, I've been playing music for close to 30 years and I still can use a good outside ear.
posted by plinth at 6:38 AM on December 27, 2005 [2 favorites]

the best way to learn how to play bass guitar is to try to learn how to play a 'real' guitar and fail after a few months. you'll get enough knowledge of things like simple chords to be able to sit around and play along (root notes!) with patient guitarists.

bass guitar is probably the easiest thing to play, ever. once you get into really complicated things, sure, it could be a little difficult, but it should be far from impossible to teach yourself the basics (and the basics go a long way). you should probably pick up tablature from something like the bass tab archive to play along with songs you like. it isn't hard to read!

why bass? i personally found it uninteresting to play outside of being in bands, but then again i wasn't a fantastic bassist or anything.
posted by soma lkzx at 7:01 AM on December 27, 2005

find some music that has prominent bass that you like, and learn to play those.
posted by cellphone at 7:31 AM on December 27, 2005

Start with Harmony Central, possibly the best resource out there for the aspiring bassist. They also have a Bass Lessons section of the site, buried under the Bass Instruction heading.
posted by majick at 7:39 AM on December 27, 2005

Learn your minor pentatonic/blues scale. It's almost sick how much music is based on this scale. Learn this, and you'll be able to play along with 80+% of stuff out there.

Learn your major and minor scales. These will teach you where the basic major & minor chords come from, which are just root + 3rd + 5th, and really help you understand what you're playing and hearing.

Cool thing about electric bass (and electric guitar, for that matter), is you can get in some decent finger practice running scales or other exercises with the amp volume turned way down while you watch TV. If you're a busy guy, that'll appeal to the multi-tasker in you. So..., do that. And, of course, play along with songs you like when you have the time.

Also, playing by yourself and playing with a band each teach you important, but different, skills. Whereas playing with a band helps with composing and memorizing lines and, obviously, playing with other people (lock in with that bass drum!), solo tends to emphasize and develop your individual technique. For me, about six months solo, then I was ready to play with a band, then I learned what techniques I needed to practice on my own, six months solo, etc.. The cycle will slow down at some point, but I've essentially repeated this for about 15 years now.
posted by LordSludge at 9:02 AM on December 27, 2005

Sorry, soma lkzx, but I couldn't disagree more. Sure, the argument goes that the bass is "easier" than the guitar because it only has four strings. Bah. Tell that to Jaco Pastorius. If you want to play well, jeremias, you need to approach your music and your instrument with humility and respect - in addition to determination and confidence, of course.

As we all know from listening to Motown, or the Beatles, or countless other examples, bass parts do not have to be complicated - they can even be one repeated note. But they MUST groove. They MUST feel really, really good. And the way to accomplish this is to be VERY rhythmically aware. Whatever you do, whatever you practice - do it with a metronome.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:42 AM on December 27, 2005

1 - Find a teacher and take lessons.
2 - Practice practice practice.
3 - Listen to as many good bass players as you can. Get advice from your teacher on this.
4 - As soon as you think you are able, jam with others.

Don't make the mistake of trying to compare the bass with the guitar. Sure, there are some physical similarites but the kind of of stuff you play on the bass is -very- different from the kind of stuff you play on the bass.

Like Finger of Fire says - it's all about the groove.
posted by Rubber Soul at 12:13 PM on December 27, 2005

Five lessons with a decent teacher could really save you some time in terms of getting some basic playing resources together and nipping any incipient bad habits in the bud. Said teacher could also help you purchase and set up your bass, suggest a good cheap amp, teach you correct posture habits and a bunch of other stuff you won't reliably get off the internet any time soon.

People who think the bass is "easy" are only exposing their own musical deficiencies.
posted by Wolof at 3:03 PM on December 27, 2005

The important thing to take seriously as a 30yo just starting is the possiblity of repetitive motion problems. Your nervous and muscular systems have hardwired habits that have nothing to do with playing the bass. However you approach it, you need to make sure that you are always relaxed when your practicing, that you're always working with the instrument and not forcing it, and take frequent breaks. Take good care of your back.

The only book I know of that I heartily endorse is Chuck Sher's The improvisor's Bass Method, but I was already playing at a pro level when I came across it so I'm not sure how it'd go over with a real beginner. It struck me as one of those books that a beginner could get and never outgrow. I sure never outgrew it.

Eschew lessons at your peril.

Beyond that, the best approach is a function of your goals, your tastes, and your limitations. You are welcome to email me at the address in my profile.
posted by Eothele at 5:18 PM on December 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

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